For years, Yoshio Sakamoto has been the darker, edgier twin to Shigeru Miyamoto - a designer who revels in anarchy, with the WarioWare series, and frightening isolation, with Metroid. As Samus Aran is due for a fresh makeover later this year in the shape of Metroid: Other M, we sat down with both Sakamoto and Yosuke Hayashi, the producer for the game's co-developer Team Ninja, to discuss everything from the challenges of working with too many buttons, to what the Nintendo 3DS looks like from the perspective of somebody who designed games for the company's previous 3D effort, the Virtual Boy.
Eurogamer: Marrying Metroid with Team Ninja is a fascinating prospect - how did this unusual collaboration come about?
Yoshio Sakamoto: I should probably start by saying that I've come this far by mostly making 2D Metroids - I hadn't had any real experience making a 3D action game like we're trying to do this time. I quickly realised that to accomplish that, we'd need the expertise of a partner.
When I started thinking about who could handle the kind of control scheme we wanted with Metroid: Other M, I immediately thought about Team Ninja and their work on Ninja Gaiden. When I played Ninja Gaiden, it actually changed my thinking in terms of 3D action games and how complex they would have to be. It seemed they were an obvious partner from that perspective.
And when you say that Team Ninja and Metroid isn't an obvious pairing, I think that's kind of fun. You might assume Nintendo and Team Ninja are very different based on image alone, but once we started to discuss the project, I realised that we had very similar shared goals and very similar ideas about how to achieve them.
Eurogamer: What are those shared goals?
Yoshio Sakamoto: We really wanted to bring new gameplay experiences to this project. We have a lot of communication from Metroid fans, and we know what they want to see. It's a challenge to pack everything in that they want.
In terms of our ambitions, the best way to put it is to say that we really want to overcome the expectations of game design. While we're trying to do these things that people have been clamouring for, we also don't want to do things the way people expect, because then there's no surprise.
On top of that, we have to make it accessible for anybody to play. As to how this would be manifested in an action game, I should leave that to Mr Hayashi to respond. Certainly, in terms of working on this project, we don't think of ourselves as Nintendo and Team Ninja anymore. We're just one team working on this game.
Yosuke Hayashi: I've mostly made 3D action games so far in my career, and so far I've realised that you can really introduce a lot of actions people can initiate when you have a lot of buttons in a control scheme. Equally, when you have that many buttons, you lose a lot of players, simply because of how complex the control scheme has become.
What we wanted to challenge ourselves to do this time was to use only the Wii remote as the controller, but to still have the game at the forefront of action games. We wanted to bring in all of the people who had been left out of 3D action games so far, and I'm talking all the way back to the NES Metroid.
Everyone who was once comfortable with that control scheme can now play the game again, but in a new 3D world. It was a new challenge to us, but one that felt very exciting to work on.
Eurogamer: Metroid seems peculiarly ripe for experimentation and collaboration - why do you think that is?
Yoshio Sakamoto: I wasn't really involved with the Prime series, but that team had a very interesting challenge: how to bring Metroid into an FPS experience, and I think they definitely succeeded in doing so. They created a very interesting new game, and brought a lot of new fans to Metroid in the process.
So my own subjective viewpoint is that we've already had one very helpful collaboration that really made the series grow. In that way, Metroid has been an evolving experience. Every time you have a collaboration, you bring something new to the whole, and the idea grows.
Personally, I'm always thinking about how games can find new modes of expressions and new ways of stimulating players, but all of my experience has been in 2D, and games have changed such a lot. With the collaboration with Team Ninja, we're trying to bring in new types of game mechanics, but we're also trying to balance that with new story elements, and we want those elements to work in tandem. On top of that, we've also got another partner, D Rockets, just to work on the CGI cinematics, so it's a real collaboration in every way to bring this game out.
Yosuke Hayashi: When I think about Metroid game design, I think about something that is very simple, and yet very beautiful. So what we're trying to do here is to retain that essence. We want to make sure that the game passes the sniff test for players looking for a Metroid game. We want players not to feel that we've altered the game too much and taken it beyond what they wanted from the series.
Eurogamer: The game seems much more story-driven than other Metroids, but also far less lonely. Samus has lots of other characters around her in what's been shown of Other M so far. Do you worry you've lost some of that crucial sense of isolation which has defined the series?
Yosuke Hayashi: As I said, I think the essential Metroid design is something that's very beautiful, but in each game, I think it's had a slightly different manifestation. For example, if you think about Super Metroid, that was a game that was really characterised by silence. This time for Other M, the scenario that Mr Sakamoto has written for us is really that of a robust adventure game, with a story that makes players want to see more.
It's narrative-driven, and it's also a narrative we're actually telling rather than simply implying via the environments. We're trying to find our own take on Metroid's beautiful design. At the same time, that sense of solitude remains, but it's expressed within Samus's character. I think you'll find that Samus is a character who can feel alone even while surrounded by others.
Yoshio Sakamoto: I think a lot of people who have been playing Metroid certainly have developed an idea of Samus as a loner, and we've read a lot of interesting comments on internet forums regarding where Samus's narrative can go. Is she going to be fighting with inner demons? It certainly seems hard to get a sense that Samus would ever work with team members.
But because that image is so prevalent, we've decided to play with it a little bit. So you'll find that she does have team members fighting alongside her, but, at the same time, the focus, from the narrative perspective, is going to always be on what she's thinking. We want people to get to know Samus this time around.
Eurogamer: Metroid has felt like the odd one out in Nintendo's line-up. It's a lot darker and more frightening than most of the company's other games. Is it fun to be providing a bit of balance to Mario and Zelda?
Yoshio Sakamoto: I definitely do think Metroid is unique in Nintendo's line-up. As a designer, I'm always trying to think about dramatic elements and dramatic moments, so with that, I may have some marked differences from how Nintendo approaches its other games. With Other M, I'm going for something simple, exciting, and beautiful, with a story driving the whole experience.
Within that, there are going to be moments that are darker, that are more frightening, and there are going to be moments which have our slightly more adult theme as Samus deals with her maternal instincts. All of these coming together might seem like a strange combination, but it's the mixture that makes it work: the sense of surprise you get. We want this to be unique amongst Nintendo's line-up.
Yosuke Hayashi: When we talk about Metroid's design, I realise that what we're doing is actually almost whimsical: there's a lot of personal drive here in terms of how we want to combine drama and action. I don't even know what kind of games I'd compare this to, and I guess that means we're very lucky.
Eurogamer: Speaking of new experiences, what are your thoughts, as designers, regarding the 3DS?
Yosuke Hayashi: Platforms really have changed so much, and the best way of thinking of the newest ones is to think of how it's different from the one preceding it. I'm very much interested in thinking about how to design for the 3DS, starting with that viewpoint of: 3D - what do we do next?
It's too early to start talking about ideas, but I can't wait to tackle that question properly. We're going to need to go for totally new approaches with 3D, just in terms of working with games in which the player can now judge the distance between objects much more realistically. I think I'm going to be learning a lot from the first few attempts people make, and I look forward to making my own forays into that environment.
Yoshio Sakamoto: Thinking about 3D gameplay, having a system where you don't need glasses is a very encouraging development. We really want to avoid any hurdles that stop people from experiencing the content. But in terms of how that pairs up with gameplay, the most important thing is that you have a really good concept that really incorporates all of those features.
I don't think I can say that I have that idea yet, but the basic experience of having things pop out of the screen really seems to make people happy. We're going to see a lot of new ideas emerging. There's something essentially mysterious about interacting with a 3D visual at the moment, and that alone might be enough to create tons of new game ideas.
Eurogamer: Mr Sakamoto, having already worked with 3D during the production of Telero Boxer for the Virtual Boy, has that given you any additional insights into the challenges it poses?
Yoshio Sakamoto: Well, hardware has changed a lot since the days of the Virtual Boy. That said, I remember at the time one thing I was focused on was really trying to use the sense of space. With Telero Boxer, I really wanted the sensation of punches coming out at you. What we have now, however, is a great depth of field with the 3DS, and that just gives you a lot more to work with.
I'm not necessarily working on a punching game or anything like that at this moment, but I do see a lot of new possibilities there. Not least because we're not only dealing with red and black now. I think this is a really good time for me to take stock of the past and work out how best to approach this new machine.
Eurogamer: With Nintendo releasing a new handheld device, do you ever wonder what Gunpei Yokoi would make of it?
Yoshio Sakamoto: As creator of the Game Boy and Virtual Boy, Mr Yokoi clearly had very different ways of thinking about game experiences. I think I, in turn, have a different way from him. For Mr Yokoi, I think games were good enough to speak for themselves. They were always good enough on their own, and probably, in his mind, they didn't need the level of story I like to aim for.
3D and portable were definitely his things, though, so I'm sure he would be interested in seeing what we're working with on the 3DS. I can imagine he would have had some really eye-popping ideas, and I really wish I could see them.
Eurogamer: Finally, given your history with the WarioWare series, those games seem to be really useful tools for introducing new games consoles to people. Do you have any ideas for Wario in the near future?
Yoshio Sakamoto: Every time we see new hardware, I definitely think about, "Okay, how would Wario's twisted mind deal with this?" I'm not ready to think about it properly just now, but there's almost certainly some fun for him to have on the 3DS in the future.
Metroid: Other M is due out for Wii in Q3 2010.