Remaking Metroid

James Parkinson
James Parkinson
Remaking Metroid

Milton Guasti had spent 10 years of his life recreating Metroid II, until Nintendo claimed copyright infringement, merely a day after its release. There was always a chance that the lawyers would come knocking, but what Milton didn’t expect was for his hobby project to become the game that an entire community was counting on.

 TRANSCRIPT

JAMES PARKINSON: When studios release a game that fails to live up to expectations, or when a long-awaited sequel never arrives, it sometimes inspires the fan community to create or recreate the game themselves. And there’s many examples of unauthorised fan-made games that draw from popular titles, like Goldeneye and Pokémon. The problem though, is when the lawyers come knocking.

MILTON GUASTI: I started getting notifications about the hosting files being not available anymore. So yeah, my first conclusion was that there must be a nice chunk of automated processes that might find something suspicious about these files, or someone might be reporting them. So maybe this is triggering false positives or some kind of process regarding copyright.

JAMES PARKINSON: This is Milton Guasti, and he’d been working on his own fan creation for ten years. But when he’d finally completed his game and released it online, he soon ran into trouble. Initially, he couldn’t work out how his game had been flagged, suspecting there must be some kind of automation involved. And then, an email arrives in his inbox from Nintendo.

MILTON GUASTI: And after some time, I did receive it on my email, a DMCA takedown, pretty much saying that I should not distribute or develop the game anymore.

JAMES PARKINSON: A DMCA takedown, that’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, was always a real possibility, and Milton certainly wasn’t the first creator to receive one for a fan-made video game. But he never expected his hobby project, a remake of Metroid II, would become the game that an entire community was counting on.

JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games, and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.

JAMES PARKINSON: Milton Guasti is from Argentina, and growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, getting ahold of the latest games and the big consoles was expensive. So Milton would often rent games or play at friends' places. Cheap imports and clones were also really common.

MILTON GUASTI: Lots of imports, lots of Japanese clone consoles. And so by the time the Mega Drive, and SNES became popular, yes, the imports from the US were a lot more common. And yes, you still get your fair share of clone cartridges. But yes, by that time, the early 90s, it was a lot easier to actually get games. But yes, it was whatever was more popular and cheap to actually get as an importer, back then.

JAMES PARKINSON: This meant Milton missed out on some pretty influential games, like the Metroid series, which was groundbreaking for its time.

MILTON GUASTI: The original Metroid, I didn't stumble upon that. All I was stumbling upon, you know, the bigger titles that you got to experience here was Super Mario 3, Battletoads. Maybe it was just my luck, but I never saw Metroid until pretty late. And I did discover it, just by trying out ROMs for emulation, you know?

JAMES PARKINSON: By the mid 90s, console emulators for PC’s were starting to appear, and people could discover or rediscover some of the most popular games from the early console era. The original Metroid debuted on the Famicom in 1986. But it was 1994’s Super Metroid that Milton discovered first at a friends house, which was kind of an odd introduction to the series, being its third instalment published for the Super NES.

MILTON GUASTI: And by this time, the SNES was pretty much in its final days. Super Metroid is not that kind of game that gives a very interesting first impression, if you are actually playing it at a friend's place. So I did try it out, I felt it was very floaty. And compared to other games in the same platform, the artwork was kind of repetitive, you know, the tiles were repeating very frequently, and it was not pleasant to see, you know. Plus the way the atmosphere that the game creates for the player. But on a first impression, trying to, you know, play it like if it was an action game like Contra or something like that, it wasn't, it didn't capture my attention that much. Eventually, I started hearing how legendary Super Metroid was, how well designed it is, how awesome of an experience it is. And I did give it a proper try with an emulator, and I did give it the time it deserved. And playing it from start to finish, giving it the time it deserves, and slowly getting acquainted with the controls, making mental notes of the places I already visited and the way I need to go next, that's the proper way of experiencing the game. And getting into that mindset and enjoying the game that way, yes, that was super eye-opening.

JAMES PARKINSON: Milton fell in love with the world Metroid and naturally went back to play those two previous titles as well. And like a lot of fans, he found that Metroid 2: Return of Samus didn’t reach the same benchmark. Unlike the first and third entries in the series, Metroid II was developed for the Game Boy, and simply couldn’t match the experience of its console counterparts. And it’s long been regarded as a misstep by the Metroid fanbase.

MILTON GUASTI: It was kind of like a black sheep. It's kinda difficult to live up to the excellence of Super Metroid. Even if most of the, you know, this legendary status of Super Metroid is a little bit exaggerated, it's a very good game. It's a tiny, little bit of a masterpiece. And having to live up to that is, yeah, it's kind of unfair. Metroid II was excellent for the time it was released on. It's a very nice portable game that you can pick up, and since the structure is fairly linear, with some branches that you can actually explore for side contents, it's fairly easy to memorise. The thing is, it had room for improvements.

JAMES PARKINSON: Metroid II wasn’t a terrible game but it fell short of what a lot of fans wanted out of a sequel. Part of the frustration was there were so few entries in the series, especially compared to other Nintendo franchises, like Mario and Zelda. There were seven years between the two home console releases of the original game and Super Metroid. So the monochrome Metroid II for the Game Boy was always seen as somewhat inferior, and multiple fans over the years have attempted to recreate it. By the time Milton had decided to work on his own version, he was following in their footsteps, calling it Project AM2R - Another Metroid 2 Remake.

JAMES PARKINSON: Recreating a classic Nintendo game from scratch is a challenge in itself, and Milton wasn’t a programmer. He was teaching himself and learning as he went, using a program called GameMaker.

MILTON GUASTI: GameMaker is very easy to learn. There’s a very user-friendly, drag-and-drop interface that lets you implement game logic very intuitively. And by using that I made a couple of small prototypes. I made a brand new, entire game from scratch through the course of a couple of months. And yeah, the thing is, I slowly started transitioning from the drag-and-drop interface into code, because some things were beyond the limitations of the system. And eventually, I wanted to do something a little bit more ambitious. I figured out that by taking something that was already designed, I would actually focus myself on implementing that directly and learning the rest of the tools I need to actually make a proper game.

JAMES PARKINSON: Milton started the project around 2005. At first, he thought he’d complete it within a few months, but the more he worked on it and the more he learned about game development, the more involved it became.

MILTON GUASTI: I wasn't taking it that seriously because at that time, I wasn't very aware of how deep the design elements of Metroid were. For me back then, it was just a random action game, and yeah, the atmosphere is a little bit depressing, but that's it. And it didn't feel - I wasn't aware of all the nuances, all the masterfully crafted levels that guide the players without them realising. And being able to actually experience the Metroid games, from the perspective of a game developer, and not just a casual player, is a very different way of playing, you know. It’s like being a music producer or a musician and suddenly, you perceive music in a different way, you see what makes it work. So having to put myself in the shoes of a game producer, it made me appreciate the overall Metroid saga a lot more. So when I did play, eventually, Super Metroid, and Zero Mission and Fusion, with that kind of perception, then I started to realise, this is not as simple as it looks.

JAMES PARKINSON: Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission were published for the Game Boy Advance in 2002 and 2004, respectfully, and gave Milton a good idea for what an updated Metroid II should look and play like.

MILTON GUASTI: Luckily, the level design quality of most of the games in the series is excellent. It's a very good reference point for learning how to level design. And, yeah, I just picked it apart and to see how it worked, starting from the basic mechanic and trying to replicate that. And yeah, trying to make it environments that, more or less, have the same function as the original games.

JAMES PARKINSON: Despite the complexity of the project, Milton was able to fit it in around his life. He ran his own business as an audio engineer by day, so he’d work on the game on the side and in between jobs.

MILTON GUASTI: The thing is, I did manage that, on my free time. Back then I was working at my recording studio with a partner, and any time that there were no customers, I opened up GameMaker and I started doing whatever task I was doing the last time. And I used a pre-made platforming engine that a very skilled programmer has already done, and trying to figure out how that works and how to extend that, so I can actually add Metroid related abilities to the engine, that was a pretty huge challenge. That process served to see how a proper programmer tackles specific problems. So whatever I would need to implement for myself, I could use that as a reference on how real programmers solve that kind of situation. So yes, lots of trial and error, observation, trying to replicate the original games as closely as possible. I used to record footage from Zero Mission and Fusion using emulators and screenshot every frame of specific actions, just to see how many frames they would advance in every interval, and try to replicate that in the engine. So yes, emulation and these kind of tools were super, super useful in figuring out why the games by Nintendo do feel like that, how they do respond to the user input, and how the protagonist and all the objects in this gameplay elements are actually interacting with themselves and the physics and all of that. It was a very meticulous process, but I did have a lot of fun doing that.

JAMES PARKINSON: Then, some big life changes meant Milton had to stop working on AM2R for about 9 months. His business partner went through a divorce, leaving Milton to run the recording studio on his own, before he could no longer sustain it and had to close it down. So he moved on, dedicating all of his time to starting a brand new studio, which included months of renovations.

JAMES PARKINSON: Eventually, Milton returned to the game, deciding to go public and announcing AM2R on his blog. On January 3rd, 2008, he posted the first entry, quote: This is a project I've been working on for over two years, and now I feel it can be finished”. Even at that point though, the game was far from done. But Milton was able to begin releasing demos.

MILTON GUASTI: At first it was this feeling of excitement, I can't wait to share this with people. Suddenly, it became horrifying because of course, stuff broke at the last minute. And as soon as I uploaded it, someone finds a game-breaking bug and they cannot go past the title screen. So I need to recompile everything and find the bug, reproduce it, fix it, patch it, compile it again, save it and redistribute it on all the platforms, again, to actually try to, you know, have that bug to affect as few people as possible. Then redeploy it and make a new blog post saying, “yo guys, sorry, this was broken, try this instead”. That kind of thing is, yeah, it was. It certainly was a teaching moment that encouraged me to play test a lot more.

JAMES PARKINSON: The response from the Metroid fan community was overwhelmingly positive, with feedback and suggestions for improvements.

MILTON GUASTI: The Metroid community, it’s made of very, very passionate people. And sometimes they are very vocal on the stuff that they don't like about the series. I had to be pretty careful about choosing the kind of feedback to follow. And having people recognise the suggestions show up in the newer demos, that's super amazing. It's very, very fulfilling.

MILTON GUASTI: People have been always super nice. Whenever I did have trouble having any tangible progress to share with the community, they were super understanding. It was - I was super afraid to actually post whenever I wasn't able to make good progress in an entire month. And posting that there was no progress, and seeing all the comments just, you know, supporting these and understanding that life is a thing, yeah, it's super, super awesome. Getting feedback on demos that they did release through the time, and seeing how enthusiastic and excited some people are regarding the game. And looking forward to play it, giving feedback, suggestions, comments, that's super awesome. It's very motivating. And part of me didn’t want to disappoint those people. And yeah, it was nice to, you know, have some recognition of all the hard work that was put into the project.

JAMES PARKINSON: Some fans even offered to help Milton with various aspects of the game, like artwork, volunteering their time and skills to make AM2R as polished as possible.

MILTON GUASTI: I didn’t scout for anything, I didn't go out of my way to look for artists or whatever, I didn't post in any forums that I was looking for sprite artists or whatever. People just showed up, they showed me some piece of artwork that they worked on. And from then on, I did my best to describe what my vision was, provide some examples of sprite work that show them the style that I was aiming for. And, yeah, for the most part, most of the artists were able to actually fit into that particular art style. For this kind of project, it was just the free time of a couple of individuals. Once I did the nice description of the technical specifications, the art style, and some examples, I could just give that to other artists to serve as a reference, along with the stuff that was already being produced for the game. So every time I'd have more material to showcase and try to convey what the vision was, and it became a bit easier every time. But again, this took place in a span of years.

JAMES PARKINSON: As development slowly progressed, more life changes for Milton stretched the timeline further, as he transitioned away from the recording studio and into a more stable day job.

MILTON GUASTI: Eventually, I had to close down that studio again, after a couple more years. I had to transition into a normal office job.

MILTON GUASTI: By the final days of my latest recording studio, I pretty much found out that I was going to be a father. And suddenly my perspective for the future shifted a little bit. Suddenly I couldn't have these unpredictable work seasons. So yes, a very good friend of mine helped me out getting a job on his programming team. And I was able to transition pretty easily, from what I had learned so far about the GameMaker language into C#, the syntax is pretty much the same. There were a couple of things that were a little bit more strict about the language itself. But yes, I was actually able to work in parallel for about a year, in both the recording studio, the day job and also a little bit of AM2R, before I totally collapsed every night, pretty much. So it was a pretty intense year. Day job, then go into the recording studio, from 6pm to midnight, going to my home, trying to be a father figure for a couple of minutes. Try to get some work done on AM2R, and then repeat that the next day.

JAMES PARKINSON: With all the ups and downs and setbacks over the years, Milton could have abandoned the project many times. But it was the community support and their desire to see the game completed that kept him going. And that strong relationship with Metroid fans would pay off as AM2R neared completion. That’s coming up, after the break.

[AD BREAK]

JAMES PARKINSON: After years of working away on Another Metroid 2 Remake, bit by bit, Milton Guasti was almost done with the project. Almost.

MILTON GUASTI: The closer you are to completion, the more complicated it gets to actually polish it and make it look and feel good. It's so weird. The last year of production, it was focused on a couple of areas and the final boss and that's it. But getting into that level of polish and figuring out how to put it all together and getting rid of all the bugs, that was super, super tedious. The last 10%, it's super, super, super tedious to on. You see the end goal is so close and yet so far. Sometimes it’s kind of demotivating. But then again, you turn to the community and all the support and yeah, it's super, super encouraging. And the thing is, I was very aware of every demo release I did, that it was going to be revealing a chunk of the game that people haven't seen or heard of yet, so every release that I did on the blog, it was like a little bit of a surprise for every every fan.

JAMES PARKINSON: The AM2R blog is like this time capsule that documents the development process step by step, as Milton updates Metroid fans on the game’s progress over months and years. And reading through it with hindsight is an interesting journey. There’s several posts in 2008 where Milton says he hopes the game will be finished by the end of that year. Little did he know that he’d still be working on it eight years later.

JAMES PARKINSON: But on the 6th of July 2016, Milton published a blog post with the heading “The last stretch”. It included a countdown timer with the target date of August 6 - the 30th anniversary of the original Metroid - and it simply read, “I know we’ll make it in time. See you then”. In the meantime, Milton had been approached by the fan site Metroid Database. Like so many fans, they’d been following AM2R’s progress for years, and offered to host the game on their server.

MILTON GUASTI: The people of Metroid Database are super, super chill, super awesome. Got an email, “Yo, want me to host the file for you?”, “Okay.” And was it. It was very straightforward. Very awesome people. They did curse at me a little bit, because of the insane amount of traffic that the game suddenly brought to their servers, from one moment to the other. But yeah, they are super, super awesome. They are very important for the entire community.

JAMES PARKINSON: After a decade of development, AM2R was finally released on the 6th of August 2016. The launch was covered in outlets like Kotaku and the Metroid fan community were rewarded for their patience. But the following day, Metroid Database received an email from their web host, requesting the game file to be taken down, saying they were issued DMCA notice from a law firm representing Nintendo.

JAMES PARKINSON: Metroid Database immediately removed the files, and on August 9, Milton posted to the blog addressing the takedown. He urged fans not to be angry at Nintendo for just protecting their IP, and that he’d continue to work on updates to the game. Obviously the news was disappointing, but overall, Milton was content, writing, quote: “...for a brief time, players enjoyed the game they were expecting for a long time. Artistically speaking, I'm satisfied.”

MILTON GUASTI: At first it was excitement, you know? Getting to actually see people playing this. I did enjoy it a lot, seeing people stream the game for the first time, being surprised by the jump scares, facing the bosses. It was really, really awesome. To see, you know, the joy, the reactions, to see that they did put the same amount of care and passion and investment that they did put in the official games in the franchise, when they actually play. It was really awesome.

JAMES PARKINSON: After the Metroid Database takedown, there was still some hope for fans that Milton would continue to iron out bugs and somehow provide those updates to players. But the final blow eventually came when Milton received the DMCA notice in his personal email. All remaining files hosted through his site had to be taken offline and he was forced to stop working on the game entirely. On September 2nd, he posted the bad news on his blog, under the heading “No future for AM2R”, and thanked his fans for their support.

MILTON GUASTI: And, yeah, that was the end of that phase. At that particular moment, it was a mixture of sadness, and disappointment, you know, not being able to finish all the things that they wanted to add to the game. But also a little bit of relief. At some point, I was kind of burnt out on the project, and suddenly being forced to move on, it was something that was - it felt like an incomplete chapter, like I didn't have the closure I wanted. But then again, life sometimes finds a way to actually push you into a direction, where eventually good things are going to happen, even if you don't see them immediately.

JAMES PARKINSON: And good things were about to happen to Milton. Following the end of AM2R, he’d committed to learning programs like Unity and was exploring ways he could create his own original Metroidvania style game. Then one day, an email appeared in his inbox. It was from Moon Studios, creators of Ori and the Blind Forest, and they were in the middle of developing its sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps. They were in need of a level designer and invited Milton to apply for the position. As part of the process, he’d have to design a level for Ori.

MILTON GUASTI: Certainly, it was something that I was not expecting at all. So I did have a couple of weeks to come up with a level. I will have to explain how the level would work. And I would need to introduce a mechanic from Blind Forest and yeah, try to teach it to the player through level design. The Ori level design philosophy is pretty different to Metroid. Mostly because there’s a lot of organic shapes going on. And when I did replay the game, to actually get a feel of what the space is like, how the character moves, how high he can jump, how far he can jump, what's the distance that can be covered with the double jump and other abilities. While trying to analyse all of that, yes, it felt very, very different. But again, the same core principles do apply anyway. We do have the same tools to show the player and try to make things memorable and try to nudge them to do certain things, hopefully making them learn a thing or two along the way. So yes, luckily it was very well received. And yeah, that pretty much got me a job.

JAMES PARKINSON: 12 months after he’d declared the end of AM2R, Milton posted to the blog, announcing his new position as a level designer at Moon Studios.

James Parkinson: Was that an easy decision for you to join Moon Studios and, and to like, say, Okay, now I'm actually going to work in this industry?

MILTON GUASTI: At that time, it felt like a gamble. And I'm not a gambling man. So I had to meditate a lot, I had to put all the pros and cons on the table. And at some point, you know, the people around me, my loved ones, they were very supportive. And after all, this is a passion that I want to chase. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I suddenly find myself working along some very crazy, talented people.

JAMES PARKINSON: As Milton was entering the video game industry and working on one of the most acclaimed indie series, Nintendo eventually released the official remake of Metroid II for 3DS on September 15, 2017 - Metroid: Samus Returns. Milton’s last update on the AM2R blog came a couple weeks later, sharing his thoughts on Nintendo’s version of the game that he’d spent a decade of his life replicating. While Nintendo’s vision was different to his own, Milton could appreciate the incredible work that had gone into recreating a classic.

James Parkinson: As you reflect on this incredible journey that you've been on, you know, starting a project just out of a passion, now leading to working in the industry, what does that mean to you?

MILTON GUASTI: If you asked me the same question three years ago, when I started that most studios, I would say that these was fulfilling my dream when I was being just a toddler, holding an Atari cartridge and saying, “someday, I would like to do my video video game”. And that sounds like a, like the ending of a story, like a closure of some long lasting dream. If you ask that same question right now, that point was pretty much the beginning of a new chapter in my life. And the uncertainty that comes forward with the endless possibilities that this industry can lead to, is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time, and I'm really enjoying the ride.

JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Milton Guasti for sharing his incredible story. This episode was inspired by articles from David Craddock and Patrick Klepeck on Vice.com. There’s a link to those in the episode description and on our website. The song you're hearing right now is a bonus track from the AM2R soundtrack - yes, there’s a complete soundtrack for the game, 41 songs composed by Milton Guasti. We have a link to download that as well.

CREDITS

JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Breakmaster Cylinder.

JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter and Facebook at gameplaypodcast. We’re also on YouTube, and come and join our Discord where you can talk games with me and your fellow listeners. You’ll find those links, plus episode transcripts and further reading on our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.


AM2R Fan Trailer (2013)

References:

Better Than Black and White: One Man’s Decade-Long Quest to Remake 'Metroid II'

How a Metroid Fan Turned a Threatening Legal Letter into a Job Making Games

AM2R Blog

Download the AM2R Soundtrack

Brilliant Fan Remake Of Metroid II Arrives Just In Time

Metroid Database



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