Part 1: Internal Teams

Nintendo’s 2014 line-up is looking to be truly fantastic. However, there is still a lot we don’t know. In this series, we’re looking at Nintendo’s studios to see what is coming next or, at the very least, understand their development structure so that we have a good idea what to expect.

We now know what Nintendo’s own developers look like, having gone over Nintendo’s internal teams already, and now, it is time to look at their external studios. All of the groups in this article are fully owned by Nintendo and, though some have more control over development of their games than others, they are all watched over by Nintendo’s Software Planning Department. Though the quality of each studio may vary, all of them are without a doubt an important part of the company.

Monolith Soft
Monolith is one of the biggest studios in Nintendo’s arsenal. Made up of ex-Squaresoft employees after the development of Chrono Cross was completed, the producer and director accepted an investment from Namco to become one of their developers. While at Namco, they created the Xenosaga series, as well as Baiten Kaitos. These were what they are most well-known for, though they participated in smaller projects.

In 2007, Nintendo bought the studio. Since then, Monolith has developed several games, most notably Disaster: Day of Crisis and the masterpiece that is Xenoblade Chronicles. They’ve also created some handheld titles, such as the Super Robot Taisen OG Saga and the recent Project X Zone, that were co-developed with Banpresto.

Their next game, X, was announced January 2013. With the monstrous level of scope, detail, and ambition clearly being put into the title, it is more or less impossible that a second major project is in development. A recent discovery does need to be taken into account, though — Monolith evidently is in the process of “urgently” hiring several new employees. These are positions that are hugely important to a game, such as game, town, and battle algorithm planners, as well as programming positions.

This could mean several things. It could be that X is nowhere near close to completion, if they still need such important positions to be filled. It could also mean that they are entering the planning stages of their next huge title and X is going through the final stages of development. Maybe this is for a side project, like another handheld game. It could mean anything, but unfortunately, we just don’t have enough information to know yet.

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Monolith is no longer just one studio; they branched out recently to create a Kyoto location, which as of last July had about thirty employees. Unfortunately, this group does not appear to develop games on their own; thus far, they have only given support to Nintendo’s internal teams for games such as Animal Crossing, Pikmin 3, and the most recent Zelda games. They might surprise us with an independent game for the 3DS, but I somehow doubt it. Hopefully, they will expand soon and give us another major JRPG team for Nintendo’s stable.

Nintendo Software Technology
Nintendo Software Technology is known most for their Mario vs. Donkey Kong series and single entries to notable franchises, such as Metroid Prime Hunters, Wave Race: Blue Storm, and 1080 Avalanche, though they occasionally make apps, such as Wii Street U, as well as clocks and calculators. This is certainly one of the stranger studios into Nintendo’s stable. Unfortunately, they have not developed many retail games independently since Prime Hunters in 2006, though they did attempt once or twice with the canceled games Project H.A.M.M.E.R. and Wii Crush.

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Mario Vs Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, their latest project, was released last May. While they have certainly been laying low for some time now, there is knowledge that they have been hiring and it gives me hope that we might just see something bigger from this studio in the future. They are probably a completely different group at this point than they were in 2006, so if their next game is somewhat bigger, it is hard to imagine what it might be.

Both a new Wave Race or 1080 Snowboarding are certainly within the realm of possibility, but it is next to impossible to figure out what they may be working on now — although somehow, I have a feeling another Mario vs. Donkey Kong is headed our way before we see anything else, especially after the Nintendo Web Framework tech demo they recently showed off.

1-Up Studio
The creators of the huge-in-Japan series Magical Vacation and developers of the Of Mana games for the DS, as well as a few downloadable titles, 1-Up Studios’ role has recently begun to change. They primarily help others with their developmental efforts now, such as with EAD Tokyo for the Super Mario 3D series, partnering with Level-5 for Fantasy Life, and the RPG included in Professor Layton and the Last Spector.

Because of their turn towards co-development, they changed structure and their name from Brownie Brown to 1-Up Studio last February. Currently, it is hard to tell what this might mean. It could be that they will no longer develop games independently and help only with other projects in the future or it could mean that co-development will just take precedence. The fact that only one game that they had a somewhat minor part in — Super Mario 3D World — has been released since the restructure gives me hope that they still are working on major titles, but only time will tell.

Intelligent Systems
Intelligent Systems is one of Nintendo’s biggest studios, a veritable goldmine of great and consistently released games. They started off as just one man before becoming a small team that helped Nintendo by providing system tools, programming, and occasionally, porting software. Though they worked on many games, they were primarily just tech support to major internal teams. Eventually, the lead programmer programmed two games by himself — the original Advance Wars and Fire Emblem — with game, visual, and sound design completed by internal Nintendo teams.

Because of the games’ success, the studio expanded immensely and changed from a programming studio to a full-on game developer, becoming one of Nintendo’s most prolific studios. They’ve worked on countless numbers of games and franchises, but their most popular titles are of the Advance WarsFire EmblemWarioWare, and Paper Mario series. They’ve recently released a few downloadable titles, such as EcoShooter 530 for the Wiiware and Pushmo for the 3DS E-Shop.

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Games have been released at an alarming rate for the past year or two. Fire Emblem: Awakening and Paper Mario: Sticker Star were both released in close proximity, as well as Pushmo and Crashmo, with Game and Wario for the Wii U soon after. We know for a fact that Intelligent Systems almost always has multiple titles in development, yet only one has currently been announced: Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem — and even that is being co-developed with Atlus. So what else might we see in the near future?

After the enormous financial and critical success of Fire Emblem: Awakening, I would not be surprised to see a continuation of that series. Yes, it’s getting a spin-off of sorts, but as the brand has just recently emerged into popularity, I find it hard to believe that neither Nintendo nor Intelligent Systems would want to make another main series entry.

Advance Wars seems another likely candidate, especially a 3DS entry. Paper Mario, too, I believe has a high chance of returning and I would imagine another WarioWare is in the works — though Game and Wario may have sold badly enough to deter Nintendo from doing another one so soon. A downloadable title also seems likely. They are probably done with the Pushmo series, but I suspect, if they get another great idea, they’ll give it a shot and give the E-Shop another great game. It likely wouldn’t put strain on their development resources to do so.

Obviously, there is a lot they could do, so it will be fascinating to see what we end up getting. Intelligent Systems is without a doubt one of Nintendo’s best studios, so hopefully, we shall find out soon.

ND Cube
Though they originally created a few F-Zero and F-Zero-esque racing games — Turbo Slider and F-Zero Maximum Velocity — to less than terrific results, they tried their hand at party games with Wii Party in 2010. Soon after this, Hudson Soft, the develops of the Mario Party series, went bust. Most of their employees ended up moving to ND Cube and, since then, they have made several party games. The first was Mario Party 9 and was followed by Wii Party U and Mario Party: Island Tour this past year.

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It doesn’t take a genius to guess what’s next. More party games are all but guaranteed and, though they might surprise us with something else, I’d say a Mario Party for the Wii U is next. They do have plenty of experience with the genre, so it’s hopeful that their next games are of high quality.

HAL Laboratory
HAL is without a doubt one of Nintendo’s most well known subsidiaries. They created more games than anyone could count in the early days, and naturally, there were several highlights. Possibly the biggest development of HAL’s early days was Masahiro Sakurai. When he was just nineteen, he created the character of Kirby and made his first game, Kirby’s Dreamland, that put HAL on the map.

HAL continued its consistent output of games over the next several years, with Kirby titles taking up the majority of their releases. They also created Earthbound and developed quite a bit of Mother 3. The company also created Pokemon spin-offs, such as Pokemon Snap and Pokemon Stadium, when the Nintendo 64 came along.

It was around this time that the Super Smash Bros. franchise was created by Sakurai and the team. The first game saw huge success and thus, received a sequel in Melee for the GameCube. Kirby’s Air Ride was a couple years later and, when Nintendo saw sales success and immediately demanded a sequel, Sakurai became fed up and left. Satoru Iwata, who was president of HAL for almost seven years, was promoted to a major position at Nintendo a year or two before. These departures left behind what seems to be the current version of HAL.

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They have almost exclusively developed Kirby games since then, though they did help with Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Face Raiders, and Pokemon Ranger. In 2011, two Kirby games were released: Return to Dreamland for the Wii and Mass Attack for the DS. After that, they went quiet for a long period of time.

They came back recently with the announcement of Kirby: Triple Deluxe for the 3DS, which was releases in the States this May. But HAL has never been one to only make one game at a time and I doubt that they would have made an exception here. So the question is: what else could cause them to take such a long period to develop?

The obvious answer would be Kirby Wii U and honestly, I can’t think what else it might be. Perhaps I’m wrong and Triple Deluxe really did take over two years to develop all by itself, but I strongly doubt it. I expect another announcement from HAL extremely soon and I’d put my money on a Wii U Kirby game.

Creatures Inc.
Creatures is basically a Pokemon spin-off house. While they did work some on Mario’s Picross and helped with a couple Mother games back in the mid 1990s, they’ve been working on spin-offs of everyone’s favorite monster-catching series for the past ten years or so.

The Pokemon Rangers games are possibly their most popular of the spin-offs. The original was co-developed by the aforementioned HAL, but Shadows of Almia and Guardian Signs were both independently developed by Creatures Inc and released in 2008 and 2010, respectively. They’ve been focusing on creating the Pokepark series, the second of which came out in 2011.

They’ve been strangely quiet since then, save for helping out on Pokemon X and Y. It’s been some time since they’ve released anything, as it’s been two years now since their last game. Bar some sort of behind-the-scenes shake-up happening at the company , we may be in for something bigger than their usual offerings.

It could be anything, really, but I think it’s pretty likely to be a Pokemon spin-off — another Pokemon Ranger entry or maybe Pokepark Wii U or 3DS. We could receive something completely unexpected and find ourselves with one of the best Pokemon side games in ages. Either way, it’s almost certainly going to be a Poke-game and, with luck, it will be a major one.

Retro Studios
Here’s what we’ve all been waiting for, given that Retro is easily the most talked about of Nintendo’s external developers and, at this point, one of the most controversial.

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I think that most of us know Retro’s history. Created in 1998 to make games for the older audience, they immediately began creating games for the GameCube, despite not even possessing development kits. They quickly expanded to around two hundred members, creating chaos and horribly developed games. Miyamoto decided that they should work on Metroid in 2000 and, over the course of the next year, all projects but Metroid Prime were cancelled and over a hundred employees were laid off.

They have since created the critically acclaimed Metroid Prime Trilogy and released their take on the Donkey Kong Country franchise with the extremely well-received Returns in 2010. The Entertainment and Analysis Division Group 1 needed help with Mario Kart 7 soon after, as Nintendo’s internal developmental resources were being stretched thin with the Wii U becoming real and the 3DS requiring games. Around half of Retro helped with Mario Kart 7 until its release in holiday 2011.

They had reached insane levels of popularity among the Nintendo fanbase at this point. Hype was through the roof for their next project — a game by Retro for a high-definition and powerful system? The mere thought was mesmerizing. At E3 2013, we discovered what this huge new project would be, and it was a sequel to Donkey Kong Country Returns called Tropical Freeze.

Regardless of your own personal opinion on the matter, the general consensus among gamers at the time was undoubtedly outrage. That view is certainly understandable, what with the potential of Retro on the Wii U being arguably unmatched. Should they really be used for another 2D platformer?

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Fans find themselves hoping and wishing all the more for Retro to expand into two full teams so that they may create more than one major project at a time and perhaps release games quicker than once every three years. The question for fans when it comes to Retro isn’t what they will probably create next, because they could take on anything. It’s whether or not they have a second game in development.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has clearly had more work than your average 2D platformer put into it, and a lot of manpower was put into it, with over one hundred developers working on the title. Everything had to be improved: the animation, detail, and backgrounds have clearly had a makeover. There doesn’t seem to be many objects transferring over from the last game, aside from the engine, Donkey and Diddy, and several other assets. All in all, it seems that this received the triple-A treatment and is more than just a stop-gap game.

Development started as half of the team working on assets while the other half worked on Mario Kart 7, and those who weren’t most likely have been working on Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. Though the port was done by Monster Games, Retro did help out so, while I doubt it took up many resources, it did at least take some.

There has been a fair amount of evidence on the other hand that is pointing towards Retro expanding into multiple teams. They moved into a new building a while back, increased how many employees they hire and, when pressed, Miyamoto had this to say:

“I think Retro has really come to a point at which it’s possible for it to have multiple lines running at the same time and having different projects in development. I totally think there are possibilities to see different projects from Retro in the future.”

It’s definitely by no means certain, let alone confirmed, but signs seem to be pointing to a second team — one that may be created in the near future, if it doesn’t exist already. We can all imagine what they might do with that: MetroidStar Fox? More Donkey Kong? A new IP? The possibilities are endless and we may see something sooner rather than later.

That’s it for first-party studios. There is still certainly quite a bit up in the air, but hopefully, this has continued to give a good idea of what resources Nintendo has at their disposal. We’ll be back soon with the major second-party studios.

Written by Jonathan Harrington

Jono loves to play and try out all types of games, but he’s especially fond of those with “Xenoblade,” “Okami,” or “Zelda” in the title. He is a features and reviews editor at Nintendo Enthusiast, though he also dabbles in news.

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