After an eight year haitus, Metroid returned in a big way. On the same day in 2002, Metroid Fusion for the Gameboy Advance and Metroid Prime for the Gamecube were released in North America. Fusion was a traditional sidescroller developed internally at Nintendo and closely follows the gameplay of Super Metroid. Prime, on the other hand was given off to the unproven western developer, Retro Studios, and flipped into the first-person perspective.
In a post-Halo world, much of the fanbase was worried that the focus would be changed to be more action oriented. It’s possible that Nintendo themselves mirrored this lack of confidence, as Metroid Fusion contained an introduction that labeled it “Metroid 4”, while Metroid Prime was given no numerical status within the series. Nowadays, however, gamers tend to look more favourably on Retro’s work, and for good reason.
BEHIND THE VISOR
Despite the drastic change in perspective, Metroid Prime draws heavy inspiration from Super Metroid and largely ignores the features that are typically found in conventional first-person shooters. Perhaps the most disorienting is that it didn’t originally use a dual analogue control scheme. Instead, the Y-axis is locked during movement and only by using the free-look button can you actually look up and down. Combat instead uses a lock-on system, rather than allowing free aiming. This, along with the game’s meager selection of weapons, limits combat to a secondary role and helps the game push its exploration focus.
Like previous Metroid games, the game world is a large web of rooms and other nodes connected together. Progression is limited by what upgrades have been picked up, so certain doors will be impassable until a specific arm cannon upgrade can be found. It really does feel like Super Metroid with an additional dimension to the point where it occasionally feels like it’s reading off the same script.
Many of the power-ups from the previous games can be once again found here, with few additions that actually take advantage of the extra dimension. Likewise, the game’s minimalistic story features numerous settings and obstacles that are repeats from the series’ seminal entry.
Metroid’s lore has previously been rather disconnected and abstract which made it difficult to get a handle on how things work. The space pirates, for example, are described in lore as a race of sentient creatures vying for galactic dominance, yet in previous games, they were always depicted as sluggish, dimwitted, and extremely vulnerable. It was difficult to believe that they’d have the ambition to build an empire, let alone weaponize a creature such as the Metroid.
Metroid Prime, on the other hand, does a decent job of making the space pirates a more believable threat. They’re depicted here as an amoral, technologically advanced, militarized society. You can learn a lot about the world, the backstory, and what you’re up against using logs that are read by scanning terminals and enemies with Samus’ visor. There’s an awful lot of text, much of it disposable, littered throughout the game, but it does a good job of adding depth to the space pirates’ organization while dropping a wide selection of five-dollar words for that added sci-fi effect. For the first time, there’s a lot of context to what’s going on and it really adds some useful perspective to the events in the game, even if it’s told with all the narrative panache of an encyclopedia.
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
At the time of its release, and even throughout the Gamecube’s lifespan, Metroid Prime was considered to be quite the graphical showcase. By today’s standards, it has lost its dazzle, featuring blocky environments and low resolution textures, but it was extremely impressive in it day. However, one part of its visual design that hasn’t aged is its attention to detail. The HUD in particular is creatively done, bordered by the edges of Samus’ visor to give the impression of looking out through her eyes. That’s not necessarily anything new, but it also reacts to environmental effects to further cement the illusion. Rain beads on it, vapour sticks to it, and if there’s a bright flash nearby, the image of Samus’ eyes appears reflecting in the glass as she looks around. While this is all greatly superficial (and not actually very realistic), it’s a rather impressive attempt to further immersion, and there are many other small details like this that add to it.
But while Metroid Prime was quite the looker in its day, it came at a price in the scope of its environments. Prime’s world boils down collection of nodes and corridors, which is fine since that’s the sort of structure that previous games featured. However, the effect that it does have is that Talon IV doesn’t feel like a real place.
While the topology is a little strange, demonstrating a variety of biomes in ridiculously close proximity to one another, it’s not the only reason for the preposterousness of its world. There’s nothing to really give you an idea of how everything links up. If it wasn’t for the map, keeping a sense of direction would be nearly impossible. The map screen itself shows an abstract honeycomb when zoomed out, rather than a view of the overworld, and it’s difficult to place everything together mentally. This could have been solved by giving the player a view of the world from a high place, or having Phendrana Drifts visible in distant mountains and the Phazon Mines from atop a cliff, but no effort was made to tie everything together believably, making the world feel tangibly phony.
Considering the game plays out entirely in the first-person perspective and a lot of attention has been given to the visor to make it actually appear as though the game is played out through Samus’ eyes, it’s a little unfortunate that Prime still falls into the old standards of establishing shots. Cutscenes are pretty rare, but when a new environment or particular enemy is introduced, the game cuts away to show Samus standing rigidly on the doorstep as she looks around. Obviously, this doesn’t have much of an impact on gameplay aside from taking the player out of the moment, but it’s an unnecessary fracturing of immersion.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A BOUNTY HUNTER
There’s a lot of backtracking late in the game; more than usual for a Metroid game. The worst example of this occurs towards the climax where you’re required to collect a number of artifacts to reach the final area. There are some very specific hints available that reveal their positions, but it’s still necessary to walk across hell’s half-acre to actually reach them. Some can be picked up as you go throughout the game, but others require you to have a vast collection of power-ups before you can reach them. This isn’t a major ordeal, but it is the weakest portion of the game by far. It reduces the game’s already sluggish pace to a glacial crawl as you hop around the environment on a treasure hunt.
For the purposes of this review, I replayed Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion in tandem and came to the conclusion that while I enjoyed Metroid Fusion more than I did previously, I enjoyed Metroid Prime less. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Prime, it’s an outstanding game, but in my youth, I loved it on a level that I didn’t feel this time around.
Metroid Prime never really reaches the high points of Super Metroid, but it still delivers a pretty tight experience. The atmosphere is excellent and the attention to detail is almost peerless. It’s commendable that Retro was able to translate the exploration based gameplay of the earlier sidescrollers so deftly to the third dimension. I have my doubts that any other developer will meet with the same success that was found here when it comes to translating the Metroid series to 3D.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Wii using the Metroid Prime Trilogy, though the author is intimately familiar with the original GameCube version. It was paid for by the author.
Portions of this review were originally posted by the author on mobygames.com