Developer Interview, Volume 3

Super Metroid developers

Super Metroid

Interview with Sakamoto-san and Yamamoto-san
Samus Aran
Akinori mii

Hello, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto. This series of interviews was done to commemorate the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition system. My topic for the third interview is Super Metroid.

The original Metroid game was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, Metroid II: Return of Samus was released for Game Boy in 1991, and Super Metroid appeared as the third game in the series in 1994, two years and eight months after the release of Super NES. Why did the game take so long to create? What kicked off development? This time I will be talking with Yoshio Sakamoto, the creator of Metroid who has always been involved with the series, and Kenji Yamamoto, who established the sound of Metroid.

Sakamoto-san previously spoke with me about the original Metroid game in an interview for NES Classic Edition, so please check out that, too.

And now for Sakamoto-san and Yamamoto-san!

Super Metroid Boxart

"Make a Metroid Game!"

Yamamoto-san, what kind of titles were you involved with before working on the sound for Super Metroid?

Yamamoto: I joined the company in 1987, so…

That's five years after Sakamoto-san.

Sakamoto: Yes.

Yamamoto: First, I worked on the sound for Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!1 After that, I was involved with the sound for Famicom Wars2 and Famicom Tantei Club Part II: Ushiro ni Tatsu Shojo3 for the Family Computer Disk System4.

1. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!TM!: After the original Punch-Out!! game first appeared in arcades, a new version of the sports action game was released for the Nintendo Entertainment SystemTM (NES). Originally released in October 1987.

2. Famicom Wars: A strategy simulation game released for the NESTM system. Originally released in Japan in August 1988.

3. Famicom Tantei Club Part II: Ushiro ni Tatsu Shojo: An adventure game released for the Family Computer Disk System. Originally released in Japan in May 1989.

4. Family Computer Disk System: A peripheral product for the Famicom system released in February 1986 in Japan. The floppy disks used with the system allowed players to use Famicom Disk Writer Kiosks to write new games onto their disk. This system was sold only in Japan.

What kind of titles did you work on for Super NES?

Yamamoto: Super Scope 6.5

The game you play with a light gun that looks like a bazooka. (laughs)

5. Super Scope 6: A shooting game released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment SystemTM. Originally released in Japan in June 1993. The game came bundled with a Super NES Super ScopeTM accessory.

Yamamoto: Yeah. (laughs) After that, I became involved with Super Metroid.

I see. Sakamoto-san, about when did development of Super Metroid begin?

Sakamoto: I think it was around the autumn of 1991.

That's already about one year after the release of Super Famicom in Japan. What kicked off development?

Sakamoto: It didn't start because I said I wanted to make it. My boss at the time was Makoto Kano.6 He has retired, so I'll use the honorific "san" with his name. Kano-san said, "Sakamoto-kun, make a Metroid game for Super NES. I'll create an environment for it, so we should do it!"

6. Makoto Kano: During his time at Nintendo, he was involved with character design for Game & Watch™ and participated in the development of many games, including Wild Gunman and Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru. He appeared in the session of Iwata Asks over Game & Watch.

Now I know why Kano-san was the producer. Did you immediately say, "Let's do it!"?

Sakamoto: I thought we should. But before we started development of Super Metroid, I went on a business trip to Seattle, where Nintendo of America's head office is. The staff there took me to a shopping mall, and every time we went into a store, they introduced me, saying, "This is the guy who made Metroid!" (laughs)

Yeah. (laughs)

Sakamoto: And everyone knew about the game. Even a girl in a boutique who didn't look at all like a gamer reacted dramatically, exclaiming, "Whoa!" in surprise.

And since Metroid was so popular, you thought you should make a new game.

Sakamoto: Yes. I'm sure Kano-san thought the same thing and that's why he said we should do it.

Cinematic Presentation

So you decided to make Super Metroid. Sakamoto-san, what was it like making it for the Super NES hardware?

Sakamoto: I thought it was completely different from NES. With NES, what we could do was simple. But with Super NES, unless you put in a lot of thought beforehand and drew up thorough designs, things that should be possible would become impossible.

What do you mean?

Sakamoto: For example, once development had made some progress, if I told a programmer to make something spin, he might say that it was no longer possible. And I didn't know much about technology, or rather I was unacquainted with it.

Oh, really?

Sakamoto: I joined the company as a designer, and my boss at the time was Gunpei Yokoi7, who always said, "Designers don't need to know about tech. If they do, they'll start claiming something is impossible before they try, and that's no good." (laughs)

7. Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997): During his time at Nintendo, Yokoi-san worked on game devices such as Game & Watch and the Game BoyTM system, and he was an integral figure in development of such products as Robotic Operating BuddyTM (R.O.B.) and Dr. MarioTM.

I suppose he meant that having no knowledge is better than having a little.

Sakamoto: Yes. But when we tried to make something for Super NES, I thought that would never do. I realized that we needed some degree of knowledge in order to give the programmers instructions, and above all, we needed a firm vision or the hardware would be difficult to deal with.

It took about two and a half years from the beginning of development until release.

Sakamoto: We needed the first year as a learning period.

I see. And one of the goals for Super Metroid was cinematic presentation, wasn't it?

Sakamoto: Yes. We had a strong desire to make something that people would compare to a movie.

You can really feel the cinematic presentation in the opening scenes.

Sakamoto: Yes. We put a lot of effort into how to present the text, having the camera move so you see a collapsed researcher, revealing that the strange cries come from a baby Metroid, and so forth. Beforehand, I actually made a video on VHS to convey that feeling.

You used a VHS camcorder.

Sakamoto: But how did I edit it? I don't remember very well! (laughs) Anyway, when it came to cinematic parts—and there are many other instances—I worried to the very end about whether they were all right.

Like about what?

Sakamoto: You know how, during the fight against the last boss, Samus's energy reaches zero, so the player can't do anything for a while?

Yes. You think, "What am I supposed to do?!" (laughs)

Sakamoto: I asked people around me about that, and some said that being unable to do anything wasn't good for a video game, but I really wanted to do that. I really wanted to put in that scene, just like in a movie, in which the baby Metroid comes to help just when you're desperate and wondering what to do.

It's a moving scene.

Sakamoto: Yeah. As far as that effect goes, I'm glad I did that.

Baby Metroid Sounds

Yamamoto-san, what changed significantly with regard to sound in the switch from NES to Super NES?

Yamamoto: NES basically has three PSG channels plus noise for a total of four, so the distinctive "NES sound" is all we could do. But the Super NES sound generator allowed use of recorded sounds simultaneously on eight channels, so the expressiveness was remarkably richer.

What was on your mind when designing the sound for Super Metroid?

Yamamoto: This is about the technology again, but I wanted to undertake a fresh challenge. In order to portray the world of Super Metroid as realistically as possible, I knew I needed rich, expressive sounds.

There's even music that sounds like it has a women's chorus.

Yamamoto: Yes, that's right. I pushed the performance of the Super NES hardware to the limit, and thanks to completing the programming for sending sound data to the sound chip, I was able to play sounds that you didn't often hear in video games back then, like a women's chorus.

I see. So the sound also contributes to the cinematic atmosphere. By the way, what was it like working with Sakamoto-san?

Yamamoto: Sakamoto is incredibly particular about the timing of sounds and pauses, and not just about the sounds themselves. Before Super Metroid, we worked together on Famicom Tantei Club, and toward the end, there's a scene in which lightning flashes. He told me to get the sound for that just right. Sakamoto-san, do you remember that?

Sakamoto: Of course! (laughs)

Yamamoto: So I went all out and used a real crackly noise when programming the lightning. Then, about five years later, that experience came in handy. (laughs)

How so?

Yamamoto: Early in Super Metroid, Samus lands on Crateria and lightning flashes.

So you were like, "I got this!" (laughs)

Yamamoto: Yeah! (laughs) For that, I think I was able to generate a realistic sound without taking up too much memory. Sakamoto was also extremely picky about the sound of the baby Metroid.

Sakamoto: I'm a very picky person! (laughs)


Yamamoto: He'd make orders like, "Here, the baby Metroid feels this way, so create a sound that conveys that emotion."

Sakamoto: For example, after the baby Metroid swoops at Samus and you realize that it thinks of her as its mother, it makes an uneasy sound like "Pwee! Pwee!" And when it gets shot, it makes a pained sound like "Pweeeee!" They're all "pwee" sounds, but I wanted them to convey different emotions depending on the situation.

Yamamoto: I remember working terribly hard on the baby Metroid cries. The other day, while working on Metroid: Samus Returns8 for Nintendo 3DS, I retrieved the data for Super Metroid and checked it out. The baby Metroid had three different sounds, and when I listened to them, I thought, "Ah, they really do express emotion!"

8. MetroidTM: Samus Returns: A side-scrolling action platformer for the Nintendo 3DSTM family of systems. The game is a reimagining of Metroid II: Return of Samus, which released for the Game Boy system in 1991.

You felt like praising yourself back in the Super NES days. (laughs)

Yamamoto: I sure did! (laughs)

Better Today Than Yesterday

By the way, over a decade ago in an interview for a video game magazine, you told me that the opening theme came to you while you were riding your motorbike home from work.

Yamamoto: Yes, that's right. I can still remember that clearly. Should I tell you more?

Yes, please.

Yamamoto: At the time, I had to make sound effects, and background music, and do programming, but the schedule was tight, so every day was a struggle. That meant the ride home each day was the only time when I could empty my head.

You entered a state free of conscious thought.

Yamamoto: Yes. So anyway, I was cruising on my way home when all of a sudden… (opens eyes wide) I was like, "Eureka!" (laughs)

The music just fell on you? (laughs)

Yamamoto: Uh-huh! So I parked my bike in a nearby parking lot, quickly removed my helmet, whipped out a recorder, and recorded what was in my head for about ten, twenty minutes, just belting it out!

Sakamoto: That must've looked suspicious! (laughs)

Yamamoto: I did think people must think I'm weird. (laughs)


Yamamoto: The next day at the office, I played the digitized version of it for Sakamoto and he said it was good.

Sakamoto: I still think that music is awesome!

You mentioned how those were busy times. Apparently, the end stages of development were pretty hard work.

Sakamoto: Yes, very hard! (laughs)

Yamamoto: It really was hard. Back then, we had a nap room with lots of futons lined up, and staff members took turns sleeping.

Sakamoto: Sometimes we didn't know when we had last slept.

Yamamoto: On Christmas night, we were—of course—working, and when Sakamoto and I had a late meal, we saw people having a good time on the TV news. We wondered why we couldn't do that too!

Sakamoto: Yamamoto got angry at the television. And he was angry at people on the news who were taking ski trips at the end of the year! (laughs)

You took your troubles out on the TV. (laughs)

Sakamoto: And we returned to work on January 2 after the New Year. But all the places to eat near the company were closed.

Shops were closed for the New Year's holiday.

Sakamoto: So the producer, Kano-san, went out to buy box lunches.

How many people were on the development staff?

Sakamoto: Seventeen.

That's quite a lot for Super NES development. Did he buy lunches for everyone?

Yamamoto: Yes. We were very grateful.

Did you have to work so hard because of a scheduling problem?

Sakamoto: Of course, we had decided when we wanted it to go on sale, but aside from that, everyone on the staff really wanted to make it better and they wouldn't compromise on that.

Yamamoto: That's true. Every day, we wanted to make it better than it was the day before.

So it wasn't that your boss had given you an impossible task, but…

Sakamoto: No, the opposite. Yokoi-san was saying, "It isn't fine art! How long is this gonna take?!"

You were so absorbed in it that he had to say that.

Yamamoto: We really were absorbed in it!

A Flood of Tears

You poured yourselves into development, but the day comes when you must create the master.

Yamamoto: For the longest time, we couldn't see the end. Then one day, Kano-san suddenly shouted, "Let's master this up! We're done! We're done!" When I heard that, I was stunned and later burst into a flood of tears.

Why was that?

Yamamoto: You know how the members of the losing high school baseball team cry as they collect soil to take home from the Koshien field9? I felt a desolation similar to that.

9. Hanshin Koshien Stadium: A baseball park located in Nishinomiya, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. The finals of high school baseball tournaments in Japan are traditionally played here, and members of the losing teams have been known to keep a pouch of the pitch's soil as a memento.

Every day was grueling but fulfilling, so you felt empty when that was over.

Yamamoto: Right.

Sakamoto: For that reason, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment at having seen it through to the end. I was incredibly satisfied at how everyone had given it their all and created something good.

You spent two and a half years trying to make Super Metroid better each day than it had been the day before. What do you hope players will get out of it on Super NES Classic Edition?

Sakamoto: Um, before that…


Sakamoto: Before that, Metroid: Samus Returns comes out for Nintendo 3DS, so I'd like to talk a little about that.

Yes, please.

Sakamoto: Metroid: Samus Returns is a reimagining of the second game, which was released for Game Boy. Yamamoto did the music and I was a producer.

I heard that Metroid: Samus Returns was jointly developed with a game developer in Spain.

Sakamoto: That's right. Everyone on the staff was crazy about Super Metroid, with a deep understanding of the series, so development proceeded incredibly smoothly. As a result, I think the new game is great. Even including Super Metroid, I had never cleared a whole Metroid game. However, I did so for the first time with Metroid: Samus Returns. That's how much it pulls you in, so I recommend it.

Metroid: Samus Returns launched on the same date in Japan, America, and Europe.

Sakamoto: That's right. So I would be happy if it inspires people who play it to then check out Super Metroid on Super NES Classic Edition.

Yamamoto-san, what part of Super Metroid do you recommend?

Yamamoto: This is a bit detailed, but after you beat the last boss, Mother Brain, Samus escapes, right? The planet is beginning to explode, so you really have to hustle. But at a certain spot, there's a Dachora and some Etecoons…

Sakamoto: Dachoras and Etecoons are alien creatures who teach Samus new moves, and they've gotten trapped while trying to evacuate.

If you help them, the ending changes. Is that right?

Sakamoto: The ending doesn't exactly change, but when the planet explodes and Samus just barely clears the blast in her ship, out to the side you can see…

Yamamoto: The Dachora and Etecoons escape, too.

Sakamoto: About one dot of light shoots out from the exploding planet! (laughs)

(laughs) You understand from that one dot of light that they survived.

Sakamoto: I tried it myself, and the dot was so small I could barely see it! (laughs)

Is that because it was an old tube TV?

Sakamoto: Yes. With the high resolution screens today, you should be able to see it clearly. I hope people will check that out for themselves.

Yamamoto: There may also be people who played Super Metroid before who don't know about that. I hope they will play the game again and help those creatures!

(Look forward to Volume 4: Super Mario Kart!)