Better Than Black and White: One Man’s Decade-Long Quest to Remake 'Metroid II'
Milton Gausti's 'Project AM2R' was supposed to be a short practice project. Instead, it became the game that an entire community hung their hopes on.
Milton Guasti never planned for his free fan-made game to become the de facto next chapter in Nintendo's Metroid story. In fact, although he'd played video games since the late 1980s, a special set of circumstances forestalled Guasti from becoming a Metroid fan until years after the franchise's most popular entry had come and gone.
In 1992, when he was 12 years old, Guasti counted his pocket money and headed to the video store on the corner to peruse the owner's selection of NES games. An archaic law imposed by the Brazilian government categorizes video games as gambling, resulting in a 120 percent tax—which meant that most of the time, Guasti rented. Piracy stores that sold games at a fraction of the cost sprang up in response, smuggling rings circumvented stringent laws prohibiting imported software, and companies like Dismac created knockoff consoles that ran hacked cartridges.
Because of this limited access, Guasti's familiarity with 16-bit classics like Super Mario World and Star Fox was hit or miss. He missed out on Super Metroid, the title that later came to define a decade of his life, until emulation—a process that allows console games to be played on PCs—gained traction in the 1990s.
Even so, Super Metroid didn't land with Guasti right away. "I kind of regretted not buying a cart. I played completely out of context, starting the game at a friend's house. It was nice, but it didn't pull me in right away. It was something you needed to play by yourself, at a pace the game wants you to play. I gave the game another chance all by myself and fell in love with it."
While Mario and Zelda fans devoured new entries every few years, Metroid players often went hungry. Most Nintendo consoles hosted a single Metroid game; the Nintendo 64 didn't even get one. Following two decades of sporadic releases, 2010's Metroid: Other M (jointly developed by Nintendo, Team Ninja, and D-Rockets) and this year's Metroid Prime: Federation Force, mark the most recent official installments—and both games landed flat with critics and fans. With Nintendo failing to undertake development of a new adventure through labyrinthine caverns riddled with secret paths and battles against bloodthirsty space pirates, Metroid devotees were left pining for something new.
Entering his mid-20s, Guasti's passion for games grew from merely playing to beginning to peek under the hood to figure out how the games worked. He downloaded Multimedia Fusion, a suite of creativity tools that let users create applications by dragging-and-dropping multimedia elements instead of writing code. From there, he moved on to ripping character sprites from games and pitting them against one another in M.U.G.E.N., a fighting-game engine used by amateur game makers.
Then he discovered GameMaker, a program similar to Fusion but designed explicitly for games. The retail version was too pricey for his budget, but the cracked version sold in piracy shops was unstable. A friend was kind enough to loan him his credit card to buy a license. After getting his feet wet with GameMaker's UI and logic scripting, he prepared to tackle his biggest challenge yet: a total remake of 1991's Metroid II: Return of Samus for Game Boy.
Guasti thought Metroid II an ideal project for his present circumstances. He was 26, in a stable relationship, and the co-owner of a recording studio with a friend. Life was only going to get busier; it was now or never. "I knew that eventually Nintendo would be remaking Metroid II, but in the meantime it felt like a good excuse to learn programming: to imagine Metroid II with better graphics and controls. My mindset was, whatever I do, it'll be better than an old black-and-white game."
Before writing a single line of code, he resolved to play through classic 2D Metroid titles to get a handle on how they played. He had a blast, until the time came to revisit the game he was committed to reimagining. "My interest in Metroid II started when I finished Zero Mission. I said, 'Let's see what the next chapter in the series is. How bad can it be?' Metroid II was... dated, to say it politely."
A technical marvel for its era, Metroid II is nonetheless considered the black sheep of the series. Nintendo's artists enlarged series protagonist Samus Aran to imbue her suit with fine details. The result was a more intricate design than her NES counterpart, but the tradeoff was that her larger size made Metroid II's screens feel cramped. Moreover, although the game introduced novelties like save points, every black-and-white(-and-green) tunnel looked like any other, and the absence of an in-game map exacerbated navigation.
Trudging through its shortcomings, Guasti slowly picked up on what made Metroid II special. He played on a Super Game Boy adapter for the Super Nintendo, sitting alone in a dark room holding a SNES controller in one hand and a printed map in the other. His small CRT television bathed the room in an eerie green light. As he pushed deeper into the caverns deep below the planet's SR388, nervousness crept in. The object of the game was to hunt down and kill Metroids—jellyfish-like alien creatures—hatching from eggs, thereby lowering the acid flooding caverns further beneath the planet's surface and revealing new regions filled with tighter warrens and tougher Metroids.
Only the sight of a cracked egg alerted players to the presence of a Metroid. Stumbling across one caused it to swoop in and attack; the soundtrack became strident, taut with panic. "I knew where the Metroids were going to be. I had a map, after all," Guasti recalled. "But with that tiny screen, and trying to interpret which room I was in—it felt like an adventure. You felt that uncertainty that a Metroid could pop up at any minute. Even though I knew what was going to be in each room, I still felt uneasy."
That uneasiness became the cornerstone of what Guasti took to calling Another Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R). He wanted to bottle that essence and transplant it into his take on the adventure, buttressed by contemporary trappings cherry-picked from more recent Metroid titles such as 2002's Metroid Fusion and 2004's Zero Mission for Game Boy Advance.
There was no need for Guasti to carve extra time out of his work schedule to work on AM2R. "When we were just starting out, there weren't a lot of customers, so there was a lot of dead time: Just me, watching the monitor, doing backups, and cleaning up."
GameMaker alone lacked the resources to engineer a sophisticated 2D platform. Fortunately, a programmer named Martin Piecyk had released GameMaker Platform Engine, a plug-in containing logic and physics geared toward classic 2D action games. After downloading it, one could tinker with its underpinnings and calibrate them to their needs. Guasti set about doing just that. "It was a very slow learning process, but I managed to get some sort of Metroid-y feel out of it."
Guasti made emulating Samus as exact a science as possible. Sitting at his workstation, he opened GameMaker in one window and launched an emulator running Zero Mission in another. Every movement was scrutinized, every variable in Piecyk's Platform Engine massaged just so. What he couldn't pick up on by playing, he observed by dissecting videos of speedrunners skipping huge swathes of Zero Mission by exploiting the layout of certain shafts and corridors, going through them frame by frame.
Among the first addition to AM2R was a noticeable increase to Metroid II's resolution. Game Boy displayed games at 160x144; that, combined with Samus's size, restricted visibility of on-screen terrain. For AM2R, Guasti bumped up the resolution to 320x240. That one modification triggered a domino effect. Metroid II's maps had to be expanded, which meant Samus's speed and movement needing fine tuning as well.
Left alone, AM2R's stretched-out maps would feel barren. Guasti refined, beginning with landmarks. His goal was to add on to and expand areas while retaining an air of familiarity for Metroid II fans. No landmark in any Metroid game is as recognizable as the point where Samus's ship touches down and she disembarks, ready for action therefore he needed to make sure that AM2R's starting area would feel familiar. It was the perfect place to begin dialing up that mounting sense of dread that he so desperately wanted to flow through the game. "I tried to deconstruct why I was feeling uneasy, and determine which elements were contributing to that feeling."
While Metroid II's terrain exhibited a surprising amount of variety, most backgrounds were black, largely due to technical constraints. Guasti wanted to craft a more elaborate production. One of his additions to the story entails a mission to track down a research team that went AWOL. The first time players return to the starting area after discovering one of their corpses, the sun has lowered, casting somber lighting over the scene.
"The entire tone of the game changes. It's not as upbeat and optimistic. You're ready to assume the worst for the rest of the game. It adds some maturity to the whole concept. The perception of the mission must have changed for Samus, and changes to the environment accompany that feeling."
Other additions, such as a minimap, mini-bosses, and the ability to switch Samus's abilities on and off at will, fell into place over the course of several years. Early on, Guasti figured he'd be able to bang out AM2R over a few months. Then life threw the first of many curveballs. His business partner went through a divorce that sapped his finances. Soon enough, Guasti was the only one working at the recording studio, yet he was still sharing profits.
"Eventually we had to split up and close the studio. Doing so after four years of awesome stories and being a successful engineer, with plenty of satisfied customers, all the effort and investment—it was very depressing."
Over the week before Christmas 2006, Guasti and his ex-partner dismantled and tore down their office. The ordeal left him in no mood to ring in the holidays. Besides no longer owning his own business, he no longer had a job, leaving him unable to justify spending time plugging away a fan-made game that wouldn't earn him any money. Worse yet, he was on the brink of breaking up with his long-time girlfriend. On New Year's Eve, he took a quiet moment for himself, closed his eyes, and made a wish: "A better year. Just that."
Without enough money to go on vacation, he and his girlfriend spent two months scouting locations for a new studio. They settled on a derelict house near a train station. He signed a rental lease and worked tirelessly over nine months, gutting the place and equipping it for recording. Like all other goods and services in Argentina, construction cost an arm and a leg, so Guasti learned how to do everything himself: plumbing, electricity, the works.
By the end of 2007, he had a mostly-brand-new studio up and running. Dusting off AM2R after a year away, he threw himself into development. A few months later, he was satisfied with his progress, and wondered if others might agree. "I started to make some test rooms and put together a small demo."
Most demos of fan games cram power-ups and enemies into a nondescript room and let players go to town. Guasti went the extra mile by emphasizing continuity, connecting rooms and corridors, and adding ledges, corridors, items, and a boss fight.
His hope was that a few members of the Metroid community would chime in with their thoughts. What he got was an avalanche of emails and comments, and exposure on established outlets like Kotaku. "It was a nice surprise, because that wasn't the point of my project. I didn't intend to be someone who became famous or was known as the one remaking Metroid 2 instead of Nintendo. It was a personal project, and then people liked it. It was... nice."
Some fans wanted to do more than watch from the sidelines. In later demos, Guasti included code and art files—tacit encouragement for fans to experiment as he had. "I noticed that one fan had put together a suit that looked like a version of Samus from Super Metroid except it was scaled down," recalled Steve Rothlisberger, one of several artists who volunteered his free time to helping build AM2R. "It looked really good, but I thought to myself, I bet I can do better."
Guasti agreed and set up Rothlisberger with more work, mostly environmental objects and details such as spiked plants and turbines—seemingly minor flora and fauna that do wonders to accentuate verisimilitude and mood. One of his favorite pieces of work is found late in the game and, at first glance, is insignificant: a power switch. Activate it, and green lights flicker on, pulsing through the architecture.
"It ended up taking a lot of time, and it was a huge pain in the butt, but it was totally worth it because it looked so cool," Rothlisberger said. "That was one of the areas that kind of raised the bar for the ones around it."
Welcoming contributors into his fold proved a double-edged sword for Guasti. On the one hand, he was no artist. Most of the sprites he'd started with had been ripped from official Metroid games. "Having help changed the scope of the game: Now I had the power to make original assets. The Metroids became more interesting, and I changed mechanics to take advantage of the extended mobility that Samus has. Areas became bigger, things became much more detailed, and I tried out new mechanics just because I wanted to have more control of Samus."
On the other hand, more artists meant more assets to coordinate, and higher standards to live up to. "By the time we got to some of the later areas, we would look back at the first ones and realize that we could see how much better we'd gotten at what we do," Rothlisberger said.
"My new daughter pretty much didn't recognize me. I was just some guy that showed up and spent some time with her before she fell asleep, and helped with household chores. I won't do that again." -- Milton Guasti
Guasti took stock of his schedule. Every day he bounced between his studio, hammering at AM2R and between breaths, learning how to program in C#, and helping out around the house. His dedication paid off when, in 2011, a friend put in a good word for him at a software development company that landed him a job. His career change happened in the nick of time as he was due to become a father, and needed both the stability of a steady job, as well as the cash.
With that steady job, though, came a great deal of extra time spent at the office, away from his home and family. Within a few months, he was stretched to his breaking point. "My new daughter pretty much didn't recognize me. I was just some guy that showed up and spent some time with her before she fell asleep, and helped with household chores. I won't do that again. I usually work at night, but that period was very tiresome. It nearly destroyed me."
Ironically, Guasti's grueling work hours brought about relief. Prior to bringing on contributors, he had worked on AM2R alone. Every file and line of code was his jurisdiction. At his day job, however, he had to check code in and out for cohesion across the team. Observing his managers, he carried their protocols over to AM2R. Software tools were distributed, deadlines were set, and the team collaborated more often using Discord or Skype.
Looking to trim his schedule, Guasti made the difficult decision to close his audio studio and focus on his day job and AM2R."The results became much more consistent," he said. "Being organized, and being able to not waste other people's time, making sure their work was in good hands and letting them see results come alive in the game, helps motivate people who are putting their free time and their talent into something that won't make them money."
Over the next four years, production on AM2R smoothed out; he went from hammering on AM2R alone, to chipping away with his team of volunteers. By early 2016, a decade after starting, Guasti caught a glimpse of light at the end of AM2R's tunnel. Aside from a few areas missing music, sound effects, and background art, the game was nearly finished. "I'm pretty sure I wrote many times in the blog, 'The game might be finished this year,'" he recalled. "I was aiming for December at first, until I found out the date of the 30th anniversary of Metroid."
Nintendo had released Metroid on NES on August 6, 1986. As Saturday, August 6 2016 drew closer, Guasti was contacted by Ryan Barrett, an administrator at community hub Metroid Database. Barrett and his co-admins had been following AM2R for years and offered to host the game when it was ready for primetime. "We are quite used to doing this when other people release Metroid-related fan content, but I didn't expect the game to explode as much as it did," Barrett admitted.
Metroid fans grew giddy with anticipation as the final 24 hours before AM2R's release ticked away. Guasti wasn't excited, he was in a panic. A tester contacted him 30 minutes before he planned to set the file live to inform him of a game-breaking bug. Scrambling, he pulled the files, squelched the bug, recompiled his code, and re-uploaded the game.
"I think the game was ready maybe 10 minutes before the countdown hit zero. I didn't want to disappoint gamers. If they were going to wait, I wanted to be able to get it to them."
The moment AM2R went live, wave after wave of traffic pummeled hosting sites. "We had 1 terabyte of bandwidth downloaded that day and couldn't even access anything on our site or our servers due to the load that was being put on it," Barrett said.
Exhausted yet satisfied, Guasti made his rounds across streams and the AM2R sub-Reddit forum. "Seeing the game out there, seeing people have fun and just waiting for people to finish it, was very cool. Very satisfying. I was joining people on Twitch as they played for the first time, and it was nice to see how they reacted to the new changes and new areas. It was satisfying, you know?"
Their elation was short lived. A few hours later, Barrett contacted Guasti to inform him he'd received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice, claiming that AM2R infringed on Nintendo's intellectual property and requesting that the project be taken down."Our webhost, Softlayer, got the notice on Saturday," Barrett explained. "Softlayer contacted our admin. Our admin forwarded the notice to us the following day, and we took down the file. I verified the notice was real by calling the law firm using the contact information we were given."
Unfortunately, the DMCA issued to sites hosting AM2R was no joke. Admins at Metroid Database traced the notice to its source: Miller Nash, a law firm representing Nintendo.
On August 9, three days after AM2R's release and subsequent takedown, he posted a blog informing fans that he would continue development. He chose to press on as much for his team of contributors as much for himself. "They have their drama, their life stuff. Even then, they feel responsibility to jump on board on this passion project made by some dude who's nobody and lives in some other country. They believe in this project," he said.
True to his word, Guasti rolled out an update in mid-August. But a few weeks later on September 1, Nintendo answered back: Guasti, not a third-party like Metroid Database, received a DMCA in his personal email address. No longer willing to risk flying under the radar, he announced on Twitter that AM2R 1.1 would be the final update. Nintendo has not responded to our request for comment on AM2R or the DMCA takedown.
Guasti's frustration and melancholy at his decade-long effort being expunged lasted only as long as it took him to realize that nothing had really been expunged. AM2R is out there—no longer hosted by Metroid Database and his blog, but on torrent sites where fans passionate about the game can propagate it. He can't host it, but anyone interested can find it, and to Guasti, that's what matters.
"Things may not have turned exactly how I wanted, but knowing that people are enjoying a faithful Metroid experience fills me with joy. It makes every hour of dev time worth it."
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