I talked in my Ocarina of Time 3D review about the transition from 2D to 3D design the classic franchises had to go through with mixed results in the nineties. Nintendo had a lot of success with its properties in this regard but one of its more famous and revered titles took a long time to enter the third dimension. Metroid on the NES stood out for its atmosphere design and big revelation that the hero was actually a heroine upon completion but it wasn’t until the SNES that the Metroid series really announced itself as a force to be reckoned with, every bit as brilliant as Mario and Zelda. Despite the overwhelming success of Super Metroid it was a long time before the franchise saw the light of day again. Nintendo struggled for ideas when considering how to bring it to the N64 meaning that Samus Aran had to take an eight year hiatus before finally returning in the outstanding Metroid Fusion on the Game Boy Advance. While it was an indescribable treat to enjoy the Super Metroid gameplay return on the small screen the promise of a 3D Metroid experience was an even more tantalising prospect.
Nintendo had approached Texas-based dev Retro Studios, famous for the Turok games to create Samus’ first 3D mission. Not everyone was convinced that they would be able to pull it off. The decision to present the game from a first person perspective upset a lot of fans who feared the game was deviating too far from what made the series great and that it would turn out as another generic FPS. They needn’t have worried, when release day came it was immediately clear that Metroid Prime was not only true to the Metroid legacy but a phenomenal game in its own right. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the series’ inception so what better time to review one of its best titles and one of the best games ever made?
Taking place immediately after the events of the original Metroid the game begins with Samus tracking the Space Pirates to a wanderer class planet called Tallon IV where she docks with their Frigate Orpheon in orbit. The frigate is where you learn how to play the game as you explore and investigate the calamity that has befallen the place. This is where the series’ trademark atmosphere comes in as you find your way through the devastated corridors and lab rooms full of dead Space Pirates and huge experimental subjects. As tutorial missions go it’s incredibly immersive, drawing you into the aftermath of disaster as you learn the ropes.
Retro made the most of the first person perspective, innovating at every turn. Your view takes place actually within Samus’ helmet giving context to the necessary HUD but it’s the way her visor interacts with the environments that really sticks in the mind. Walking through steam will build up condensation that obscures your view, the guts of blasted enemies splatter on the visor and certain enemies and attacks cause electrical interference. Best of all when the light is just right you can even catch a glimpse of the bounty hunter’s face reflected in the visor. Everything is done to add to the sense of immersion.
The tutorial is also where you have to get used to the scan visor which can be accessed with a quick tap of the right direction on the D-Pad. In this mode you can view your surroundings and scan various objects to gain information, often gaining clues about how to proceed or how to best an enemy. By scanning important objects you will build up a logbook as you go with rewards on offer for achieving 100% of the scans, an on-going side quest that nicely compliments the usual task of tracking down the many weapons upgrades hidden throughout the world. You’re quite free to scan as much or as little of the world as you want. If slowing down to read up on your surroundings is not for you you can forego the bother but you’ll miss out on a rich and detailed tapestry of life that has been subtly woven into the world.
After a memorable first boss encounter the Orpheon’s self-destruct sequence starts. The tense escape scenario is a staple of the series and while it’s unusual to have it at the beginning of the game there are few better ways to confirm the game’s pedigree. After returning to your ship, encountering Ridley and losing most of your abilities en route it’s time to touch down on Tallon IV and the game proper begins. The sense of immersion never lets up as you explore the jungles and ruins as you investigate the Space Pirates’ presence on the planet. The game’s focus is divided into equal parts exploration and action, leaving you free to find your way with a variety of imaginative and troublesome beasts to hold you up as you progress. It’s a structure that is unmistakably Metroid.
The game doesn’t hold your hand and you are encouraged to work out your own objectives. In most cases it’s simply about finding where you can and can’t go based on what upgrades you have or haven’t found yet. You won’t be able to pass through purple doors until you have the Wave Bean for example. Building up your arsenal is as satisfying as ever and the sense of power and excitement at acquiring a new toy returns in full measure. True, there is a lot of backtracking involved and that’s not to everyone’s taste but there’s a kind of pleasure in getting to know every room and remembering suspicious places that remain baffling until obtaining the right tool. The quality and detail in the environments themselves help to soften the blow. A huge amount of effort has gone into creating a sense of authenticity here. The Chozo Ruins for example evoke beautiful alien architecture in disrepair with structures overrun by flora and fauna. Though there are hot and cold regions that stray towards cliché they’re presented as desolate, hostile wastelands that add to the peril and isolation enormously. The sheer size of the game can be daunting and novices might feel overwhelmed and lost without a clue where to go but the game will pipe up and point out your immediate destination using the useful 3D map if you’ve been wandering around for a long time.
Then there’s the incredible graphics. Eight years on Metroid Prime still looks great, surpassing many Wii games in sheer texture quality. Everything is shown in stunning colourful detail to compliment the brilliant environment and creature design. Light is used to spectacular effect and various effects like electrical charges and water rippling help to sell the realism and beauty of the world. Some of the best and most inventive graphical flourishes come with the acquisition of snazzy new visors that let you view the world in some extremely cool ways that add another layer of depth to the puzzle-solving elements. The visuals are accompanied with incredible ambient sound design. Creatures hiss and squeal menacingly, Samus’ footsteps sound different on different surfaces, weapon fires sizzles and roars. The music too is loaded with atmosphere, mixing wilderness and sci-fi themes perfectly.
Of course the most critical aspect is the gameplay and it’s worth noting here that Metroid Prime has drawn a little criticism over this matter due to the lack of dual-analogue control. Movement is handled with the main analogue stick only with the C-stick reserved for switching your selected beam weapon. Some have argued that this makes control a little awkward though I’ve personally never had a problem with it. Aiming is not an issue thanks to the inclusion of Zelda style lock-on, a feature usually absent from first-person games due to its tendency to make things too easy. That doesn’t apply here though as many enemies move very quickly or have the ability to break the lock. The other important point to remember here is that shooting is not the only trick in Metroid’s book and never has been. Nintendo have stated that they consider this game to be a first-person adventure as oppose to a regular FPS, something the open game world and general structure fits with. Of course the blasting action present here is still superb, boss encounters are intense and enemies appear very frequently. The difference here is that the focus is not on rushing in all guns blazing every time but approaching combat in a subtler more considered way that makes good use of your wide variety of skills. Many enemies can’t be defeated by simply blasting them in the face.
It was feared that Samus’ signature ability, the morph ball would be absent from the game, but luckily that wasn’t the case. A quick tap of the X button sends the bounty hunter into her familiar spherical shape with a neat camera transition from first to third-person, leaving you free to roll around in three dimensions. Retro put a lot of effort into this feature endowing the ability with upgrades such as the boost ball which allows you to have fun on half pipes and the return of the spider ball from Metroid II. You can’t stick to any wall you want using this ability like you can in the Game Boy game and instead are confined to magnetic rails situated throughout the world. Far from feeling restrictive these tracks have been very cleverly designed into fun mazes. Naturally bombs and power bombs are also present and suffice to say the morph ball is utilised perfectly serving as the basis for some of the game’s most memorable moments. Sadly another series mainstay the screw attack doesn’t make an appearance but this was rectified in the sequel.
One other criticism that has been levelled at the game is its lack of story, a totally unfounded one. True there’s no twisting plot or dramatic FMV cut-scenes but there’s a simple reason for that – the story has reached already run its course by the time Samus touches down on Tallon IV. This is where the scan visor comes in again – as you explore the ruins and bases you will find old Chozo recordings and Space Pirate log entries from which the story of Tallon IV’s fall can be pieced together. The narrative chiefly concerns a highly radioactive substance called Phazon that appeared and started to spread like a poison across the planet when a meteor struck the surface. The Chozo Lore entries outline the race’s desperate attempts to stem the flow of the substance and even gives context to the presence of Samus’ suit upgrades. It’s quite haunting to read about their struggles as you explore their desolate and deserted corridors already knowing of their extinction. Like Ocarina of Time before it Metroid Prime is a game set in a world you’ve already failed to save. The other side of the coin is the Space Pirate data which describes vividly their arrival on the planet and their complex attempts to harness Phazon and use it to create invincible biological armies. The superb writing gives you a fascinating insight into the Pirates’ culture and methods and convincingly sells them as an ambitious and resourceful race of bad ‘uns.
The interesting thing about this approach to storytelling is that it’s optional. You can cruise through the game without learning anything about how Tallon IV came to be in the state it’s in but you’d be missing out a simply fascinating narrative that draws a vibrant and beautiful picture of a very sad story. Interactivity is an untapped storytelling medium – most games present their plot like a movie but Retro decided to explore uncharted territory and do something that couldn’t be done in any other medium with Metroid Prime and for some reason get no credit for it.
One other way in which this game differs from most modern FPS games is its length. Tallon IV is big and will take a massively long time to explore. The main game takes no fewer than fifteen hours to get through and a lot more if you want to track down all the scans and items and upon completing the game you will unlock hard mode. The game is a real challenge anyway but hard mode is truly tough. Enemies take and deal more damage and the boss fights, particularly the unforgettable final showdown are absolutely intense. It’s massively rewarding to track down everything the game has to offer and the quality of the whole experience is so high that you’ll want to experience it again and again.
Retro Studios exceeded all expectations with Metroid Prime and created an experience that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the hallowed Super Metroid. I can’t overstate the significance of this achievement, nor can I stress enough how brilliant this game still is. Everything about it has aged very well and the high level of refinement on offer here speaks for itself. Chances are that if you’re a Nintendo fan you understand every word I’ve written but if somehow you missed this game upon its initial release I urge you to track it down. It’s playable on the Wii either with a Gamecube disc or as part of the Metroid Prime Trilogy complete with Wii remote controls. Don’t hesitate, this is one of the best video games ever made.
An absolutely superlative, deep, rewarding, intense, fascinating and timeless experience that combines everything that put this classic series on the map with perfect first-person gameplay in three dimensions. Dripping with atmosphere, mystery, innovation and excitement, Metroid Prime endures as one of the all-time greats.