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The Troubled Tale of Retro Studios and Metroid Prime 4

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Today Metroid fans woke up to a shocking video from Nintendo that somehow managed to disappoint and exhilarate them at the same time. Nintendo Senior Managing Executive Officer Shinya Takahashi announced that all the hard work Nintendo has put into Metroid Prime 4 over the past two years is being scrapped and the project is starting over from scratch. However, this reboot will be handled by Retro Studios, the team behind the original Metroid Prime Trilogy. How in the world did this all come to be, and what does it mean for the future of the game?

Retro Studios was once an independent developer with numerous projects in the works. Nintendo saw their potential and acquired the company, re-purposing them as a first-party Nintendo studio focused on making 3D Metroid games. They developed three entries in the Metroid Prime series under producer Kensuke Tanabe with some oversight by Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto early on. The trilogy of games received critical acclaim, and the first Prime game remains the highest-selling entry in the franchise to date.

After this, Tanabe moved Retro over to another classic Nintendo franchise in need of a revival: Donkey Kong Country. Without Retro to develop the next 3D Metroid, Nintendo turned to Yoshio Sakamoto (a co-creator of the 2D Metroid franchise) and Team Ninja. The result was Metroid: Other M, a game that saw mixed reviews and sales so poor that it quickly found itself in the bargain bin at most retailers. Meanwhile, Retro continued their streak of impressive marks with the well-received Donkey Kong Country Returns and its successor, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. After the latter game launched in early 2014, the studio went almost entirely silent.

During this quiet period, drama was unfolding behind the scenes. Tanabe left Retro Studios and teamed up with Next Level Games to create Metroid Prime: Federation Force, a spin-off title that launched to mediocre review scores and abysmally low sales numbers. According to a detailed report from Liam Robertson, Tanabe’s departure from Retro wasn’t exactly on great terms.

According to Robertson’s sources, working under Tanabe was no picnic. He was a tough boss who was known to “explode with great passion” if a developer made a mistake or challenged one of his creative decisions. However, this authoritarian style alone wasn’t enough to cause a rift, as his subordinates viewed him as a competent leader. What caused Retro and Tanabe to have a falling out was the level of control he maintained. Retro staff believed they had earned the right to have a little more creative freedom, but all of their decisions had to go through Tanabe first before being relayed to Nintendo executives in Japan, and he wasn’t as receptive to their ideas as they would have liked.

As a result, Nintendo reportedly pulled Tanabe away from Retro Studios in 2014, shortly after the release of Tropical Freeze. He had apparently butted heads with Retro staff throughout the game’s development, compelling Nintendo to find him a new team to manage. This gave Retro the extra freedom they so desperately desired. So what did they do with it? And what would become of 3D Metroid after the failure of Federation Force?

Nintendo and Retro have given us zero official hints about Retro’s activity over the past five years, but reports have leaked out in the meantime. Last year numerous sources claimed that Retro Studios was working on a Star Fox racing game, and Eurogamer stepped forward to corroborate them. But was Retro really working on a racing game for five years? Perhaps not. The same day that the Star Fox racing story surfaced, Kotaku and Game Informer reported that Retro canceled one of their games after development went south. Kotaku believed this project to be separate from the rumored Star Fox game, while Game Informer wasn’t sure either way.

So has Retro been secretly developing multiple projects? If so, that would seem to be a relatively recent development. Eric Kozlowsky served as an Environmental Artist at Retro Studios from 2011 till August of 2015. Following today’s breaking news, he tweeted outUnless Retro has grown to a two game studio since I left, I guess this means the game I was working on when I left in Aug 2015 is’t happening anymore? I honestly have no clue. Excited for everyone there though! I know they’ll do an amazing job!” As of August 2015, Retro apparently only had one game in development, although we still don’t know if it was the Star Fox racing project or something else entirely. For what it’s worth, Kozlowsky was silent on Twitter when the rumors about Retro and Star Fox circulated last year.

Whatever the case may be, Retro has spent five years working on something (or some things) and they still have nothing to show to the public. Meanwhile, the 3D Metroid series has struggled in their absence. Nintendo knew they had let fans down with Other M and Federation Force, and they wanted to earn back some goodwill. Because of this, they showed up to E3 2017 with a short teaser trailer promising Metroid Prime 4 for Switch. Nintendo later admitted that the game was still in the earliest stages of development, but they couldn’t resist whetting the appetites of their disappointed but faithful fans.

After E3, Nintendo confirmed that Tanabe was leading the charge on Metroid Prime 4, working with “a talented new development team.” Nintendo wouldn’t reveal their identity, but they were likely unmasked early last year. The speculation began when a Lead Designer at Bandai Namco Singapore claimed they were working on a “First Person Shooter/Adventure” game coming exclusively to Nintendo Switch. Eurogamer later reported that their sources had confirmed this project to be Metroid Prime 4. Eurogamer later updated their report to state that in addition to Singapore, the Japanese branch of Bandai was working on the game.

Between Nintendo, Bandai Singapore, and Bandai Japan, development continued on quietly throughout 2018 with no real public updates. The silence was finally broken by Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime last November. At the time, Fils-Aime stated that Metroid Prime 4 was “well in development” and that Nintendo internally knew when they planned to release it. What a joyous update! It sure sounded like some major progress had been made. Unfortunately, Reggie spoke too soon.

Almost exactly one month from then, something strange started happening at Retro Studios. Throughout their entire five years of silence they occasionally trickled out hiring ads, but in December of 2018, they opened the floodgates. Retro went on a hiring spree to recruit all kinds of new developers, including a VFX Artist, a Physics Engineer, an Art Director, a Technical Artist, and most recently, a Graphics Engineer. In the case of the Art Director, they were looking for someone with over 10 years of experience, hinting at a pretty major project. Thus, it seems likely that Nintendo’s decision to pull the plug on Bandai’s Metroid Prime 4 and bring back Retro likely happened between Fils-Aime’s statement on November 14th and the beginning of Retro’s hiring spree on December 13th.

With Retro struggling to put together an original game and Nintendo struggling to launch a good 3D Metroid without them, it looks like a “two birds with one stone” solution was reached, and Retro was put back in charge of the series that made them famous. But is this a happy reunion? Retro and Tanabe allegedly divorced due to creative differences. Is Nintendo forcing them back together against their will?

Hopefully, that’s not the case, and we have reason to believe it isn’t. Game Informer Senior Editor Imran Khan has done some digging, and his sources tell him the situation isn’t a problem for Retro. Nintendo was reportedly unhappy with the uneven development of the game over the past couple of years. With studios in multiple countries working on the project (as indicated by Eurogamer), it was seemingly progressing well in some areas while struggling in others. This could potentially explain why just two months ago Fils-Aime believed it to be right on track. Because of this, Nintendo wanted to restart with development centralized under one roof. Retro reportedly wanted to be the ones to take over and presented Nintendo with a pitch to show what they had in mind. Nintendo was impressed with the pitch, and the Prime series returned home to its original development studio.

So what does this mean for the future of Metroid Prime? Well, for starters, we’re in for a long wait. That said, the franchise is hopefully back in good hands. If Retro truly requested the project, then whatever bad blood they have with Tanabe is not serious enough to keep them from working with him again, and they may even have a little more freedom this time around. Hopefully, they use it to restore 3D Metroid to its former glory.

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