The cosmos. In the vast universe, the history of gaming is but a flash of light from a lone television. The light of a single console should be lost in space and time, but in the disc tray there is one light that burns brighter than all the rest. The light of Metroid Prime. Its legacy extends beyond the GameCube’s life and etches itself into gaming history. Today, a review of that legacy will be written.
Metroid Prime is a once-in-a-lifetime miracle event that nobody saw coming. An accidental explosion of stardust that created the world full of life and wonder we now know as Tallon IV. Retro Studios, a developer based in Texas, were acquired by Nintendo in 2002 and had not released a single videogame at this point. They had a few different projects in the works, including an NFL game, a car combat game and an RPG called Raven Blade. These had potential but didn’t fit the usual Nintendo mold, and nobody quite knew what to expect when they were given the mighty task of making a Metroid game. With the Nintendo acquisition, the company saw a massive restructure and 3 of their projects were cancelled. The only game left was Metroid Prime and Nintendo decided it was best that all their resources went into making one great game. It was the first Metroid game in 8 years and had Super Metroid’s legendary presence to live up to. Skipping a generation left Metroid in quite an uncertain state. Instead of a comparatively straight-forward evolution like Mario and Zelda, a first-person viewpoint was introduced. This was actually quite common in the industry, but foreign to Nintendo. What the hell were they doing? Was this just an experimental game to trial a new developer? Is that what Metroid had become? Such an impossible combination of elements seemed doomed for disaster to expert gamers at the time (shocker), but it all came together to create magic. Metroid Prime was released to astounding praise and immediately established itself as one of the greatest videogames of all time, receiving perfect reviews across the board.
I’ve just finished -another- playthrough of Metroid Prime over the last few days, and it still manages to impress me. Now with minimal load times on Wii U, and precise Wii pointer controls in the Metroid Prime Trilogy revision, it has effortlessly kept up with the times and still manages to set an example for every game released today. There’s just nothing else that even comes close to the Metroid Prime series’ level of craftsmanship and I’m going to solely talk about the first game in this write-up. I love this series so much and it felt like a daunting impossible task to explain why it’s so good, but I’m going to take a leaf from Retro Studios and just try my best.
When you play this game you are Samus. Her name doesn’t even matter, because it’s just you. You’re chosen, you’re special, you’re here, and you’re left alone to explore because you are a gamer / bounty hunter and the game trusts you to fill that role. The intro to Metroid Prime is only an intro in terms of game structure, as the game has no time-wasting or filler. It’s 100% videogame from start to finish. You learn how to play by yourself and this meshes with the natural curiosity that comes with investigating a space station at the start of the game. This place sent out a distress beacon and you’re here to check it out. What’s happening? Is this place safe? Could it be a trap? Should I go in here? Why is it just me, where’s everyone else? Let’s just shoot and scan things and see what happens. Alright, there’s a lock-on button, that’s handy for these switches. Doors and switches respond to the beam. Oooh, I can roll into a ball? Let’s roll into this tunnel. This is fun. I’ve got a scan visor too, and I can read all these terminals and information on the walls. Cool. Wait, not cool! Serious shit is going down here!
I’ll talk about the story later, but this is one hell of a game universe that takes itself very seriously, but does so without shoving info down your throat. Instead of screaming “I’m Brilliant – A game by Brilliant McGenius of Brilliant McGenius Productions” this game’s world, presentation and gameplay all stand alone with a firm indifference. The events in the Metroid Prime universe unfold without giving a damn about you, you’re just stuck here and you have to adapt. The structure and pacing of Metroid Prime is conductive to exploring, experimenting, and justifying your own existence as a player with tools. I would also describe this as the very core essence of why videogames are fun and the feeling that made every gamer realise videogames were awesome.
The movement is one of the core elements that makes Metroid Prime unique, and it’s the scariest change for people coming from Super Metroid. You can’t use the 2D games as a foundation for Metroid Prime’s movement because if it controlled exactly like them, the game would be an unplayable mess. Look at Sonic the Hedgehog for a good example of 2D movement gone wrong in a 3D world. A successful comparison to use is Mario and Zelda, because even though these games seemed to have an effortless transition in one generation, the movement changed drastically. With 3D environments, Samus now has the ability to look around and because of the first-person viewpoint, the snappy exploratory feeling of Super Metroid is still very strong in this game, just in a different dimension. Imagine that you have an extra control input for her eyes now, and the beam now fires anywhere on the screen from a standing position. 2D has the luxury of showing you the entire room at once, whereas 3D games exist out of sight, all around you. Thus, looking around should be seen as part of the gameplay and Metroid Prime implements this with the visor mechanic that Shigeru Miyamoto came up with.
By holding the – button on the Wii remote you can equip the Scan Visor to collect data on the world, or see things differently with the Thermal or X-Ray visors. This makes the very core movement and mechanics of the game engaging, and even when Samus isn’t double jumping around spamming beam shots into the sky, there is a lot happening in the players mind by simply walking and looking. This is the gameplay of Metroid Prime. Your legs are the analog stick, and your beam is the Wii Remote. Your head follows the beam because who looks at their legs while walking? That’s what you’d see if this game was in 3rd person. I think we’re lucky this game took so long, because they got the viewpoint absolutely perfect. If you just look at Metroid Prime as a “first-person shooter”, you’re missing the fundamental mechanic that makes this game not just unique, but possible. All the game mechanics are designed around exploration.
The essence of Metroid’s 2D game structure remains in tact and I would even say it’s been improved. 3D game design has its problems but Metroid Prime fucking knocks this out of the park with the most flawless, beautifully structured world design I have ever seen. I’m using the term world design instead of level design because of how everything in the game links together. The environments in Metroid Prime are flexible for walking around and rolling around with morph ball exploration. Samus’s morph ball allows the planet’s many holes, tunnels, cracks and flaws to become a fundamental part of the game’s structure with the press of the C button. Unlike a large majority of 3D games where gaps are just invisible walls, you can shoot and climb every surface in Metroid Prime because the limits come with the actual geometry. Retro Studios takes advantage of this high level of freedom to create 3D puzzles no other game is capable of. Nothing hard or convoluted, just clever and really fun. What is normally a flaw of 3D games has become a whole new level of game design here thanks to Samus’s abilities.
There’s only so much you can do with morph ball puzzles in the 2D games, it’s fun and organised, but there is a limit to what seems clever, as Zero Mission’s convoluted ballsparks and bomb jumps display (as fun as they might be). Metroid Prime can take you anywhere it wants and does so. To put into perspective just how fleshed out these environments are, no game has managed to clone Metroid Prime. 13 years later there is nothing that plays like this, because it’s just too difficult to make. Look for a “2D Metroidvania” and you’ll find hundreds of Indie / licensed games that copy the formula and get away with slapping their own character into it. Now, look for a “3D Metroidvania” and you get nothing. Zero. The first reason for this is that 3D Castlevania is shit. The second reason is that no developer is good enough. Metroid Prime only works because of the genius god-tier level of design and craftsmanship put into making the world not just beautiful, but functional. All the cracks and hallways of Tallon IV are made with the concept of a playable videogame in mind, rather than visual trickery and “immersion”. As a result it achieves everything at once. If you shrunk down Tallon IV and held it in your hand, you could pour water on top and watch plants sprout as the water funnels out in beautiful unity from every side at the same time.
I’ve played this game enough to know exactly where I’m going, but the enormous scale of each room, the individuality of every hallway, the epic music and thick graphical effects still make it feel gigantic. It’s the most organic planet I’ve ever seen in any medium. It takes all the expected hostility and roughness of a new place and grinds it into the wonder and magic videogames are capable of. Tallon IV is a magical, wholesome place I can recall vividly when I close my eyes. The geometry is so thick that it makes you feel trapped, not because you can’t leave, but because it feels like a home. It’s a calming thought that if you take the wrong path, you’re still gonna find something cool. A lot of places you will need to go back to later, but maybe you’ll get there another way. Even though the planet itself wants to kill you, I would never say this is a difficult game because you’ve been given the responsibility of being the most dangerous thing here. This combination of elements allows you to pace yourself, and feel good about it.
The graphics aren’t just good from an artistic perspective, but technically this game is an absolute beast that still makes games released in 2015 look bad. The simple fact this game maintains 60fps with the amount of geometry and effects present is hard to even comprehend. Every single game Retro Studios has made runs at 60 frames per second through some kind of Nintendo magic that just allows things to be there against the odds. While EA, Epic and Ubisoft are making big talk about their mega-budget piece of shit engines that are full of screen-tearing and struggle to maintain 20fps, Retro Studios have quietly figured out how computers work in their own way to create an engine so impressive and effortless they are still using it to this day in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. The technical brilliance doesn’t stop at visuals and keeps going into the game’s camera system. Metroid Prime has a camera, what? Exactly. Going in and out of morph ball sees the camera pull out into 3rd person and this is a transition you never notice while playing because it’s so perfect. The camera never gets stuck and you can’t mess it up if you try. I dare you. It’s probably the smartest thing in the game.
Textures might be seen as the weak point, but this is why the game is so heavy on geometry; so muddy textures don’t stretch across the screen. Instead of rock textures being spread over walls, every rock is modeled in a simplistic but wholesome way to be a different object. The beam in this game shows it off well, as you can make individual gun imprints on every side of the rocks and cracks in the game. I think this is the primary reason the game has not aged. The blurriness of GameCube-era textures is barely visible since the craftsmanship lies elsewhere. A lot of developers get away with simple geometry, just because they put a bunch of ragged dots and lines on their flat textures. Retro Studios will take every line of your shitty game and cut it into a real shape.
I could talk all day and make a list of the impressive graphical feats of Metroid Prime, but the only thing that truly matters is how beautiful the game is to look at. Every room is worth looking around in because you’ll find unique objects and structures that exist for no other reason than to look cool. Cracks in the wall will reveal a pool of Phazon you can never get to. Why? Because it’s just there. The planet has its own reasons. There are so many things in this game that make me just stop and think about the world. It’s a technical and artistic masterpiece in every sense, and the fact that Retro Studios pulled this off on the GameCube makes every other developer in the world look like they missed something. They are just too good. The game scares me. I get goosebumps just by looking at walls and plants. Walls and plants should not be this interesting.
Combat is something that initially seems inelegant in this game compared to classic 2D action, but all the same movement principles and enemy patterns apply. Lock-on targeting is a fundamental mechanic, activated by pressing Z. Being locked-on allows you to strafe around and take cover while keeping your aim and attention at an enemy. Fighting well is about understanding your positioning and charging your beam with appropriate timing. It’s exactly the same thought process as the 2D games, even if it looks like an FPS. Space Pirates are a common enemy, and they will jump around wildly to throw you off. So you can either dive straight at them, or just wait for their little dance to be over and catch them unaware. When there are multiple enemies you have to think about the angle you’re approaching from. In a game this dynamic, it pays to be aware of the environment. You can hear enemies footsteps, or see their silhouette hanging from the roof. Once you realise you can take advantage of 3D elements in combat, the game design becomes more apparent and enjoyable.
With the new Wii controls you actually don’t need to lock-on, but it still doesn’t make it a shooter. If you’re not locked-on then Samus’s movement is going to turn to shit, and you’ll be jumping blindly into walls, hoping enemies miss you. It’s something you can do, but only if you’re very experienced with the game. In normal combat bullets come at you just slow enough so you can see a pattern, and when you’re locked-on to an enemy you can side-hop by tapping jump, or jump straight up over things pretty easily. Just imagine Samus jumping toward the screen in Super Metroid to avoid a shot in the background. That would be a gimmick ,but in Metroid Prime the 3D movement is realised.
The greatest thing the Wii remote adds is freedom. If you hold Z on a generic place on the screen you can casually flick the Wii remote to hit precise shots at enemies while the screen stays perfectly still. This is really useful for enemies like War Wasps, because you can take out their nest with a missile and kill the wasps flying out at the same time. It just feels amazing, and looks so casual and badass. Yep, you’re dead. And you. Pew pew. Did I mention you can still be walking forward while doing this with the screen locked? It’s fucking amazing to breeze through rooms when you’re used to the Wii remote. Most of my enjoyment with the Wii remote isn’t from combat though, just simple looking around. It feels like your arm is in the game and makes me explore extra slow sometimes just because it feels so cool.
I know some people struggle with motion controls but this is really as simple as pointing at the screen. I recommend setting them to “Advanced” right away despite your skill level just because it feels better. It just makes it faster and more responsive, and it doesn’t dart around like Conduit 2’s advanced settings. It should honestly feel good right away and if it doesn’t, well then buy a GameCube. I played through the GameCube version many times and loved it, but now I can’t go back because the Wii pointer is so well-implemented. I think the Wii Trilogy version is the best, but it doesn’t really matter which version you play. The important thing is you don’t let ideals stop you because Metroid Prime is above that.
Boss fights are so fucking amazing in this game I could write an entire article about each one. As a collective, they utilise all the scan visors, all of your different beams, all your abilities and have their own unique patterns, cycles and transitions. Some are small and clever, some are gigantic abominations that’ll make your house shake. Quite often you can also interact with objects in the boss room to manipulate the enemy into doing something else. They are just beautiful and more importantly very fun to play, wrapping all the game mechanics up into an exciting package that wants to kill you.
This is the part you skip if you care about spoilers. The game is 13 years old so you’ve had enough time. This game has no narrative or cutscene monologue presentations, the entirety of the world is discovered with your curiosity. There are no misunderstood artists or social themes on Tallon IV, just a poisoned planet crying for help, and Space Pirates ruthfully doing their job as power hungry dickwads. When you scan Space Pirate computers you’ll get stuff like “Metroid X experiment failed for X reason, move to X area to investigate and extract X”. Sounds a bit generic but the way everything links together is flawless. The game is even aware of the fact that Samus Aran is reading the data, and you read about security breaches that you have initiated yourself in previous rooms. The Space Pirates are very busy, and they’re anxious about this Bounty Hunter trying to shut them down. The same Space Pirates that you came into this room and destroyed, wrote logs that reveal how terrified they were of you before you even entered the room. They fight hard and put on a brave face, but imagine their despair when this killing machine in an orange suit comes in to destroy them. You are their worst nightmare.
A complete contrast to those Space Pirate scan logs comes in the form of Chozo Lore, mostly scattered throughout the Chozo Ruins but present throughout the entire game. These scans reveal details of an ancient Chozo civilization’s pursuit of knowledge and their hunger for the secrets of existence. Heavy shit. The Chozo are a fascinating species of bird-like sentients who champion knowledge above all else. They mysteriously disappeared from the universe after stating their goal was to be one with nature. This raises so many questions and opens up a lot of room for thought. Did it actually happen? Are they happy in paradise, or eternally suffering in the depths of nothingness? If the Chozo actually found a way to bond with the elements of the universe, perhaps they are helping Samus through nature’s devices? THAT could explain anything, even videogame logic. The distance this lore can go is limitless and it’s all very well written. Not just in the detail, but the emotive expression is short and impactful in all the right places. It achieves the miraculous goal of being to-the-point while talking about the universe. I’ve seen enough bad writing in videogames to know how special this is.
Even though Metroid Prime is set 80 years into the future on another planet, the Chozo’s links to nature and thirst for knowledge is something to relate to as you play this game and realise the universe is one thing. The way they deal with poison, how they handle power, and their stubborn reaction to inevitable destruction is honourable yet tragic. The Space Pirates even have their own opinions on the Chozo, and just want to harness the power of their technology to be bigger fuckwits. It all links together into the most wholesome, convincing, thought-provoking world I’ve ever explored in a game and even after dozens of playthroughs I’m still discovering new thoughts. The concepts are powerful and can take you off guard in a lonely moment if you get too comfortable with the fact you’re playing a videogame. I’m not talking about feels. It’s more of a positive, thoughtful energy. How can I harness the power of the universe? Did the Space Pirates use Newton’s Laws to measure the weight of planets? What did the Chozo eat? How the fuck does this game exist? Why is it so good? What if the Chozo made this game? Maybe it’s just because I’m crazy, but no other game makes me crazy like this. All this info is coming from a game where reading is optional.
There’s so much more to say, but at this point you may as well play the game. Hell, I want to play it again. What’s the greatest thing about all this? There are 2 more games like Metroid Prime and they each have their own unique worlds. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption share similar strengths but have their own flavour of brilliance. The entire Metroid Prime Trilogy is a download away on the Wii U eShop. There’s a lot of speculation about the size of the universe, but I happen to know it’s 7.6 GB.