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A Retrospective: The Story of Retro Studios

Friday, December 17, 2004

On October 1, 1998, long-time videogame veteran Jeff Spangenberg took the first step in an epic journey toward the formation of a company that has become one of the most admired groups of artists and engineers in the industry today. What you are about to read is the story of Retro Studios, the acclaimed Texas-based developer behind the Metroid Prime titles. Within the span of seven years, this small developer not only breathed new life into one of Nintendo's long dormant franchises, but also made waves across the gaming industry with its innovative designs and spectacular artistic talents.

Right now, about 99 percent of readers (people like you) have undoubtedly scrolled to the bottom of this page to see how many pages this article spans - it isn't a small number either. So, before I begin, I'd like to first commend the few of you who are still here ready to read this developer profile from beginning to end. We've really put our heart into this piece. You are all in for an amazing read, overflowing with exclusives from start to finish. Did you ever want to know what the title that preceded Metroid Prime looked like? Well, you're in luck. We know all about it and even have a few exclusive concept images from the game. Did you ever want to know what the artistic influences behind Raven Blade were? N-Sider, once again, has you covered. Do videos of Retro NFL Football in motion interest you? Look no further. To those who read this article to its completion, we thank you.

When we set out to document the history of Retro Studios (over four months ago), we realized that, like our previous "Art of Prime" article, we would need to enlist the aid of sources closely connected to Retro Studios, only this time, many more. Let us take a moment to introduce some of the very talented and helpful folks who took the time to actively contribute to this article. Without their efforts this article would not exist.

Our Sources


James H. Dargie joined Retro Studios in May 2000. Prior to his employment at Retro, James worked at Take 2 Interactive in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, as a technical director. He was the lead artist on Jetfighter: Full Burn and a modeler on two other titles: Ripper and Battlecruiser 3000. After spending a little over a year at Take 2, James made his way to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he began working as lead artist on Squaresoft and Columbia Tristar's CGI movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Some of his tasks on the film involved animation and art direction for holograms, as well as computer modeling and texturing for many of the film's props.

In May 2000, James was recruited by Retro Studios and began work on Metroid Prime. He created, modeled, and textured many of MP's early vehicles, weapons, characters, and environments. In addition, he also performed UI (User Interface) and animation setup for several of the game's models. For example, he was responsible for the design of Samus' ship. Unfortunately, James' time at Retro was short lived, and he soon found himself at LucasArts in San Rafael, California, in 2001, where he was credited as senior artist on RTX: Red Rock (2003). Regrettably, since he left Retro Studios so early in Metroid Prime's development cycle, he doesn't appear in the game's credits.

After only eight months at LucasArts, James left his position to work for ESC Entertainment in Alameda, California. While at ESC, James worked on modeling and texturing props and vehicles for The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Finally, in April 2003, James returned to the video game industry as "Lead CG Artist" for the Weapons Team on Electronic Arts' recently released World War II title, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault.

Jason C. Hughes was one of the first people to be employed at Retro Studios. Prior to joining the company, Jason worked at Origin Systems, where he helped program for the Wing Commander series. Among his list of credits are Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (1995), Wing Commander: The Kilrathi Saga (1996), Wing Commander: Prophecy (1997), and Wing Commander: Secret Ops (1998). Upon arrival at Retro, Jason was the lead AI programmer on Retro NFL Football. The title was cancelled in February 2001 alongside Car Combat for a variety of reasons, most of which we will touch upon later.

His list of achievements and roles on Retro NFL Football included creating the underlying architecture for all levels of AI solutions, acting as a team mentor, serving as a technical guru, reviewing code, managing and scheduling, representing the engineering staff to management, owning the make/build process, and directing the utilization of various technologies when needed (to solve problems that arose).

After leaving Retro in early 2001, he made his way to Acclaim Entertainment and worked as assistant lead programmer on NBA Jam (2003). Jason is currently employed at Naughty Dog, Inc. and, as a senior software engineer, helped create Jak III for the PlayStation 2.

Ryan Wickerham is one of the few known voice talents to be contracted by Retro Studios in early 2000 to do voice-over work for the game Rune Blade (later renamed to Raven Blade). Ryan was personally requested by Retro to do the voice work, so he didn't have to audition for the part at all. Someone at Retro knew of his previous works and wanted his talent. Though he isn't entirely sure, it is likely that someone at Retro who previously worked at Iguana Entertainment / Acclaim admired his performance in the Turok Dinosaur Hunter titles and knew he would make a good addition to Rune Blade. After all, back in 2000, a great many employees at Retro Studios had previously worked at Iguana, even Retro's President Jeff Spangenberg.

Among Ryan's list of prior experiences in video games are various voice recordings for both Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (Iguana Entertainment), character 'Gen Man 2' in Deus Ex Part 2 (Ion Storm), and several voices for Brute Force (Digital Anvil).

On the Raven Blade project, though still referred to as Rune Blade at the time, Ryan did voice work for a number of the game's characters, including Priests and Zombies. These were actual dialogue recordings to be used in cut-scenes and in-game levels, not simply some small dying and moaning sound effects. Ryan Wickerham was not connected to any of Retro's other projects, though he admits to being aware of Retro NFL Football and Combat Car.

Finally, in addition to the above contributors, quite a few credible anonymous sources contributed to this piece. I would like to take this time to send out a big thanks to all of them, because this article simply would not have been possible without their help.


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