Retro Studios

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Retro Studios, Inc.
IndustryVideo game industry
FoundedSeptember 21, 1998; 20 years ago (1998-09-21)
FounderJeff Spangenberg
Key people
Michael Kelbaugh (president and CEO)
ParentNintendo (2002–present)

Retro Studios, Inc. is an American video game developer and subsidiary of Nintendo based in Austin, Texas. The studio is best known for its work on the Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country series, and has contributed to several other Nintendo-developed projects, such as Metroid Prime Hunters and Mario Kart 7.

Retro was founded on September 21, 1998, as an alliance between Nintendo and former Iguana Entertainment founder Jeff Spangenberg, hoping to create titles for the then-upcoming GameCube aiming at an older demographic. The company began working on four different titles, all of which were finally canceled once Retro focused their resources on Metroid Prime, the first Metroid title developed outside Japan. The success of Metroid Prime led Retro to work on two sequels, and later to become involved with reviving the Donkey Kong series with Donkey Kong Country Returns.


1998–2002: Founding and Metroid Prime[edit]

Retro Studios was founded on September 21, 1998, as an alliance between Nintendo and industry veteran Jeff Spangenberg.[1] Spangenberg subsequently launched the company from his home on October 1, using funds he generated with his previous ventures, including Iguana Entertainment.[2][3] Nintendo saw an opportunity for the new studio to create games for the upcoming GameCube targeting an older demographic, in the same vein as Iguana Entertainment's successful Turok series for the Nintendo 64.[3] Retro began with 4 key people in late 1998 and opened an office in Austin, Texas in early 1999 with a staff of 25 people, including several former Iguana employees.[3] Despite not having access to GameCube development kits,[4] the studio immediately began work on four projects for the GameCube: an untitled action adventure game (with a working title of Action-Adventure), a vehicular combat game with the working title Car Combat (also known as Thunder Rally), an American football simulator named NFL Retro Football, and role-playing game Raven Blade. By the time development began, the studio had already grown in size to 120 employees.[4] The company continued to grow during production, eventually peaking at over 200 employees.[5]

The working environment was chaotic, with development getting behind schedule, and Nintendo executives complaining on how the games turned out.[6] In 2000, producer Shigeru Miyamoto visited the studio. He was upset at most of the titles except for their demonstration of the Action-Adventure game engine, which led Miyamoto to suggest that Retro could use the engine to develop a new title in the Metroid series.[5] Shortly before the 2000 Nintendo Space World conference, Nintendo granted Retro the license to create Metroid Prime, and Retro shifted all development resources from Action-Adventure to the new title.[3]

Retro eventually canceled development of their other projects to focus solely on Metroid Prime. In February 2001, the company ended development of both NFL Retro Football and Thunder Rally, laying off about 20 employees.[7] Although Retro demonstrated Raven Blade at E3 in 2001, the development team was plagued by technical setbacks. In July 2001, Retro canceled the project, retaining only nine team members to work on Metroid Prime.[8]

On May 2, 2002, Nintendo secured $1 million worth of Retro Studios stock from Spangenberg, and reclassified the company as a first party developer and division of Nintendo.[9] After the sale, Spangenberg stepped down as president and was replaced by Steve Barcia, the founder of Simtex.

During the final nine months of Metroid Prime's development, Retro's staff worked 80- to 100-hour weeks to reach their final milestone.[5] Despite its troubled production cycle and initial skepticism from fans,[10] the game was released on November 17, 2002 in North America to universal critical acclaim and commercial success,[11] selling over two million units worldwide.[12]

2003–2009: The Metroid Prime trilogy[edit]

After the critical and commercial success of Metroid Prime, Nintendo asked Retro Studios to produce a sequel. The developers decided against recycling the features of the first game while creating Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and instead used new sound models, weapon effects, and art designs.[13] A multiplayer component was also added to the game.[14] On April 2003, Steve Barcia left the company. Michael Kelbaugh, who had worked with Nintendo for over 15 years, was appointed president, a job he retains to this date.[15] Retro tried to include some extras, such as a hidden version of Super Metroid, but were halted by the short development time.[14] Producer Kensuke Tanabe later revealed in an interview that the game was just about thirty percent complete three months before the strict deadline Nintendo had set for a release in the 2004 holiday season.[16] The critical reception for Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was very positive,[17] but earned some criticism on the game's high difficulty.[18][19] Sales for Echoes were lower than the first Prime, with a total of 800,000 units.[5]

Retro Studios was then put to produce the next game in the Metroid Prime series titled Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Retro intended to give Metroid Prime 3: Corruption larger environments than Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and enable the game to run at 60 frames per second.[20] The developers were also interested in using the WiiConnect24 feature to provide additional content for the game that would be accessible from the Internet.[20] Retro announced that Corruption would be the final chapter of the Prime series and would have a plot "about closure, told against the backdrop of an epic struggle".[21] After the Wii Remote was revealed, Nintendo demonstrated how Metroid Prime 3 would take advantage of the controller's special abilities with a version of Echoes modified for the Wii and shown at the Tokyo Game Show in 2005.[22] Originally envisioned as a launch title for the Wii in November 2006,[20] Corruption suffered many delays, but eventually being released on August 27, 2007[23] to generally positive reviews,[24] and over 1.60 million copies sold worldwide.[25]

While Retro was busy with the Prime sequels, they had to pass on the Nintendo DS title Metroid Prime Hunters. The eventual developer, Nintendo Software Technology (NST), worked closely with Retro to design the game's art and characters to make sure that they fit into the overall Metroid series.[26][27]

In 2004, while Retro Studios was finishing Echoes, senior producer Bryan Walker suggested to studio president Michael Kelbaugh to "do something for the fans by putting all the games together on a single disc in a collectors 'trilogy' edition". Kelbaugh sent the proposal to Nintendo, and the company accepted.[28] The compilation Metroid Prime: Trilogy started being developed shortly after the release of Corruption, and was released in 2009.[5]

2010–present: Donkey Kong Country series, Metroid Prime 4, and other projects[edit]

In April 2008, Retro saw the departure of three key developers, designer Mark Pacini, art director Todd Keller, and principal technology engineer Jack Mathews,[29] who went on to form their own company, Armature Studio.[30][31] Around the same time, Shigeru Miyamoto asked fellow producer Kensuke Tanabe to recommend a studio that could develop a new Donkey Kong game, and Tanabe recommended Retro. Kelbaugh had worked on the Donkey Kong Country series during his years at Nintendo of America, and had interest in continuing with the franchise. Retro accepted the task, and thus started development of Donkey Kong Country Returns.[32][33] Similar to New Super Mario Bros., the game was developed with the intention to invoke nostalgic feelings in the player with its art style and sound, while trying to provide them with new gameplay experiences.[33] Returns employs fully polygonal 3D graphics with three times the amount of textures and polygons that Corruption offered,[32] and over the course of six months, two thirds of the game's tools and engine had to be rewritten by the programmers.[32] Development accelerated at the outset of 2010, and the project was just "beginning to cohere as a game" around the time of E3, when it was officially announced to the press.[34] Although the game was set for release in autumn that year, the team still had 70 levels to create or refine.[35] After the development of Returns was completed, two more key departures happened at Retro, with senior designers Kynan Pearson and Mike Wikan moving on to 343 Industries and id Software, respectively.[36][37]

Retro Studios' former headquarters in Austin, Texas. The company moved to a new location in 2011.

At E3 2011, it was announced during Nintendo's Developer Roundtable that Retro Studios would be involved in the development of Mario Kart 7 for Nintendo 3DS.[38] At first, Retro would contribute assets to developing one of the Donkey Kong-themed levels,[39] but the number evolved to the stage design of sixteen tracks in the late stages of development, as the Nintendo EAD crew started working on other projects and the game would not be finished before the December 2011 deadline.[40]

In 2012, it was revealed that Retro Studios had received a Wii U development kit, and was reportedly working on a Wii U game.[41] Miyamoto has said he would like to work with Retro Studios in an installment for The Legend of Zelda; however, he says that the current game Retro Studios was working on is not related to Zelda.[42] It was also revealed that Retro Studios hired staff members from Naughty Dog and the now-defunct companies Midway Austin and Vigil Games, the latter being known for creating the Darksiders series.[43][unreliable source?] At E3 2012, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé told IGN in an interview that Retro is currently "hard at work" on an untitled project for the Wii U.[44] It has been confirmed on Retro's Facebook page that the studio had moved from their original location to a new location still in Austin, Texas. In their Nintendo Direct at E3 2013, Nintendo announced Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the sequel to Donkey Kong Country Returns. The game was Retro's first Wii U game and was released in February 2014. Original series composer David Wise returned to score the game.

On February 28, 2014, Kensuke Tanabe announced that Retro Studios was working on a new game, which CEO Michael Kelbaugh declared had been in development for a few months since Tropical Freeze was finished.[45] In August 2015 however, during an interview about Metroid Prime: Federation Force, Tanabe said that he was not quite sure about what Retro Studios was working on, leaving the impression that he was no longer involved with their unannounced project.[46] At E3 2017, Metroid Prime 4 was revealed for the Nintendo Switch; but at the time, Bill Trinen revealed that the project was not being made by Retro Studios and was being developed by a "talented new development team." However, an announcement was made by Shinya Takahashi that Nintendo was restarting the development of "Metroid Prime 4". In the announcement on January 25, 2019, Shinya Takahashi (Nintendo's Development Head) stated that the development of the game was challenged under their previous team and that the development would move to Retro Studios.[47][better source needed]

Games developed[edit]

Title Genre(s) Platform(s) Year Producer(s) Director(s)
Metroid Prime Action-adventure GameCube 2002 Shigeru Miyamoto Mark Pacini
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes Action-adventure GameCube 2004 Kensuke Tanabe Mark Pacini
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption Action-adventure Wii 2007 Kensuke Tanabe Mark Pacini
Metroid Prime: Trilogy Compilation,
Wii 2009 Kensuke Tanabe Mark Pacini
Donkey Kong Country Returns Platform Wii 2010 Kensuke Tanabe Bryan Walker
Mario Kart 7 Racing Nintendo 3DS 2011 Hideki Konno Kosuke Yabuki
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D Platform Nintendo 3DS 2013 Kensuke Tanabe Vince Joly
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Platform Wii U / Nintendo Switch 2014/2018 Kensuke Tanabe Ryan Harris
Metroid Prime 4[48] Action-adventure Nintendo Switch TBA Kensuke Tanabe[48] TBA

Canceled projects[edit]

Title Genre(s) Platform(s) Details
Action-Adventure (working title) Action-adventure GameCube The game mostly consisted of concept artwork and a mock up first-person engine before cancellation, but apparently inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to hand Retro the Metroid license. The development team moved onto production of Metroid Prime.[3]
NFL Retro Football Sports GameCube The game designers initially wanted to make a Mario Football game, but Nintendo settled on a realistic simulator with the NFL license due to Retro's purpose of creating mature games.[3] The game was canceled in February 2001. A possible cause was Electronic Arts and Sega agreeing to port the Madden NFL and NFL 2K series to the GameCube.[7]
Car Combat / Thunder Rally (working titles) Vehicular combat game GameCube It was initially pitched to Nintendo as a mix of "QuakeWorld, Twisted Metal 2, and Mario Kart 64 with shades of Mad Max and Street Fighter II." Despite being the project with most progress at Retro, it was canceled along with NFL Retro Football in February 2001. Two members of the development team, programmer David "Zoid" Kirsch and modeler Rick Kohler, joined the Metroid Prime project.[3]
Raven Blade Role-playing video game GameCube The game was showcased at E3 2001, but production was plagued with technical setbacks,[49] and the game eventually got canceled on July 2001 so Retro could focus on Metroid Prime. Nine members of its development team joined Prime.[8]


Retro Studios have received very positive reception for their games. On GameRankings, Metroid Prime is the 7th highest rated game ever reviewed, with an average score of 96.33% (as of August 2018), making it the second highest reviewed game of the sixth generation, after Soul Calibur.[50] The video game countdown show Filter named Prime as having the Best Graphics of all time.[51] Prime was also chosen for lists of best games: 24th in IGN's Top 100,[52] 29th in a 100-game list chosen by GameFAQs users,[53] and 10th in Nintendo Power's "Top 200 Nintendo Games Ever".[54] GameSpy chose it as the third best GameCube title of all time, behind The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Resident Evil 4,[55] while IGN put it at first in a similar list.[56] Nintendo Power also ranked it as the sixth best game of the 2000s.[57]

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was positively received,[58] but the criticism of the game was driven on the steep difficulty and multiplayer components.[59][60] Reception to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption has been generally positive,[61] with several reviews specifically praising the gameplay.[62][63] Metroid Prime: Trilogy received an aggregated score of 91 out of 100 and 92% from Metacritic and GameRankings respectively,[64][65] with much praise to the new controls for Prime and Echoes, and presentation values.[66][67][68] Donkey Kong Country Returns received very positive reviews. It currently has an average score of 87 out of 100 on GameRankings and Metacritic.[69][70]


Metroid Prime became one of the bestselling games on the GameCube. It was the second bestselling game of November 2002 in North America, behind Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,[71] and hit 250,000 units in just one week.[72] The game has since sold about 1.49 million copies in America alone,[73] earning more than $50 million in revenue.[74] It is also the eighth bestselling GameCube game in Australia,[75] and sold more than 78,000 copies in Japan,[76] and more than 250,000 copies in Europe, thus entering the Player's Choice line in the PAL region.[77] Echoes sold 470,000 copies in North America in 2004,[78] and a total of 40,000 copies in Japan.[79] By August 2009, the game had sold 800,000 copies worldwide.[80] Despite being released on August 27, Corruption was the fifth bestselling game of the month, with 218,100 copies sold.[81] It also debuted at the fifth spot of the Japanese charts, with 34,000 units in the first week of release.[82] More than one million copies of the game were sold in 2007,[83] and as of March 2008, 1.31 million copies of the game were sold worldwide.[25]

Donkey Kong Country Returns debuted third on the Japanese game charts, with 163,310 units sold,[84] and has sold 638,305 copies in Japan as of January 2, 2011.[85] In North America, the game debuted at sixth place in the charts,[86] with 430,470 units sold.[87] By the end of March 2011, it had sold 4.96 million copies worldwide.[88]


Metroid Prime was a critically acclaimed hit. Electronic Gaming Monthly gave the game a perfect review score and it was awarded numerous Game of the Year awards.

Echoes won an award in almost every category it was nominated for at the 2004 Nintendo Power Awards,[89] and won awards for Best GameCube Game of 2004 from IGN,[90] Electronic Gaming Monthly[91] and GameSpy.[92] It was rated the 174th best game made on a Nintendo system in Nintendo Power’s Top 200 Games list,[93] the 74th best game by GameFAQs users,[94] the 15th best GameCube game by IGN,[95] and the 13th best by GameSpy.[96]

In IGN's Best of 2007 Awards, Corruption received the awards for Best Wii Adventure Game,[97] Best Artistic Design,[98] and Best Overall Adventure Game.[99] GameSpy ranked it as the second best Wii game of the year, behind Super Mario Galaxy,[100] and honored it as the Best Innovation on the Wii.[101]

For its awards for games released in 2010, IGN gave Donkey Kong Country Returns awards for "Best Retro Design" and "Most Challenging".[102][103] Game Informer named it Game of the Month for December 2010, with the reviewer hailing it as "one of the best platformers [they'd] ever played".[104] The publication later picked it as the "Best Platformer" and "Best Wii Exclusive" of 2010.[105]


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External links[edit]