Nintendo's Yoshio Sakamoto on the Metroid series' long-awaited return
Sci-fi action series features female hero Samus Aran
In 1986, the video game Metroid put players in the power-armoured shoes of intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran.
The game was a surprise with its moody aesthetic and focus on exploration, compared to the straightforward sidescroller setup of games like Super Mario Bros., on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
But the biggest surprise came after defeating the evil alien Mother Brain and saving the galaxy. After finishing the game, Samus's helmet was removed — revealing that the hero was a woman.
"This was an idea suggested by one staff member towards the end of development of the original Metroid," said series producer Yoshio Sakamoto. "It was thought of as kind of a surprise present to the player for making it to the very end of the game and only then learning that the main character was a woman."
Nintendo took the element of surprise so seriously that players had to finish the considerably expansive game in under five hours to see Samus remove her helmet, and the English-language instruction manual for the game even refers to Samus as a "he."
Samus would go on to become one of the first prominent heroines in gaming, a decade before Lara Croft debuted in Tomb Raider. Successive titles like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime built it up as one of Nintendo's marquee franchises.
In recent years, however, the series had gone silent. Other than a couple of cameos in other Nintendo games like Super Smash Bros., Samus was nowhere to be seen.
It was to fans' delight earlier this year, then, when Nintendo announced that two new Metroid games were in the works. The first of the two, Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS handheld, launched in September to largely positive reviews. An extensive remake and retelling of 1991's Metroid 2 for the Game Boy, it marks the first 2D Metroid game in 13 years.
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The second, Metroid Prime 4, is a sequel to a trilogy of first-person adventure games whose last instalment was 2007's Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. But no information other than a title and logo have so far been revealed.
'The greatest possible remake'
While development of Samus Returns was assigned to third-party studio Mercury Steam, Sakamoto returned to the series in a producer role, 30 years after working on the first Metroid title.
"Because [Metroid 2] is more than 20 years old now, I felt it necessary to take this chance to retell that story anew, to bring it to the attention of so many game fans once more," he told CBC News. "My role as producer on this project was to get this process started and then to help navigate the various challenges in preserving the charm of the original game while still bringing our own new interpretations to it that would culminate in the greatest possible remake."
Sakamoto and Mercury Steam's work appears to have paid off. Samus Returns is, in many ways, a return to form.
Unlike most bombastic action games filled with explosions and screen-filling monsters, Samus Returns balances those run-and-gun set pieces with quiet moments, punctuated by moody lighting and a sparse soundtrack.
The style is reminiscent of 1992's Super Metroid — widely regarded as one of the best video games of all time.
Long history with Nintendo
Sakamoto has worked at Nintendo since 1982, and has overseen a wide variety of games from the action-focused Metroid games to the comedic, absurdist WarioWare series.
In a 2010 interview, he cited film and film directors such as Luc Besson, Brian De Palma and especially Dario Argento's Deep Red as major influences on his work.
When asked how working in the constantly-evolving video games business has changed over the years, however, Sakamoto remains coy.
"I suppose there are lots of little details that have changed over the years, but the core policy and behavior remains the same: we want to do everything we can in the moment to provide the greatest game experience for our customers," he said.