“Space can be mapped and crossed and occupied without definable limit; but it can never be conquered. When our race has reached its ultimate achievements, and the stars themselves are scattered no more widely than the seed of Adam, even then we shall still be like ants crawling on the face of the Earth. The ants have covered the world, but have they conquered it — for what do their countless colonies know of it, or of each other?”
-Arthur C. Clarke
With Samus back in the hearts and minds of so many these days (though perhaps she never left), thanks in no small part to Metroid: Samus Returns and the Nintendo’s Metroid Prime 4 announcement, I thought it was time for me to get in on the space-faring, bug-blasting, heroine action with a review of Metroid Prime, one of the best leaps from 2D to 3D ever. It is also one of the most obvious.
Leading the Metroid series from its influential, two-dimensional, side-scrolling platforming origins to full-on, three-dimensional, first-person-perspective shooter may not have been a lightning flash of genius so much as it was the most logical direction for Samus and her world. With the rise of more powerful systems supporting 3D gaming came the tide of first-person shooters. Metroid was Nintendo’s best bet for slipping into the increasingly popular FPS scene. The Metroid games themselves had an air of maturity, seriousness, and coolness factor that could appeal to older gamers. Samus, the series’ champion and an icon in the Nintendo gallery, was a natural choice for an FPS lead with her stolid persona and arm-mounted cannon.
The transition between dimensions, from two to three, was not an easy one to make for all characters and franchises. Several were left behind as the gaming industry moved forward. I’m sure you can think of a few franchises which died with the end of the 16-bit age…
If a series couldn’t define itself as technology expanded and then refine itself to keep up with the times, then it simply disappeared, provided there was no other niche in which it could exist. In the survival of the fittest world of gaming where at bottom the success of a product is measured in sales, only the adaptable make it to the next generation. Metroid, despite gaps in its series, is one of those which has survived because it could be reinvented without being fundamentally changed. It could enter into a new kind of genre without sacrificing its core elements. Whether that’s purely by design or by coincidence that Metroid just so happened to function that way already, perhaps no one can say.
Metroid Prime doesn’t lose any of the sense of foreboding and isolation that the series achieved in Prime’s forebears, Super Metroid most notably, and this game is a textbook example of storytelling through atmosphere. This series is the closest Nintendo generally gets to flirting with the horror genre. Everybody knows the Big Red N for their happy-go-lucky innocence and magical games evoking childhood nostalgia, but with Metroid Prime, indeed with the franchise as a whole, there’s a very potent sublayer of horror: aliens, mutants, shambling monsters of all sorts, the presence of silence, and the sensation of loneliness.
As an accent to the Nintendo canon, Metroid is significant. If Nintendo ever puts out an adaptation of one of their IPs in the full, gory, violent, terrifying rated-M for mature flavor, odds are that mantle would fall to Metroid. I can’t exactly envision an Animal Crossing horror game! Not saying they shouldn’t try, though. Maybe there could be a Nintendo development division, “Nintendo After Dark”, though to be fair this game was developed in collaboration with Retro Studios as well. Retro Studios is an American developer and I think that’s interesting to take note of in the adapting of Nintendo’s Metroid to the FPS genre that’s popular in the West.
This particular story, beginning the Prime trilogy, takes place between the original Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus (remade recently as Samus Returns), though some conflicting accounts place it after Super Metroid. The Prime trilogy, though prequels to many of the Metroid games, served to fill out this dreadful universe with rich new lore.
Metroid Prime finds the intergalactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran, doing what she does best: cruising through the void in her own helmet-shaped shuttle like a boss. When she intercepts a distress signal from the frigate Orpheon, she discovers Space Pirates, horrible biological experiments, and her old nemesis Ridley, now Meta-Ridley. As the frigate begins to self-destruct, her suit is damaged, causing it to default to its most primitive functions, effectively removing all of her advanced offensive and defensive capabilities.
Samus pursues Ridley to the planet Tallon IV, a world once inhabited by the Chozo civilization. These ancient and technologically advanced bird-like people cherished knowledge before their race was mysteriously ended. Before their demise, they raised a young and orphaned Samus Aran, training her to be a warrior, even infusing her with their own blood, until she became a bounty hunter and left their protective cradle. By the time Metroid Prime rolls around, the Chozo are gone and exist only as ghosts in the vast universe. Tallon IV is riddled with their machines and their ruins, though the planet provides perhaps some inkling of their downfall.
While chasing her enemies, Samus soon discovers Phazon, that which the Chozo of Tallon IV called “the Great Poison” before it destroyed them. It is a radioactive, mutagenic super-organism from the planet Phaaze. It came to Tallon IV in a meteor called the Leviathan, and it infiltrated and corrupted the planet’s biosystems.
Exploring Tallon IV, Samus runs into several Phazon-enhanced enemies, Space Pirates mutated by the stuff. She even obtains a new Phazon suit herself and finds her abilities augmented. Her new goal is to confront and defeat the Worm, the Phazon entity which landed with the meteor. The Chozo had attempted to contain this creature within an ancient temple. This entity (spoiler: highlight to reveal) is known as Metroid Prime, a mutated metroid transformed when the meteor landed, and it absorbs the Phazon Suit to become Dark Samus, which appears in the sequels.
The Prime plot thread begins here and the subsequent games take Samus beyond Tallon IV, though a sinister presence dogs her. I’m curious to see how the eventual fourth game fits in, to put it mildly.
The 8-bit Review
Couple things to be said off the bat. This game was originally released on Nintendo’s GameCube but it was re-released as part of a collection in the Metroid Prime Trilogy on the Wii, one generation later. We’re reviewing the original Metroid Prime, so that means talking about the less crisp, blurrier imagery. What it does not mean is that we’re referring to poor graphics.
On the contrary, Metroid Prime featured some incredibly detailed environments, weather and temperature effects, pulsing alien atmospheres, a keen sense of appropriate lighting, and it crafted a whole new perspective for Samus where the player perceived the world through the visor of her helmet just like she did. The significance of this for the Metroid franchise cannot be understated. This was the first Metroid game to be presented in 3D rather than 2D. There hadn’t even been another Metroid game on a console for 8 years, since Super Metroid.
Prime wisely skipped the first generation of 3D-primary consoles, leaving many at the time wondering where Metroid was during the PlayStation and the N64 era. Nothing could have better served Samus’ leap into three dimensions, though. The Metroid series avoided the clumsy first steps of 3D platformers and shooters to make its appearance once things began to reach a level of refinement. Prime had the time to perfect itself during development even as 3D gaming came into its own.
Looking at the dark beauty of Metroid Prime, I shudder to think what the game would’ve looked like rendered in crude polygons and muddy textures. Less like Interstellar and more like Plan 9 from Outer Space.
The music of Metroid Prime is phenomenal. Composer Kenji Yamamoto made an excellent choice in keeping with the general flavor of spooky space music. The Metroid games are often paraded for their achievements in atmosphere and a large part of constructing that sensation of surrounding, of dread, the perception that something horrible is waiting just around the corner, that all comes from music. Audio design is just as important as visuals in welcoming the player into the game world and immersing them in the experience until they reach “flow”, that height of entertainment where you feel as if you’re in the game.
In the past I’ve expressed some of my thoughts on atmospheric versus melodic music in games. It seems to me that there has been a tendency to move away from melody in modern audio design where mainstream games have distanced themselves from traditionally defined “levels”. Whoever you are that’s reading this, likely you can recall to mind some tunes from video games and even hum them, but how many of these are from the modern era? Catchier songs existed in the past because those tunes were shorter and identified by their association with compartmentalized “stages” of those games.
The melodic approach to audio design in games doesn’t work in many cases today. Open world games feature music which ebbs in and out, changing tracks as battles begin and end. Thinking about Final Fantasy VII, I can recall several songs to mind that delineate areas within the game and their accompanying themes. Thinking about Final Fantasy XV… I probably can’t even hum a single tune, even after playing over 100 hours. Modern games use the atmospheric in order to achieve a more fluid sound design and that occasionally results in music that settles into the background rather than coming to the forefront of the experience.
This likely seems as if I’m making a qualitative comparison between atmospheric and melodic but I’m not. My point is that the evolving structures of games have dictated the style of musical presentation which best serves each title, explaining the rise in atmospheric, “cinematic” music. Metroid Prime is a great example of a game in which the atmospheric approach to scoring the game heightens the capabilities of the game’s communication with the player.
That isn’t to say that all of the music in Prime is atmospheric background sound. Many tracks are musical updates of previous compositions which appeared in other Metroid games. Fans may recognize a handful of them and since these take their influences from the past, several of them feature a catchy melody.
Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios has stated:
“We didn’t want to make just another first person shooter. … Making a first person shooter would have been a cheap and easy way to go. But making sure the themes and concepts in Metroid were kept was something that we wanted to do. And translating those things into 3D was a real challenge. For example, translating the morph ball was one of the hardest things to do.”
With so many FPS games on the market (it was positively over-saturated at one point), Metroid Prime and its two sequels still stand out as unique entries in their genre. The developers’ dedication to preserving what made Metroid games unique as platformers and translating that into first person shooter territory kept the flavor of Super Metroid intact, easing the landing from 2D to 3D. Where this would obviously present issues was with Samus Aran’s mobility.
Samus wields an arm-mounted cannon but she’s not the static, marching protagonist of a typical FPS. In her previous adventures, she demonstrated acrobatic skills such as somersaults and wall jumps. Of course there’s her iconic ability where she rolls up into the Morph Ball. How could these mechanics be interpreted in a first-person perspective game?
That was actually my primary concern when Metroid Prime first hit the shelves. Mind you, I didn’t own a GameCube at the time, having made the leap to Sony with only retro Nintendo devices to speak of. Nevertheless, I balked at the idea of the camera spinning around when Samus performed her patented Screw Attack. I chortled at the concept of the screen rolling around uncontrollably when she tucked herself into the Morph Ball. As it turns out, my younger and more skeptical self didn’t need to be so apprehensive.
Metroid Prime allows for things like high jumps and even the Morph Ball. The simple solution was for the camera to take a step back from a first-person to a third-person perspective. The screen makes this shift with every transition into the Morph Ball and then Samus can roll around and drop bombs in a three-dimensional environment, and when she’s done the camera returns to her visor in first-person. Because the change is so seamless, it’s a simple solution that lends Samus elegance and fluidity.
No Metroid game could be complete without collectible items and upgrades. Prime is full of them, reinterpreting old trademark abilities as well as introducing new ones to Samus’ ever-expanding arsenal. Gather these power ups in a specific order is still integral to exploring Samus’ environments with new upgrades allowing access to new areas.
Samus’ visor contains an interface that lets players swap between scanners and observational abilities of various sorts, as well as swapping basic weapons. Familiar items include things like the Grapple Beam, but new power ups include the Spider Ball which magnetizes the Morph Ball and of course the Phazon Suit and Phazon Beam. Notaby, the beam weapons in Prime do not stack like they did in Super Metroid. You’ll have to swap between them for their unique effects. All in all, the items are familiar but not devoid of innovation.
Not as bare bones as its ancestors in this area, Prime is more narrative and world-building heavy due to Samus’ new ability to scan objects and creatures around her, amounting to an encyclopedia of information. Best thing about this is the data tidbits allow you to learn about your surroundings without bringing the gameplay to a screeching halt with overlong cutscenes. There are cinematics in the game but they are far from laborious, emphasizing spectacle over exposition.
In thinking about how a game tells its story, Prime takes the path of using atmosphere and environment to instruct the player. Information about an alien or a machine are pulled directly from those subjects as they exist in Samus’ surroundings, so there’s no sense of isolation in the text or gap between what is being seen and what is being explained.
Metroid Prime is an expert example of this kind of storytelling. Samus pieces together the past and the player explores emotion through comparative subtlety. Additionally, Prime successfully sets up a trilogy (soon to be a quadrilogy) which distinguishes itself even from the rest of the Metroid games, contributing to the series’ lore without retconning and without dumbing down the material.
The only difficult parts of the game were intended to be the bosses and finding your way around. Anyone who played Metroid up to this point in time would know that it is quite easy to lose your way in the alien labyrinths and corridors. Samus may be brave and able to dive headfirst into any situation but players taking on a Metroid adventure know what value there is to paying attention to their surroundings as they go, remembering where they’ve been and where they’ll need to return once certain power ups are gained.
Losing oneself in Metroid Prime is all the easier thanks to a pretty but somewhat obfuscating in-game map. Rotating the map in 3D is cool and all but there were several times when I couldn’t exactly work out which orange polygon connected to the room I was trying to get to. In this manner it seems like the map system became needlessly complex for the sake of achieving 3D visuals (maybe the only subject of which I can say that about in this game). The old 2D version was much easier to read. It’s a step forward but a clumsy one which makes Prime all the harder to navigate.
The new map system isn’t user-friendly and that directly influences this game’s overall accessibility score where getting lost or not knowing where you need to go next is an expectation rather than a risk. Not knowing what power up you need and where to get it forces the player to do their due exploration which is of course what Metroid is all about, figuring out the game room by room and trying to come to grips with how to successfully utilize your gear. Metroid Prime is like trying to solve a puzzle while living in it, without being told all the rules.
How do you reinvent an established franchise? You not only look at it from a new perspective, you make it adopt a new perspective too. As I said in my opener, the leap from 2D to 3D wasn’t easy for every franchise of yore but Metroid made that transition with flying colors. Biding its time, gathering talent, constructing a vision, reinterpreting Samus and her abilities in meaningful ways led to Metroid Prime becoming a class act.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I missed this game at its debut on the GameCube but I picked it up in the excellent Metroid Prime Trilogy compilation for the Wii, certainly one of the best buys for that system. I understand that the nature of the Wiimotes meant a difference in how Prime was played without using the GameCube controller, but it was one instance where I enjoyed the motion controls of the Wii for what they could accomplish.
As for Prime itself, the game has become one of my favorites. This stylish and exceptional take on Samus Aran made the galactic bounty hunter her own pioneer in this new era of three-dimensional spaces, yet it handled the new duds with confidence and therefore with respectability. Really, few franchises are as respected as Metroid. No wonder so many are looking forward to Metroid Prime 4.
Aggregated Score: 8.9
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Categories: Game Review