Note: In honor of the long overdue announcement of Metroid Prime 4, I will be playing and reviewing all three titles in the series! For context, I am replaying it via the 2009 Wii compilation Metroid Prime Trilogy, which features all three games with “enhanced” Wii pointer controls.
Metroid is a magnificent series of games. Even before Metroid Prime brought it into the 3D world, Metroid had made its mark, so much so that its name has come to define an entire genre of games (“Metroidvania”). However, after the release of Super Metroid, the series would go dormant for eight long years. In 2002, the series would return in full force with not one, but two new games, Metroid Fusion, a sequel that plays in a 2D perspective similar to the classic games, and Metroid Prime on the GameCube, which featured something surprising for a Nintendo title: a first-person perspective.
It would be Metroid Prime that would have the most impact on the series. Developed by a rookie developer from Texas, Retro Studios, Prime is today what we consider to be the equivalent of Super Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time to the Metroid series. Prime elegantly elevated the mechanics of its predecessors into a three-dimensional space, staying true to its roots, but simultaneously modernizing the series and making it achieve more than anyone thought was possible.
While Metroid Prime looks like an FPS on the surface, playing through the game makes you realize that the label doesn’t really fit. Sure, it is first-person, and you shoot things, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is vastly different from most FPS titles. Instead, Prime‘s major focus is exploration and discovery, much like its 2D predecessors. There are many action-packed sequences sprinkled throughout, of course, but trying to play this game like you’d play a Halo or even Half-Life would leave you very frustrated.
You play as the series’ famed heroine, Samus Aran, who is responding to a distress signal on a spaceship orbiting the planet Tallon IV. Samus discovers that the Space Pirates have been carrying out mysterious experiments on the ship, and as a result everyone onboard has been killed. After a battle with one of their monstrous experiments, and an encounter with her old enemy Ridley, a weakened Samus gives chase to the surface of Tallon IV, where she must regain her full power and investigate the nature of the Space Pirates’ evil plans.
That exposition is about all of the story that the game forces upon you. Once you reach Tallon IV, the game lets you loose to find your own way. For those who are unfamiliar with Metroid, it is essentially up to you to delve into the game’s sprawling overworld, finding upgrades to Samus’s Power Suit, and collecitng Chozo Artifacts, the items that eventually unlock the path to the game’s final encounter. With each new power that you collect, you are able to progressively unlock areas that may have been inaccessible beforehand.
If that sounds pretty open-ended, that’s because it is. It’s generally up to you to find the right path forward, and the game very rarely gives you hints or tries to push you in a certain direction. Don’t think that this game is without story, however. Metroid Prime is a masterwork in how to handle contextual and environmental storytelling. As you explore Tallon IV, a planet that is as beautiful and tranquil as it is dangerous and corrupted, you can see the the state of the world for yourself. You learn about its history from the ruins of the ancient civilizations that disappeared long ago. From examining the dangerous Space Pirate laboratories in the planet, you learn about their plans, and how they pose a threat to both Tallon IV and the galaxy at large.
It helps that Metroid Prime is a visually stunning game–in 2002, it looked absolutely incredible. Even today, although video games have come a long way in graphical fidelity, Prime still has this beautiful style that only Metroid can capture correctly. From the peaceful Tallon Overworld, to the claustrophobic Magmoor Caverns, the game’s awesome combination of trippy visual art and atmospheric music make it as awe-inspiring today as it was almost 15 years ago. Its first-person perspective really serves to maximize the immersion, and to amplify all of these qualities so much more. In Super Metroid, you were looking at Samus as an outsider–in Metroid Prime, you are Samus.
Aside from the wonderful visuals, Metroid Prime featured rather tight controls, even for a console shooter of the time. Some may argue this is an aspect of the game that has aged rather badly, but I don’t really see it that way when I play the original GameCube version of the game. The shooting controls are not very accurate, since aiming is tied to your movement (Think GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64). In order to aim up or down, you have to stop moving and hold down the right trigger in order to freely aim. The thing is, Metroid Prime is not a game that requires accurate shooting, so this control scheme doesn’t really detract from the game. What it does do is that it maps out all of Samus’s abilities in a very intuitive manner, and you won’t be doing much to any menu-flipping except to read through the game’s many lore-filled text logs.
However, I would be remiss to not mention that the Wii version of this game included in the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection features improved pointer controls that use the Wii remote for aiming. This is my first time with these controls (I haven’t played Metroid Prime 3 before), and I have to say that they vastly improve the immersion in the game. It really changes the way you can tackle enemy encounters in the game, allowing you to be far more dynamic with your moves. You can still tell that the game was designed with its more rigid GameCube controls in mind, but you can still access the original’s essential lock-on feature, so nothing is lost in the process. I highly recommend this version of the game over the original, just for the improved immersion alone.
Prime‘s biggest success is how playing it makes you feel throughout the course of the game. You start out pretty vulnerable at first, equipped only with Samus’s basic suit and power beam, but as you collect power ups, you start to feel powerful. The sense of reward is so big in this game, since that power is not consequence of your progress in some predefined narrative, nor because it was just handed down to you. You earned that power through through your blood, sweat and tears, trudging through the scary dungeons that lie inside of the game’s complex and interconnected world.
Ever Get That Feeling of Deja Vu?
While Metroid Prime is a game that I hold very close to my heart, having spent hours upon hours lost in its world when I was younger, I have to admit that there are some flaws in its design that are worth mentioning. Interestingly enough, the game’s openness and lack of direction end up being both its greatest asset and its biggest problem. You will very often find yourself totally lost without any clue as to where to go next, and due to the world’s large size, it’s hard to search for tiny clues in the environment that might lead you to a new area. Some other sections require you to use the game’s Scan Visor in order to advance, but there is often little indication when such action is needed. You essentially have to be constantly searching, meticulously inspecting the environment so you don’t miss anything. It can be fun sometimes, but in Prime it’s just really exhausting.
Additionally, due to the way that the power ups and items and distributed throughout the world, you’ll be doing a lot of backtracking in this game. A lot of times, that’s OK. Backtracking is an art that Metroid has perfected over the years, after all. There’s a special feeling of reward that you get when you look around an area you’ve been to before with new abilities, finding secrets that were inaccessible to you before. However, in Prime, it’s so damn prevalent that it can get frustrating. You constantly have to make the trek back and forth from one area to another, and after a while, it just gets so repetitive that playing the game can lose its charm and become busywork. Some kind of basic fast travel system would have helped a lot in this regard.
A Timeless Classic
Metroid Prime deserves all of the praise that it gets. This game pushed the boundaries of what a game can be. Prime is all about putting you in the shoes of Samus and making you feel like you’re her. You are not force-fed the narrative against your will–you create the narrative as you go. It has all the best aspects of a great game: you are constantly rewarded for exploring and going off the beaten path and you are given an expansive and fun set of tools with which to explore its equally expansive and fun world.
Last, but not least, this game is still a masterpiece in its visuals, music and game world. Even though its visuals have aged, they still convey Tallon IV perfectly. The visuals and music can be beautiful, surreal, frightening, sorrowful… It’s an emotional powerhouse. All that for a game where you can go through it without investing time in learning about its world. If you just want to blast through enemies and rock out as a badass lady space warrior, you can do that too. Once can only hope that Nintendo’s upcoming Metroid Prime 4 can capture all of these things too.
- A vast, complex world that is a blast to explore. It is visually stunning and diverse, even 15 years after its release.
- The music is fantastic, ranging from ambient melodies to trippy electronic tunes that perfectly fit the mood.
- The assortment of tools and powerups are a blast to find and use.
- Tons of power ups and secrets to find.
- The game is incredibly immersive thanks to the meticulous attention to detail in the HUD and in the way Samus moves and behaves.
- The story is unique in that it is mainly told through the environment. It is one of the best examples of this kind of storytelling in all of gaming.
- A visual masterpiece. It’s stunning to see that a game of this graphical level could exist as early as it did.
- Makes the jump into 3D while still being true to its roots, and unapologetically so. This is a Metroid game first and foremost, and everything else is second to that.
- The controls in the Wii re-release of the game are very immersive, and greatly improve the overall experience.
- There is an exhausting level of backtracking, even for a Metroid game.
- Progression can sometimes be obtuse, having unreasonably hidden paths for simply completing the game.