Retro have been one of my favorite developers of all time because of their unique blend of East meets West. We\’ve seen many times Japanese developers try and take a page out of the Western \”Hollywood\” mentality but it’s less common these days to see a Western developer collaborate so highly with the crème de la crème of Japanese developers. The last time we saw that was probably when Silicon Knights worked with Nintendo on Eternal Darkness or throughout Rareware’s storied history with Nintendo on N64 and SNES. These days, the only chance you\’d really get of that wonderful blend of cultures and polished gameplay is with Retro Studios.
With Metroid Prime, Retro Studios was put on the map because they took a fairly common Western genre, the FPS, and fused it with Metroid/Zelda-like characteristics. The result was something magical, that remains my favorite video game of all time, to this day. So, it comes as no surprise that Retro Studios is one of the developers that interest me most in this day and age.
But it’s looking more and more like Retro Studios is an overseas branch of a Nintendo of Japan development studio. That’s not a terribly bad thing, of course. More Nintendo of Japan can never be classified as \”bad\”. The word I\’d use to describe it is indistinguishable. Retro Studios used to be the manifestation of a fantasy: what would a Nintendo of America game be like if NoA was just as skilled as NoJ? But as of now, Retro Studios is indistinguishable from Nintendo of Japan.
I\’ve tracked this metamorphosis over their flow of game projects since 2002. Metroid Prime was their first critically acclaimed hit. In the credits it lists a total of 60 Retro Studios employees who had worked on the game. In the credits, it also mentions the smaller Japanese contingent who made the game possible. It only lists a handful of NCL staff who played mostly authority/mentorship roles such as Supervisor, Coordination, and Co-producers. The game itself was mostly a North American game created by Retro, albeit with the guidance and mentorship of Nintendo of Japan.
Metroid Prime 2’s credits look almost identical to the original in terms of size and demographics. Nintendo of Japan played almost an identical role, although Michael Kelbaugh had now moved up to the senior position in the company.
With Metroid Prime 3: Corruption things were beginning to look really up. Retro Studios had grown considerably from their successes and now the credits listed 100 employees who worked at Retro on the game. Nintendo of Japan mostly stayed out of the way, Nintendo of America was only used for testing and marketing, and Nintendo of Europe was used for localizations.
Now here is the point in which things change. What everyone knows is that Retro started losing talent right about now. The talent loss continued to the point that by now, not a single senior designer from Metroid Prime OR Donkey Kong Country Returns still exists at the company. Most of the employees are new. Retro Studios is still a big company but they are very different.
But this talent loss is something we already know about. What I only just realized is a different turn of events involving Donkey Kong Country Returns. If you look at the credits to DKCR on Wii, it’s apparent that only 60 Retro Studios employees are actually accredited, whereas 38 Nintendo of Japan staff members also make it into the credits.
That means that Retro Studios had started becoming more of an outsourcing/collaboration studio for Nintendo of Japan rather than their own individuated entity.
LinkedIn tells us that the company still has registered 110+ employees to this day, so around 30-40 staff at Retro Studios must have been working on something else. We know that after Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Retro started taking on side-projects. First up was the Metroid Prime Trilogy. We can assume that while most of the company was working on Donkey Kong Country Returns, a smaller group was refining controls, graphics, and fine-tuning the difficulty for the Metroid Prime Trilogy. We also find that Retro Studios helped with Mario Kart 7. Looking at the credits for MK7 we see that approximately 30 Retro employees offered their services. They also had a small team helping with the recently released Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. This fits with the general new approach of having ~60 employees work with Japan on their main game, and ~30 employees assist NoJ with one of Nintendo’s projects.
What this tells me about current-day Retro Studios is that:
– the original talent who worked on Metroid Prime is mostly gone, as is the senior talent on Donkey Kong Country Returns,
– Nintendo isn\’t giving creative freedom to Retro as their own Western talent with guidance from the East, rather, it’s become an overseas proxy of Nintendo of Japan,
– the studio can be considered pretty young, and they are being newly trained in the Nintendo ways of doing things by-way of a 30-man injection from Nintendo of Japan (although they picked up some talented members recently from Vigil and Naughty Dog- so they\’re not entirely inexperienced),
– and the teams are smaller than what they used to be as a third of the members are usually siphoned away for a smaller project.
The bottom line is that we shouldn\’t expect Retro Studios to be the company that we once knew, making East-meets-West type of games, and that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a relatively safe and easy project that is meant to train in the new Retro Studios developers as they hopefully gear up for an even better Wii U project next time around.
Let me know what your thoughts are on the \”new\” Retro Studios in the comments below.
Credit goes to Emily Rogers for originally bringing to everyone’s attention how Retro Studios was bleeding away talent: