Feature: What Happened to Metroid 64?
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Samus got lost
As a week of Metroid Anniversary celebrations draws to a close, we thought we’d look back at a Metroid game that never was. We’re not talking about Metroid Dread, which could still happen, but Metroid 64, which will obviously never see the light of day. We’ve made the title up, but in light of the trend of adding ‘64’ after 99% of game titles on the N64, we think it’s a reasonable guess.
The issue of Metroid 64 was once raised with series creator Yoshio Sakamoto in an interview conducted by games magazine Games™. The main focus of that interview was the launch of Metroid: Other M, but diversions were made to talk about other elements of the series. Sakamoto’s comments of why the N64 didn’t receive a new entry in the franchise were revealing:
I was actually thinking about the possibility of making a Metroid game for N64 but I felt that I shouldn’t be the one making the game. When I held the N64 controller in my hands I just couldn’t imagine how it could be used to move Samus around. So for me it was just too early to personally make a 3D Metroid at that time. Also, I know this is isn’t a direct answer to your question but Nintendo at that time approached another company and asked them if they would make an N64 version of Metroid and their response was that no, they could not. They turned it down, saying that unfortunately they didn’t have the confidence to create an N64 Metroid game that could compare favourably with Super Metroid. That’s something I take as a compliment to what we achieved with Super Metroid.
These comments are interesting on a few points, but it seems to us that, at a basic level, Metroid 64 never saw the light of day due to the obsession, in that period, for 3D games. Not only did the N64 dispose of sprites in favour of polygons, but it seems that game developers, including Sakamoto, felt an obligation pursue 3D visuals suited to the technology. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were good examples of this new principle of game design working well. Other franchises, perhaps, didn’t fare so well: Donkey Kong 64 and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards divide opinion, while third party efforts such as Castlevania on the console also prompted a mixture of praise and criticism. This was an era of growing pains for 3D game engines, and as Mr Sakamoto states, Nintendo was concerned that it couldn’t live up to the legacy of Super Metroid.
It is easy to see why producing a 3D Metroid was a daunting prospect. While Metroid Prime succeeded in achieving this, that was an achievement made possible through fine work by Retro Studios, but also the technical capabilities of the GameCube. Creating a 3D environment on the N64 was made difficult by the limitations of the time, and even gamers with the rosiest tint on their glasses should acknowledge that many titles from this console haven’t aged well, graphically. GoldenEye 007 is an example; a game beloved by many gamers, but played in the modern day the environments are fuzzy and blurred, to put it nicely. The alien landscapes and enemies from Metroid and Super Metroid are vibrant and varied in 2D pixels, but creating a 3D world along the same lines would daunt the finest of programmers in that time.
It seems to us however that Nintendo, Sakamoto and the mystery third party who turned down the project all missed a trick. As mentioned before, the N64 seemed to be obsessed with 3D polygon based game worlds, whereas surely there was no reason that a 2D Metroid couldn’t have been developed. We don’t claim to understand the technical specifications of the N64, but it seems sensible to say that the graphical capabilities of the console could have been applied to a 2D game. Even concerns about the controller shouldn’t have been an issue, as there is a conventional D-Pad just begging to be used. In some ways, the PlayStation and Konami showed the way, with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a game even referred to as Metroidvania by fans. Ideas from the NES and SNES games were applied on a fifth-generation console; why didn’t Nintendo think of that?
As it was, Samus only appeared in Super Smash Bros, a cameo appearance on the console. Thankfully, the Metroid franchise has seen a lot more attention on Nintendo’s handhelds, as well as two-thirds of the Metroid Prime Trilogy on GameCube and Metroid: Other M on Wii. We suspect that Samus will have more adventures on the 3DS and Wii U in years to come, with modern day technology ensuring that the developers won’t face the headaches that prevented the development of Metroid 64.
The lack of Metroid on the N64 still seems like a missed opportunity, despite the obstacles faced, especially as Nintendo has been only too happy to embrace 2D gaming on the Wii. It is a regret that, for an entire generation of home consoles, Samus was lost in space.