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Rebooting Samus: The relationship between East and West in game design, through Metroid Prime

An in-depth look at Metroid's mishmash of Japanese and American influence

Jake Shapiro, Blogger

October 28, 2012

14 Min Read

Metroid is Nintendo’s black sheep. While the series has seen just as much critical acclaim as the Japanese gaming giant’s other flagship franchises, Metroid has never been the commercial juggernaut Mario and Zelda are year after year. So when faced with the technological leap from two dimensions to three-dimensional graphics, why did Nintendo for the first time in their history hand over one of its own series to a Western developer? Metroid Prime is the culmination of the company’s marriage of East and West in game design. The unlikely bedfellows of Nintendo and U.S. developer Retro Studios managed to create one of the most successful video games of all time, both critically and commercially.

Metroid title screen


The series has had Western roots from the beginning. It was conceived by misunderstood designer Gunpei Yokoi—most famous as creator of Game Boy and for ruining his career later with the infamous Virtual Boy. Yokoi took heavy influence from Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror opus Alien and the art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Even before PrimeMetroid was Nintendo’s only franchise directed at an older demographic with a more serious tone, and their only series with better sales numbers in the West than domestically in Japan.

When Metroid was finally handed to a Western developer for the jump to 3D, it wasn’t what you’d call a “smooth transition.” Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios was inexperienced and in shambles with an absent CEO when Nintendo came knocking. And their final product was a first-person game—perhaps the visual perspective most emblematic of Western design. How was this game not a total flop? And how did it consolidate the vast differences between Eastern and Western approaches to video games?

A misunderstood history

Gunpei Yokoi himself was just as much a black sheep as the franchise he fathered. Hired by a struggling Nintendo in 1965 to maintain the assembly line machines for playing cards, Yokoi’s first product was an extendable claw toy called the Ultra Hand that he had just made for fun. It impressed Nintendo so much that the company put it on store shelves in 1966 and moved 1.2 million units. The Ultra Hand singlehandedly put Nintendo back in the black. Yokoi famously said “The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.” Nintendo lives up to that line even in 2012.

Gunpei Yokoi with his Game Boy

Gunpei Yokoi

Fast-forward two decades. Nintendo was riding high on the success of their first home console. Metroid was meant to feature the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the adventure elements of The Legend of Zelda. The dissonant soundtrack by composer Hip Tanaka created a lonely, melancholy mood, something not seen much before in games. And the Alien influence went farther than just the sci-fi setting; it was one of the first video games ever to feature a female protagonist, just like Ridley Scott’s film. Yokoi even named one of the game’s bosses “Ridley” in honor of his English influence. This was a far cry from the colorful, cheery fare pervading video games at the time, especially on a Nintendo console.

The original title was released on the Famicom in 1986, and for the Nintendo Entertainment System abroad the following year. After a mildly successful outing on Yokoi’s own Game Boy of Metroid II: Return of Samus in 1991, Yokoi buckled down for what would be considered by many to be his masterpiece: Super Metroid, released on the Super NES in 1994 to widespread critical acclaim. It took the non-linear gameplay and moody sci-fi setting of the first game to the next level.

Gunpei Yokoi would leave Nintendo two years later amid the failure of the Virtual Boy. In 1997, he was struck and killed by a car on the Hokuriko Expressway. A tragic life and a tragic death.

The Metroid franchise’s critical success never translated to blockbuster sales. While Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time launched on the Nintendo 64 as landmarks of game design, Metroidwas left in the dust during the 64-bit era. A cameo in Super Smash Bros. notwithstanding, Samus was dead to the public for eight years.

Reviving Metroid

Retro Studios started in 1998, out of the ashes of Iguana Entertainment (makers of the successful but “meh” Turok series for N64). The studio was originally a “second-party” developer for Nintendo, specializing in GameCube games for an older demographic. But the company workplace was in disarray. Representatives from Nintendo would visit every few months, and as the team fell further behind, all their games were cancelled.

Retro Studios in Austin, TX

Retro Studios


Who would save Retro Studios? Shigeru Miyamoto, of all people. Yes, Mario- and Zelda-inventing Shigeru Miyamoto, who hadn’t worked on a single Metroid game up to that point. He looked at a first-person shooter engine Retro was working on, and said it would be perfect for the long-awaited sequel to Super Metroid. The most important Japanese video game designer of all time, suggesting some Americans should make a first-person version of one of his company’s franchises? How does this even happen?

The gaming world was skeptical of the change. Many thought this was simply a way to cash in on the trendy new FPSes, and that the new Metroid would boil down to a generic sci-fi shooter dumbed down for American audiences. Nintendo was so nervous about this departure that they internally developed a traditional 2D Metroid game for the Game Boy Advance to be released on the very same day as Metroid Prime, titled Metroid FusionFusion was a relative success, but it would pale in comparison to Retro Studios’ unexpected work.

Metroid Prime box art

Metroid Prime


Despite skepticism from media and hardcore Metroid fans alike, the game released in November 2002 to 1.5 million copies sold in the United States alone. More importantly, Metroid Prime became one of the most critically praised games ever made. It earned Game of the Year awards from GameSpotGameSpyElectronic Gaming MonthlyNintendo PowerEdge, and the Game Developers Conference. On review aggregator site GameRankings.com, Metroid Prime has an average score of 96.35% based on 84 reviews, good enough to make it the seventh highest-rated game of all time (or at least since people started writing video game reviews).

East and West Are Raging Inside Samus

Metroid Prime excels because it sits at the crossroads of Eastern and Western approach to video game design. As stated earlier, Metroid is a Japanese game rooted in Western science fiction. But it’s still definitely a Japanese game. Just look to Samus’ armor, the Varia Suit.

Imagine a board meeting at a video game publisher, and someone suggests, “Hey, why don’t we let the hero of this gritty sci-fi action game roll into a little ball! They can roll around to solve puzzles and drop bombs!” Does this sound like an American developer? I think not. It goes deeper than that, though. One of the most iconic aspects of Samus’ suit is her arm cannon, which is permanently attached to her arm. Whether her right arm is amputated at the elbow or if somehow her hand just fits inside a cannon, we’ll never know. But this is a Japanese idea at its core.

The game analysis video series Extra Credits calls this “the myth of the gun.” Much of the difference between East and West in game design is rooted in this myth. The Japanese view of warfare comes from Buddhist and Shinto philosophy; as a result, mastery and spiritual attainment are most important. This Japanese warrior culture predates the gun by centuries. The ideals of the United States, meanwhile, come from the Enlightenment movement, so they focus on personal liberty. The nation itself claimed independence through guns. What does this mean for games, though?

Metroid Prime concept art

Metroid Prime concept art


Extra Credits says, “In Japanese games, the gun isn’t so much a gun as an extension of the self.” As a result, we see games like Mega Manwhere the weapon is actually a part of the character’s body. Samus follows in this tradition. It’s “a representation of internal force rather than a mere firearm.” This is why in Japanese works like Dragon Ball Z and Street Fighter, even characters without firearms are able to launch projectiles at enemies. When a character in a Japanese game is given a gun, it’s usually a last resort to survive. There are a few exceptions like Contra, but notably, most gun-toting Japanese games feature American protagonists.

First-person shooters, on the other hand, are the culmination of a cultural mythology Americans have built around guns. Americans see the gun as a symbol of independence—even in 2012, the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. The gun is not the self, but a tool. Guns represent empowerment to Americans; even the weak have the ability to defend themselves if they have a gun. This is why so many American games feature endlessly replaceable guns. In most Japanese games, you keep the same weapon through the entire experience, enhancing and perfecting that one weapon. American games, on the other hand, feature weapons strewn throughout the game worlds for people to pick up and throw away at will.

From the first-person perspective, anyone can be a warrior. You don’t need training. This is an American Revolutionary idea. While Japanese warriors are a select few who have achieved the highest level of training, Americans hold the ideal of the everyman citizen-soldier. It doesn’t just affect perspective—look who the player is in most games. In Japanese titles, you tend to play as a certain character with a name and character traits—Solid Snake from Metal Gearor Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden. U.S. games, though, tend to feature either generic blank slate characters like Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Master Chief from Halo, or no-name customizable avatars. Japanese gamers are meant to role-play as the protagonist, while American gamers are meant to be the protagonist. This lends itself to a first-person perspective.

Metroid Prime gameplay
So what about Metroid? Samus is a traditional Japanese warrior. But even the original Metroid borrowed something from Western design philosophy: isolation. American games love the “me against the world” mentality. Look at early FPSes from the ‘90s like Wolfenstein 3D or Doom—you’re always alone. There’s hardly ever a character at your side or a friendly NPC. Japanese games, on the other hand, are famous for party-based group RPGs. Metroid uses the same individual-vs.-the-world perspective that its influence Aliendoes.

The decision to go first-person

When Nintendo originally planned to bring Metroid to 3D, they wanted it to be third-person. Based on Miyamoto’s recommendation, though, they used Retro Studios’ first-person engine. Samus is the perfect fit for this perspective. She hardly ever speaks, thus is an easy empty vessel for the player to fill. But Retro went one step further: the heads-up display. While most games feature non-diegetic HUDs, Metroid Prime puts the player inside Samus’ visor. We see what she sees: her health bar and ammo counters are within the world of the game. When bright explosions occur near her, we see Samus’ face reflected in the glass of the visor.

The Scan Visor

The Scan Visor

It affects gameplay, too. One of Metroid Prime’s greatest achievements is its use of alternate visors to augment gameplay. Samus can switch from a regular view to a thermal visor, an X-ray visor, or a scan visor. The thermal and X-ray visors help see hidden areas and enemies that she couldn’t see before. But the scan visor is the most important. It allows Samus to scan anything in the gameworld and get information on it. While Metroid Prime features very little exposition, this scan visor illustrates the backstory of the world and immerses the player. Instead of being served the story on a platter, the player is the one finding the story. And if the player doesn’t want any of this, they don’t have to use the scan visor at all. Metroid Prime marries the Japanese idea of internal power with the Western idea of individual liberty in its approach to Samus.

Metroid Prime isn’t exactly a first-person shooter, though. Retro Studios likes to call it a “first-person adventure.” While it’s definitely in first person and it definitely involves shooting, it doesn’t follow the conventions of standard FPSes. In a conventional shooter, the focus is on weaponry and skill in dispatching enemies. In Metroid Prime, the focus is on exploration and puzzle solving. There are enemies to shoot, but precision in aiming is so unimportant that the game includes a button to automatically lock-on to enemies. The challenge in defeating enemies in Metroid Prime is finding their weak point and exploiting it, instead of finding the biggest gun and firing away. Metroid Prime’s enemies are essentially puzzles.

In true Metroid fashion, Prime is about trekking through an alien world, gaining new abilities, and then going back to that world to accessing places with your new ability that were previously inaccessible. Metroid Prime’s boss battles are largely a “final test” of Samus’ skill in whatever ability she most recently gained.

But the core of the game is still exploration and puzzle solving. So much so that even in this American-developed game, the very Japanese concept of the Morph Ball plays a huge role (or roll?). In morph ball mode, the camera swoops out to a third-person perspective, and Samus can roll into tight areas to solve new puzzles. This seems goofy and out of place in the melancholy tone of Metroid Prime, but Retro Studios makes it work.

The Morph Ball

The Morph Ball

Another of Prime’s successes is its tutorial. Tutorials are notoriously awkward for video games to get right. Often, they either leave the player out to dry, or they’re so long and exposition-filled that the player is bored out of their mind. It’s an unfortunate video game necessity. Other artforms are standardized. When you read a book, you know you turn the page to get to the next part of the story. When you listen to music, you know the “pause” button stops the music and the “skip forward” button moves to the next song. But video games have all sorts of different control schemes. A shooter has different controls from a platformer, which has different controls from a role-playing game.

Metroid Prime works its tutorial into the storyline. Samus boards an abandoned spaceship at the beginning of the game and inspects what happened to the pirates inside. Through this, the game teaches the player how to fire their weapon, how to scan the environment, how to use the morph ball—the basic mechanics in the game. There’s even a boss at the end of the tutorial level. The player gets a crash course in game control but also gets solid gameplay and storytelling in this section, rare for video games.

What it all means

So what is the legacy of Metroid Prime? Why is it important? On an immediate level, it made Metroid relevant to a new generation. The game spawned two sequels, a handheld spinoff, and a Wii remake. There was even Metroid Prime Pinball, one of the most underrated games of all time. But on a wider level, did it affect other games? We haven’t seen a boon of first-person adventures. It’s a genre that hasn’t been a commercial success since Myst, and other thanMetroid Prime, we haven’t seen much of since. And Metroid aside, Nintendo doesn’t seem interested in similar games for a more mature player demographic. The Wii was a movement in the complete opposite direction, and the upcoming Wii U seeks to continue that trend.

Really, Metroid Prime is testament to the success of combining Japanese and American approaches to game design. The Western-influenced brainchild of a misunderstood Japanese designer, taken on by an inexperienced Texan developer with the blessing of the most important gaming figure in the world! Metroid Prime is a proof of concept for Nintendo and Retro Studios. Hopefully in the future we can see more games co-created by both East and West to recapture the spirit of Metroid.

[Also posted on my personal blog, A Capital Wasteland]

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