Unsung Heroes: Intelligent Systems

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When speaking of Nintendo, most people regard them in a general sense, which in other words means: Nintendo seems to have an image of solidity amongst gamers. When you look at Microsoft or Sony, you seem to more easily realize the fact that they actually are just a publisher name, and own many separate 1st party studios (internal or outside companies) who have their games published under the name “Microsoft Games Studios” or “Sony Computer Entertainment’. Nintendo is a first party publisher that houses many internal development teams within their walls. This is a common structure among publishers, but Nintendo has one major difference that most others don’t share. They didn’t buy those teams. They built and trained them from scratch. As such, any game that comes from Nintendo is branded as a “Nintendo game”. By that, gamers usually don’t acknowledge the fact that Nintendo, like any other first party publisher, is made up of various teams that create software under a common publisher name.

Just about anybody knows the name “Miyamoto”. That’s a common name in the gaming media, but that’s usually the extent of most common gamers knowledge. When you get into “hardcore” territory, you’ll find people who know the names “HAL” or “Retro”. They are outside companies which were acquired by Nintendo over time and independently create software under the Nintendo brand. When you go deeper, you get into the internal teams at Nintendo. Most hardcore fans know the name “EAD” (Entertainment, Analysis, & Development). This is the core team at Nintendo that houses all the smaller teams in an umbrella fashion. Shigeru Miyamoto is general manager, with smaller teams within headed by various people. But even with all of this information, one name still seems to slip between the cracks of common knowledge.

At the very beginning of Nintendo’s life in the gaming world, one of the most under-appreciated, under-acknowledged , and sometimes just plain overlooked development studios on the planet was founded. They have been responsible for some of gaming’s greatest series, as well as a wealth of innovation and creativity for almost thirty years, yet nobody seems to know their name. Many people may recognize their style. Their games have always had a quirkiness about them that stands out in contrast to everything else, including those from the rest of their parent company. They also have a sense of humor that is all their own. You likely know of their work, because their influence on gaming culture is undeniable, yet their name is obscure to all but the most hardcore of gamer.

The company I speak of is Intelligent Systems, Nintendo’s oldest and longest standing development group. Now working as a division of the Nintendo EAD group, Intelligent Systems is an internal, but independent and self sustaining development team within Nintendo of Japan that typically functions as a separate entity from the rest of the company. Ever heard of Metroid? How about Wario Ware? Fire Emblem or Tetris Attack anyone? Yeah, I’m sure you have heard those names. But have you ever heard of this group of people that brought you those immortal classics? Only in the last few years have they even bothered to put their name on the boot-up screens of their games, perhaps as a desperate call-out for attention from a media that ignores them completely. They could also be considered the most unfortunate of all the Nintendo teams due to consistently having their work scrutinized, titles canceled, and little assistance from the parent company until only recently. Intelligent System’s roots go far back into Nintendo’s history in video games. In fact, they go all the way back to the beginning. To best tell the story of Intelligent Systems, one must go back to the root of their foundation, and that leads us all the way back to Nintendo’s first and original internal hardware/software development team, R&D1, and its master of ceremonies, Gunpei Yokoi.

In the late 1960-early 70’s, Nintendo was still a confused company with no real direction. They knew they wanted to go somewhere, but that direction was uncertain. President Heroshi Yamauchi had pushed them towards a taxi business that failed due to union disputes, instant rice that tasted like instant Elmer’s Glue, and who can forget the infamous “Love Hotel”. Nintendo continued bouncing from one failed business to the next until 1968 when Yamauchi hired a man by the name of Gunpei Yokoi. He was a home-grown engineer and general tinkerer, who just so happened to be a fountain of innovative ideas. Yokoi started out in the company doing manual labor in the form of simply maintaining the manufacturing machines that produced Nintendo’s trademark “Hanafuda” playing cards, but his unknown talents wouldn’t stay hidden for long. Yokoi was an imagineer; he was always bringing his latest gadgets to work that he had built in his spare time. Word of this got around. Yamauchi desired to enter the toy business, and as such, directed Yokoi to come up with some new and innovative ideas for toys to set Nintendo apart from the rest of the very competitive market.

Yokoi’s first invention was the Ultra Hand, a device that was made of crisscrossed wood that when it’s handles were pushed together, would close the grippers at the other end allowing people to grab objects at a distance. The Ultra hand went on to be a smash hit selling well over a million units. Next up, he created the “Ultra Machine”; an automatic softball pitching device that could be used indoors or outdoors which sold hundreds of thousands of units. Though seemingly forgotten now, both devices went on to be hugely popular in their time. In fact, both toys make cameo appearances in the original Wario Ware for Game Boy Advance. The Ultra Hand is a micro-game in the 9-Volt collection, and the Ultra Machine is the boss. It’s just another example of Intelligent Systems remembering and paying homage to its roots, and founder.

Yokoi continued making new toys and gadgets for Nintendo for the next few years, including another you might have seen in Wario Ware. Yokoi created the Custom Gunman, in 1976 which served as the predecessor to the NES Zapper, and was Nintendo’s first foray into the world of light gun technology.

Following the success of the Gunman toy, Yokoi led Nintendo into the realm of solar cells. Gunpei Yokoi, Genyo Takeda (future creator of Punch Out!), and a man by the name of Masayuki Uemura (a former employee of Sharp) developed a light gun driven skeet shooting arena that led Nintendo into developing a successful chain of shooting arenas. These are just a few examples of Gunpei Yokoi’s countless ideas that he cranked out year after year. All of this went on until Yamauchi decided to give him a new challenge. Heroshi Yamauchi had been observing the growth of the home electronics industry over the past few years and had come to the decision that Nintendo’s future lay in this new consumer battlefield. After all, the best way to get a foothold in a growing business is to get in while it’s young. He decided to form an internal research and development group made of some of the best people within Nintendo, and new outside recruits with Gunpei Yokoi at the helm. Hence, Nintendo R&D1, the focus of this article, was born.

R&D1’s first product would be the product that wound define the company, and Nintendo as a whole. Inspired by the small digital calculators that had just become available at the time, Yokoi and R&D1 created their flagship product, the Game & Watch. The Nintendo Game and Watch brand were a series of small, handheld digital LCD games that could fit in the palm of your hand. They also featured a digital clock in the top right or left corner, hence the “watch” in the name. The initial selection was small, but fun. Early titles included such games as Vermin, Flagman, and Fire, and featured a simple layout of buttons…..just two. A left and a right button controlled movement, but soon, these became too simplistic, and Yokoi decided to add a new control device that would in time, become a video game control standard that is still going strong today. R&D1 created the modern Directional Pad, or “D-Pad” as we know it today. One of the designs for their Game and Watch series featured two-screens as well as a D-Pad, and likely serves as the main inspiration for a certain Dual Screened handheld that is dominating the market this very day.

Soon after creating The Game and Watch series, Yamauchi cleared R&D1 to kick their game up a notch and take on a larger market. R&D1 began development on several arcade titles, starting in 1979 with their very first arcade game, Sheriff. Sheriff was a black and white game where you stood in the center of an empty field and shoot at the bandits walking in formation around the outside of the arena (available as a “slightly-edited” unlockable in Wario Ware Mega Microgames). Sheriff went on to sell enough in Japan, Asia, and Europe to be considered a success, and R&D1 continued on it’s way.

Their next title was one that would change Nintendo’s fortunes forever, even though the title itself was a failure in all parts of the world but Japan. Around 1980, R&D1 put out a game called Radarscope. It was your standard average Space Invaders/Galaxian knock-off with a twist. You had a damage meter. Though visually impressive, the game lacked any real innovation in its design. Also, the sound effects were rather strange for a game of its type. They were extremely “cartoony” in nature. The game was a mild success in Japan, but bombed miserably everywhere else. Facing bankruptcy, Nintendo of America begged for a replacement. Not wanting to supply staff from other teams who were busy on their own projects, Heroshi Yamauchi sent one of their new staff artists to apprentice under Gunpei Yokoi and his R&D1 team so he could create his own game to use the Radarscope hardware. That staff artist was Shigeru Miyamoto. He had no experience in game design whatsoever, but learned quickly under R&D1. He functioned as director on this game while Gunpei Yokoi served as producer. R&D1 did the technical work, and Miyamoto directed the creative side as he learned the craft from the team that would soon become Intelligent Systems, and its brilliant founder.

The result of their work was none other than Donkey Kong itself. Though the story of the games creation and success is quite common, rarely is it mentioned that the game would not have ever come to fruition without the aid of Yokoi’s R&D1 team, and their technical wizardry. They would continue to assist Miyamoto in the creation of his next game, Donkey Kong Jr until Miyamoto was promoted and given his own team, R&D4. The two teams would collaborate on two more projects together, before going their separate ways. Pulling their collective creative horsepower, R&D1 and R&D4 created Devil World and Mario Bros for arcades. Devil World (an obviously Pac-Man inspired maze game) would go on to be the only Miyamoto directed title to never leave Japan due to its heavy religious references. Mario Bros. proved to be a huge global hit, but would be Miyamoto and Yokoi’s last cooperative work for over a decade until Donkey Kong ’94 for Game Boy a decade later which served as a fitting tribute to what these two masters created together so long before.

R&D3 was the primary team responsible for hardware and software development tools within Nintendo (headed by Genyo Takeda, Yokoi’s old partner on the light gun endeavor), and responsible for the creation of the Famicom/NES hardware, as well as Nintendo’s V.S. arcade hardware, that was very similar to the Famicom in most respects. They also developed the Punch Out! series, before retiring from game development in the mid-90’s. New venues to develop games had just been opened, but before this began, Gunpei Yokoi knew that his department’s resources were going to become strained with all the new ideas he had planned. As a result, Yokoi decided an expansion was in order. Thus marks the birth of Intelligent Systems.

Nintendo would continue to recognize Intelligent Systems and R&D1 “officially” as two separate teams on the balance sheets, but in reality the two teams were so closely interwoven, they functioned as one unit, continuingly swapping staff back and forth project to project. In fact, there are so many projects for which they shared development, it is almost impossible to try to separate them. In the end, its best to simply think of the R&D1 team (that would eventually move primarily into Game Boy development alongside console development) as a branch of Intelligent Systems, because that is how they functioned, and continue to function to this very day, even after Nintendo’s 2004 developmental restructuring. As such, for the remainder of this article they will be referred to collectively as Intelligent Systems.

With the creation of Nintendo’s new arcade and home hardware, the creative flood gates were opened. Intelligent Systems created a slew of new software in rapid succession. Their games were decidedly more arcade-oriented in nature, but they had an endearing quality and unique personality about them that few could claim. During this period, Intelligent Systems created beloved games such as Ice Climber, Donkey Kong 3 (featuring Stanley the bug man), Tennis, Excitebike, and Volleyball. With Urban Champion and Kung Fu, Intelligent Systems pioneered the untapped (and simplistic) world of fighting games. With Yokoi’s prior experience in the world of light guns, Intelligent Systems also pioneered new arcade and console variants of the technology that would be used to create games such as Duck Hunt, Gumshoe, and Hogan’s Alley, among several others. However, it should be noted that Yokoi did have one well-known failure during the NES era– the creation of the infamous Power Glove. Looking at the Nintendo Wii, you can see just how far ahead Yokoi was thinking when he created the device, but the technology just wasn’t there yet, nor would it be for several more console generations.

Contrary to popular belief, Intelligent Systems did not have anything to do with the creation of the NES Power Pad. The Power Pad was actually developed by Bandai, as well as the game World Class Track Meet. The rights to both were later bought by Nintendo. The other main title that used the device was Dance Aerobics; developed by Intelligent Systems, many still consider the game to be the early ancestor of games such as Dance Dance Revolution. Still, these are not the most important pieces of hardware innovation to come from Intelligent Systems. It was the invention of Rob the Robot that is most significant.

Rob the Robot was a total failure in the marketplace, but without his creation, Nintendo may never have been able to break into the North American marketplace at all, Super Mario Bros. or not. In a world where all the major retailers had been burned by the Atari fallout, Rob gave Nintendo of America a chance to re-brand their NES. Instead of “video games”, Nintendo went to retailers with Rob in hand and referred to their software as “Robot Games”. This clever little maneuver along with games like Gyromite managed to con retailers into taking one more chance on the electronic games market. Now of course, six months after the NES’s launch and the machine was a smashing success all across the continent, Nintendo dropped Rob like a bad disease, but without Intelligent System’s little Robot that could, Miyamoto’s plumber may have never gotten a chance to show the world what it was like to be “Playing With Power”.

Once Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda hit, Miyamoto’s team became the star attraction of Nintendo. With this turn of events (and fortunes), Yamauchi decided to merge R&D3, and R&D4 and place the former department heads under joint directorial control of the newly formed EAD (Entertainment, Analysis, and Development) division with Shigeru Miyamoto at the helm. R&D2 remained in hardware development, keeping close ties with Intelligent Systems and Yokoi’s Hardware team all the way up to 1996. In just a few games, Miyamoto’s titles had become household names. Even though Intelligent Systems’ output was greater than that of EAD, they were still without a franchise to their name. They had plenty of hits, but no well known faces. In order to spur a friendly corporate rivalry and spur new innovations, Yamauchi decided to place EAD and Intelligent Systems in direct competition with one another. It is during this time that Intelligent Systems developed two games that stuck in the hearts and minds of gamers forever. One would go on to become one of video gaming’s most treasured franchises, and the other would be a one hit wonder that would become a cult favorite for decades to come. Those games were Metroid, and Kid Icarus.

Metroid was a ground breaker in countless ways. It was the first Nintendo game to have a more serious tone in nature. Metroid was a dark, brooding adventure filled with danger and sci-fi thrills. It had a dark tone, menacing (and timeless) music which set the tone perfectly. The game, though overshadowed by Super Mario Bros., was still a smash hit in North America and Europe, but failed to perform as well in Japan. This was perhaps due to the fact that the game didn’t cater to Japanese tastes, but more likely because it was released exclusively for the Famicom Disk System, thus instantly limiting its potential user-base even further. Kid Icarus on the other hand failed to perform that well in any territory, but it is still remembered fondly as a classic title in it’s own right. Combining platforming elements from Mario, shooting elements from Metroid, and collecting elements from Zelda, Kid Icarus was a genre buster in many ways. It was also unique in its use of Greek mythology. Even though it was a commercial failure, Kid Icarus has achieved a cult fanbase that is strong to this day; so strong in fact, its star, Pit is now going to be featured in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Who knows where he might finally get the chance to go after that.

In 1988, Intelligent Systems began a franchise that would not see light of day in North America until the launch of Game Boy Advance, and even then, it was only brought over due to the necessity of launch titles, and the short supply thereof. You now know it as Advance Wars, but at the time, it was known as Famicom Wars, the turn based war strategy game that worked its way into the hearts of countless Japanese gamers due to its simple visual charm and deep gameplay. Though Intelligent Systems’ days of work on the NES were coming to a close, they were still conjuring a few more tricks behind the scenes. In the meantime, Gunpei Yokoi was about to create his greatest work. 1989 saw the release of the Nintendo Game Boy, and with it came a myriad of new game development opportunities, as well as a new development structure for Intelligent Systems. With the road to Game Boy development opened up, a small group of members from Intelligent Systems broke off to a sub-group focused primarily on Game Boy development, while the rest of Intelligent Systems would continue to focus on Nintendo’s console line. This sub-group would become known as Game Boy R&D1. Though Game Boy R&D1 would later be “officially” classified as a sub-group of EAD by Nintendo’s internal management after sharing development of Donkey Kong 94, Game Boy R&D1 worked as a branch of Intelligent Systems, usually sharing their collective staff on various projects form both sides. Since there are countless titles on which the two groups both contributed, it is best to think of them as one unit, because that is how they have functioned all the way up to today with the production of Wario Ware: Smooth Moves for Nintendo Wii.

Once Nintendo procured the rights to Tetris through one of gaming history’s trickiest legal battles, Intelligent Systems was given a new task. Alexey Pazhitnov may be responsible for the creation of Tetris, and Bullet Proof Software may be responsible for the Game Boy version, but it was Intelligent Systems who developed the fondly remembered North American NES version, (The Japanese version was produced by Bullet Proof Software a couple of years earlier) back in the days before block swapping and looking ahead five pieces. As big of a hit as the Tetris games were, the original Tetris was not their idea, but rather a stellar conversion. Taking a note from Tetris, Intelligent Systems decided to develop their own puzzle game using Nintendo’s flagship character. The result was the virus clearing, pill-dropping puzzler Dr. Mario. It went on to sell countless copies for the NES and Game Boy. They also brought us numerous Game Boy staples such as Super Mario Land and its successor, Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins (which sold 7 million copies) along with Alleyway, Tennis, Baseball, Kid Icarus 2: Of Myth and Monsters, and Balloon Kid. Though the two Super Mario Land titles were Mario games in premise, the games had a distinctively different style from the core Miyamoto/Tezuka games of console fame.

As great as the two Mario games for Game Boy were, the team shared a feeling of discontent with their creations. They felt as though they were simply creating “side games” to supplement the library of another game creator’s franchise. Intelligent Systems needed their own icon. They wanted a character to call their own that could represent them, just like Mario represented Miyamoto’s EAD team, but not somebody who was just like Mario. They wanted the complete opposite. They got just what they wanted in the form of Wario.

Wario’s appearance as the villain in Super Mario Land 2 was not a coincidence. They had every intention of using that game as an introduction for their character because they knew full and well if it was successful that they planned on converting the series into a line of Wario games. Created by Hirofuymi Matsuoka (whose credits include Kid Icarus and Metroid), Wario is thought to have been inspired by Foreman Spike, the villain in the NES game Wrecking Crew. He was the bad guy trying to stop Mario from destroying the buildings, and sported a similar appearance to Mario. Wario’s design was meant to be the polar opposite of Mario. He was the traditional greedy, selfish, fat, lazy slob you would expect, while not being necessarily evil in nature. He just holds a lifelong grudge against Mario for events that transpired when they were younger. The feelings between fictional characters Mario and Wario probably had more motivation behind them than most would realize. Intelligent Systems had been classed as second fiddle to Miyamoto’s EAD team since the late 80’s when Mario took off. Their resources and pull within the company as a whole reflected that. They didn’t want to be forever known as the guys who made Mario’s “side games”. They didn’t want to be classed as developers of what some would call “filler titles”. That’s why they so smoothly converted the Mario Land series into the Wario Land series. Wario was their character, and as such, they could project their own identity and style on him rather than try to imitate somebody else’s. From that day, the “Land” series took on a radically different style. No longer were you out to save the Princess or rescue a land from evil. You were out to get rich, and get rich quickly. Since Game Boy was the team’s primary home, they decided to make the Game Boy Wario’s primary home. Miyamoto’s Mario traditionally ruled Nintendo’s console line, and while he would make the occasional Game Boy appearance, Intelligent Systems/Game Boy R&D’s Wario would dominate the portable line. This setup would remain the same for many, many years.

With Yokoi overseeing the new Game Boy development branch more and more as it went on to develop more classics such as Metroid 2: The Return of Samus, the console half of Intelligent Systems began to break into smaller specialized groups to fully utilize their combined talent and increase developmental efficiency for the massive undertaking of development for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. In the end, Intelligent Systems became separated into four sub-divisions counting the Game Boy R&D division (though a fifth team was formed for a brief period for one special title), each of which were overseen by general manager Gunpei Yokoi, much in the way Miyamoto now oversees the collective Nintendo game development staff now.

The first team at Intelligent Systems was the primary group of individuals that were responsible for 1990’s Japanese Famicom smash hit, Fire Emblem. While most of Intelligent Systems was moving to Super NES development, Team Emblem, a team name they hold to this day, chose to place the first two titles in the series (The Dark Dragon and Sword of Light, and its sequel Fire Emblem Gaiden) on the original Famicom. Fire Emblem is a turn based strategy/RPG with a very rock-paper-scissors style of fighting where each weapon type has advantages and disadvantages against other types. The series is also known for its very high level of challenge. Rather than using randomly generated infantry units such as other turn based strategies of the era (Super Famicom Wars, and Military Madness), Fire Emblem instead utilizes a distinct cast of unique characters for each installment giving it balance between the epic storytelling of RPG’s and the strategic battles of turn-based simulators. Thanks to its story-driven nature, you also have a sense of danger and loss associated to your band of heroes, because the game instills an attachment to them within you thanks to the storyline, and when a character dies, they do not come back. This changes the whole game, as you cannot simply resurrect anyone. If they suffer a mortal injury, that’s the end. If you want to keep the band together, you have to play cautiously rather than throw more troops at the situation. With combat, war, romance, friendships, death, and twisted storylines, Fire Emblem has the ability to connect with fans on many levels. Characters with a strong friendship or deep love for one another can even perform better as a team. All of this combines to give the series an extreme level of depth and a large following.

Fire Emblem has ranked in Japan among such legends as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy due to its extreme level of popularity. In 1993, the series finally made its way to the Super Famicom with “The Mystery of the Emblem”, which was a huge enough of a release to warrant its own two part anime movie conversion. This title was divided into two distinctive parts with the first being a retelling of the original game, and the second being a direct continuation of those events. They would go on to produce three more Fire Emblem titles for the Super Famicom, with the third being the last commercial release for the Super Famicom. Team Emblem was the busiest branch of Intelligent Systems with the most consistent and loyal fanbase, though they would unfortunately become obscure to Nintendo fans in the rest of the world as Nintendo of America’s censorship guidelines at the time deemed the games too much of a challenge to localize into English, which stunted the growth of this much-heralded Japanese series’s fanbase for many years.

The second group is Team Shikamaru. This group of people produced one of their first major hits in the early days of the Super NES by creating one of the most innovative games of the era. Though now rather simplistic compared to today when every PC user has Photoshop sitting on their desktop, Mario Paint was considered revolutionary in its day, and as a simple creative drawing tool, it is still fun to play with even now. You could create stamps, compose music, draw, and even create simple animations with your homemade sprite and pictures. It also introduced a simple little mini-game that became quietly loved among the Nintendo hardcore…Gnat Attack, the fly swatting diversion that let you test out your advanced skills with the SNES Mouse that was packaged with Mario Paint. Team Shukamaru also landed more hits along with the successful console conversion of Will Wright’s Sim City, all the while adding their own personal style to the conversion. In 1994, they produced the North American exclusive compilation Tetris & Dr. Mario, featuring 16-bit updates of each game as well as an exclusive “Mixed Match” that allows you to play each game in a tag-team fashion for highest score. It went on to sell 6,000,000 copies, and be one of the very last Super NES titles to be discontinued. After that, they went on to develop the NES and Game Boy versions of Tetris 2, one of the most underrated puzzle titles of the era. The Super Nintendo version was later produced by Bullet Proof Software. Team Shikamaru was also responsible for the SNES launch title Super Play Action Football. Two of their least-known works are the conversion/remake of Excitebike known as Mario’s Excitebike, and Wrecking Crew 98, both released as downloadable games for the Satellaview download service in 1998, and both exclusively for Japan.

Next up, we have the most versatile of the teams with group three. Though many have also joined the team over the years, this group was originally staffed by R&D1’s oldest employees, the people who brought us such light gun classics as Duck Hunt, and Hogan’s Alley. With the Super Nintendo, they came together to develop a pack-in title for Intelligent System’s latest hardware gadget of the same name, the Super Scope 6.; a giant bazooka-inspired light gun for the Super NES. Like Team Emblem, Team Battle Clash was named for their first standalone title, Battle Clash (released in 1992) after Intelligent Systems split into defined groups. The game was well crafted, though it had limited popularity thanks to the modest success of the Super Scope itself. The sequel, Metal Combat 2: Falcon’s Revenge is almost a collector’s item thanks to ridiculously low sales. With two bombs, and a failed peripheral, Team Battle Clash’s fate was in question. It wasn’t until Team Battle Clash’s third game that they would discover their true abilities, and when they did, it resulted in one of the most addictive games ever created…Panel de Pon, known outside Japan as Tetris Attack.

Commonly referenced to as the video game equivalent of crack cocaine by those who give it a try, the game has a simple premise. Multi-colored/shaped blocks rise from the bottom of the screen at a steadily increasing rate. Use an on-screen cursor to switch like-colored blocks into rows of three to clear them. Clearing more than four blocks at once is a combo. This deals damage to the other opponent (or racks up score in single player). If you pull off a chain reaction that clears multitudes of blocks, you deal compounding damage. This was completely new for a puzzle game, and opened the title up to fierce competition between players thus becoming known as an action-puzzle game. With a perfected engine, amazing programming, colorful visuals, and catchy music, Panel de Pon was a smash hit in Japan, but when the time came to bring it to America and Europe, there was a problem. The characters in the game were fairies, the main one being named “Lip”, on a quest to save her brainwashed friends from the god Corderia. Nintendo of America felt that the predominantly “male” population of North American gamers would consider the game too “girly” and instead replaced all the original characters with stand-ins from Yoshi’s Island. This gave the illusion to buyers that “Tetris Attack”, as it was branded, was nothing more than a quick cash-in on the success of Yoshi’s Island. The yearlong delay to re-skin the game also caused it to slip directly into the release window of Super Mario 64, once again causing sales to suffer and the game to go widely overlooked in the dying days of the Super Nintendo. It never achieved anything beyond cult status among its fans.

The underselling of Panel de Pon would continue years later when Nintendo had Intelligent Systems cancel a Nintendo 64 update, only to later hand the completed engine over to Nintendo Software Technologies to be converted into the Pokemon tie-in that most people know the game by, Pokemon Puzzle League. It came in on the late days of the initial Pokemon craze, and got the same cash-in consumer write-off as Tetris Attack, being ranked among such class of games such as Pokemon Pinball, yet another Intelligent Systems game which was halted mid-development to be converted into a Pokemon promotional tool. Years later (2003), that original Panel de Pon “64” design would resurface in the form of a GameCube compilation also featuring 2001’s Dr. Mario 64 (Intelligent Systems), and Yoshi’s Cookie (Bullet Proof Software). To date, Nintendo of America has refused to release it probably due to the lack of sales the game might draw, all due to Nintendo of America’s mismanagement of the franchise, or because there was no current fad to which it could be converted to promote. The only succeeding version to date to make it out of Japan is the budget minded Game Boy Advance conversion Dr. Mario & Puzzle League released December 2005. That version was stripped of presentation altogether.

The last group of Intelligent Systems is a team that was pulled together for only one game, and what a game it was. Pulling people from Team Shikamaru, and the Game Boy R&D group, Intelligent Systems created Team Deer Force and began development on a game that would become heralded in the halls of video game greatness. After two years of rugged development and near-cancellation due to Nintendo’s concern of its growing budget, clocking in with the largest ROM size of its day, Intelligent Systems released in 1993 what is debatably their quintessential masterpiece: Super Metroid. The title was directed by Yoshio Sakamoto and produced by Makoto Kanoh and Gunpei Yokoi. Released to surprisingly little fanfare, Super Metroid was met with initially strong sales globally though the game never achieved its full potential due to the fact that Donkey Kong Country would steal all the attention away not long thereafter. The game signaled a long string of immortal 16-bit classics that would continue on to 1996. Super Metroid sold 780,000 worldwide, 460,000 of which came from North America. In all respects, Super Metroid is a masterpiece. Visually, the world almost seems to come to life with an atmosphere that draws you in. Musically, Kenji Yamamoto created a symphonic score that can both haunt and move you, filled with such atmospheric riffs that you sometimes forget that the whole soundtrack took up somewhere around 250 Kilobytes. There are few games which have the ability to instill fear in you, all the while driving you further into its clutches, and Super Metroid is the one that many try to emulate.

Yet alas, all good times must eventually come to an end. During the age of two dimensions, Intelligent Systems proclaimed dominance over the art of game design, but when the world went 3D, something went terribly wrong for the teams. The Nintendo 64 hardware and development kits were infamous for being among the most unfriendly development suites imaginable and resentment was not only brewing from third parties, but also from Nintendo’s internal teams. While Miyamoto’s team wrapped up Yoshi’s Island for SNES and was experimenting with what would become the benchmark for all 3D platformers for N64, Intelligent Systems was spinning its wheels in the mud while slipping out of the limelight. They had several major projects in the pipeline for development, but none of them were really getting any footing, and of the titles that actually got off their feet, most were canceled or turned into something else. To make matters worse, Team Emblem’s lead director and creator of the Fire Emblem series, Shouzo Kaga, left Nintendo due to internal politics and immense difficulty working with the N64 development kits. He opened his own studio known as Tirmanog Co., and begin work on games for the PlayStation platforms. His first game for the platform was Tear Ring Saga, but Nintendo wound up suing him and his studio because up until about a month before release, the game was marketed under the name Emblem Saga. Team Emblem itself had a Fire Emblem title in development for the better part of two years, but it was eventually shelved. Be it due to Intelligent Systems’ difficulty working with 3D, or Shouzo Kaga’s departure, we may never know. The series didn’t get back on its feet for several more years. Intelligent Systems was not the only ones to have the N64 bug hit them either. Nintendo subsidiary Hal Labs had a hard time with the N64 as well, with two games getting canned (one of which was Kirby’s Air Ride, a supposed N64 launch title that wouldn’t see light of day until 2003).

That isn’t to say Team Emblem had nothing but failure throughout the N64 era. They were also given the task of producing the sequel to Super Mario RPG once Nintendo and Square’s relationship had soured, and they did it with flair and style in the form of Paper Mario, one of the most original RPG concepts in memory. Paper Mario was also a landmark for Intelligent Systems, for it was the first time Nintendo allowed them to gain recognition for their work by putting their name and logo on the load screen. During all of this, Team Battle Clash had been trying to bring Panel De Pon to the N64, but as previously stated, Nintendo canned the title, then turned around a year later and gave it to NST to be converted into a Pokemon promotional spin-off.

While all the console drama was going on, Team Shikamaru had been working as a unit with Game Boy R&D to produce some portable classics including Wario Land II and the much beloved Wario Land III, a game that took portable platformer design to new heights. They also assisted EAD with some development on The Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening a few years earlier. Their most innovative device produced during that era was the Game Boy Camera, a monochrome camera that was attached to a Game Boy cartridge, allowing players to take pictures, draw on them, print them with the optional Game Boy Printer, then play games with the images. In the days where few people had access to the internet and 56K modems were still the gold standard, this little novelty was far ahead of its time, and possibly helped blaze the trail for today’s ubiquitous webcam world. They were the primary team bringing money into the group during the dark days of their fellow teams, but by working primarily on portables, they had their fair share of failures as well. Team Shikamaru and the Game Boy R&D group were the primary, and almost only, developers to support the Virtual Boy during its short lifetime. The machine was Gunpei Yokoi’s failure, and his teams had to bear the burden of its weight. They worked gallantly to put out a high caliber of games such as: 3D Tetris, Mario Clash, Galactic Pinball, Mario Tennis, as well as a slew of titles that were canceled when Nintendo finally pulled the plug on the machine. Among all of those titles, the one title that stood out was Virtual Boy Wario Land. Had the title been released on any other platform, it would have been seen as an instant hit with it perfect presentation of the classic Wario Land style gameplay, and unique style, yet the game was released on a stillborn platform, and remains obscure to this day. After this humiliating failure, most of Gunpei Yokoi’s authority and influence in Nintendo faded, even in the light of his recent success of rejuvenating the Game Boy line with Game Boy Pocket. He soon left the company and his struggling development teams. He was replaced by Takehiro Izushi, director of Team Shikamaru who continues to supervise the group today. In a tragedy that would shock the entire industry, Gunpei Yokoi would tragically die in a car crash the next year. He left behind a legacy of games that continue to influence the industry even now.

Adding salt to the wound, and in what is probably the greatest loss of the 64-bit era, the members of Team Deer Force attempted to come back together to produce a true three-dimensional update to the Metroid series, a game that would play from a third person perspective, yet retain all the characteristics of the much heralded Super Metroid. Early on in development, the game was scrapped by Nintendo one month short of the first screenshots being revealed in Nintendo Power Magazine. No explanation was given, no apology offered. The game disappeared into the void, and was never seen again. Yet in the end, all was not lost. Team Deer Force would be seen again, just on another platform.

It had been a dark time for Nintendo’s oldest development team, and a dark time for Nintendo in general as the N64 passed on with only a single first party release in the year 2001 leading up to GameCube launch. That title was Dr. Mario 64, Intelligent System’s swan song to a sour era for their group. The 2D puzzle game perfected the Dr. Mario gameplay formula and added a four player mode, but went on to only modest sales. While console fortunes were dwindling, a portable machine would bring Intelligent Systems out of their misery and into the limelight. When Game Boy Advance launched in the latter half of 2000, Intelligent Systems would release over a dozen games in a few short years. The original teams have more or less been randomized, but the original staffers form up in different groups depending on the title at hand. It is during this time that Intelligent Systems gained their most wide-reaching fame, and is also the time in which the Fire Emblem series would not only be brought back to life with its seventh installment, but also make its long overdue debut overseas in North America and Europe, possibly due to the rise in attention the series gained when Marth and Roy made appearances in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Intelligent Systems’ Mario Kart Super Circuit successfully blended the Mario Kart 64 style with classic Mode 7 gameplay. With Advance Wars 1 & 2, Intelligent Systems finally brought their stalwart turn-based war series to the world outside Japan where it was met with rave reviews and stellar sales, much to Nintendo’s dismay. In 2005, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike for Nintendo DS even managed to garner perfect review scores when it hit North American scores.

2002 was an amazing year for Metroid fans due to the fact that the series went 3D in the caring hands of Retro Studios, but there were still many who had reservations about a first person Metroid Adventure even after seeing the results. To ease these concerns, the original Team Deer Force reunited under the watchful eye of Super Metroid director, and co-creator of the Metroid franchise Yoshio Sakamoto to produce a true sequel to Super Metroid done in the original style. That game was Metroid Fusion, a game that pushes the GBA hardware to its maximum limits, which is considerably more impressive due to the game’s age. Perhaps their knowledge of the hardware can be attributed to the fact that Intelligent Systems had a lot to say concerning the platform’s actual development. Following the success and instant praise from gamers, the teams decided that it was time to bring the original Metroid out of the 8-bit simplicity it was born into, and remake the entire game in the style of the series’ most beloved installment. With 2004’s Metroid Zero Mission, Team Deer Force did just that. Adding new elements, power-ups, visual polish unmatched on the platform, and an entire new sub-story, Metroid Zero Mission rivaled and beat most modern console titles in terms of quality.

With the ever-quirky Wario Land 4 in 2001, Intelligent Systems created one of the most original and creative platformers in the Nintendo library, and also set the tone for the character’s next big evolution. In 2003, the Wario series took an unexpected and quite wild turn. Under director Hirofumi Matsuoka, Intelligent Systems took the concept of “mini-games” and pushed it a step further with a game that came totally out of left field: Wario Ware: Mega Microgames. Wario Ware’s variety is unmatched. Inside, there are 201 “Micro” games. The catch is, each one only lasts five or so seconds before the next one is rapidly thrown at you. This repeats, and gets faster and faster as the game rolls onward. With the random nature of its design, the game has seemingly endless replayability. The series also has one of the most “out there” styles imaginable; so out there in fact, Nintendo of America had to censor one small element of the game for its American release. In the last boss of the last group of Microgames, Wario has to use his skateboard to literally outmaneuver giant brown wads of crap falling from the sky. Strange sound effects, wacky Japanese/English lyrics, absurdly original characters, goofy visuals, and some random retro throwback gags make one of the craziest packages imaginable, but also one of the most enjoyable. Wario Ware is the game that even Shigeru Miyamoto himself is quoted as being envious that he didn’t come up with the idea.

In 2005, the sequel Wario Ware Twisted was released, and with it came one of the most unique and innovative gameplay additions conceivable. The cartridge was built with a full gyroscopic sensor and rumble motor, and all of the title’s microgames were built around this concept, very few requiring any button input at all. The cartridge was reportedly expensive to manufacture, but Nintendo took the gamble, and it was well worth it, bringing the series more critical acclaim, including awards from the media, as well as love from the fanbase. The tilt-centric Super Mario Bros. boss stage is worth the price of admission alone. Wario Ware Touched for Nintendo DS was a slightly delayed launch title, and was met with mixed reviews. Most believed it didn’t quite match the insanity of its predecessors. That was likely due to the fact that though the title was indeed produced by Intelligent Systems, it was not developed by the original group of people responsible for the previous titles. Now in 2007, Wario Ware is getting its first “real” console installment in the form of Wario Ware: Smooth Moves for Nintendo Wii, and it promises to make a complete fool out of anyone who plays it, and bring the series back to its roots. You couldn’t ask for anything more.

Although Intelligent Systems’ output for the Game Boy Advance was extensive enough, the GameCube even got some attention during its lifespan, bringing the team back to consoles. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was released in 2004. It was heralded as one of the funniest games in ages, and one of the best English localization scripts Nintendo ever produced. The next year saw the revival of a project that died on N64. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance was finally released in all regions to much acclaim. Wario Ware: Mega Partygames, though seemingly a budget title using mostly elements from the original GBA title, made for a good multiplayer experience on GameCube in 2003.

Still, even with all this success, Intelligent Systems remains in relative obscurity. Few gamers know their name, even though they are responsible for some of the most beloved titles in Nintendo’s library. In 2005, news was leaked that a new installment in the Metroid series was in development for Nintendo DS titled Metroid Dread, a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion using the original Metroid formula from Team Deer Force. To this day, it has never been confirmed, and is now believed to be canceled. Perhaps it never existed, or perhaps Nintendo had the project canned due to the poor consumer reaction (not to mention poor Metroid fanbase reception) to NST’s Metroid Prime Hunters? Is this another case of Intelligent Systems getting the short end of the stick, or just rampant rumors? After that, something that could have been terrible took place, but in retrospect, it was not a major issue. In 2005, Satoru Iwata combined all of Nintendo’s internal development teams under the collective EAD banner. This does not mean that Intelligent Systems was shut down and their resources spread out amongst the company, much akin to what happened to the majority of Sega’s developmental staff after the Sammy buyout. It was more of a corporate restructuring to better balance resources, rather than a radical change to the teams themselves. Basically, Intelligent Systems has the funds necessary to produce a large variety of major console games for the first time in years, but it also means that now Intelligent Systems has an even more difficult time gaining any recognition for their work thanks to the new structure, as well as Nintendo’s continued reluctance to offer any mainstream credit to their individual talent outside of EAD.

Intelligent Systems is now a subsidiary of the EAD team that they basically helped to create almost two decades ago. For generations now, their work has been enjoyed by millions, yet their name in still hidden in obscurity. The Fire Emblem series, Dr. Mario, Metroid, Game Boy, Game Boy Camera, Kid Icarus, Super Metroid, Tetris Attack, Tetris 2, Super Scope 6, Tetris DS, Paper Mario, Duck Hunt, and all of the Wario games, including Wario Ware. This is but a small selection of their massive contribution to gaming culture. As we step into the next generation of gaming with the Nintendo Wii, Intelligent Systems is there with new games, and for the first time in years, a full console-ready budget to bring us a whole new generation of the genre-busting innovation, along with their decidedly wacko style that has endeared their games to console and portable owners around the world, even if they have no clue who developed it.