Earlier this week, ex-Retro Studios developer Paul Tozour appeared on the KIWI TALKZ Podcast and had a lot to say about his career in video games, especially related to his time working on Nintendo’s currently embattled Metroid Prime series.
In the interview he talks in-depth about the core differences in philosophy between a typical western development approach, and his experience working with Nintendo senior officer Kensuke Tanabe. He talks about how American game developers usually start from a place of comparison to the work of their contemporaries mixing and matching different pieces of other works to create something wholly original.
Something I’m sure a lot of us can relate too as often times our first instinct when explaining a game to others is to compare it to something else. However, Nintendo focuses on a more introspective approach. Instead of look at other games, they instead focus only on the current game being working on including its design pillars and its player experience. This workflow was popularized by industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto whom Kensuke Tanabe studied under since joining the company all the way back in 1987.
Paul Tozour: American game developers are always like “Oh its Call of Duty meets Halo, with you know, the weapons in Final Fantasy or whatever. Its Fortnite meets Minecraft… Where as, at Nintendo you just don’t do that. You design based on “no, we’re not talking about their game, what their game did dosent matter”… All that matters to Nintendo is this particular game we’re working on; what are the design pillars, what does the player experience, what are we trying to do.”
When it came time to work on Metroid Prime 2 and more specifically, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the North American developer Retro Games were working through the height of the Halo zeitgeist and the team at the studio was full of Halo fans. These influences can be felt to a degree within the Dark Samus boss fight featured in Metroid Prime 2, but were much more heavily interlaced throughout all of Metroid Prime 3’s development to the disappointment of Kensuke Tanabe.
Paul Tozour: “There are influences of Halo in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption because a couple of designers on the team were big Halo fans and that, as I understand it, caused some problems with Tanabe-san, because of course he did not care about Halo”
Throughout the interview Paul Tozour explains how frustrating it was to have spent years in the industry perfecting his craft, and weeks or months on a specific mechanic, level, or feature only to have Tanabe-san review it and either completely re-write it or scrap it entirely because it did not fit Nintendo’s vision. This is not a situation that is entirely unique to Metroid either, as similar instances can be found in the development of many other Nintendo games.
In an interview with Video Games Chronicle, Paper Mario: The Origami King Assistant Producer Risa Tabata explains that the teams behind the Paper Mario series have always been challenged to innovate and think of new ideas with each entry. This is why ever since the second game in the series, Paper Mario: A Thousand Year Door, each subsequent release has been vastly different to one another. She goes on to explain that this process goes back through Nintendo’s lineage and continues to be passed on to this day.
Risa Tabata: The philosophy of game creation that Mr. Tanabe learned from Mr. Miyamoto, and that in turn he’s imparted to me, is to challenge yourself to create new gameplay. Games are entertainment so I want the people who play our games to say “Wow!” My understanding is that if we want to give players these positive surprises, we can’t do exactly the same thing that’s been done before.
This strict rubric is seen by Nintendo as its way to insure the Nintendo DNA can be felt across all of its titles which, as a big Nintendo fan, very much rings true to my experience. While on the surface it may seem a bit problematic towards creative freedom, both Paul and Risa go on to say that these techniques are actually in an effort to foster more organic creativity, and both of them have used what they have learned from the Nintendo playbook on future projects, even ones outside of Nintendo. Its also hard to argue with the results as well, as Nintendo is currently hold’s the highest average Metacritic score among major video game publishers, publishing half of the top 10 highest rated games of all time.
I personally interpret this as Nintendo trying to foster and grow an mantra of innovation within its studios. It’s clear that Nintendo is not completely blind to what is happening around them. Games like Mario + Rabbids borrow heavily from X-COM and not everything they do is a from-scratch endeavour seeing as some titles do get numbered sequels like Mario Galaxy 2 and the upcoming Breath of the Wild 2.
Inspiration doesn’t seem to be outlawed at the house of Mario, but it also seems like it should never be the primary motivation behind a game’s development. A Nintendo game’s foundation must be built with that patented Nintendo DNA and I think that is great. There are countless incredible experiences to be had on other platforms, some of which I would consider to be some of the best games of all time. So it is not a one size fits all approach that Nintendo has here. But it is the uniqueness of the approach which makes them who they are. A brand that is home to legendary games, countless innovations, and legions of die hard fans. A company that, for better or worse, continues to tread their own path even though the industry around them gets more and more consolidated.