In the remainder of 2016 we'll re-share some of our favourite feature articles from the year. This article (by James Churchill) on the creation of a terrific GameCube title was originally published on Friday 11th March.
Back in 2003 the sixth console generation was in full swing, Nintendo continued seeking mature titles for the GameCube, and Konami still seemed like a reasonable place to work. Canadian developer Silicon Knights had seen the release of their sanity-bending horror exclusive Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and was in Nintendo's good books - a status only a few Western developers could lay claim to.
Metal Gear Solid had established itself as one of gaming's biggest franchises on Sony's PlayStation consoles, with series mastermind Hideo Kojima gearing up for development of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for PS2 - so many an eyebrow was raised when Nintendo announced that a remake of the first Metal Gear Solid game would appear exclusively on GameCube. What raised eyebrows even further was the declaration that Silicon Knights would be developing it. Although other Metal Gear games had seen previous releases on Nintendo consoles, Metal Gear Solid had been firmly entrenched as a Sony property. Also, this was a time when Japanese studios were still at the height of their powers, and giving over such a gold mine opportunity to a western developer was unexpected to say the least.
"From what I was told by Denis Dyack [former President of Silicon Knights], he and his group went to a convention - possibly E3 from the year before production began - and he struck a conversation with Hideo Kojima and Konami," explains production artist Don Toledo. "Konami seemed to be impressed by the results of Eternal Darkness and saw the potential Silicon Knights could bring to Nintendo, and in bringing Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes to the GameCube console."
This endeavour marked the Canadian studio's first time working on an external licence, as opposed to their own IP. But it seems that feelings among Silicon Knights's staff were mixed, as Technical Advisor Ted Traver explains: "I don't like speaking on behalf of others, but I am pretty sure most of the staff were not happy about it." Even so, he had a positive outlook on the project. "I personally saw it as a very rare chance to work with some of the folk who were pioneers in the industry."
"I don't like speaking on behalf of others, but I am pretty sure most of the staff were not happy about it"
Ted Traver, Technical Adviser
However, the deadline originally set was a big ask. "Nintendo and Konami were very clear that we only had a year," Traver tells us, "but our estimates put development at no faster than a year and a half. In the end our original schedule wasn't too far from the mark." Even so, it's apparent that Silicon Knights were no slouches when it came to cracking on, as Traver explains further: "We had the prototype running in record time - less than two weeks. The code staff was brilliant in making it happen."
Meanwhile in Japan, there was a team of individuals at Konami - handpicked and overseen by Hideo Kojima - responsible for the key creative output. "Most of the actual decisions were made in Japan, including any new ideas to add/update, reviews, and approvals." Toledo reveals. "We at Silicon Knights generally did the grunt work, while the team in Japan did the meat of the assets. We generally modified their assets to enhance visual quality and clean up and optimize code." Traver adds an analogy to describe how the partnership worked. "Konami had made it very clear earlier on that we at Silicon Knights were creating the VCR to play their movie."
A movie is an apt comparison, as Metal Gear Solid is famed for its cinematic style and influences. And the visuals in Twin Snakes edged this further by showcasing a huge leap forward in terms of realism, taking a footnote from the original game's PS2 sequel Sons of Liberty. Toledo gives his take on what the GameCube hardware allowed them to do. "We just had more room to play with: more AI on screen, more VFX, more bones, more frames of animation, larger texture resolutions etc. Things just seemed 'bigger' as a developer and player. And we didn't have as many restrictions as before, which really affected the game design in the original Metal Gear Solid game."
This new imagining of the visuals also extended to the cutscenes. Where characters previously had static faces and eyes made of pixels, on GameCube they had full animation and lip synching for dialogue - all of which was re-recorded with most of the original cast. In the position of director was Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura, known for his high octane action films. As Kitamura explains, it was Hideo Kojima's love of films that landed him the job. "Hideo came and watched my first feature Versus and loved it and we became very good friends. When I was making Azumi he asked me if I'd be interested in doing cutscenes for Twin Snakes. How could I resist?!"
"Hideo told me to go completely new and different. He gave me total freedom because he knew that I was a big fan of his work so that I would never do something he wouldn't want"
Ryuhei Kitamura, Cutscene Director
The in-game cutscenes weren't merely graphical updates either. They added new action set pieces, showcased great feats of strength from characters and emphasised elements like bullet-time. Although fans have debated this creative direction through the years, it was very much the wish of Kojima to explore new territory. "Hideo told me to go completely new and different." Kitamura reveals. "He gave me total freedom because he knew that I was a big fan of his work so that I would never do something he wouldn't want. He also loved my second movie Alive, which is based on Tsutomu Takahashi's manga, and he knew I never disrespect the original creator." Upon asking about his favourite scenes Kitamura, stated that he "loved all the scenes but especially the battles with Psycho Mantis and Sniper Wolf."
Even though the creative aspect of the cutscenes was handled in Japan, Silicon Knights worked hard to implement them into the game. "The sequences given to us were pretty much completed, however they were usually in a different format due to their in-house engines and tools." Toledo explains. "Our task was to convert it, and then process it again with the new bone exports and animation data, and then optimize and export it into usable data for the GameCube. We had to do this for all the animations, both in-game cycles and cinematic sequences." Considering the cutscenes alone totalled over four hours in running time, the work in both Japan and the US was no small feat.
To make all of this possible, constant contact was kept between the two teams over 10,000 kilometres away. "We had daily call/video conferences with them." Toledo explains. "The team in Japan were involved with everything related to the project, no matter how big or small. That said, it also allowed us to communicate and resolve any issues almost immediately." And alongside the conferencing, Silicon Knights would occasionally have some guests from across the globe. As Toledo recounts, "Whenever they visited our studio, Kojima himself would go around and check up on almost everyone individually with their current tasks. You could tell they were being thorough, even though I may be describing it like some sort of sweat shop."
Whilst the work was intensive, the collaboration allowed Silicon Knights staff to get a closer look into the series. "Konami provided us with a vast array of reference materials from the Metal Gear Solid universe. For those of us that were fans it was incredible stuff!" Traver explains. "Right away we received copies of the MGS Document for the PS2, which pretty much explains how the system and game mechanics function. We also got lots of art books for visual reference and a sneak peak of Snake Eater very early on."
"They were happy enough to propose new ventures... I am pretty sure Silicon Knights management didn't dig that idea and moved quickly to burn our bridge to the Far East"
Ted Traver, Technical Adviser
And when it came to the later stages of development, the hands which assembled the game played it extensively too. "When the production schedule began to clear up, I and a few others jumped at the chance to playtest, and coming from the production side of development it was a thrill to see everyone's hard work on the screen with the controller in your hands." Toledo recounts. "Sure, I was always a little more biased to focus more on the art assets and quality, but when not scrutinizing every pixel, I genuinely played the game from a player's perspective and gave reports on as much as I could so that the project could improve." Toledo also fondly recalls one of his experiences as an artist-turned-playtester. "One of my favorite memories was teaming up with a gameplay programmer and thoroughly testing and tweaking the boss fight between Solid and Liquid Snake on top of Metal Gear Rex. The two of us did this daily for a few days to get it 'just right' before presenting it for approval from our leads and peers in Japan. To my recollection, it went into the game without further modifications."
So after a long slog of development on two continents, the mission was accomplished. And, as Toledo retells, there was much rejoicing. "We had a celebration on a boat before releasing where we met with the Japanese team members and Kojima. There were plenty of smiles and kind words going around."
Upon launch in 2004, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes became a critical success, but it unfortunately didn't manage to sell as well as other GameCube exclusives or entries in the Metal Gear Solid series. Nevertheless, the big wigs at Konami and Nintendo seemed pleased, as Traver recalls. "They were 'happy', happy enough to propose new ventures with the three of us working together again. I am pretty sure Silicon Knights management didn't dig that idea and moved quickly to burn our bridge to the Far East." Instead, Silicon Knights decided to continue work on their long running project Too Human, which shifted its development from GameCube to Xbox 360, finally releasing in 2008.
When asking Traver about the proposed ventures with Konami and Nintendo, he provides us with a few juicy rumours. "It was rumored that in the short term they wanted us to do another Metal Gear Solid, and in time the possibility of a creative endeavor drawing its roots from Silent Hill and Eternal Darkness." These ideas lead one to think of the supposed leaked images of cancelled Silicon Knights project The Box, which showcased a horror aesthetic.
But the rumours didn't stop outside gaming world. After Twin Snakes, there was speculation that Ryuhei Kitamura would be directing a live action film of Metal Gear Solid. He gives us a colourful answer to the question. "I don't know anything about the movie project and even if I do I cannot speak - it's Hollywood!"
"I'm personally not interested in any upcoming Metal Gear Solid movie or game without its creator, heart and soul - Hideo Kojima"
Ryuhei Kitamura, Cutscene Director
And even though this unique collaboration between companies and individuals has its critics, Toledo looks back positively on the experience. "Working on Metal Gear Solid was good both socially and professionally for Silicon Knights in the industry. I know I had days where I woke up and thought, 'Today, I get to fix Solid Snake's shoulders so he can climb better', or 'Sniper Wolf's hair needs a touch-up today' and not feeling terrible about the tedious things. I'm sure I wasn't the only one." Traver echoes Telodo's sentiments. "I personally thought it was a great experience to learn from the masters in the industry, and help bring the MGS experience back to a Nintendo platform." Alongside the Silicon Knights veterans, Kitamura adds his personal reflections on the process. "It was pure fun. Hideo is pure genius and a great guy. Whenever he had time he came to visit me around lunch time. We ate together and talked about movies and books forever."
Unfortunately, the game is a retro-only affair today. Whilst the rest of the Metal Gear Solid main series has seen re-releases in one form or another, The Twin Snakes has never crawled its way beyond the GameCube. Some have speculated about potential licensing issues halting progress, but the fact remains that the only original copies can be found on GameCube, and are fast becoming a rare and pricey piece of software. And with rumours and reports of Konami recently behaving in a frighteningly Orwellian fashion, many suspect we'll never see a re-release, at least not with Kojima's name on the box. Even so, the remake – whilst occasionally dividing fan opinion – is still a slick and engaging experience that every Metal Gear diehard should play.
And when it comes to the future of the series, Ryuhei Kitamura expresses a sentiment which reflects the views of many Metal Gear fans the world over. "I'm personally not interested in any upcoming Metal Gear Solid movie or game without its creator, heart and soul - Hideo Kojima."
A huge thanks to Ted Traver, Don Toledo and Ryuhei Kitamura for their time. Also thanks to Toby Venables for leads and Mr. Kitamura's assistant Kazuki Hirata.