Metroid Prime

Developer: Retro Studios
U.S. Publisher: Nintendo
Original U.S. Release: 2002
Genre: First-person adventure. OK, fine. FPS.

Based on: Samus Aran completely destroying the odds by showing that Texans could make a better Metroid game than Nintendo R&D1. What the--!?

Games | GameCube? | Metroid Prime

Article by Parish | December 2002

Metroid Prime may well be the most fun I've ever had while being forcefully reminded of my mortality.

Like any geek with an ever-so-slight tendency toward the unhealthily obsessed, I measure out the hours of my life not in coffee spoons but rather in video games. I find it much easier to recollect the dates of landmark personal events by plotting out what I was playing at the time than by using more sensible techniques, like matching up then-current events, or who I was dating, or even popular music of the time. It helps that console generations have been rougly analogous to major phases of my life. In that sense, Metroid is sort of like a baseline of existence for my life since adolescence: it was the first NES game I ever purchased, and likewise the first game I ever truly mastered [1]. A few years later, the Super NES sequel prevented a young college student named J. Parish from making a tragic mistake by writing off gaming as a frivolous children's pastime; it renewed his interest in the medium, which had waned as the NES had faded to obsolescence. So, yeah. As far as I'm concerned, the Metroid series is what gaming is all about.

And that's why Metroid Prime makes me feel old. While I'm perfectly keen on playing a sophisticated, up-to-date reinvention of the games that got me hooked on contemporary games in the first place, I also find the whole affair a bit depressing. Not only does Prime serve as a reminder that the simple, two-dimensional format of its classic predecessors is unfashionable, it also proves that 2D gaming as a whole may in fact be unnecessary. Prime somehow manages to retain the feel of its older siblings while eschewing their old-fashioned interface, embracing instead the most recent technology and gameplay design the medium has to offer.

But this review isn't about some aging Xer's fond reminscences and furtive efforts to maintain his grip on a childhood receding as quickly as his hairline [2]. My love for the Metroid games isn't aberrant madness; practically every gamer with documentation indicating American citizenship feels all weak and gooey in the knees when you hum the Brinstar theme. Which is what makes Metroid Prime all the more remarkable: despite being a high-profile, high-concept sequel to a game fiercely loved by millions, despite representing a radical shift in the series' game design, despite being crafted by a developer no one had ever heard of, despite the fact that no one expected it to be a respectable effort - it works. And gamers, generally eager to point out the tiniest flaws in practically anything they can get their hands on, have been so busy savoring Prime's pleasures that they've completely forgotten to complain about how awful it supposedly is.

Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Prime proves once and for all that even the greenest and most untested developer can create a brilliant follow-up to a venerable series. The game was designed by Retro studios, a development house with exactly zero credits under their belt. Which begs the question: why was some novice company able to make an amazing sequel to someone else's franchise, while Core can't even come up with a single worthwhile Tomb Raider? sequel? [3]

The Metroid games have always been about exploration and backtracking, and Retro managed to translate that to the GameCube with admirable deftness. The Metroid games are also about jumping, and Prime also has that in spades. A frightening notion on the surface, but despite what Dark Forces? and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter? have taught us, jumping in first-person games doesn't have to suck. Actually, Jumping Flash! - a simple-looking first-generation PlayStation game - taught us that lesson eight years ago, but apparently Retro Studios is the first group of designers to make use of Sony's fine example. The jumping aspect of Metroid has been toned down here; Samus' usual back-and-forth spinning acrobatics take a back seat to more sensible aerial maneuvers, though you'll find plenty of reason to experiment with hang time. Samus even acquires a double-jump skill straight out of Jumping Flash? - but as in Sony's mecha-rabbit simulator, this doesn't make the game ludicrously hard to play, because the camera works intelligently and pans down slightly as you descend to give you an indication of where you're about to land. It's a subtle but incredibly helpful trick which has inexplicably gone unstolen until now.

Even more importantly, the game feels like Metroid. Using subjective terms like "feel" is always a bad idea in reviews, but until someone devises an English word meaning "a next-generation video game sequel that retains the atmosphere and overall sensation of its more primitive predecessors despite the advances in technology," the word "feel" will simply have to do. There are more than merely superficial similarities between Metroid Prime and Super Metroid - anyone can graft items and enemies from an old classic onto some random 3D framework, but that does not a genuine successor make. Far more important are things like game structure, character abilities, and all those little intangibles that make a crusty old veteran say, "Hey - I remember that from the other game." Turning into a rapidly-spinning ball to pass through crevasses, classic background music, skills and powers straight out of Super Metroid, leaping around like you're made out of springs: these are a few of my favorite things (about Metroid Prime).

Retro's secret was to adopt the first-person perspective concept - thus ridding themselves of the camera problems that plague all free-roaming third-person 3D games - and take out most of the wanton violence and action. In their place the programmers added an intricate, interconnected world full of interesting puzzles and traps [4], thus playing up the "adventure" element. There are still plenty of things to blow up - aside from its unique and challenging boss battles, Prime has enemies galore to pummel in classic Metroid style - but the frantic pace typical of the FPS genre has become something far more strategic. There's much more caution and exploration involved; representative of this is the fact that Samus is equipped with four alternate face visors, each of which is necessary to progress through various segments of the game. Different visors offer both visual and aural clues depending on their context, and while staring at wall carvings with the Scan visor or ducking around looking for hairline enemy weaknesses with the X-Ray vision mask can be a bit of a chore at times, it offers a welcome change from the mindless carnage of Unreal? without inflicting upon players the rigid pre-scripting of Half-Life?. Even the control scheme reflects this design philosophy - the camera button has scandalously been assigned the task of switching guns rather than pretending to mlook for ease in killing foes. Some PC gamers are no doubt horrified about this, but it's a design decision that works perfectly in the game. Most of the time, anyway.

Unfortunately, the control scheme throws into sharp relief the game's greatest shortcoming: a lack of nerve on the part of the developers. It would seem Retro, or perhaps their masters at Nintendo, were not fully confident in the strength of Metroid Prime's unique gameplay. During several segments late in the game, the Prime experience shifts from one of cautious exploration and discovery to that of balls-out action. [5] This is particularly true in the Phozon Mines, a lengthy gauntlet through cramped, blocked corridors filled with ambushes by tough foes - a series of events that feels more like something from Quake? than Metroid. It's reminscent of the shift from platforming to cave-crawling in Jumping Flash, and fits here just as awkwardly as it did in that venerable PSX adventure. The control scheme in Metroid Prime doesn't work for an id-style slaughterfest. Prime's lack of independent controls for targeting and movement is compensated for by allowing the lock-on button to double as a "strafing" key. This works well in normal, adventure-mode situations, and absolutely abysmally when facing multiple speedy opponents in tight quarters.

Furthermore, several enemies throughout the game (but particularly in the Phozon mines, be they Pirates or gun turrets) attack from above Samus' plane of fire. Because Samus' auto-targeting system is limited to about 15 above or below her line of sight, any enemy outside that range has to be targeted manually. This requires the use of the free-look button, a function which unfortunately causes Samus to stand stock still while casting about for a target. So in several cases, the game requires you to sit in one place and absorb free enemy hits while you struggle to return fire - a piss-poor approach for a ruthless bounty hunter. More what you'd expect from enemy AI, but actually the Pirates are far too smart to take such a mindless approach. Which makes it all the more shameful.

There's a second significant control issue in Prime: discharging super attacks requires pressing the X button while the A button is being held. Thanks to the weird key format of the GameCube controller, Button Y tends to be in the way as the thumb slides from A to X. The last thing you want in the heat of boss combat is to charge up for a Power Missile and shift into a Morph Ball instead. But since Nintendo apparently feels Super Metroid's configurable control setup was too user-friendly, we don't have much choice in the button mapping, meaning Samus will occasionally shift into a practically defenseless ball while facing a tense, life or death situation instead of, you know, unleashing ultimate death fury or whatever. Delightful!

The remainder of Prime's flaws are equally minor, but still prominent enough to make you want to slap someone from time to time. For starters, the game's story -- in large part an exploration of the Chozo civilization whose presence has overshadowed every Metroid game except Fusion - is fairly superficial and presented in a minimalistic style reminiscent of Marathon 2? [6]. Samus scans text fragments in ancient Chozo ruins and on Space Pirate computers, said pirates apparently never having learned that leaving emails open on public terminals is a terrible privacy risk. This is well and fine, but the more of the Chozo lore I read, the more I find myself reminded of a terrible Super Metroid round-robin fanfiction competition Nintendo sponsored on AOL many, many years ago. (As in, "PlayStation? You mean that Super NES add-on thing?" years ago.) Some people have speculated that Prime isn't considered an official part of the Metroid timeline because Nintendo was afraid it would suck, but actually I think it's being ignored for the same reason Square didn't take into account the hundreds of "Let's saving Schala!" fanfics penned between 1995 and 2000 when scripting Chrono Cross? [7].

Also, more significantly, Metroid Prime suffers from one of the biggest issues inherent in taking a 2D game into the third dimension: navigating 3D space is slower and more time-consuming than moving about 2D space. The Legend of Zelda? failed in this regard, the Final Fantasy games suffer from this fact, and even Mario and Sonic exhibit the same weakness to a degree. A game of this sort has a natural lifespan of 8-12 hours before it starts to become a bit tedious; with the older Metroids, this was never a problem, since you could navigate Zebes in just a few hours. But Tallon IV offers the same amount of territory as the previous games, only it's been expanded with a Z-axis and choked with switches and puzzles and jumping challenges. As Samus acquires more skills, you're forced to travel back into previously covered territory to access new items and areas with her expanded repertoire of powers - which is, of course, par for the series. But slogging repeatedly through the same territory in three dimensions quickly becomes wearisome, especially when the enemies constantly respawn and even grow in power; fully-powered Samus' movement through caverns and fields is frequently as slow as puny Samus' progress was 15 hours prior. This repetition turns extended play into a task and dampens the fun of a 10-hour Prime-a-thon; on the other hand, taking time off is a bad idea as well. The huge, complex world and intricate controls make it difficult to jump back into the game after a lengthy break.

Nintendo's corporate philosophy has changed in the past few years, from "Enjoy this miserable pittance of franchise games we give you at our whim, worms," to "We want your money, so have some sequels!" This may not work out for the best in the long run, but for now it means we'll be seeing a sequel to Metroid Prime within two years rather than eight. Which in turn means that Retro has a chance to work out the odd flaws that keep their debut title from being perfect.

It also means the pangs of aging will be hitting me harder, sooner. But that's OK - join me in 2014 for the ToastyFrog "Fat Elvis" World Tour, in which I'll stuff my bloating, decrepit carcass into a sequin-spangled Samus Aran Power Armor costume as I sing lounge renditions of the Metroid main theme. It'll be beautiful.

[1] Over the course of months. In 1988, it was scarily huge and intricate for gamers who had cut their teeth on single-screen action platformers, thanks.

[2] Technically, it is, since that's more or less the extent of the site. But I prefer to be a little subtle about it.

[3] Sure, Retro was consumed by Nintendo and offered a huge cash infusion, given all sorts of support and guidance and directions from Kyoto, and forced to cancel development on all their other works in progress in favor of Prime. But I mean besides that.

[4] "Interesting" meaning "not just find-the-key type nonsense." And starring a refreshing lack of crates as puzzle elements.

[5] OK, this is anatomically impossible for Samus. Kurse all idioms.

[6] Yes, it's true. Every Mac user-penned article about an FPS will refer to the Marathon series at some point. Just smile and accept the inevitable.

[7] Maybe they should have. I dunno.