Whether when borrowing from Super Metroid or when leaving its own signature, there is not really anything Metroid Prime could have done better
Among all of Nintendo’s major franchises, none of them had a transition from the 2-D realm into a tridimensional scenario as laborious as that of Metroid. Throughout the Nintendo 64 era, fans of the saga patiently waited for Samus to follow both Link and Mario and also perform a successful leap into a brand new world of gameplay possibilities. Ultimately, though, they would come to be disappointed when the bounty hunter failed to show up for the party. Unbeknown to many of them, however, while their expectations lingered, Nintendo had not lazily sat on its easy chair; the company had actually struggled to figure out a way to transport the traditional Metroid gameplay from its sidescrolling origins to a 3-D environment.
Working together with the then young Retro Studios, Nintendo was eventually able to solve that puzzle, although not quite in time for Samus to debut on the Nintendo 64. Albeit belated, though, her long-delayed first appearance in a 3-D game more than made up for her lengthy absence, because Metroid Prime does not simply amount to one of the best Gamecube games: it actually safely ranks among the greatest games of all time.
The first piece that fell into place and that was key in figuring out the elusive answer to the franchise’s transitional puzzle happens to be Metroid Prime’s most remarkable and unexpected feature: its first-person perspective. Most games that use such scheme tend to deviate into pure shooting affairs where aim, strategy, and weaponry rule and everything else is minor. Metroid, meanwhile, is almost the opposite of that, having made its name – and reached its peak with Super Metroid – on the heels of meticulous exploration, environmental riddles, epic boss encounters, loads of backtracking, and a world map that is itself a gigantic puzzle that needs to be understood, analyzed, and scrutinized.
A first inattentive glance, then, would seem to indicate that mashing a first-person camera with traditional Metroid gameplay would be impossible: as one element would negatively devour the other’s qualities. As it turns out, however, Metroid Prime does not show any signs of corrosion; on the contrary, it exhibits flawless symbiosis, with both the series’ explorative nature and the first-person view feeding off one another in a way that elevates them to impressive levels.
As far as transitions to the 3-D world go, where Super Mario 64 presented a considerable gameplay shift for the plumber, Metroid Prime tends to align itself with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as – despite its glaring changes – it was not the breaking of long-established paradigms, but a immaculate translation of a gameplay style to a new era. Therefore, Metroid Prime feels, breathes, and lives exactly like Super Metroid. In other words, Samus is still harshly thrown onto an unknown planet where some mysterious event of galaxy-affecting proportions is going on, and she needs to – on her own – get to the bottom of the problem, survive attacks from her enemies and the local fauna, go through hostile terrain, and do a whole lot of walking on beautiful alien environments.
The difference is that instead of looking at the developments through a distant and impersonal camera, players will see the world through the hunter’s visor, examining her surroundings just like she views them, starring at those who threaten her much like she does, and – consequently – feeling, first-hand, the loneliness and isolation that is inherent to most of her quests. As a result, the first-person camera – which only displays her arm-canon and general information about her status and weapons that are exhibited by her visor – actually augments the unbelievable immersion, ominousness, and tension that are so prominent in Metroid games.
The storyline begins when Samus intercepts a distress signal from a Space Pirate frigate. Upon investigating the mostly abandoned and wrecked ship, floating in space like an interstellar haunted vessel, she learns that the Space Pirates have been experimenting with genetically modified creatures, many of which have overtaken the place. After defeating the beings, a self-destruct sequence is activated. When escaping, Samus encounters a cybernetic version of her nemesis, Ridley. The ensuing explosion destroys her suit, leaving it only with the most basic skills, but as the fearless bounty hunter she is, Samus chases the dragon-like Space Pirate general all the way to Tallon IV, where a gigantic menace is brewing.
Wise enough to realize that one should not try to tamper with what is not broken, and aware that the Metroid fanbase was desperately craving for a dose of traditional Metroid, Metroid Prime follows on the footsteps of Super Metroid. Samus lands on a rain forest, and from that point onwards it is up to players to figure out what to do and where to go. Doors and paths leading to new places are plentiful, but given her limited equipment Samus is only able to explore specific locations, and the entire adventure is built around that motif, forcing Samus to go into an area and retrieve a new piece of equipment, which will in turn allow her to reach new places.
Tallon IV is set up as one massive overworld that leads to four equally huge areas that are also connected among themselves, forming a mighty maze of rooms, shafts, corridors, and some wide open locations that are explored non-linearly, as Samus will often return to previously visited areas with a newly acquired skill in order to get to a place that was initially inaccessible. As a statement on how immense Tallon IV is, and as the cherry on top of Metroid Prime’s spectacular world design and flooring art-style (which goes from basic to borderline surrealistic and alien), all five main locations house an impressive amount of scenario variety, with – for example – the barren desert-like landscape of Chozo Ruins eventually transforms considerably enough to include a dense forest area and a few Space Pirate facilities.
Those impressive carefully built sights are complemented by a soundtrack that smartly borrows signature themes from Super Metroid and gives them a new techno or rock treatment, and also creates a handful of amazing tunes of its own. However, as a way to serve its atmosphere, Metroid Prime tends to rely on minimalistic themes played at low volume, leaving a lot of room for the silence and environmental noises of its scenarios, and its impressive sound effects to rule; a move that lures players further into its inescapable web of immersion.
Looking for lost equipment, such as the classic Morph Ball or brand new kinds of visors and beams, is not all Samus can do while exploring Tallon IV. Metroid Prime also offers tons of collectibles that can transform the already powerful hunter into a one-woman army: extra energy tanks; and missile, super missile, and power bomb expansions. Searching for them, besides naturally extending the length of a twelve-hour quest into far more, reveals new puzzles and intricate level design gems that will be missed by those who choose to run straight through the game without deeply investigating their surroundings.
Despite all of its nods towards Super Metroid, Metroid Prime is not satisfied with just borrowing; it also does a good deal of inventing, and all of its tweaks are extremely positive. Firstly, there is the fact that even though its absolute focus is exploration, the game does throw Samus into a few challenging rooms where first-person shooting is imperative, such as when she faces hordes of Space Pirates armed with a variety of weapons and, sometimes, even jet-packs. It is a nice little change of pace, and one that works well even if the ability to lock onto enemies oversimplifies those combats and takes away the value of having a good aim.
Secondly, there is the improvement in the quality of boss encounters. Although Super Metroid did feature its share of amazing battles, those were restricted by the simplicity of a sidescrolling game. In Metroid Prime, not only do they considerably grow in scale, but they also gain in complexity and creativity. Doing damage to the bosses usually requires a series of steps that are puzzles in themselves, forcing Samus to wisely use her newly acquired equipment and unleash all her firepower when an opening reveals itself. These numerous and varied meetings are visual spectacles that deliver incredible rushes of adrenaline.
Lastly, there is Metroid Prime’s most inventive feature: its proactive storytelling approach. As it is traditional for the franchise, Metroid Prime is very minimalistic in setting up its plot, doing so with brief and effective silent cutscenes and a little text. However, beneath the surface, the game actually presents a full-fledged tale that, instead of being forced onto players, is just lying there in the open waiting to be found. When her visor is set to scan mode, Samus can scan the environment and gather data on specific points that are highlighted on the screen .
The information that can be acquired ranges from general intel on organic material or constructed structures, hence giving a brief storyline to even the most apparently mundane areas; information on lifeforms or enemies; lore created by civilizations that inhabited the planet prior to Samus’ arrival, therefore constructing quite an ominous and deep backstory to the hunter’s adventure; and logs from computers that belong to the Space Pirates, whose contents tend to give quite an insight onto what exactly is taking place. All of which amounts to quite a bit of text and a whole lot of intriguing information that adds a great deal of depth to the world.
Due to that Metroid Prime is alluring to both those who want to ignore the intricate details of its plot and just focus on the exploration, and to those who feel like digging deeper. It allows each player to tackle the game as they see fit.
Metroid Prime’s sole stumbles, if they can even be called that, are minor and will either go unnoticed by or fail to bother most gamers. Given the game’s first-person perspective, some of its occasional tight platforming sequences can be bothersome, because it is hard at first to calculate where exactly Samus will land. With time, though, that issue goes away. Moreover, one of the title’s final segments includes a major backtracking quest through all of the areas, in which Samus must recover specific artifacts to proceed to the final boss. While such mission unveils more of the masterful level design that Metroid Prime hides so seamlessly in plain sight, making Samus go through many rooms that were previously unvisited or that were explored without revealing their secrets, some will certainly be frustrated by what might come off as a way to artificially extend the adventure.
With the sum of its cohesive parts, though, Metroid Prime amounts to the perfect translation of the franchise’s gameplay to a tridimensional environment. Whether when borrowing from Super Metroid or when leaving its own signature on the skin of an established and critically acclaimed series, there is not really anything Retro Studios and Nintendo could have done better. It plays impeccably, it immerses like no other game Nintendo has ever put out, and it packs a respectable level of challenge for veterans and newcomers alike. Samus may have been gone for quite some time, but in her belated comeback she displayed that she remained the absolute queen of the genre she had pioneered and mastered.