We are honored to interview Clark Wen, former Audio Lead on Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Clark gives us a rare insight into his work managing the audio for both games, working closely with the talented team at Retro Studios including composer Kenji Yamamoto and Shigeru Miyamoto, along with other great contractors who supported the game.
Sure, no problem! My name’s Clark Wen and I’m a sound designer in the video game industry. I’m fortunate enough to have been the audio lead on the first two games in the Metroid Prime series.
As the audio lead at Retro Studios, I was essentially in charge of managing all things related to sound and music on those first two games. I was the only full-time audio person at Retro during most of my tenure so anything audio-related basically fell on my shoulders.
I directed the overall vision of what the games should sound like and also developed the tech that made up our sound engine. I created a large amount of the sounds that you hear in the games. I also managed a group of fantastic contractors (Frank Bry, Crispin Hands, Kristoffer Larson, Ken Kurita-Ditz, Matt Piersall, Todd Simmons plus Bryan Watkins’ group at Danetracks) that helped as well in providing and implementing content.
Well, I’ve always been a huge Metroid fan so the day that Nintendo announced Prime at SpaceWorld, I remember jumping out of my seat I was so excited! My co-workers must have thought I was on drugs or something. When I heard that Retro Studios was hiring, it seemed like an incredible opportunity although to be honest, I did have my doubts as there was a lot of negative press surrounding Retro at the time. It would also have meant uprooting my life in the Bay Area and moving to Austin.
What sealed the deal for me though was meeting the team there. Retro did a fantastic job of putting together a group of incredibly talented artists, designers, and programmers. Even though I’ve worked since then on big IPs like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, to this day I still consider the Prime team to be one of the best teams that I’ve ever worked with.
I think it also goes without saying that being able to work with a luminary like Miyamoto-san was a huge draw in itself!
I’m incredibly humbled by all the accolades that the game has received. As a Metroid fan, it was paramount to me to stay true to the direction of the original games while also updating and modernizing the sound of the series. That people responded to the game the way that they did was incredibly rewarding. The whole team worked tremendously hard to make the best game that we could. It wasn’t until that first IGN review hit though that we realized that maybe we had created something special. That people still talk about Prime today blows my mind.
I think it’s a great idea! However, Tommy Tallarico was no longer involved with the project when I started so I can’t really speak to how this approach worked for the team. When I started, only the power and combo beams were in the game. I thought they sounded pretty good so I more or less left them as is. For the rest of Samus’ weapons in Prime, I approached them in a more traditional manner: visuals first, audio second. Once I did my audio pass, the artists would go back and refine the visuals based on my sounds and then I would go back and do some more refinements on my end. We’d do this for several iterations until firing the weapons felt just right.
Yeah, the team was pretty happy with how the weapons turned out on Prime so we continued with the same visuals-first approach. I got a lot of inspiration from the amazing artists at Retro so I was totally fine with this!
Super Metroid is one of my favorite games of all time so Yamamoto-san is someone that I always really looked up to. When it was decided that he would be doing the music on Prime, the team was super excited. What better way to connect the series to the past than by having one of the original composers involved? For a person of his stature though he was always very humble and never came across as this big shot composer.
However, Yamamoto-san could be demanding at times and he really pushed me to do my best work! I remember one time it was the night that we were going gold. It was the last day to make any more changes to Prime before the disc went off to manufacturing. My work was done at this point so I wasn’t expecting much other than to play the game looking for bugs when I got a phone call around 9pm from Yamamoto-san. ‘Could you make some last-minute changes for me?’ his translator asked me. I couldn’t say no of course as I wanted him to be happy so I spent all night making those changes for him. I didn’t get done until 1am! It was worth it though. His attention to detail was pretty extraordinary and really pushed me to make the best game possible.
No, fortunately the changes weren’t anything too crazy. There were just a lot of them! I think it shows just how much Yamamoto-san cared about the game that we were tweaking and polishing things until the 11th hour. They were primarily scripting changes with the music. Delaying a music cue by one second here, stopping a music cue a few seconds later there, volume changes, things of that nature. We spent a lot of time on music scripting throughout the project as Yamamoto-san was a real perfectionist in getting the music to feel just right.
Even though Yamamoto-san and I had numerous conversations during the development of Prime and Echoes, because of everyone’s busy schedules we never actually had the chance to meet in person when I was at Retro, believe it or not. It wasn’t until after I had left and was living in Japan a few months later that we finally got a chance to meet. After working together with someone that intensely, it was very cathartic, like a dream come true for both of us. Yamamoto-san is quite the guitarist so we spent a lot of time talking about guitars and music. He’s also from a town that’s known as the birthplace of ninjutsu in Japan so he loves his ninjas! That I got to hang out with Hamano-san as well was just icing on the cake. I’ve always been a big fan of her work and was struck by how sweet and down to earth she was. Considering their stature in the industry, they are two of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
I should clarify that this was never an official direction from the team. What ended up happening was that it took us a very long time to decide on a composer for Prime. We had talked to numerous people but nothing really stuck. Yamamoto-san himself didn’t step up until later in the project. Therefore, for a large part of our development cycle, we didn’t have any music at all as we were creating the levels. It sounds crazy but I wasn’t sure what we were going to do musically so I just assumed worst case scenario that we’d have little to no music in the levels. I designed the ambiences accordingly to stand on their own in creating a mood and atmosphere.
Thankfully, we ended up with an excellent score from Yamamoto-san but if you turn down the music and play the game, you can still get a sense of the atmosphere I was trying to create, especially in the earlier levels like the Chozo Ruins. However, the game really should be played with the musical score as intended.
No, after Prime and Echoes, I was a little burned out on living in Austin so I ended up hiring Scott as my replacement while we were finishing up Echoes. Scott’s contributions were invaluable so it was great to see him take the ball on Corruption and run with it. I think he did a fantastic job of building upon what I had started earlier and adding his own stamp to the series.
I think the beauty of the themes in Metroid is that they are timeless and sound good no matter what kind of instrument you use. That being said, for me personally the original Metroid score from Hip Tanaka with its abstract, synth-based approach is my favorite of all the incarnations over the years. If you think of that soundtrack in a historical context, it was the first game to get away from your typical melodic theme-based score like Mario or Zelda and delved into something more experimental and atonal, almost like serialism applied in a gaming context. There was nothing like that in games at the time.
Applying that concept in a modern context, I would love to see someone bring back more of those experimental flourishes in an updated Metroid score. I’d love to hear something like generative modular sequences and experimental electronic timbres combined with aleatoric orchestral techniques, but done with just enough melody to keep from scaring the kids out there. 🙂
Although I like both, I’m most proud of the first Prime game for sure. I really, really wanted for the game’s audio to live up to previous incarnations of the series so I spent a lot of time thinking about how to stay true to Metroid while also making sure that everything worked in a modern sense. This only came about after a lot of experimentation and trial and error. That the game was as well received as it was was a bit of a surprise to all of us which only made it all the more special.
Echoes was more of a refinement of the original ideas from Prime with more of an influence from what was going on in Hollywood at that time. As much as I enjoy that title, Prime will always be like my firstborn to me.
If I could do anything differently, I wish that we had some of the technical advancements in Prime that we had in Echoes, particularly scene-based loading. What this meant is that all of the sounds in Prime had to be loaded at the start of a level rather than piecemeal like in Echoes. Samus’ sounds, the level sounds, ambiences, all of the creatures in a level, bosses, etc. had to fit in just 6MB of memory. Getting everything to fit was a real challenge and led to a lot of harried late-night visits to Mark Pacini’s office when the designers would decide to throw in a new creature in a level. If we didn’t have those restrictions we could have had a lot more freedom to be creative.
The team really wanted to play up the differences between the light and dark themed worlds so to that end I tried to give the light themed elements more of a softer, angelic feeling while the dark themed elements had more of a corrupted, diseased feel to them. It was a difficult challenge in that we needed to create two different versions of each sound. To further accentuate the dark world, we also used a subtle real-time DSP filter so that when the player was in a safe zone, they would feel an audible difference between that and the rest of the dark world. Design was really keen to try and play up those differences with the audio.
The sounds of the Luminoth were actually performed by an actor but then heavily processed. These were sounds that the EAD division at Nintendo had commissioned and sent to me to put into the game. Nintendo has always been very specific about the use of voices in their games so this was one area of the Prime series where I was happy to let them take the reins.
The genesis of the sounds for Dark Samus came about actually in the 100% completion ending for Prime. We were fairly late in the development cycle but I really wanted to have some kind of voice for Dark Samus. It would have felt anticlimactic without it. However, it was too late for Nintendo to record any new VO so I thought to myself what can I use that we already have? I happened to have some unused voice recordings for Samus and thought it might be cool to derive Dark Samus’ voice from Samus herself, like a dualistic yin and yang approach. I played around with some effects processing and Nintendo liked it so that’s what we went with. The similarity was very much intentional.
For Echoes, I had more time to experiment with different approaches. I tried things like processed male voices, sounds derived from animals, etc. but kept coming back to the original that I had created. Even though it was created as this spur of the moment thing, there was something about it that just resonated with the team. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.
There was a pretty brutal crunch at the end of Prime. I was coming into work around 9 in the morning and usually wouldn’t go home until around midnight. I did this six or seven day a week for months on end. It was probably the hardest I ever worked and was certainly difficult for my social life! However, I think there’s something to be said when you’re basically living and breathing in a creative headspace where you develop a laser-like focus. Your attention to detail and capacity to generate new ideas becomes almost superhuman in a way. Now I’m not advocating for crunch as I think project management can help to minimize those pain points, but I think it speaks volumes to how motivated the team was in creating the best game that we could by working incredibly hard.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted the soundscape in Prime to be a progression of the original series. I spent a lot of time analyzing the sounds in Metroid and Super Metroid and tried to create modernized versions of those sounds with the latest tools and techniques.
In the case of the previous games, the majority of their sounds were synthesized and I carried this approach over into Prime. At that time in game development, a more realistic Hollywood-style sound was coming into vogue so I went in the other direction by focusing on synthesizing sounds when I could, almost as a love letter to old-school video game sounds that were beginning to lose favor. So things like where Samus jumps into the air and spins in the opening cinematic to Prime, that was all synthesized. A more traditional Hollywood approach would have been to create those whooshes using foley props but I think that would have been boring in a Metroid game.
Atmospheric elements in the world like ambient sfx were either synthesized or heavily processed versions of things like animal roars and guttural noises made to sound synthetic. For example, one of the first ambiences you hear in the Chozo Ruins was the sound of a lion slowed down by 400% and then further processed with plug-ins like Pluggo to sound distant and otherworldly. It was what I liked to refer to as a “synthetic reality” and was something I worked hard towards in giving the environments a unique atmosphere that felt true to Metroid.
I knew I was headed down the right path when we were working on the Intro level and got some initial comments from Miyamoto-san. I had put in this slow pulsating sound for the very beginning to help set the mood and at the very top of his e-mail was how much he liked the sound at the beginning of the level! It was like being blessed by the Pope and I knew at that point that we were going to be okay.
For me, the transition sounds into and out of the morph ball in Prime are probably my favorite as there was no sound for that in any of the previous games. It was a huge challenge to create for something that’s so iconic. I went through over a dozen revisions of those sounds. The earlier versions were more mechanical in nature and not very satisfying. After several iterations that went nowhere, I thought to myself “What if Samus’ transformation was driven by electric magnets?” That’s when I created the sound that you hear now. It’s a mix of synths and heavily processed recordings made to sound synthetic through plugins like Enigma and GRM Tools. The entire process took months of iteration until it finally felt right.
I also very much like the sound of the X-Ray Visor. Since the visors were a new addition to the series, this was another example of having to create something that fit the Metroid universe aesthetically from scratch. The X-Ray visor was the first visor that went in the game. Oddly enough, the sound for it came relatively quickly and easily. It’s the sound of some synthetic textures that I created in a program called MetaSynth which I then ran through a resonant filter on an Access Virus. Five minutes after I checked the sound into the game, my phone started to ring and it was one of the lead designers, Mike Wikan, telling me how much he loved the sound. I knew then I was onto something and used a similar approach for the other visors.
We had talked about it on Prime actually and even did some tests but we all felt like it wasn’t really suitable for that game. I can totally understand for Other M why the designers wanted Samus to speak, however. From a storytelling aspect, it’s very difficult to do any sort of character building if your main protagonist doesn’t ever say anything. That being said, I like the Samus who doesn’t need to say a whole lot. That’s the character that I grew up with. With games being more story-driven these days though I suppose change is inevitable.
That voiceover came about as a request from EAD. They managed all the casting and recording for the VO in the game and came to me asking one day if I could implement the voiceover for the intro as a test. I was asked to take it out soon afterwards though as I don’t think they really liked it.
This was another case of EAD wanting to experiment with the use of voiceover in the game. As I was happy to let them manage the VO, it’s the only part of the audio in Prime that I didn’t oversee. Unfortunately, I can’t speak as to why it ended up in the PAL version or who the actor was that provided the narration. We never discussed this during the development of the US version so I can only guess that someone at EAD came up with the idea after that version was completed.
Like the other voices in the game, the Samus recordings were all handled by Nintendo. What I can tell you though is that one day I received a delivery from EAD of a dozen different voice actors they had recorded. I remember one of the actresses being Gabrielle Carteris, the nerdy girl from Beverly Hills 90210 which I thought was kind of funny. Anyway, we went through and picked the one that we liked the best and put her in the game. Now it’s been quite some time and my memory is a little hazy but looking at the filenames from my ProTools sessions, the actress in question does have the initials “JH”. Could it be Jennifer Hale…? While I can’t confirm with utter certainty, I can say with 90% certainty that it probably is.
However, to add to the mystery, I used a different actress for the death scream as I wanted a voice with a higher register for the game over screen. An actress with the initials of “VM”. Maybe the internet sleuths can figure this one out. Unfortunately, the exact identities of the actresses in question are in an e-mail somewhere buried deep in Nintendo’s archives. 🙁
I’m super excited about Prime 4 and am as eager to learn about it as you are. Personally, I’d love to see some of the same open world concepts from Breath of the Wild but I have complete faith in Nintendo as they wouldn’t have decided to do another game in the Prime series unless they had a great concept and a talented team to execute it. From a sound design perspective, I’d love to see them take some chances and get wild with something that we’ve never heard before.
Being able to work on the Metroid Prime series was like a dream come true and I’m forever grateful to have been a part of that. The biggest takeaway for me is that if you take a talented team and give them the resources and freedom to be creative, you can accomplish pretty much anything. Nintendo took a huge chance on this unknown, unproven team in Texas and was wonderfully supportive of us.
I want to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to clear up the many misconceptions that have been surrounding the Metroid Prime series. I’ve gotten many a chuckle over the years from what I’ve read online!
I also want to say a big thank you to the Metroid fan community for their passion and interest in keeping the series alive. That I still have people contacting me expressing their love for Prime is an honor and a pleasant surprise even after all these years. I’m very grateful to have been able to contribute a small part to the Metroid legacy!
We would like to thank Clark for taking the time to speak with us and we wish him the best of luck for the future!
© 2018 Darren Kerwin and Clark Wen
Special thanks to RoyboyX
Interviewed on 28th May 2018