The Elegance Of Metroid: Yoshio Sakamoto Speaks

Nintendo's main man behind the Metroid series talks about what he feels is the core of its enduring popularity, the collaboration with Team Ninja on Other M, and how storytelling plays a role in games.

As creator of the Metroid franchise, 28-year Nintendo veteran Yoshio Sakamoto has seen many evolutions on the series over the years.

The quirky designer, whose versatility and unique approach has allowed him to build properties as different from Metroid and from one another as Wario Ware and Tomodachi Collection, now has the opportunity to guide Metroid's newest adventure -- the upcoming Wii title Other M, in collaboration with Team Ninja.

Here, Sakamoto talks to Gamasutra about why he feels the Metroid series has endured for so many console generations, despite changing developers over the years -- expanding on the widely-praised elegance of Super Metroid and the root of the game's emotional impact.

He also talks about working with Team Ninja on Other M, and why the game's narrative goals necessitate a new approach to storytelling for the franchise.

I find the idea that Nintendo can do casual and hardcore games with the same group of people very interesting. Can you talk about that?

Yoshio Sakamoto: I'm always picking up little funny or interesting things that I find here or there and adding them to my own mental archives. Whenever I need to work on a serious or casual title, I can reach into the bin and find something appropriate for either one. I'm very passionate about both, so I'm able to deliver on each kind of approach.

Do you find that you're more inspired by things outside of games? Very often, game creators are inspired by other games.

YS: Yeah, that's probably the case. I mean, I've certainly played a lot of games in the past, and of course I would find a lot of inspiration when I did so; but, normally, it comes from all over the place.

Nowadays, if I take a trip or go see a movie or even just conversations that I've had with people -- those can all result in some sort of moment or interesting image that I cough up later when I'm working on game content.

But, of course, even now, if I saw something in a game, I don't think I would be stealing it so much as recognizing, "Oh! That's a really interesting way to do that."

But I have to say that I haven't really seen anything lately that has come up as a huge hint for how to proceed in creating the next game, in other games.

When you look at Mario, the progression is very smooth. But the evolution of the Metroid series is not, because it's repeatedly changed developers. I don't think that it's made the Metroid series worse; it actually makes it interesting, because we're always going to be surprised by how it evolves. Is that intentional, or is that just the circumstances of how it's developed?

YS: When we worked on the very first Metroid game, please keep in mind that was very early in video game history. At that time, no one really paid a whole lot of attention to who made what part of the game; rather, an entire department made a game. It was a collaborative effort. Of course, we did contract out some of the coding on the game to Intelligent Systems at the time. The idea of the design game from the entire department.

Now, once we got into the days of, say, Metroid II, this was on Game Boy. By that time, a lot of people had developed a lot more know-how, and even the programming techniques had improved then, so it was possible to do things with a smaller team. There were even some projects where we did not need to include Intelligent Systems.

I came in again after Metroid II came out, so that was the sort of environment that I came into. I think I may have discussed a little bit in my GDC speech how I was very moved by the last scene in Metroid II, and that stimulus became my motivation and inspiration in creating Super Metroid.

But when I worked on Super Metroid, Intelligent Systems was helping with the coding -- now, when I say Intelligent Systems, by that time it was already a completely different set of people who then went on to code Super Metroid. Then I went on to make Fusion and Zero Mission, after which was the Prime series.

Now, the Prime series was made by Retro, of course, and, being a different developer, they had a very different worldview for this game. You can say it's still the same Metroid, but it's a different, original concept. There isn't necessarily a direct connection between those initial concepts.

From Super Metroid on -- these were mostly handheld games through this period -- even if the partner changed, I was still working on the project. The central character of Samus, the strong fighting woman who didn't shoot that baby Metroid at the end of Metroid II, was something that I made sure I protected, even as we went through all of these different projects with different partners.

I think Super Metroid really stands out as one of the most elegant game designs the industry's produced. Why do you think that people are still so passionate about this game that was released, at this point, quite a long time ago?

YS: Well, certainly, when we were making Super Metroid, I thought, "I want to make something lasting that will be fun even if played much later." All I can say is I'm really happy that we succeeded in that goal. But, if I had to take a guess as to what the lasting appeal is, perhaps it's the impression left on people by the drama of the game.

You have the baby Metroid who's stolen in the beginning Super Metroid, and Samus goes after the baby.

The baby is getting larger and larger as it grows and feeds, and when they are first reunited the baby Metroid attacks Samus but then remembers who Samus is and runs off. Later, when Samus is in trouble, that baby Metroid comes back and helps her.

All of these dramatic moments really are connected to the strong feelings that people have about relationships, and that leaves quite an impression on you. I guess, if there's any lasting appeal for the game, that has to come from the deep impression that's left by that sort of thing.

That game does a very good job of telling a story with almost no text, and that's part of what makes the game; also, I think just the actual design and the atmosphere, too. But something that we're struggling with as an industry is finding the right balance of storytelling. I notice you definitely are stepping up the storytelling for Other M, so I was interested in your thoughts on story balance and storytelling.

YS: Well, when you're telling the kind of story that we had with Super Metroid -- where Samus has this baby Metroid that is imprinted on her, it grows up, is separated, comes back, and remembers her and saves her -- those are things that can have a really deep impression on you without using words at all because these events are very easy to understand as you view them.

But what we're going to be doing in Other M is more about Samus's internal workings, her feelings, and her background. To express something like that, you really have to use words; it's unavoidable if that's your goal.

So perhaps the best thing to say is that the idea of elegance is to use no more than is needed; and, in this case, we're going to use more words, but we'll try not to use any more than we have to.

Of course, there's a lot of different ways to tell a story, and we're going to have alternating sequences of movies and then action sequences. Both of them really need to hold up in terms of storytelling; they both have to do their share of the work. You can't rely on just one. But from the player's perspective, it needs to feel seamless; the whole thing needs to feel like an action game that has that kind of consistency.

So you really have to sit down and ask yourself what you're trying to express and how you're expressing it, and then, once you've got something out there, you need to look at it very carefully and ask yourself, "Does this work?"

If it works, then that was the right decision; you did a good job. But you can't really be halfway committed to something like storyline in a game. You can't make an action game and then decide at the very end, "You know, this is missing something." Just tacking on a storyline at that point would actually be detrimental to the experience; you should probably just stop and leave it as it was.

The idea is that you have to decide clearly at first, and it even makes sense to follow a little bit of a narrative structure where you think about sort of setting up the background, having a little bit of development to understand the characters and the conflicts, and then some sort of large turn or dénouement and then, of course, the resolution at the end.

This is a Japanese approach to narrative called kishōtenketsu, but it's probably pretty common in Western understanding as well. But, ultimately, rather than talk about how to include a storyline in a game, the best thing I could say is: Please, play the game!

I put everything I know into this, and so if you play through and get a sense of what I was trying to accomplish, then that's a better answer than I could certainly tell you right now.

I want to talk to you about the relationship with Team Ninja. You're working with Hayashi-san, I believe, on the game. I've met him, and he is a young, smart guy. I want to talk about the relationship you guys have; how you chose them and your working relationship with that team.

YS: First I'll address how we chose Team Ninja for this collaboration. I had come up with the Other M storyline and the rough outline for the game design, but I realized that what we had around us was basically a team that had been working on handheld games for quite awhile and we were looking at trying to make a 3D game here, so we realized that we needed some help.

We looked out there at who'd be available and who'd be interested in both the concept and the storyline, and when we finally contacted Team Ninja they were very interested in the project and realized this was also a very good fit for them. Once we had a clear understanding of the shared goals, we were able to move forward.

As for my relationship with Mr. Hayashi, probably the best way to say it is that I like to see him as a peer. I absolutely feel that we are equals. As you say, he's smart, he's young, and he's absolutely excellent at what he does.

He works hard and he works well, but he also has a really amazing, dynamic brain. He's able to put his hand on a lot of different things and succeed. So I thought he would be a fantastic fit for this project.

Now, when we first brought him on, I didn't just hand him a pile of documents and say, "Here you go. Please make this game." Rather, we talked about what was essential and what was good in the Metroid series and tried to figure out how best to use his arts background and know-how to really push those goals forward.

One thing that I really appreciate about him is he can really say some unexpected things every once in awhile that seem to come out of left field, but, since I know that we have the same end-goal in mind, even if we occasionally disagree or are surprised by each other's means or routes of getting there, we know we're going to end up in a good place. It's the right kind of conflict, and our individuality comes out in the best way possible.

One thing that's always struck me when making games with other people -- and, honestly, you're always making games with other people; it's not something that you usually come on as an individual endeavor -- is that you have to find all of the different ways necessary to express yourself to the other team members. There are some team members every once in awhile where, no matter how you describe something in words, it seems to just not be getting across.

But one thing I especially appreciate about Mr. Hayashi is that he seems to have some sort of intuitive sense to understand me. Perhaps it's because we already have shared interests and similar backgrounds, but I feel like he just gets me. There's something about this partnership that feels destined. I would like to ask you, since you've met him, what you thought of Mr. Hayashi.

I met him first when he was working on Ninja Gaiden Sigma, and I immediately thought, "Any guy who can stand up to Itagaki has probably got something going for him." That was my first impression.

In Japan, often when companies work with an external developer, they treat them like a subcontractor. They hand them planning documents, and they may have them make the game exactly as it stands in those documents.

But Nintendo, in particular with Metroid, seems very open. I got to play the Other M demo; you can definitely feel Team Ninja. Obviously, as you said, with Prime, you can definitely feel Retro's style. You're open to that collaboration. What about that collaboration excites you and allows that freedom for the creativity to shine through?

YS: Well, it's a little hard to say exactly how the collaboration on Prime might have resulted in the areas where you really felt Retro shined through there because I wasn't actually very closely involved with that project, but you can certainly say that there are a lot of common Metroid elements; those are always the foundation for any of these projects, even if you have a lot of other elements arranged in a slightly different way.

What you're dealing with is a large vessel that is very firm and can hold all of those elements and still retain its own identity. The best way to accomplish that, to find that sort of firmament that you can then put different arranged elements into, is to find the things that you can't budge on -- find the things that are essential, important, and you don't want to change. Once you've got that established, you can bring in all sorts of talented people and let them collaborate and contribute to what you have there.

Ultimately, what you're going to end up with is something where the Metroid world-sense is still intact: this is a really good game. And certainly this has to be possible on other types of game projects; all you really need to do is make sure that you're very clear in your communication and you talk to people a lot about those goals.

As an end note to all of this, I'd have to say that, if you wanted to maintain some sort of unilateral, top-down control over every aspect of the project, that's probably easier to do in the long run, but that's not something that I've ever wanted. I don't feel like that's something that yields the best results.

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