In a previous article, I got the chance to regale the story of an over-confident rookie development studio fighting against all sorts of odds to deliver us the groundbreaking Metroid Prime. Today, I wanted to take a step further into what made the title so "groundbreaking" in the first place. Metroid Prime is regarded as one of the best games of all time, but why is it worthy of such lavish praise? Is it truly a perfectly designed work of art? Today we find out at the risk of upsetting millions of Metroid fans everywhere. Let's revisit Metroid Prime.
Super Super Metroid
Distress signals, bioweapons, space pirates- these are the things we associate with the Metroid franchise, and Metroid Prime is no different. In Prime, Samus receives a distress signal which eventually leads her to the planet Tallon IV. Tallon IV used to be the home to the ancient Chozo, an ethereal race of beings that had achieved spiritual enlightenment until the day in which a converging meteor smashed into the planet in a dinosaur style cataclysmic event. The crash caused the poisonous substance of phazon to disseminate across Tallon IV, forcing the Chozo to fight a losing battle in trying to contain the poison from not only destroying their race but the universe itself. Wouldn’t you know it, the space pirates (the quintessential baddies of the Metroid universe) have discovered Tallon IV and with it the vastly dangerous potential of phazon. It is up to Samus to utilize the artifacts left behind by the Chozo to stop the space pirates from fully realizing this potential.
Compared to the baby Metroid relationship in Super Metroid or the heavy dialog cutscenes in Metroid Fusion, Prime's story plays it relatively safe. It does just enough to explain why Samus is on Tallon IV, why she lost her suit's powers (again), and why she must stop the space pirate threat (again). Prime consciously chooses to put its narrative on the back burner by only sharing context when necessary. Instead, the vast majority of the plot can be discerned through environmental storytelling and optional bits of lore scattered across the world map. It's a system that rewards players who are interested in learning more about the game's story without taking away from anyone who merely wants to get lost in exploring a mysterious new world.
A Whole New World
And Tallon IV is a world worth exploring. Each biome you'll visit in Metroid Prime is not only visually distinct but also challenges Samus in new and disparate ways. The torrid caverns of Magmoor luster bright red from the surrounding pools of deadly lava. Miscalculate a jump, and you'll find yourself slowly roasting to death or attacked by fiery snake monsters. On the other hand, the lush rainforests of the Tallon Overworld are replete with shades of healthy green from the vast array of flora and fauna. You won't burn, but you might get trapped by sprouting plant algae or stunned by toxic spores. Both of these are in stark contrast to the industrial complexes of the Phazon Mines where you'll find an assortment of biological research facilities and drilling equipment. Your main threats here come from science experiments gone wrong and face-to-face combat with space pirates.
These environments are all the more absorbing thanks to Prime's ultimate contribution to the Metroid franchise: the first-person perspective. Playing the game feels as if someone grabbed the side-scrolling camera from Super Metroid and shoved it directly into Samus's visor so that you could finally see the world through her eyes. So when you get too close to the lava in Magmoor Caverns, your HUD will alert you that hazards are near; when the rain pours in the Tallon Overworld, droplets will gently slide down your screen; and when space pirates blast you with laser beams within the Phazon Mines, flashes of light will reflect off of your visor.
It's the consolidation of all of these things along with the game's spectacular tone-setting soundtrack that makes the world of Tallon IV feel like a character in its own right. Metroid games, after all, are about mastering the environment around you, and Prime puts that environment front and center (literally). When someone says that a game is rife with atmosphere- this is what they mean.
All of the atmosphere in the world would mean nothing if it were built atop a foundation of poor level design. Thankfully, Metroid Prime is a prime example of a well-crafted design that elicits a deep feeling of exploration while still progressing in a fairly linear manner. The game will always tell you generally where you should be heading but never precisely how to get there. On your way to discovering the correct path, Prime uses every Metroid trick in the book to help you form a sense of familiarity with your surroundings.
Sometimes this is as simple as walking past a door that can't open until you have a specific beam upgrade. More notably are the times where you feel like you are outsmarting the game by visiting an area that you are "not supposed to be in" yet. I distinctly remember sneaking away behind a waterfall only to discover two space pirates harvesting phazon for the first time. It was such a shocking discovery that I fumbled my controller- allowing the pirates to fly across the scene well out of my reach. I had no way to chase after them at the time, but I could never forget the spot where I almost caught actual space pirates red-handed.
It's in the formation of these moments, both big and small, that help you create a personalized mental map that grows alongside your arsenal of power-ups and upgrades as you play the game. I felt like I was taking charge of the situation. That I was the one having the adventure, not only Samus. Exploring the areas around me was mainly about satisfying my own curiosities, and even when I went off the beaten path, I was still rewarded with all sorts of worthwhile goodies. It's not an easy task to take a genre known for its dead ends and backtracking and then utilize those very design patterns to develop a sense of sprawling adventure. Metroid Prime does just that.
A brand new addition to the design this time around is Samus's scanning visor. By turning on the scanning visor, you can gather supplementary information about virtually everything in the game. Most of the time this information is related to the story or lore of the world. Scanning a rusted fountain, for example, will tell you more about how it was used in ancient times. For these "lore scans" I found that I had very little interest in the mechanic. There's probably an audience out there who would love to know more about every tree, spider, and rock, but it slowed down the pacing a bit too much for me.
There are moments where I feel as if the scanning visor is a stroke of pure brilliance. Like I said earlier, Metroid games are all about mastering your environment, and the scanning visor can often act as a natural extension to this theme by adding a hidden layer of context to your surroundings. One of my personal highlights of the entire game was clearing out all of the pathways in a specific room while noticing something odd about how far away the ceiling seemed to be. Flipping on the scanning visor revealed that the structure of the room was pretty weak; leading me to pelt the walls with a barrage of missiles. Sure enough, the sheer force of my destruction caused the ceiling to come crumbling downward along with all of its secrets.
There are plenty of these "Eureka!" style discoveries scattered about the map of Tallon IV, but I would be remiss if I failed to also mention some of the shortcomings of Metroid Prime's level design. Although Prime starts off swinging wildly for the fences, it stumbles just shy of home base.
The pacing in the first two acts of the game is excellent. You start off isolated on a whole new planet, and this is precisely when Prime is laser-focused on its strength: exploration. Once you are starting to get a little too comfortable with your natural surroundings, act two punches you in the mouth with the introduction of enemy space pirates, metroids, swappable visors, new beams, and new locations. These additions complicate your journey, but in a way that keeps the backtracking and upgrade hunting fresh and exciting. It wasn't until the last third of the game when I started to feel like Prime had forgotten its roots as a first-person adventure by pretending to be too much like a first-person shooter.
Like most games, Metroid Prime wants to steadily increase the tension and danger for the protagonist the closer she gets to the final conflict. The way that the game decides to do this is by making enemies harder to kill while liberally scattering them all over the world map- including the areas that you've already been through before. The impact of these changes is that whether you are scouting a brand new environment, or backtracking through a familiar one, you are constantly being stopped to engage in lengthy bouts of combat. A wildly different experience when compared to the first handful of hours in the game, and that's a significant problem when you realize that combat is by far the weakest component of Metroid Prime.
Ripping a page out of the Ocarina of Time playbook, combat is built around a similarly defined enemy lock-on system. You don't have to use the lock-on, but because the controls don't allow you to aim freely while moving, it's all but a requirement if you want to be able to dodge incoming attacks (note that I am referring to the original GameCube version and not the Trilogy re-release for the Wii which had a slightly upgraded control format). It's a system that worked really well for the third-person close-quarters action of Zelda, but aiming is kind of the whole point of a shooter. Lock-on takes away the challenge. As long as you hold down the control stick and repeatedly press 'A' to shoot, you'll have no problem overcoming most combat scenarios in Metroid Prime.
The game tries to alleviate this repetitive monotony by introducing enemies that require a combination of suit upgrades to defeat, but the implementation just doesn't go far enough. Sometimes you'll run into red space pirates, and you'll have to use the beam that shoots red lasers. Sometimes they'll be orange, and you'll have to shoot orange. Thrilling. It's all the same circular lock-on dog and pony show. If anything, I found that these "harder" enemies made combat even less appealing by making the time to kill slightly longer without adding any actual sense of complexity to the situation. The third act of Metroid Prime is chock-full of these fights, and I tried to skip past as many of them as possible.
Leaving a Legacy
To linger too much on the few things that the game got wrong would give a false impression of how I felt about my time with Metroid Prime. Was the combat simplistic and tedious at times? Sure. Was the pacing a little lopsided and inconsistent at the end? Absolutely. But these are tangential to the overall experience of the game. Metroid Prime shines because it understands and places special emphasis on the core essence of what Metroid games are all about. It was never about the shooting, but about the world, and Prime delivers a vibrant, lively, and skillfully constructed environment that will continue to be religiously studied by anyone interested in 3D world design for years to come.