The following guest feature was written by video game contract animator Sonny Santa Maria in his own words about his experience with Metroid, Retro Studios and beyond. We would like to thank Sonny for taking the time to share his memories with us!
METROID PRIME CORRUPTION:
Metroid Prime was my first.
My first taste of true AAA. My first time to experience greatness. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about the IP at that time except for some screenshots from the older games. I didn’t even play the previous versions from the classic era. It was only when I got the chance to work on the project that I was exposed to the world of Metroid and its mysterious yet fascinating protagonist a.k.a Samus.
It all started when I got an email from a buddy of mine, Vince Joly, whom I used to work with at another company. He asked me if I was interested in working on a project that had a lot of cool characters ranging from creatures to robots and this heroine with this ultra-cool space suit. Immediately, I was intrigued. While I wasn’t really serious about changing jobs, let alone moving to a new location, something inside urged me to at least check it out. If things didn’t line up with my expectations, at least I’d get to reconnect with my buddy and see Austin, Texas, where the studio was located.
As I entered the lobby of the studio, a familiar statue caught my attention. There she was: Samus, in her space suit. Simply awesome! As I walked through the hallways, I couldn’t help but secretly stare at the drawings on the walls when I passed by each room. They were out of this world and simply extraordinary. I tried to contain my excitement, hoping not to embarrass myself during the initial interview. It was too late. The inner geek in me was already giddy.
Then, my buddy Vince finally met me. I’m not sure if it was some kind of strategy, but the first thing he showed were some of the characters I could potentially be animating. They were super cool. Perhaps he knew me so well he was aware I would drop anything just for the chance to animate awesome characters. That’s how much I love animation. As we looked at the characters one by one, my imagination was already running wild on how these characters would move and behave. By the time they showed me the game, I was already sold (at least in my mind). Then, before I left, as if the things I’d seen so far weren’t enough, they told me it was going to be for a new platform that Nintendo was developing (at the time, it was called “Revolution”).
How awesome is that? On my flight back to California, I was already thinking of what reasons to give my wife.
After a long discussion with my wife, Techie, I finally convinced her that taking the job would be beneficial to my career and things would be OK. Of course, deep inside I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. All I knew was it was a chance to be part of something big.
Sure enough, on my first day at the studio, there was no shortage of great things. It was my first time attending a team meeting that was held at their own theatre – yes, inside their studio (nowadays, this may be common to some). And as if that wasn’t enough to make me feel good about being there, that feeling was easily overtaken when they walked me to my own closed-door room. Considering I was just a regular animator, this was a huge deal. I knew right there and then that bigger things were yet to come.
For people outside the industry, the name may not ring a bell. But to this date, every time I say that I got to work for the Big “N” through Retro Studios (which is owned by Nintendo), it never fails to solicit a big “WOW.” I have to say that being at Retro allowed me to grow by leaps and bounds as an artist. The opportunity to work alongside some of the most brilliant people in the industry is the best teacher one could have. There, I was exposed to some of the best practices in the industry. Every department in the pipeline worked together to make sure everything felt like it belonged in the world of Metroid. Everyone in the studio was pushing for the highest levels of achievement.
Even with the hardware limitations of the Wii, the art team was able to produce some of the coolest visuals for the system. While the rest of the consoles were busy fighting the “Hyper-Realism” battle, I believe that it was Metroid’s Superb Art Direction that made it stand out. It was also at Retro that I learned to think outside the scope of animation and incorporate more game mechanics in my approach to animating. With the Wii introducing the motion-controlled gaming system, it opened up a different way of presenting a character’s movement.
A good example is the grappling hook, which worked perfectly with the Wii’s Nunchuk controllers. Another thing I learned (at that time) was injecting personality and a little bit of intelligence into the character that was being hit during their reaction. Making a character react not just on the specific area they were hit but also from the direction that the shot came from was something new to me then. It was also on this project that I learned how to do animation for scripted events. The Ghor vs. Berserker Knight fight sequence in the hallway was fun to work on.
Nowadays, these things are no longer new, but depending on how it’s done, it can still amuse any given audience. One thing I developed while I was at Retro was the attention to great execution. Nowadays, a bunch of games can have similar mechanics, but the thing that separates the great ones is the execution. I feel so fortunate to have been given that opportunity to work with some of the best people in the industry. It was a great time and they still remain as one of the BEST teams I’ve ever been a part of.
I have to say that having both Metroid Prime and Retro Studios in my resume completely changed my career and my life. Suddenly, I found myself being invited to join other teams in the industry (something that never happened before). Most importantly, I probably wouldn’t have made it to Sony if it wasn’t for this. I’d like to believe that it was Metroid (among other things) that got the attention of my next team: the God of War Team at Sony. Metroid Prime is special to me. The characters I animated; the people I worked with; even the place where it all happened − it will always have a special place in my heart. It may seem so long ago now, but I still get asked about that experience.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with an illness that would require me to be in a hospital for a long while. It was during this time that I found the urge to do a little tribute piece to this beloved franchise to keep myself busy. I’m glad I did. Working on this little project prevented me from giving in to depression and gave me something to be excited about. It brought back a lot of good memories. Most importantly, it gave me an escape. And quite fittingly (and I swear I wasn’t even aware of this), it was the year Metroid turned 30. And for the Metroid fans who haven’t even seen it, I’m more than happy to share this link. Hope you’ll find as much joy watching it as I did while I was making it.
-sonny santa maria