How Silicon Knights Conquered What Nintendo Feared

The sixth generation was a time of reformation for the game industry. With three major consoles instead of two and lots of fresh new IP’s bursting from new studios, the market was reaching a new level of diversity. Despite Sony and Microsoft’s interest in the more mature markets, Nintendo and their Gamecube console rotated many of the same gears the company was turning during the Nintendo 64 days. Their games were excellent, but with the mature market becoming steadily more important, it was becoming a missed opportunity. Nintendo didn’t focus much of their internal energy on that market, but despite that, they skillfully added a second-party developer during the N64 era, a developer that turned the Gamecube’s library on its head and went where Nintendo themselves wouldn’t dare tread. That development house was the late Silicon Knights.

Silicon Knights’ early years, while productive, were generally derivative. They made a number of smaller games like the DOS strategy game Cyber Empires in 1992 and the 1995 Sega Saturn port of The Horde, a 3DO game that mixed action with full-motion video. The dev house’s first high-profile release was Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the first game in the Legacy of Kain series. Originally released for the Playstation, Blood Omen mixed mature action with role-playing elements, all displayed from a top-down perspective and enhanced with open-ended exploration. The game was received positively by critics while also selling surprisingly well for a fresh IP, netting Silicon Knights their first big hit with the gaming crowd. However, future games in the Legacy of Kain series would eventually fall under the umbrella of Crystal Dynamics, who received series’ rights after a messy legal dispute with Silicon Knights, who were forced to abandon the license.

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Despite the setback on Playstation, Silicon Knights pushed forward. Their work netted them recognition by Nintendo and Silicon Knights signed an exclusivity deal with the company in 2000. The first project under Nintendo’s console support was originally for the Nintendo 64. The game was a military-focused action game that took place in the Middle East. However, due to the September 11 attacks, work on the project was halted, cited by the company as something the public wasn’t ready to experience under the current political and social conditions. Development began on a brand new project taking place in medieval times and featuring a Knight Templar as a protagonist. In expansion of the concept, the Knight Templar idea was toned down and would eventually become Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

Officially released in 2002 on the Nintendo Gamecube, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem followed a survival horror story that took place across different historical eras and featured multiple characters. The main plot tied the characters together with the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a cursed artifact that turns one of its main characters, Pious Augustus into an undead lich. The story’s use of multiple eras is supported by the official main character, Alexandra Roivas, a modern-day woman who discovers the tome after hearing of her grandfather’s gruesome death. The game’s use of Lovecraftian imagery and a multi-layered narrative were highly praised, but the game used an intelligent, fourth-wall-breaking tactic of horror with its sanity effects. When your character encountered enemies or dangerous situations, their sanity meter would deplete, which would not only cause mind trickery for your character, but also for the player. Effects like your TV lowering its volume, mysteriously turning off, or the infamous erasing of the memory card were poignant, eerie, and innovative in making the player uncomfortable and nervous in their own real world. With so much inventive guts in its body, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was one of the most critically acclaimed games of its release year, netting a number of end-of-the-year awards and being routinely featured as one of the best Gamecube exclusives and best horror games ever made.

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Silicon Knights had made a name for themselves with Eternal Darkness, but their next project would be a steep one. Contacted by Konami and Hideo Kojima, Silicon Knights was enlisted to create a Gamecube remake of the original Metal Gear Solid called Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Under the guidance of both Shigeru Miyamoto and Kojima himself, Silicon Knights developed a next-generation world that perfectly recreated the memorable story of Metal Gear Solid, but with improved control setups (many of which taken from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty) and sharper, crisper graphics. Cutscenes were heavily remade (mostly done by Konami themselves, along with Japanese film director Ryuhei Kitamura) with improved choreography, “bullet-time” direction like in the introduction of Otacon, and cleaner textures. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, despite being a relatively consistent remake, was widely praised for its upgrades to presentation and small, but noticeable improvements to controls.

Silicon Knights was riding high as a blissfully mature trailblazer for the Gamecube, approaching new genres and series that Nintendo was generally known for avoiding. However, the dev house’s next project, Too Human, would be a tumultuous one. Infamous for sitting in development hell for nearly ten years and moving from the Playstation to the Gamecube to the Xbox 360, Too Human would go through a number of forms before being released exclusively on the 360. The ambitious mix of Norse mythology and science fiction was commended for originality and the demo proved a strong amount of anticipation, but the game was ultimately panned…heavily. With repetitive environment design, a terrible use of the right analog for combat instead of camera, and a canceled cooperative mode that would’ve done magic for the game’s appeal, Too Human became a big loss for Silicon Knights.

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To make matters worse, the company sued Epic Games, the creators of the Unreal Engine 3 used in Too Human, claiming that the engine offered for Too Human was not functioning properly and the proper version was not sent to them by the promised deadline. Silicon Knights lost the lawsuit and was forced to pay $4.5 million dollars to Epic. Additionally, all copies of Too Human were forced to be destroyed and removed from the Xbox Marketplace. The last game made by Silicon Knights was the terribly received X-Men Destiny, which was panned considerably for its repetitiveness, bugginess and overall poor design. As with Too Human, X-men Destiny copies were forced to be recalled, since it also used the Unreal Engine. After the critical failure of X-Men Destiny, the results of the lawsuit with Epic left Silicon Knights in financial danger, forcing the company to ultimately collapse.

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Silicon Knights’ financial history has become something of industry legend, where a single, lengthy, misguided lawsuit cost an entire company its future. However, something worth noting is the company’s importance to Nintendo during the sixth generation of consoles. Silicon Knights, along with Retro Studios, were one of the few Nintendo-focused developers that embraced many of the growing trends of the post-cartridge world of gaming. With Playstation, gaming became much less whimsical. Realism and a strong focus on action were steadily becoming important factors in appealing to fresh new demographics, and with the sixth generation, it became clear that gaming no longer followed Nintendo’s path exclusively. The fresh new IP’s that appeared on the Gamecube during that time usually kept much of the universally accepted Nintendo tone. Pikmin, Luigi’s Mansion and Animal Crossing still possessed a fantastic and approachable nature, but in a world where games like Grand Theft Auto and Halo were becoming popular, Nintendo didn’t shoot for those same targets.

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Silicon Knights were Nintendo’s hidden blade. They unexpectedly tackled subjects, moods and atmospheres that Nintendo themselves were not willing to touch. Nintendo kept their appeal broad and approachable for all ages, but Silicon Knights were not content with changing their established strength on Playstation into something that fit Nintendo’s expected role. Eternal Darkness was a powerful statement, an exclusive that tackled a dark, textured and constantly unsettling style of narrative. Lovecraft-inspired tones and a very picturesque view of the human condition and the world built around it was something that no one expected to stand alongside The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Mario Sunshine as one of the best Gamecube titles ever made not because it wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t Nintendo.

Similarly, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was a transition of the remarkably sophisticated story that drew many gamers to the Playstation during its early years. It was intriguing, rich with subject matter that was bathed in suspense. It was layered. It was a story that captured the cinematic flair of spy films and thrillers alike. Nintendo rarely approached any of their games with the same mindset in tow. Nintendo were always very up-front in showing the appeal of their most iconic franchises; they didn’t like to add too much mystery to how their games were played and experienced. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was a statement of steady sophistication of Nintendo’s library, and Silicon Knights did a bang-up job in refining the cinematic quality of the game to a level untouched by Nintendo’s competitors. Metal Gear Solid did not look better on any other system at the time, and since it was such a drastically mature and different game for Nintendo’s system, it made that texture even more apparent, and as a result, appealing.

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Despite Silicon Knights’ demise, they did a lot during their heyday, more than many give them credit for. They created vivid stories, produced excellent cinematic flair, and innovatively blurred the line between reality and fiction. But what they did the most was add a strong altered view of the Gamecube’s library. They produced two striking, polished and excellent games for the console, but most importantly, they created games that Nintendo themselves had not had the guts to create. Brooding references to dark, apocalyptic horror and suspenseful tales of worldwide espionage and intrigue; these were games you simply would not expect Nintendo to make. Silicon Knights gave a new perspective toward the Gamecube library, developing strong and poignant exclusives that showed what the Gamecube could do, but also showed experiences unheard of on Nintendo hardware. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes were fantastic games on their own, but the fact that they were on Nintendo’s turf made their presence all the more distinctive and important.

  • Charles Dexter Ward

    For every SK right, they have done many wrongs, nintendo gave no go to too-human for a reason, they didn’t hear nintendo and tried to publish on sony’s platform and eventuall on ms’s and the result was a mediocre game, which didn’t got in return what SK invested, they tried to get it from epic and well, SK is dead now and the their leader is trying to repeat all of his wrong doings on precursor games..