E3 2015's top head-scratcher so far: Why would Nintendo bring back their dormant Metroid franchise, a series known for fairly quiet, careful solo sci-fi exploration, with a multiplayer shooter that's also a sports game? Good thing I had a half hour with the game's producer to find out.
Meet Kensuke Tanabe, veteran producer and designer of many a great Nintendo game, including the three acclaimed Metroid Prime first-person adventure games for GameCube and Wii. He also oversaw development of Metroid Prime Hunters, a 2006 Nintendo DS multiplayer shooter.
Tanabe is now overseeing this newly-announced Metroid Prime: Federation Force for 3DS, a game that is barely at E3 and one I've been struggling to understand.
Before we spoke, I played what Nintendo does have of the game at E3: the sports mode of the Federation Force, Metroid Prime Blast Ball. This is a three-on-three first-person competition in which characters wearing mech suits use their guns, a target lock-on and power-ups to shoot each other and, more ideally, to shoot a bit ball into the opponents' goal. You use the 3DS circle pad to run around, a button to shoot, another to lock on to targets, including the ball, and you can press the right trigger and then use the 3DS' gyro sensor to look around.
Tanabe would later tell me that you can also use the second stick on the New 3DS to look around, though the game also runs on the regular 3DS. In fact he told me he wanted Federation Force to launch when the New 3DS did and apologised for the wait. (The game can be played on older 3DS models, too.)
Tanabe would tell me that playing Blast Ball could serve as a replacement for a traditional tutorial in terms of getting players accustomed to classic Metroid Prime controls. The controls do feel good, and the sport is an amusing, lightweight diversion. It's just, well... it's a sports mode in a strange new Metroid-branded game.
A Nintendo rep had asked that I play the game before talking to Tanabe to be better prepped for the interview. I did, but I still entered the interview flummoxed.
What follows is some of my discussion with Mr. Tanabe, to provide a sense not just of what Federation Force actually is but also to convey how Tanabe and Nintendo overall view the franchise and fan reactions.
The interview was conducted through a translator. Tanabe understood most of my questions without translation but asked for longer ones to be translated. He replied in Japanese, which was translated for me. This transcript starts a couple of minutes into our chat:
Totilo: What is Federation Force? From the trailer, it looks like a four-player co-op game with no Samus Aran. It doesn't sound like Metroid at all to me, so I'm very confused.
Tanabe: I'm sure once you play the actual game you'll be able to get a feel of it and a better understanding of what the game is. As you mentioned, when you experience Blast Ball, you can probably feel that the controls are exactly the same as the Metroid Prime series. And on top of the control scheme being the same as the Metroid Prime series, you can also tell that the whole environment is still in the Metroid Prime universe, including the background music as well.
Totilo: [pause] But it's not — again, I think you know what I mean — it doesn't seem like a Metroid game, right? You're not Samus Aran. You're not exploring. Can you tell me more about what Federation Force is?
Tanabe: Originally, since 10 years ago, I've been thinking about the concept for this game. Back then I was working on the three main Prime games...
Totilo: Right, with Retro.
Tanabe: So Metroid Prime Hunters [on DS] was one title that I wanted to shift the focus a little bit by introducing some new bounty hunters. One thing I wanted to do since back then was focusing on the galactic federation members, focusing on them and having a fight with the space pirates. It's sort of like a different perspective that I'm taking with this game to create sort of an opportunity to expand, to broaden the universe.
Totilo: Got it. Can you describe how it plays? Can you play in single-player, first of all? Is it something you can only play as four players?
Tanabe: You can certainly play single-player mode as well. But I'm sure it would be a lot more fun if you are playing as four players.
Totilo: It did remind me of Hunters, so that makes sense to me that it is a continuation of that. When people are playing, is it four against four? Or four against computer-controlled enemies?
Tanabe: To clarify, there's no four against four players. The three-against-three concept is in Blast Ball, but the co-op four player mode where you fight as a team against space pirates.
Totilo: That makes sense. And is it a big world you're exploring? Or is it separate missions? Again, because you don't have the game out here, I'm just trying to understand what it is.
Tanabe: First off, we have three major planets. There will be, roughly, 10 different missions on each planet. It will be a way for you to go between those three planets on and off going through an adventure.
Totilo: And is it more of an action game? If we think Metroid Prime, I think exploration. If I think Metroid Prime Hunters, I think more action, going around shooting.
Tanabe: In that way, I think it is closer to Hunters. There are obviously areas for you to look around and explore as well. Hunters focused more on the shooting portion. In this game you'll be able to have other types of things you can experience throughout the gameplay.
Totilo: OK. Are you scanning things? Is there that kind of part of Metroid Prime?
Tanabe: There's no scanning aspects in this game.
Totilo: Are there Metroids in the game?
Tanabe: Would you rather know that now?
Totilo: If you don't mind telling me, yeah. But if you don't want to say, you don't have to say.
Tanabe: [laughs] You will be able to see them. There's a certain mission.
Totilo: So I think the game is very interesting, but — and you may have already picked this up from some of the questions I'm asking you — but I'm hearing, just being honest, a lot of disappointment from people. They were waiting for a Metroid game for a long time and they thought they would get — and I thought this as well, because I like the Metroid games — that if we saw Metroid again, after a long absence, we would see a classic 2D Samus Aran exploration game or a classic 3D game with Samus exploring. And so there's disappointment that that isn't what this is. Are you surprised by that? Is anything like that also in development?
Tanabe: So I'd like to first clarify the difference between the 2D games and the Metroid Prime games. First off, I'm assuming you're familiar with Yoshio Sakamoto.
Tanabe: He is sort of the keeper of the Metroid series.
Totilo: Particularly of the 2D games.
Tanabe: Yes. For me, I'm more on the side of the Metroid Prime with the first-person view. To be honest, since Sakamoto is on the side of the 2D games, I can't speak for him at this time. I won't be able to tell you what's in his mind.
Tanabe: Based on the things I've been hearing, there are a lot of people talking about the Blast Ball being sort of a mini-game almost, a sports type of thing. But I do believe that once everyone gets a chance to play the actual main game, you will definitely be able to experience the universe that everyone is looking forward to. [Also,] in Metroid Prime, because you have the first-person view, people actually don't see Samus because they are being Samus themselves. So in that way you'll have the same standpoint. You're part of the galactic federation and seeing the world in the first-person. So in a way you get the same feeling.
Totilo: I see what you're saying. But, just to stay with this a little bit longer, I think for a lot of people, it feels as if, for example: Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Tezuka, they make Super Mario games and people are used to Super Mario games. And imagine if there wasn't a new Super Mario game for eight years or forever how long it's been. For the next Mario game to be, say, Mario Tennis, people would say: Aren't you still making the Mario side-scrollers? Aren't you still making the 3D Mario games? And that's what I'm hearing from a lot of my own readers today. They say: This is interesting, but where is our Metroid? Where is our Samus Aran adventure? And I think that they're worried that Nintendo isn't interested in making that. Do you have anything you can say to those people?
Tanabe: Personally, I don't feel like I am creating anything that is a side-story. Until now, we've never had a game focusing on the Federation Force fighting against the space pirates. So the main idea here is that I sort of wanted to change that focus a little bit and see it from a different view from the same universe. So as I briefly mentioned earlier, once you play the game you'll be able to feel that Metroid Prime universe. So it's kind of... at this point it's a little difficult I'm sure for both sides to get that idea...
Totilo: Right, exactly.
Tanabe: ...for players who haven't touched the game, it's really difficult to imagine that feeling you get when you touch the game. So it's a kind of an unfortunate situation at this time, but it's something I definitely look forward to having the users touch it and play and experience the awesomeness of it.
Totilo: Why didn't you bring some of that to E3? Was it just not ready yet?
Tanabe: It's not really because it's not ready at all. You'll be able to see a few portions of it during the Treehouse Live segment that we're going to have during the show.
Totilo: Oh, good.
Tanabe: So there are still some adjustments we have to make on the gameplay itself, so in that way we felt more comfortable in showing Blast Ball on the show floor for everyone to experience it and get the feel of it.
[Note: Nintendo is scheduled to show the game on their Treehouse Live E3 streaming show at 1pm PT, 4pm ET on Thursday.]
And now for the better news:
Tanabe and I kept talking. We talked about the timeline. The game takes place, as the other Primes did, between Metroid II and Super Metroid, in a sort of sideways expansion of the Prime trilogy's era.
We talked about Samus Aran and whether she's in Federation Force: "You'll be able to see her somewhere in the game."
When I asked him to share more info about the game, he started talking about role-playing game classes and how, in this game, he wants players to define their own roles. See, players in the main mode will be moving around in mechs that are outfitted before each mission. Players can choose to be more of a "healer" by equipping repair capsules. Others might arm their mech with super missiles. Power-ups have weight, so players will have to balance what they carry.
Most encouraging to me? The development team. While Retro Studios isn't involved in this one — and while Retro's game director on those projects isn't even at Retro anymore (he's now making a game for Xbox One with Mega Man lead creator Keiji Inafune) — Federation Force does appear to have a stellar team. The game is being developed with Next Level Games and overseen by Nintendo's Yoshihito Ikebata and Ryuichi Nakada. NLG last worked with Ikebata and Nakada on the extremely good 3DS game Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, which was also a mission-based game that had an optional multiplayer mode. Maybe, just maybe, this all makes more sense now, and with any luck, it will be at least half as superb as Dark Moon.
One more thing: Tanabe and I were briefly talking about the bounty hunter characters in Metroid Prime Hunters. "The bounty hunters in Metroid Prime Hunters were ... defeated," he said through his translator, who occasionally switched to referring to Tanabe in the third person, "but I think he left Sylux for something later on." It doesn't take a space detective to sort out that clue: Tanabe is thinking about that bounty hunter for a future Metroid-related project. A proper Metroid Prime could well be on the way (and if you think that's a stretch, read more of Tanabe's ruminations about a possible future Samus vs. Sylux Metroid Prime game over at Eurogamer.)