'Metroid Prime' Developers Reveal How They Pushed Wii Graphics And That Famous Controller

'We really had to prove the controller, and I think that's what this project became,' says game director Mark Pacini.

Nintendo's Wii is world famous for its quirky controller and games that send players swinging their arms dangerously close to living-room furniture. But late last month, Nintendo released "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption," the first in-house game made from the ground up that is designed for hard-core gamers. It's the first one not meant to threaten the furniture or get grandmas to play.

What was it like making such a game for the system? How did the "Prime 3" main creators — Retro Studios, which is owned by Nintendo and based in Austin, Texas — deal with an unconventional controller and a system not as graphically powerful as the machines that run most of this year's most-hyped games?

"Developing for the Wii made us adjust our way of thinking in terms of what the game was going to be," said Mark Pacini, game director of "Prime 3" and its immediate predecessor, "Metroid Prime 2: Echoes," on the GameCube. "We knew it was going to be a 'Metroid' game ... but most of all, beyond anything else, we really had to prove the controller, and I think that's what this project became."

The Wii didn't start with tailor-made, complex games. Yes, the system launched with one hard-core gamer's game, "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess." But that title was initially designed for the GameCube (a version was eventually released for the older system). Most other Nintendo-made games for the system made simpler demands of the player: a swing of the arm to hit a baseball in Wii Sports, a press of the D-pad and tap of two different buttons to control most of "Super Paper Mario" and so on. The "Prime" games were first-person-shooter or first-person-adventure titles (depending on who was asked) and used two control sticks and every button on the GameCube controllers. The Wii's remote and nunchuck, streamlined as they were, presented Pacini and his team with problems.

"When we went to Japan and first saw the controller for the first time I got really concerned because there weren't a lot of buttons," Pacini said. They would be able to map the player's movement to the control stick on the nunchuck device in the player's left hand. Pointing heroine Samus' gun would be accomplished by pointing the remote at the screen. There were enough buttons for jumping and a couple for shooting, but not as many as on a GameCube controller — or a 360 controller or a PS3 controller for that matter. "Luckily it just seemed to be a coincidence that in [planning for] 'Metroid Prime 3' we were already talking about a system where everything stacked: your beam, your missiles, the grapple beam — all the additional abilities you get for those weapons stack so you don't have to switch between beams, for instance. We definitely kept that in mind going forward because with limited buttons, we didn't want to make this game overly complicated."

Simplifying the weapon design of the series suited the Wii controller. That controller, however, compelled the Retro team to make other things more complex. "When we first started developing 'Metroid Prime 3,' we started getting a little cute with the controller ideas," Pacini said. They considered elaborate gestures that would trigger Samus' grappling hook. At one point they had the player rotating their left hand clockwise and counter-clockwise to either emit or siphon electricity from Samus' left hand. "That was one of those clever things that sounds good on paper but in practice wasn't so good." They simplified the gestures to pointing and some shakes of the nunchuck to toss and recoil the grapple beam.

One controller option they didn't consider was using the Wii Zapper, the upcoming peripheral announced in early summer that turns the system's controllers into a two-handed light gun (see "Nintendo At E3: Mad 'Mario' Titles On The Way; Wii Zapper Could Be A Future Shock"). "We actually found out about the Zapper the same time everyone else did," Pacini said. "We were a few months from completing the game, so it was never really considered."

If the Wii controller posed one formidable challenge, it's reasonable to assume that the system's graphical prowess, reputedly not far from the original Xbox's, would frustrate a Retro team known for pushing game visuals. "The Wii is a fairly decently powerful game system as far as polygons go," art director Todd Keller said, refraining from making any serious complaints. "We don't have a lot of depth with shader stuff, but we can make really good color palettes." Keller, who has been overseeing art in the "Prime" series, said the system can graphically surpass the achievements of "Prime 3," noting "you can definitely do more stuff that will be way beyond that." But he also shared a philosophy about game graphics that suggests there's plenty of ways to impress players' eyes that don't involve pushing tech. Instead, he talks about pushing talent to some interesting extremes.

"We'll do crazy stuff," Keller said. "You can ask any artist here what the first 'Prime' was about and they'll say cracks. All we did was put thousands of cracks everywhere. For some reason at the time I was real big into cracks and everything had to be beveled. Every crack was custom. There is not one crack that was copied around. I made them chop up everything. We chopped up every stone that was unique on the game. Every pebble." So what is "Prime 3" about? "Texture detail." Keller said that in the Wii game, every texture — the flat pieces of art that coat every side of every figure, object and piece of terrain in any 3-D game — was handmade, ideally at 512 pixels wide, double the resolution of textures in the two earlier "Prime" games.

Not only is he proud of the level of detail his art team achieved, but the amount of variety in the game. Consider the mushrooms that appear in the "Prime 3" jungle planet. "All those mushrooms in the Bryyo world — those big, spiky mushrooms — those aren't really copied around at all," Keller said. "They're kind of made new each time, just because we didn't want the mushrooms to be similar. We would take all the vertices and move them different places or extrude, pull out new polygons to make the mushrooms fit into the hill differently. When we get closer to [the toxic energy called] Phazon they are a little more corrupted."

What his team did for mushrooms they tried to do for everything in the game, from the enemies to the chambers on each of the game's planets. "Our focus is to make every room its own custom stage," Keller said. "We think it's up to us to present something that's very high-quality for the player to enjoy. We don't want to copy our own rooms or textures if we can. Because we want it to be new for you every time you walk in one of those doors."

"Prime 3" has been out for three weeks. It sold more than 200,000 copies in the U.S. in its first four days of release and has earned reviews close to those of the two earlier games in the series (though the first "Prime" is still the best-ranked on GameRankings.com).

Pacini, Keller and the rest of Retro are already focused on their next project, which is not another "Metroid Prime" game. What is it? They're coy. But some Retro fans have pondered the studio going casual and making the kinds of games Nintendo's Japan studios are emphasizing, the "Wii Sports" and "Wii Fit" of the world. Are those fans right? "One of the things we've always been told by Nintendo of Japan is they say they appreciate us as a studio because we make games they can't make," Pacini said. "Their specialty is in the casual market. Their specialty is in the platforming and more traditional games." But will Nintendo make Retro go that route too? "I'm really excited about what we're working on next," he said. "If people enjoy the kinds of games Retro makes, I don't think they're going to be disappointed about what we're doing."

And what of those first-person controls they just made for the Wii? "I honestly feel with 'Metroid Prime 3' we've at least set a platform where other people could take it from here," Pacini said. "It's very viable and it's fun to play. Hopefully all I can wish for is [that] people look at what we did and improve it."

Retro Studios shared a lot more "Metroid" and Wii talk with MTV News in a wide-ranging interview that also tackled the reasons for their game's unique online connectivity, the studio's sometimes controversial approaches to the first and final hours of the "Prime" titles, and the hint to a future "Metroid" game that some fans claim to have spotted in "Prime 3." The developers' thoughts on those topics and more will be published over the next several days in the MTV News Multiplayer blog.