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Retrospectives – Metroid Prime

posted on August 21st, 2007 by matt

I don’t know about you guys, but with all these Metroid videos popping up all over the place, coupled with the release of three Metroid titles in a three week span (Metroid, Super Metroid on the VC, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption on the Wii), I have developed full-blown Metroid-fever. GameTrailers has an awesome video retrospective on the entire Metroid series, while Nintendo has been so kind as to relay eight preview videos for the soon-to-be Wii masterpiece, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, right to our very own Wiis.

But then I became a little sad. Corruption is going to end the Prime trilogy as we know it. What happens next, no one knows. Would the series return to 2D adventure like SNES’s opus, Super Metroid? Would it continue the First-Person-Adventure legacy? That’s for Nintendo and Retro Studios to decide. My job now is to tell you how awesome Metroid Prime is.

Surprisingly, many of you have never actually played Metroid Prime before, all because it wasn’t like Super Metroid. Yeah, well, Super Mario 64 wasn’t all like Super Mario World, but look at how that turned out. The stubbornness of the gaming community is one of the biggest problems in the industry right now, and when I see people pass over Metroid Prime because of it, I can’t help but flip the fuck out.

How can you have a game so good and so innovative that many people never gave a second glance? Gamers are incessantly complaining about how most games seriously lack in the quality department, but when they actually got a game that goes above and beyond all that we had seen before, few even cared. Sure, the first Metroid Prime sold over a million copies, but it should have easily sold 100+ million units being what it was.

I’m telling you right here, right now, that Metroid Prime is one of the greatest games ever made. And that’s why this article exists, to make you realize how wrong you were when you passed Metroid Prime’s space on the shelf in your local game store without giving it a single look.

And to do that, I’m going to go through every single aspect of the game that just screams awesomeness. Don’t give me that look. This is all your fault. I’m just trying to set right what you did when you decided to pass up on Metroid Prime.

To begin with, you have one of the greatest looking GameCube games ever. When the discussion of GC graphics came up, only two titles were ever mentioned: Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime. RE4 would usually take the crown, but that’s what happens when a game goes through four iterations, and takes nearly four years to develop. RE4 came out in 2005, while Prime came out in 2002, the second year of the GC’s life.

The beauty of Prime is a true testament to how gifted Retro artists and coders are. Five years later, and Prime is still pulling its weight (more so when you compare it to most Wii games).

To me, the greatest feat that Retro pulled off was its lighting engine. It isn’t used like Splinter Cell’s light, in which it is integral to the gameplay, but it brings about a level of immersion that is only starting to be seen in HD-capable games, like BioShock and Gears of War.

Everything in the environment is blanketed in the correct amount of light, and it makes the game seem extremely realistic. It’s not the style of realism that most games strive for now; it is a subtle one. You really never see it. It is just there as you travel throughout Tallon IV, the setting for Samus’s first adventure in the Prime series.

There are even some sections that bring a Resident Evil-like feeling to the environment, especially when the game’s music is more ambient. At some points I was generally freaked out by what could be around the next corner.

The powerful graphics allowed Prime to bring a new style to the industry. This was probably the first game to truly look “futuristic.” Now that we were in a first-person perspective, we had the ability to see what Samus was seeing while in her Chozo-engineered battle suit. The suit has its own HUD with everything that you would expect to see in a futuristic view-screen. All your gaming-related info is there, like health and ammo, but Retro included one of the greatest gameplay innovations this side of a melee button: the Scan Visor.

The Scan Visor is your window into the world of Tallon IV. Turn your Scan Visor on, and you can download information on nearly everything in the environment, from data logs written by your enemy in computers to the history of Tallon IV’s flora and fauna.

This is also how Metroid Prime tells its story. When the game first came out, the marketing slogan was about exterminating the evil on Tallon IV, but having to find it first. This is the idea behind the Scan Visor. You are basically a private eye on Tallon IV, and to uncover the truth, you have to scan everything in order to solve the case.

Space Pirates would write logs on their computer network, detailing what they were doing on Tallon IV. Apparently they had found a chemical with mutagenic properties, called Phazon, on Tallon IV. Years before, an asteroid crash landed on Tallon IV, introducing the chemical into the planet’s ecosystem and nearly destroying it. The Space Pirates soon realized it could be used to create biological weapons out of Metroids, the infamous alien life-form that siphons raw energy out of living creatures.

At some points, they even mention Samus in their logs, calling for her downfall. They even realize that she (you) were decrypting their data logs with her scan visor, getting more and more fearful of what she was going to do to them and their plans.

With the Scan Visor, you become the Hunter under the helmet. Valve basically did the same thing with the Half-Life series, where the player sees everything from the character’s perspective. It worked for Valve, and it meshes extremely well with the Metroid universe, where Samus continually finds herself alone, and up against an entire planet.

Most of the info that is found is fairly useless when relating it back to the overall story arc, but it does help flesh out the world of Tallon IV. Never had I felt so infused with a video game setting before. I knew why one of the animals had an ice shell on its back (it incubated on a ceiling before it was born, where water would surround it, encasing the animal in a shield of ice that would stay on until it died). Machinery also has detailed information available through the visor, giving tips on how old it was, and if it needed servicing or not.

The Scan Visor, in my mind, is one of the most powerful narrative devices in all of gaming. It fleshes out the game’s setting and story in a truly innovative way, while at the same time being extremely stylish.

It also gave Retro the ability to introduce a style of writing that was never seen in gaming. Each log is written in a business/military fashion, with quick and concise details. Very few logs have writing that made it sound like someone speaking. When a few do start to pop up, it is more of a fevered rambling than anything else, usually to indicate that the Space Pirates were starting to realize Samus was fucking up their plans.

Also intriguing is that you never have to use it. There are of course puzzles that require it, but the story is completely optional if a player sees fit to bypass it. That gives a lot of power to the player, which is also a sign of good game design. Basically, Metroid Prime has the best of both worlds.

As well, Samus says nothing throughout the entire adventure, making it very easy for a player to become involved with the game’s narrative.

Another amazing aspect of the game is the complexity of the combat system. In true Metroid fashion, most weapons have to be found before you can use them. Once you acquire a hefty arsenal, the essence of the combat system becomes available to you. You have four main weapons, each with their own alternate firing modes. You also have missiles that added a huge punch to any encounter. It isn’t like a normal FPS, where certain guns were more powerful than the others, making the game become a one-gun-only show. In Prime, you have to think about which gun to use, and how. Lava enemies will undoubtedly be defeated more quickly when using the Ice Beam. But would you want to use its alternate firing mode, where it shot out one huge chunk of ice, freezing anything in its path? Some enemies would call for that, while others would be too fast to hit.

It takes a lot more brain cells to fight in Metroid Prime than you may think. Add three more guns to the mix and you can see how complex Prime’s combat system is when you had all of the tools at your disposal.

Now we come to the sound. I won’t talk about sound effects too much, but know this. Dolby itself lauded Retro for making possibly the greatest sounding Pro-Logic II-enabled game they had ever heard. They even used Prime at a technology convention to show off their Pro-Logic II tech to its fullest.

As for its soundtrack, every area in the game has the most fitting music you could think of. The Chozo Ruins have intermittent strands of wind that you can hear, to emphasize the derelict state it is in. But it also has a catchy techno beat to emphasize how Samus is regaining her lost abilities. Once you come back later in the game, with a fairly robust arsenal, the song brings the beat to the forefront. You know then that Tallon IV is yours for the taking.

Magmoor Caverns feels like you are confined in a twisting array of rocks and steam pipes, while Phendrana Drifts, an area blanketed in snow, presents a sense of eerie beauty in its theme. You feel confused as to why the Space Pirates would choose such a pristine locale for its diabolical schemes, especially when you could see the white snow flakes gently falling on your visor.

Also, when you first boot the game up, you basically hear Metroid’s version of the Temple of Time song. You hear a synthesized choir section, later accompanied by some fitting techno music. Every time you start the game, it tells you that you are about to start an experience of epic proportions.

It also helps that, while on the main menu, you can see a CG movie of a Metroid’s biological innards floating in your face. Remember what I said about Prime’s level of immersion? Seeing tiny mitochondria swimming around a Metroid’s brain really helps drive home that fact.

Then you have some of the greatest bosses in all of gaming. Thardus is the Colossus before Shadow of the Colossus. The Omega Pirate is a monstrous beast that could make any gamer turn into a pile of tears. Meta-Ridley is Prime’s version of Metal Gear Solid’s Hind-D/Harrier fights. And then you had the creepy and crazy Metroid Prime, the source of all Phazon. Just know it is the best way to end such an epic game, and it combines all the previous boss battles into one delicious encounter.

And as I was writing this article, I remembered one really cool thing that Prime did. When you die, the screen shows an overlay of static, and then turns off like a TV set. Basically, Prime knocked you back to reality when it killed you. There was no weird rag-doll animation to ruin the presentation, or an enemy hovering over you for no reason. All you had was static and a black screen.

I had never enjoyed dying so much in a video game before. And I haven’t since.

There are so many little touches in Metroid Prime worth discussing that I have enough material for another whole article. I won’t list them all, but I will add one more, just to tell you what you missed. There are certain types of enemies that emit electrical surges as their attack. If you get too close, the electrical surges will distort your visor, filling your screen with static. And what’s even cooler, if there are enough sparks on screen, you will see Samus’s reflection on the visor. That’s just too damn cool for school.

In the end, I can’t think of a single thing wrong with Metroid Prime. The presentation is pretty close to being the best in its field, the graphics are still good five years later, the controls are spot on (jumping in a FPS never felt so good as when you had the Space Boots double jump), and the design of Tallon IV is what junior level designers look to when creating their portfolios for prospective employment. That some people never gave it a chance is one of the biggest crimes in all of gaming history. Hot Coffee has nothing on the Metroid Prime scandal.

5 Comments

  1. christian said on August 21, 2007:

    I’ve said before that Prime would be my pick for best game of last gen if not for Half Life 2. But, I will play Devil’s Advocate (I must after all), and present one flaw that I can see people having. For some, the scan visor can get in the way, or take up too much of the game’s time. Let us discuss.

  2. jay said on August 21, 2007:

    I have heard that complaint and I find it unconvincing. The game is an adventure game and does not focus on fast paced action. Perhaps if the sequel, which I just bought today, is as action oriented as I’ve heard (from you) then the scanning will interrupt the pace. I think it fits the overall feel of the first game well, though.

    Commenting reminds me, commenting should be fixed. Hitting enter a few times so it looks like you are typing a new paragraph should actually result in a new paragraph.

    Let us celebrate by

    making unnecessary

    paragraph breaks.

  3. christian said on August 21, 2007:

    Let me try

    Woo hoo

    well that’s a good argument for scanning. I loved it personally, but I have seen that complaint come up more than any by those who have played it, so it had to be tossed around.

    The other, joking complaint my stoner roomates once had was that the music in the lava mines was annoying. Or awesome. Depending on how they were feeling.

  4. TrueTallus said on August 22, 2007:

    Paragraphs?

    Woo (I hope)!

    Metroid Prime? Great, but I wish it automatically recorded specific upgrade locations after you collected/located them. I’m only 1 missile canister away from 100% completion, and don’t relish going through a faq secret by secret till I find the one I’m looking for. I’ll beat the game someday, provided I can remember where I’m supposed to be going once I pick it up again…

    Metriod Prime: Pinball, though- now THERE’S an awesome game.

  5. Jake said on July 8, 2008:

    I know exactly what your talking about people not recognising how great metroid is..
    i only really started getting into the Metroid games recently it feels like i have missed out on so much….i rented Metroid Prime today its such a good game the graphics,gameplay everything you mentioned just fantastic

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