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Samus in the 16-Bit Dimension:
The Story of Super Metroid's Genesis
This article comes from the German official Nintendo magazine, Club Nintendo. The article was printed in 1994, and was translated by Prime Blue, who has graciously allowed the MDb to host a copy of it. Minor edits have been made from the original translation. --CC
Deep inside Planet Zebes, an intergalactic horror has found its hiding place: parasitic aliens have eaten a gigantic cave system into the depths of the earth. Despite all dangers, a hyper-modern spaceship lands on the surface of the planet, and a slender figure emerges from the top. That figure is Samus Aran, and she is ready to plunge into her biggest adventure yet, an adventure the creative developers of Nintendo in Japan have packed on a brand new 24-megabit cartridge for the Super Nintendo. Its name: Super Metroid! Club Nintendo has talked to the game's designers about the story behind the development of this spectacular adventure.
(ak/pn) – In 1985,* Metroid on the NES first saw the light of the video game world. NES fans pondered immediately just which kind of game it might be – a platformer, an adventure, or an action game? The classification was not easy, but a quickly growing community of fanatic Metroid followers soon found the answer: Metroid was all of these in one! The tricky puzzles, quick escapes, and intense battles, as well as novel moves of the main protagonist, made for a very special kind of game. Players accompanied space warrior Samus Aran on Planet Zebes. After a breathtaking duel, Samus eventually defeated Mother Brain, and thus prevented the uncontrollable reproduction of the parasitic Metroids that threatened the entire universe. Exhausted but relieved, she left Zebes and watched a self-destruct program destroy large parts of the planet's interior.
*This is an error in the original text. The correct year is, of course, 1986, with the European and North American releases in 1987.
In 1991, Samus Aran was thrown into a new adventure – this time on the Game Boy. She had to conquer a Space Pirate base on the planet SR388, and came into possession of a Metroid specimen. In compliance with her orders, she delivered this Baby Metroid to the research facility Ceres. With hopes of having found peace forever, Samus left the space station. However, the unspeakable happens – and Super Metroid begins in 1994: Space Pirate Ridley, a powerful flying alien, assaults the research facility. In battle with Samus Aran, who has hurried back, he steals the Metroid and escapes to Planet Zebes.
The things awaiting Samus there are beyond imagination: a huge, far-reaching and interconnected cave labyrinth continuously confronts the player with new obstacles. An abundance of the most diverse aliens, from small ones to those who span multiple screens, are in Samus Aran's way, while emotionally composed pieces of background music marvelously support the atmosphere and give rise to the feeling of being trapped in an underground cave. A newly-developed icon system gives the player the option of supporting Samus Aran with numerous items that can be equipped on menu screens. After only a few minutes, observers of this impressive game will undoubtedly wonder who came up with such perfection.
In the two-million-people metropolis of Kyoto, which the Japanese affectionately call "city of a thousand temples", Nintendo Company Limited (NCL, for short) has its headquarters. There, roughly 400 employees work around the clock at the pulse of the industry to surprise the video game world with new and exciting projects. Different development teams are busy with one of numerous projects going on simultaneously. For example, one department is solely responsible for the development and improvement of hardware. However, several departments are also in charge of creating new games. Successful titles, such as the Mario and Zelda series, are forged here.
When it comes to Super Metroid, our attention focuses on the division "Research and Development 1", or R&D1 for short. Although the team hiding behind this enigmatic term is primarily responsible for arcade games, it also took part in creating all three Metroid games. While Hiroji Kiyotake was responsible for the first two installments of the Metroid series, Super Metroid was designed under the direction of Yoshio Sakamoto. Under his watchful eyes, 14 specialists in different teams worked on the completion of Super Metroid for two and a half years. This means a gigantic development time of 37 "man years". In other words, a single man would have had to work on it for this long, assuming he had the different production steps down.
Teamwork was Necessary
After Nintendo decided to produce a Metroid game for the Super Nintendo, Yoshio Sakamoto divided his staff into smaller groups: five employees formed the design team, two were in charge of the game's sound, and seven were busy with the programming. Additionally, freelancers were available for use on special tasks.
Once that was settled, the general planning phase could begin – at first only with long discussions and on paper. The design team got together with their coworkers who had developed the Metroid games for the NES and Game Boy. How should the sequel look? There were several questions to be resolved, such as which moves the heroine would be capable of, which enemies would appear, and how they would move. Last but not least, the design of the map was under discussion, meaning the way the world of Super Metroid presents itself to the player. As the new adventure was to take place on the partially-destroyed Planet Zebes, the designers of the map focused themselves on the NES version, but they did not want to adopt it without changes.
The composition phase came afterward, in which the game fields were determined in a detailed manner and were checked for logical consistency. One has to imagine this phase like a giant puzzle in which every single part is connected with another. Eventually, the underground world of Zebes became a huge labyrinthine system with a variety of connective doors that could only be found and opened with certain weapons or items. Particular emphasis was put on designing a perfect labyrinth without any mistakes. Zebes became a quasi-maze that cleverly features doors, hidden items, and hints so the player is automatically guided through the adventure – as in a logical riddle.
With the basics with all the details complete, it was time for the artists. At first, fascinating drawings were developed on paper, true works of art that showed how the interior of the planet should look. Every stone, every plant, received its own distinct appearance from the graphic artists. After the world of Super Metroid had been created, the designers dedicated themselves to the enemies, defining their motions and the strategies to defeat them, and determining their looks, of course.
Finally, the item system was planned. That is, where could the items and weapons be found? Which items were mandatory to possess in order to receive another item in a certain sector? At the end of the planning phase, there was a weighty book with drawings and detailed descriptions in which – akin to a screenplay – the complete adventure was documented from A to Z. Now, the programming could begin.
The Hour of the Programmers
The task of the programmers was to engineer the specifications of the designers into a game program. The seven programmers developed Super Metroid with a special programming language. Day by day, the program code grew with mathematical functions and procedures, until there was a program listing book several hundred pages long. Programming is a lengthy and time-consuming phase of game development. A single faulty command could crash the program at any time so that it would no longer work properly. This phase involves lots of fiddling around, and is only meant for brainiacs obsessed with numbers. Simultaneously with the programming, the sound composition team came into action.
Fascinating Sound Effects
The sound composition team consisted of two creative musicians: Minako Hamano and Kenji Yamamoto. They composed the tense background music with acoustic instruments (such as the piano) and with synthesizers. Furthermore, they conceived of the sound effects, such as shots, screams, and monster cries. They considered the screams of Samus and the aliens, which they got out of the computer, to be less ominous than desired. Then Minako Hamano had a brilliant idea. She stood in front of the microphone herself and cried, groaned, whimpered – the results will truly unsettle players of Super Metroid.
After the music had been composed and recorded and the sound effects had been compiled, the material was sampled. That means, it was converted into a digital form, so it could be stored directly on the game cartridge. This small team has done an exceptional job – just wait and see!
Sought and Found: Bugs
The first version of Super Metroid was now completely programmed and had to be tested extensively. This phase is called "monitoring" or "debugging". During this test phase, the 15 staff members of R&D1 played Super Metroid again and again for one month, correcting bugs, adjusting the difficulty level, and perfecting the whole course of the game.
Afterward, freelancers of all ages tested the game for another four weeks and wrote down every small irregularity to correct every last bug. Additionally, their opinions on the game were requested. Was it too hard or too easy? Was it exciting? Did they like the graphics? Were the controls comfortable? These assessments are tremendously important so the designers would not fail to satisfy players’ demands with programming blinded by routines.
After two and a half years, the moment had finally arrived: in the spring of 1994, Super Metroid was released to the Japanese market.