Metroid Prime: A Complicated History
Did you know? Early in Metroid Prime's development, the three main villains were a mind-reading South African, a Luddite cult leader, and a neo-nazi eugenicist? If you've ever looked into Metroid Prime's development, you might've heard it grew out of an earlier project called Action Adventure. To get the inside scoop, we spoke with seven Metroid Prime team members for this video, including the original lead developer John Whitmore, who told us the “Action Adventure” game was actually called MetaForce. MetaForce starred three hot meta-humans who Retro decided to make female, because in the late 90's, the mindset was that if a game was third-person, players would rather stare at three hot chicks from behind than three dudes. The neo-nazi eugenicist wanted to steal their DNA and use it to make a beautiful master race, and this bizarre female-led adventure was the egg that Metroid Prime hatched from, thanks in no small part to Shigeru Miyamoto. In 1999, John and his team at Retro Studios created over a thousand pages of design documents detailing a futuristic society where gene editing created a utopia, but dark forces were using the technology for evil. It was up to the three female protagonists to stop them and save the world -- and this trio were called "The MetaForce," each with a different playstyle.
Brynn was a cybernetic girl who specialized in firearms, Miko was a ninja with psychic abilities, and the third woman was a rifle-wielding assassin.The game would've been around 30 hours in length across three acts, each with their own primary antagonist. The first act centered around a Luddite cult leader in India. This cult created a race of four- armed mutants that carried four guns at a time and served as the cult's footsoldiers. The Luddite cult were actually terrorists, running around sabotaging everything they could, including a Jurassic Park style zoo. Here's John describing a section of Chapter One: Chapter Two focused on the aforementioned neo-nazi eugenicist who wanted to steal the MetaForce's genes, and as for the villain of the third and final act, John told us: Nintendo was part-owner of Retro, and loved the direction the game was taking, but thought maybe three playable characters was too ambitious.
So John's team whittled it down to just one -- Brynn, the gun-wielding cybernetic brick. Nintendo also thought third-person cameras were pretty tricky to implement back in those days, so they told Retro to switch the game to first-person. After those changes were implemented was when Miyamoto got involved, who also liked the game’s direction, but thought Brynn was too generic, and asked them to come up with a cooler main character. So Retro swapped her out with an alien with sonic abilities that let her see enemies through walls, and wrote another thousand pages of design documents.
The protagonist alien was discovered by the US government in a UFO crash, then turned into a federal agent to help them fight off an invasion by another race of aliens, who were evil. Eventually Miyamoto said something along the lines of 'You know what, these enemy aliens would make great Space Pirates. How would y'all like to turn all this into a Metroid game?' John's team though that sounded great, so they played through all the Metroid games over and over, watched hours of speedruns, read every forum post they could find, and wrote another thousand pages of design documents. By then it'd become a running joke at Retro that once a game hit a thousand pages, it was definitely gonna get canceled.
At this point, Retro had no idea what the GameCube was gonna look like, or what kind of hardware was under the hood. They were initially told it would be a lot more powerful, and Nintendo showed them some ‘Cube prototypes, one of which looked like a transparent PlayStation 2. They also said it would essentially have a PS2 Dual-shock controller, so Retro planned for Metroid Prime to have traditional FPS controls where the right stick handles movement, and the left stick adjusts the view. Retro thought it all sounded awesome. But one day Nintendo showed up with the finalized hardware -- a purple lunchbox, and a controller that John told us looked like it could only be used for Miyamoto games.
Here's James H Dargie, who also worked on MetaForce and stayed on board till Metroid Prime shipped: Already exhausted from all his teams' work that'd thus far gotten thrown in the trash, the weaker and kiddier GameCube was the last straw for John -- he pretty much immediately quit and found a new job elsewhere -- and when Metroid Prime launched a year later, they left him out of the credits. That's the short version of the story -- but there were a few more twists and turns, like switching back to third-person, then back again to first-person. But now you know how the gene-stealing third-person adventure with three female leads gradually evolved into a first-person game starring a single heroine fighting against aliens. So let’s check out some of the game’s other history -- Before coming to Retro, James H Dargie also worked on ships featured in the Matrix and Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, so Nintendo told him for Samus' ship, he could quote, "do anything." He went through a number of iterations, but what he ended up with was the ship we know today -- a vessel with lots of sci-fi inspirations, but mostly the ship from Super Metroid and Star Wars' Millennium Falcon. He showed us his model of Samus' ship, and told us as an homage to the Millenium Falcon, he added these guns to the bottom -- which you never actually see in-game, but they are there.
Even if you don't get to see the guns firing, you can still see the panels that conceal them. Samus' ship in Metroid Prime isn't the same ship from the mainline series -- it was designed and modeled entirely by James. Fans usually refer to all Samus' ships collectively as "the gunship," even though none of them actually have names. But James told us he named the ship in Metroid Prime the "Thrush Eterna," inspired by a fast-flying bird called a thrush. According to James: "[Samus' ship] never really had a name. I've designed a few different spaceships... [and] I've written lore and backstory for
different games, and even for film... You know, I'm a big fan of sci-fi in general, so I think cool ships should have cool names... and that's the name that I came up with -- it was kind of bird-like, and I wanted it to be cool, like 'eternal'... maybe it has existed long before Samus ever got it... [the name
Thrush Eterna] implies backstory." He went on to say that files at the top-level directory were called Thrush Eterna, but the ship's name never actually appears in the game's script. Maybe it was more mysterious to leave it... the ship with no name.... maybe. But before we cover even more exclusive Metroid facts not found anywhere else, a word from this episode’s sponsor, Buyee. If you’ve ever used American sites to buy things from Japan, you’ve probably noticed how much sellers jack up the price-- it can be a lot. This is where Buyee comes in.
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Because I never told anyone. And you have to be kind of a film fan to understand it. The Easter egg he's talking about can be found in the save room fanfare. There's a tone you'll hear right after saving or when you load your save file.
Clark told us this audio Easter egg comes from the 1971 film Walkabout, which he was obsessed with and watched over and over during Prime's development. To quickly summarize without giving away any spoilers, the movie's about a father who drives his two children into the Australian wilderness, then has a mental breakdown and sets the car on fire, then shoots himself. So his two kids are left with no choice but to wander the outback trying to find their way to civilization. The movie has heavy themes of survival and isolation, along with some otherworldly soundscapes, all of which Clark wanted to emulate in Metroid Prime. The entire game has an audio vibe inspired by the film, but the save room fanfare is a direct reference to the scene in Walkabout where the kids survive their first nightfall, drenched in one of the film's soundscapes.
Here it is: That's the Easter egg in Prime's save room fanfare. Did you catch it? Here’s them side-by-side for comparison: It's a pretty pessimistic film, but Clark shared some more light-hearted sound stories as well. Like the sounds Puddlespores make are actually Metroid Prime's developers burping and belching.
He told us: "The sounds of the Puddlespore creatures that appear in the Magmoor Caverns area were made using the thickest, wettest burps I could wrangle from my fellow Retro employees. I sent a company-wide email asking for volunteers who could belch on cue -- afterwards, to my surprise, I literally had a line of people waiting outside the VO booth. That was a fun day of recording." He ended up using four of those belches in the final game -- after using some distortions of course.
According to Clark, Metroid Prime's space pirates actually speak a real human language... well, kind of. He told us: "I wanted the Pirates to sound kind of semi-intelligent.
Instead of using animal sounds and roars, I wanted them to have some kind of language... [so] I took Russian words and kind of flipped around the syllables and assigned them to different actions. So for example, when they attack the player, that was using the Russian word for 'attack', then just moving some of the syllables around. I got someone in the studio to record them, then we put them in the game. [But it] sounded like we had Russian mafia yelling something in Slavic."
Clark wasn't satisfied with the Russian mafia vibe, so he scrapped the audio and replaced it with pitbull noises -- but in playtesting, the staff thought it sounded cartoony and dumb, so he threw that out as well. Clark's third attempt is what made it into the final game -- one of Retro's programmers was Nigerian and spoke a language called Yoruba. So just like earlier with Russian, Clark had him take the Yoruba for words like "attack" and mixed up the syllables, recorded his voice, and distorted it. And that's the language the Space Pirates speak in the final game. Clark also used his own voice for the Tangle Weeds.
He was running short on time, so rather than trying to find a proper sound effect, he just made the sound with his own mouth. He told us: "those sounds are actually my voice pitch shifted up an octave and the only time I used my voice anywhere in Prime." After some head-scratching remarks from Nintendo over the years, there's been confusion among fans whether or not the Prime series is part of mainline canon, or if it's part of its own separate canon. According to series producer Yoshio Sakamoto, he thought about making Prime separate -- what he calls a "gaiden" -- but ultimately decided it was best to insert it into the mainline canon between Metroid 1 and 2.
When we talked to John Whitmore, he said his team actually did think they were making a gaiden. He told us: "We were considering it as just kind of a reboot of Metroid, without much historical reference to the past games. Or at least, I think it was basically: 'Nintendo will kinda figure this out for us [after the fact]'... We wanted to use enemies from the previous games, so there was some sense that this was building on what happened in previous games. But like I said, we were looking at it as more of a reboot, rather than as something connected to a history of the franchise." So even though Metroid Prime was developed as a reboot -- or gaiden -- Nintendo ultimately decided to insert it into the timeline after Metroid 1.
The titular Metroids were one of the returning enemies Retro wanted to appear in the game, so really, it was the only place Nintendo could insert Prime into the timeline, since Samus drove Metroids to extinction in Metroid 2. Well, except the baby of course. John also told us Metroid Fusion wasn't originally part of Nintendo's master plan. He said it was common knowledge that Miyamoto was willing to take the risk with Retro -- who'd never even completed a single game before -- making a new Metroid because it wasn't a franchise Miyamoto created himself, and to quote John directly, "Miyamoto didn't care if we killed it." Previous Metroid games sold pretty poorly, especially in Japan, but Prime took the world by storm when it was revealed at Space World 2000.
John says Nintendo was really surprised when those early trailers generated massive hype, especially in the West. And it was the hype for Prime that directly led to Nintendo starting development on Fusion, a companion game for Game Boy Advance that launched the exact same day as Metroid Prime. John told us: "I don't think Nintendo had any idea how big Metroid was gonna be. Like I said, it wasn't Miyamoto's favorite game, and it was kinda dormant among Nintendo franchises for a while. It wasn't until the news came out that they were doing [Metroid Prime] and people really started talking about it that they said 'actually this is a franchise we overlooked' and realized how much legs it had here in the West. And that's when they decided to do the GBA Metroid game as well.
But when we were first working on [Metroid Prime], they had no plans for doing anything like that... it was the buzz that was continually being generated about Metroid that got them to inject something else into the franchise." But even if Miyamoto was willing to risk Metroid's death at the hands of an unproven studio, he still brought his A-game and was instrumental in the game's success. Retro spent the first three months developing Metroid Prime as a third-person adventure, but Miyamoto up-ended the tea table and made them change it to first-person. Some areas had to be changed or thrown out entirely, like this vertical platforming section that simply wouldn't work in first- person.
Even Sakamoto and Retro's president Jeff Spangenberg wanted 3D Metroid to be in third-person, and the battle over perspectives was one of the main reasons John Whitmore resigned as head of the project. And John says although Miyamoto won the war, the guys at Retro still snuck in as many chances to switch to third-person as they could to show off the Samus model they designed, like in save rooms and cutscenes. But looking back on it all now, two decades later, John admits Miyamoto was absolutely right to make the game in first-person. Very late in development, Miyamoto also remapped the game's buttons himself, which made controlling Samus a lot more intuitive -- and as a result, made the whole game a lot better.
James told us: "[Miyamoto changed] the idea of how it should function. Like, this button being lock-on and this button turning the camera and how it works. We had it just a little different, but it never quite felt [natural]." Like, you got used to it and it was like, 'oh yeah'... once you understand it, it's functional. But he'd suggested a different approach and it was much more intuitive.
And that was only after about 15 minutes of playing it. You know, he's good at his job. I guess he's one of those REAL geniuses. We also got in touch with Jim Wornell, the Nintendo of America artist who made Metroid Prime's logo. He told us the logo went through 53 iterations, which based on all the man-hours that went into it, made it the most expensive logo Nintendo ever produced.
Different colors, different fonts, different designs -- and after 53 different versions, this is what he ended up with. Everyone loved it, so Jim was later tasked with making the logos for Metroid Fusion, Prime 2, and Metroid Prime Hunters. Speaking of which -- all these games had completely different box art in Japan, but still used Jim's logo designs. He didn't do the logos for Prime 3 or Zero Mission though, which is why their designs are noticeably different -- they're basically just stylized text. Speaking of Metroid Prime 3, did you know it was almost an open-world game where Samus was an actual bounty hunter? As in, she would've gone on sidequests hunting down baddies and hauling them in for a reward.
We spoke with Bryan Walker, the senior producer of Prime 2 and 3, and also the guy who convinced Nintendo to let them remaster the entire Trilogy and release it for the price of only one Wii game. He left Retro Studios a few years after finishing the Trilogy, and from his home in the countryside of Austin Texas, he told us one big development story. After wrapping up development on Prime 2, Bryan and his team were feeling a little burnt out on the franchise, so they looked through Nintendo's collection of IP to consider what they wanted to work on next. They created design documents for potential Wii games and pitched them to Nintendo -- one of them was a revival of Donkey Kong Country, and another was a Zelda spin-off where you played as the last surviving Sheikah after your race was wiped out in a genocidal ethnic-cleansing. Retro's pitches were forwarded to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, who came back and said before Retro branched out into new IP, he wanted them to make the Prime series a proper trilogy.
The Wii hadn't released yet, and Iwata wanted a new Metroid Prime that could show off the capabilities of their new home console, and the potential of its revolutionary new controller. So Retro agreed -- they'd go bananas with Donkey Kong later, but first, they'd make Metroid Prime 3. So they got to work brainstorming what Samus' jump into the next console generation was gonna look like. And what they came up with was open-world bounty hunting. Bryan knows what kinds of ideas that might conjure up in the imaginations of modern gamers, and he's seen some over-exuberant fans spreading wild exaggerations of Retro's concept since he briefly mentioned it on the excellent Kiwi Talkz podcast. But to get the full and accurate story out to the fanbase, Bryan asked us to help set the record straight with this video.
He told us: "We were not proposing in any way, shape, or form -- even in our wildest dreams -- that we would have like Metroid Prime Skyrim... we were not talking about 200 hour side quests or anything like that (laughs)... [More precisely, it was] the ability for the player to operate out of a hub area, and to go onto different missions that didn't necessarily lend themselves directly to the normal path-progression that a Metroid Prime game was known for, as far as traversal, retraversal, and so forth. [Samus had] the ability to step outside of that and do more things on the side." Bryan and a lot of the other guys at Retro Studios had always imagined Samus as someone like Boba Fett, but with a sense of honor.
For the non-Star Wars fans out there -- Boba Fett's an intergalactic bounty hunter with a decades-long career hunting heads for cash, probably most famous for capturing Han Solo at the behest of Jabba the Hutt. As such, most of the optional side quests in Metroid Prime 3 would've consisted of bounty hunting missions, with Samus leaving the game's main campaign to fly around the galaxy "chasing down baddies of various types." Retro didn't plan on implementing an in-game currency -- instead, Samus' reward would've been gaining additional capabilities.
To quote Bryan directly: "I recall the ability for the player to -- for lack of a better term, applying the JRPG term here -- to 'level up' by going off to do some of the sidequests instead of following the scripted storyline, so to speak. So that was a key consideration, and that's a well-established convention in a variety of games." And it wasn't just Samus -- her ship would've grown stronger as well. In fact, making the ship more central to gameplay was one of Retro's primary goals for wrapping up the trilogy.
The game's director Mark Pacini built a 10 inch origami replica of Samus' ship and brought it into their production meetings, using it as something of a mascot for the game's production. When we asked whatever happened to that origami ship, Bryan said he thinks Mark Pacini probably still has it tucked away somewhere. He should auction that off on eBay after all the exposure it's getting here, we could probably raise some good funds for charity. Hey no pressure Mark, cough it up. Hopefully that'll happen someday and we'll all get a chance to see it. While discussing how Samus' ship would've worked in-game, Bryan was quick to explain that Retro never planned to let players actively fly the ship . He told us: "The thing we should
clarify is that we're not talking about flying the ship first-person like Wing Commander -- that wouldn't really have fit in with the Metroid Prime formula. It was just something we felt like if you couldn't do it right, if you couldn't make something state of the art, don't try to do it halfway. So a watered-down Wing Commander approach just wasn't gonna fly, no pun intended." Rather than the player flying the ship directly, it would've served as an extension of Samus' abilities in the overworld. Retro prototyped several abilities, like calling in the ship to serve as a distraction, drawing enemy fire away from Samus so she'd have an easier time clearing them out.
But only two of these abilities made it into the final game: Ship Missiles that let you call in a bombing run, and the Grapple Beam for moving large objects, neither of which were used all too frequently. Overall, the ship was just meant to play a larger role and be a more applicable tool in Samus' repertoire as she explored the game world. Bryan's immensely proud of how the game turned out, but laments the limited ship functionality in the game's final build, feeling they ended up short of their original goals. So why didn't open-world bounty hunting become a reality? Retro took their design docs and pitched the concept to Nintendo in a high-level presentation. They wanted to expand on the Boba Fett aspects of Samus' character -- but it turned out Nintendo had a completely different understanding of who and what Samus really is. As Bryan remembers it: "Kiyo, who was one of the translators, boiled it down very well in the assumption that our Japanese partners had of Samus -- that she was not doing it for the money, she was being very altruistic.
And I think he rolled out the term 'motherly.' She was caring for people, what she was doing was literally out of the goodness of her heart, because she deeply cared about humanity. Which was as far away from Boba Fett as you can get (laughs).
I never would've equated Samus with the definition of an altruistic motherly influence, given that she had the title of 'bounty hunter'... We were just looking at Kiyo as he was describing this, like, are we even on the same planet??" Retro was genuinely confused why Nintendo was so resistant to the bounty hunting mission structure they were proposing, until after several days of discussion they realized Nintendo didn't actually know what a bounty hunter really was. They'd been calling Samus a bounty hunter since 1986,but apparently they thought of her more like a space adventurer with a heart of gold.
A space adventurer that definitely didn't hunt bounties. And ultimately, that contradiction between Retro and Nintendo's understanding of Samus' character was why the open world concept got killed off. But there were also some practical concerns -- Retro Studios was a lean, mean, Metroid Prime developing team with only 45 devs. As Bryan describes it, they were "hardwired and staffed to make that finely-crafted and balanced experience [of the first two Metroid Primes]. But to do something much different outside of that would have been a pretty significant staffing and development push... It was outside of the very tightly-scripted, very carefully crafted experience of discovery and isolation that really are the fundamentals of the Metroid experience -- not only in Prime, but the 2D games as well...
[Some of us] had worked on other types of games that had these kind of sandbox considerations, and we were pointing out the amount of work to even do something close to competent in that area was significant. We trusted Nintendo at the end of the day -- we trusted their instincts and their judgment. They're the best in the business for a reason.
They have a long track record of making the right call." In the end, they decided to stay the course and develop Prime 3 with a similar formula to the first two games, although Bryan says he would've loved to see what fans thought of the more open-world format. To be clear, that game isn't in a vault somewhere, and outside of the ship functions, no prototypes were ever developed. Retro's ideas only existed as documents pitched to Nintendo, and it was one of many rejected pitches Bryan's been involved with in his 30 year career. But who knows, with Retro Studios back in the saddle on Metroid Prime 4, maybe someday we'll get to see that vision become a reality.
Did you also know that before Metroid Dread, Mercury Steam wanted to make Metroid games for Wii U and 3DS? Or that in 1986, an official Metroid game was released exclusively in Japan? For more Metroid history, click one of the videos on-screen, and subscribe if you wanna see more videos just like this one. Let us know in the comments what games you'd like to see us cover in the future, and before we go, we wanna give a big, huge thanks to the guys at Retro for sharing their stories with us. And of course, thank you for watching. See ya next time.