I forgot to do it last year, so I’m makin’ up for it this year – it’s March, and that means it’s time to bring on the March of Metroid! Two years ago, I did the main series of games, from the original NES classic to the unfortunate Wii garbage fire. And while it’s true that I do love me some classic 2D Metroid, if you asked me what my favourite out of the whole series actually was… well, even though that’s still a hard question to answer, it’s definitely one of the 3D ones we’re looking at this month.
But truly, everything I love about the series is perfectly encapsulated in the Nintendo GameCube release, Metroid Prime.
Set right after the events of the first Metroid, Samus Aran, fresh from her Zebes adventure, intercepts a distress signal from the Space Pirate Frigate Orpheon, orbiting the nearby planet Tallon IV – it’s in the same star system and everything! Boarding in order to investigate, instead of a heated resistance, she finds a ruined station whose survivors are barely able to stand… if they can stand at all.
Indeed, the Space Pirates have been up to some crazy bio-engineering experiments, with pretty decent results – it has turned out to be their undoing on this station, however, as the fruit of their labour ends up causing the ship to explode after Samus shoots it a whole bunch. During her escape, however, she finds Ridley, reanimated with cybernetic implants, and she also has her suit damaged in an explosion, robbing her of nearly all of her suit’s capabilities.
She pursues Ridley to the surface of Tallon IV, where her journey begins. And that’s pretty much all the context that’s forcefed to you. The rest of the story? You find out on your own – and there’s a lot.
You see, on Tallon IV, long ago, there actually lived a group of Chozo who decided to forego their advanced technology and live more in tune with nature. They got so good at this they even reached a form of enlightenment that gave them the ability to see the future – which actually kinda sucked, since they could see their own doom in the form of an astral blight they could only dub the Great Poison.
The meteor carrying this blight hit so hard it pulled the Chozo out of nirvana and forced them to deal with it. But they could not – it corrupted everything it touched, either destroying it, or mutating it, and driving even formerly docile creatures to violent insanity. Before losing themselves to this insanity, the Chozo attempted to lock it away in its own impact crater, sealed behind twelve Chozo Artifacts, and scattering them across Tallon IV, in the hopes that Samus Aran, whom they had also glimpsed in their visions, would eventually vindicate them.
But the Space Pirates found Tallon IV first, and dubbed this mysterious substance Phazon. And immediately took interest in its powerful mutagenic properties. They began running experiments around-the-clock, in an attempt to unlock Phazon’s true potential and use it against their hated foe, the Galactic Federation, and of course, Samus Aran, who they refer to as The Hunter.
All of that? It’s all data logs you have to find in-game.
In a brilliant move, Retro Studios, the developer, combined gameplay and story into the same experience through Samus’ Scan Visor. While yes, you can use it to scan enemies and gain hints on defeating them, or scan items and figure out what they do, you can also find Chozo Lore and Pirate Logs scattered throughout the world of Tallon IV that give you all of that above insight into the history of Tallon IV’s crumbling ruins or the Space Pirate’s insane ambitions. And it is brilliant.
You find a piece of lore, it gives you a bit of flavour, and if it intrigues you, it encourages you to find more – to explore, to search, to find, and your reward is the next piece of the puzzle of the story. You feel like a detective or an archaeologist, piecing together the truth behind what happened. And scattered throughout are various scannables that aren’t added to your log or provide story bits, but just provide extra flavour – the meaning behind a symbol, or a memo telling everyone “The Hunter has invaded our facility! Terminate on sight!”
It adds personality to the greater Metroid universe. The Space Pirates aren’t just some vague intergalactic threat – we’re now given the context that they fear Samus. They refer to her as “the Hunter” – she’s so awesome she has an awesome title that they use because they’re probably afraid to call her by name, lest they speak of the devil and have her appear. Once you actually invade their headquarters, you do find notices saying “hey yo if you catch her, you’ll get a HUGE reward” or “SHE HACKED ALL OF OUR STUFF AAAAA” and whatnot. You can even find them experimenting on replicating her weaponry – it’s really, really cool!
So the gameplay. For the first time, the series goes into 3D, and it does so from a first-person perspective. However, the game doesn’t play like the then-new twin-stick FPS games such as Halo – it instead opts for a more N64-esque control scheme. Samus moves forward and backward, and turns with the Control Stick, while the R Button, when held, locks her in place so you can aim freely. The L Button locks Samus’ viewpoint, so you can strafe when it is held. It also acts like Zelda’s lock-on, letting you track enemies, and strafe and dash around them.
Were it not for the lock-on mechanic, the game would be nigh-unplayable, but thankfully, the occasional need to adjust your viewpoint is simply an annoyance. Admittedly, it gets pretty bad in one encounter where you can’t lock-on to your opponent, but aside from that, once you get used to the control scheme, Samus begins to feel pretty nimble in combat, and it works well for the general exploration, as well.
The D-Pad and the C Stick change Visors and Beams, respectively. The great big A Button is used the shoot, the B Button jumps, Y shoots Missiles, and X transforms Samus into the Morph Ball for some third-person action. The Morph Ball handles like a dream, and actually gets quite a bit of use in this game, compared to the 2D Metroids. You’ll use it to solve a wide range of puzzles, slip through Morph Ball-exclusive passages, and even in some combat encounters.
The game cleverly starts you out with a fair amount of Samus’ repertoire, giving you a taste of power before stripping you near bare and forcing you to scavenge your abilities back. It does it in a very smart way, as well – by the time you fight the first area boss, you’ll have collected every ability but one… and that ability turns out to be nearly the last one you pick up, with a smorgasbord of other abilities stuffed inbetween. The first of these other abilities is also a brand new ability that first appeared in Prime, the Boost Ball – so not only do you learn that there’s more pickups to find, but that there’s going to be new things to pick up as well, if you’re a Metroid vet. You could also read the instruction manual, though, which spoils every single item in the game.
… Having said this, however, very little of Samus’ abilities are actually new in this game. Most of her stuff comes from the first three games, and are simply adjusted to work in the new perspective. The Space Jump, for example, no longer gives Samus the ability to jump infinitely, but instead only grants a double-jump. The way Beams work is similar to the first two games – they are all exclusive from one another, but you’re able to carry them all with you and swap on the spot. They also all have a unique element associated with them except for the Power Beam – Wave becomes Electric, Ice is… well, Ice, and Plasma becomes Fire.
This introduces a minor Rock-Paper-Scissors element to the game. Some enemies are extra-vulnerable to certain weaponry, and there’s the occasional enemy who is only vulnerable to a particular element – the Chozo Ghosts, for example, are completely immune to elemental attacks, so you have to hit them with Power-based weaponry. Still, this doesn’t stop the Plasma Beam from actually having the highest attack power to the point where you can use it on just about anything it works on.
There’s much more of an emphasis on puzzle-solving in this game, as well. Previous Metroid titles didn’t really have puzzles, as it were – just platforming challenges, with the occasional obstacle that required a certain item to get past. In this game, however, you’ll be activating Bomb Slots by the dozens and scanning all manner of interactive sequences in order to progress and unlock doors.
This extends to the boss encounters. Each area boss has at least some kind of puzzle element to them that you need to figure out in order to even hurt them. The bosses are also pretty big – they all tower over Samus, making you feel like you’re taking on some impressive behemoths. Fortunately, the Scan Visor will generally tell you how to take them on, and the pattern’s usually not hard to figure out.
There’s a fair amount of platforming to be done as well. Fortunately you don’t have to worry too much about bottomless pits or instant deaths, however, sometimes it is a little difficult to judge just exactly where Samus is. This is always a problem with first-person perspective games, though. Generally, the punishment for failing a jump is just having to climb back up to where you were, and there’s no fall damage, though you might fall into a hazardous material depending on where you are.
Visually, the game holds up well enough, but it’s obviously aged a little bit. Aliasing plagues the experience from the get-go, and there’s plenty of blurry textures or funny geometry to go around. Samus herself still looks pretty good, but she’s got an iffy texture here and there and her overall design isn’t very streamlined for the 3D environment. The unlockable Fusion Suit, however, looks absolutely fantastic… when it’s not coated in the awful Varia Suit colour scheme, but that’s more the fault of the original design than the tech itself.
Animations are extremely well done, and there’s loads of nice little touches here and there that really add to the verisimilitude of the experience. Shooting several dozen shots in rapid-fire will cause heat shimmer to emanate from Samus’ Arm Cannon. It freezes over when charging the Ice Beam, and the Ice Beam shots themselves, when viewed through the Thermal Visor, are solid black. Bright flashes near your face will greet you with a reflection of Samus’ eyes, which even animate based on which direction you may be turning at that point. They put a lot of detail into making you really feel like you’re behind the visor, and for the most part, it works.
The weakest part of the visuals is the design, though. The game plays it very safe – green overworld, brown desert ruins, red lava caverns, white snowy mountain, gray industrial zone. While the overall art direction is still very nice, and Phendrana Drifts is a very beautiful ice world (and it’s important to note Metroid hadn’t had an ice world until Prime and Fusion), it’s hard to look past the Mario-esque worlds. They’re still unmistakably Metroid thanks to the actual designs, but not exactly super unique, either.
The soundtrack? It’s incredible. Remixed classics put together with some awesome new stuff brings forth a unique and remarkable soundtrack. Kenji Yamamoto – and no, not the one who plagiarised all that music for Dragon Ball Z: Budokai – did a really good job making both some nice catchy tunes for exploring along with some really nice creepy ambient tunes as well. Not everything here is something I would listen to on a regular basis, but it all fits the location where it’s used. I still hear Phendrana Drifts in my head when I see snow.
All in all, Metroid Prime is one of those games that was able to make the ol’ 2D-to-3D transition not only well, but excellently. It truly plays like Super Metroid in a first-person view should, and if you ask me, I honestly think it’s even better. That doesn’t say anything about Super Metroid being a less-good game, though – it just shows how incredible of an accomplishment Metroid Prime itself is, considering how Super pretty much perfected the 2D Metroid experience.
I’ll never get tired of playing through this game. This is one of the games that helped me begin appreciating the medium as more than just a beep-boop beat-the-game experience. From beginning to end, from now to the day I die, Metroid Prime will always hold a special place in my heart.