Nintendo is imaginative. Regardless of any degree of cynicism or adoration towards the company, you have to admit that Nintendo is a force of nature when it comes to generating creative and original characters. Throughout the years this imagination has spanned a significant number of sterling franchises, from Mario and Zelda to Star Fox and Advance Wars, and they’ve never really came up with a really horrific concept (Tingle aside).
So with so many winning franchises, you’d think Nintendo would treat them equally? You know, share ideas around different characters so as not to bog down the market?
You would. And you’d be wrong.
Obviously Nintendo is driven to push the franchises that sell the most; we can’t forget that the video game industry is a business designed to earn money rather than seek artistic justice. That’s why there are poor, tortured developers slaving away at the 19th iteration of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon instead of helping with Pikmin 3.
But sometimes it seems that Nintendo bypasses business sense altogether when deciding which games to make and just goes with downright favouritism. Unless Miyamoto, Iwata et al have some form of selective deafness that blocks out the hordes of pleading fans demanding a return of the Mother series or a new Eternal Darkness, I fail to see any other reason why some Nintendo franchises are so neglected.
While Nintendo goes through phases of shunning different series, the plight of one franchise is far graver than all others. The Nintendo franchise that suffers the most apathy from Nintendo is none other than the one we’re talking about all week: Metroid.
“But Metroid has had plenty of great games recently! Metroid: Other M is coming out this week! How can it be Nintendo’s least favourite?” I hear you shout in a confused, overly camp tone. Hear me out here.
Metroid is one of Nintendo’s best, worldwide-selling franchises, and after its resurrection on GameCube, as the first-person Prime trilogy, Samus joined Link and Mario to form the Holy Trinity of Nintendo’s finest.
But Nintendo actually develops Mario and Zelda itself instead of shipping the franchise off to an external developer. The idea of putting any other development team in charge of the next Zelda or Mario probably sends shivers down the company’s spine. When the team behind Other M was revealed to be Project M, everyone was amazed at what an awesome pairing Nintendo and Team Ninja were. Nintendo was probably just glad they weren’t lumbered with Samus again.
Before Nintendo put the Metroid series up for adoption to willing developers, there had been an eight-year gap in the Metroid series. Following Super Metroid on SNES in 1994, fans had to wait until 2002 for the third return of Samus. Landing on GBA, Metroid Fusion was not only the belated resurrection of a gaming icon, but also the last brand new Metroid game that Nintendo of Japan has made by itself to date.
Since then the series has the seen the release of Metroid Prime Pinball, Metroid Prime Hunters, Zero Mission as well as the Prime trilogy and their New Play Control versions. Out of those games, Nintendo of Japan updated the original Metroid in Zero Mission itself but left Fuse Games to develop Pinball, Retro studios to handle the Prime games and the company’s American development arm, Nintendo Software Technology, to design Hunters.
And there’s no doubt Nintendo of Japan pops in now and again to make sure no one’s got Samus baking cakes into between pulverizing intergalactic scum, but the bottom line is that the people coding your Metroid games aren’t the same people coding the latest Mario and Zelda titles. Nintendo EAD, Nintendo’s mega development team that’s been behind nearly all of the company’s mega hits and includes Nintendo R&D 1 and 2, hasn’t been the truly active partner in the Metroid series for years.
And before anyone goes rushing off to Wikipedia to check if Nintendo are involved in Metroid: Other M, they are. Sort of.
The specially formed Project M is made up of Team Ninja, staff from a cinematics team called D-Rockets and Nintendo staff. And despite Metroid series designer Yoshio Sakamoto being at the helm of Project M, only three other members of the one hundred-person team are actually from Nintendo. And the other three developers all come from Nintendo’s SPD Team 1, run by Sakamoto, and have probably had their minds destroyed due to spending their time continuously developing games like WarioWare and Rhythm Heaven for the past five years. Oh dear.
Perhaps it’s a problem of differing cultures. Metroid games have never done spectacularly well in Japan but have fared significantly better in Europe and North America by comparison. Does Nintendo think that because Metroid is a more Western-appreciated franchise that they are more likely to turn a profit if Western-style developers are at the helm?
Western Nintendo fans enjoy widely every other Nintendo series, nearly all of which are exclusively developed in Japan, so why is Metroid shipped from one distant developer to the next instead of staying in-house like, say, Zelda or Pokémon? Rumours of an early version of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword being developed at Retro Studios were thoroughly spread by Matt Casamassina throughout 2009 until news emerged that the project had been reclaimed by Nintendo of Japan, once again becoming a product of Miyamoto and Aonuma. Perhaps Metroid lacks a similar sentimental value to that of the company’s biggest assets?
On a bigger scale there are also signs that the Metroid series may be sitting on the sidelines of Nintendo’s plans. While heavy hitting franchises including Mario, Zelda, Pokémon and even Kirby run two independent series, normally one on handheld and another on consoles, Samus has been stuck in only 3D ever since the release of Zero Mission in 2004.
And when you take a look at the roster for Super Smash Bros. Brawl, there is a noticeable absence of representation from the Metroid franchise. A lone opponent on the battlefield, Samus and admittedly an alternative version of herself without her Power Suit, take on significant teams from Nintendo’s biggest series that far outgun her in vast numbers but not in importance. Ongoing cries for the inclusion of Metroid characters to the Smash fold, especially her reptilian nemesis Ridley, have fallen of deaf ears as the bounty hunter fights for galactic justice alone.
The only silver lining to this situation is that Nintendo isn’t stupid enough to give Samus over to any god-awful developers. When Sakamoto dreamt up a new vision for a 3D Metroid game that differed from the first-person concepts of Retro Studios, the team was taken off the series and Project M was forged in its place.
But with a mixed bag of reviews for the controversial Other M, ranging from the blown away to the somewhat unimpressed, do we risk losing Samus to the depths of development hell again? I don’t know for sure but the mere idea fills with me with utter Dread.