Among the Super NES’s numerous beloved titles is Super Metroid. When this game was released in 1994, it raised the bar for the series by removing the flaws holding it back while crafting an adventure far grander in scale than any entry that came before. Naturally, as a widely popular game, fans began clamoring for a sequel. During the fifth console generation, they eagerly awaited a follow-up, as many of Nintendo’s famous franchises had successfully made the leap from 2D to 3D on the Nintendo 64. However, a sequel to Super Metroid was nowhere to be found. Gunpei Yokoi, the leader of the R&D branch behind the series’ creation, wished for it to be a self-contained trilogy while Yoshio Sakamoto, the director of Super Metroid, expressed that “[he] just couldn’t imagine how [the Nintendo 64 controller] could be used to move Samus around”. Nintendo approached a third-party company to help make a Nintendo 64 Metroid installment only for the offer to be declined. It’s said the developers resigned themselves to the reality that they could not create anything capable of equaling Super Metroid, let alone surpassing it.
In 1997, an unlikely solution to this dilemma surfaced. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a game based on the comic book character, was released for the Nintendo 64. This game was a critical and commercial success. It was notable for being one of earliest titles to bring the first-person shooter genre to console gaming, and for challenging the family-friendly image Nintendo had crafted. The idea of a Mature-rated title appearing exclusively on the Nintendo 64 was simply unheard of. The company behind this game was Iguana Entertainment. This developer based in Sunnyvale, California was founded in 1991 by Jeff Spangenberg.
Impressed with their success, Nintendo saw this as a golden opportunity and decided to reach out to them. From this alliance, a new company was formed in 1998: Retro Studios. Nintendo felt this company could create games for their upcoming GameCube console with the goal of drawing an older audience in. The studio opened an office in Austin, Texas, and with four key members from Iguana Entertainment, they began working on four projects: an action-adventure title, a vehicular combat game, an American football simulator, and an RPG. This proved to be a daunting task, as Retro did not have access to GameCube development kits. Consequently, the working environment was chaotic; development constantly fell behind schedule and executives from Nintendo complained about how the games were turning out. When Shigeru Miyamoto visited the studio in 2000 along with Satoru Iwata and Tom Prata from Nintendo of America, he was upset over the lack of progress made. He did, however, see potential when they demonstrated the engine they were to use for their unnamed action-adventure project. After returning to their hotel and deliberating among themselves in the lobby about the future, Mr. Miyamoto suggested that Retro use their assets to create a new Metroid installment.
Once they were allowed to use the license, the people at Retro felt their game should be played from a third-person perspective so they could preserve the essence of the series. Mr. Miyamoto had an different idea; he proposed that Retro should draw on their knowledge and make the game a first-person experience. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they were relived in a way. Senior designer Mike Wikan put it best when he said, “We knew how to do first-person shooters”.
With a new direction to focus their creativity, the two companies set out to finally give the Metroid franchise the sequel it deserved. Unfortunately, their disorderly work environment came back to haunt them, and they suddenly found themselves saddled with a rapidly approaching deadline. So many resources were being expended to create this game, and one by one, their earlier projects were cancelled, never to see the light of day. By the end, Mr. Spangenberg was caught running a risqué website off of the company’s servers, leading him to step down in 2002, the Japanese staff spent a majority of their time in the United States, and Retro’s employees were constantly working overnight. They regularly clocked eighty to one-hundred hours a week all while neglecting family and subsisting on atomic fireball candy – the staff eventually going through seventy-two gallons.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, even the most levelheaded enthusiasts were less than kind when the project was unveiled. To them, handing a beloved franchise to an unproven company was the most reprehensible act of betrayal Nintendo could have committed. Furthermore, they had seen many great franchises fall by the wayside in an attempt to make the 3D leap, so they were all but certain Metroid would meet same fate. Most damningly of all, it was presented as a first-person shooter, which couldn’t possibly offer an experience as deep as even the original Metroid. This game, known as Metroid Prime, was released in November of 2002 on the same day as the Nintendo-developed Metroid Fusion. To everyone’s shock, not only was the game receiving perfect scores across the board, the fans who cynically dismissed it began embracing it as a true Metroid installment – some going as far as declaring it superior to Super Metroid, which was unanimously considered the pinnacle of the series. How was this game able to silence the doomsayers so effectively?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain minor, unmarked spoilers.
Space Pirates stationed on Zebes were conducting illegal experiments on Metroids, deadly parasites from Planet SR388. Numerous efforts to put an end to these operations failed. In the face of this formidable threat, the Galactic Federation sent the famed bounty hunter, Samus Aran. Defying the odds, she singlehandedly destroyed their stronghold, restoring peace to the galaxy.
Three years have passed since that incident, and Samus begins to traverse the stars in search a new client. Suddenly, she receives a distress signal from a space station in orbit above the planet Tallon IV. During her investigation of this frigate, she learns it’s one of the few spacecrafts that managed to escape her attack on Zebes. The outlaws she finds are all either dead or in critical condition. After reaching the reactor core, she discovers a mutated creature known as the Parasite Queen. She is able to vanquish her foe, but in doing so, the carcass damages the propulsion system, causing it to malfunction. With mere minutes before the frigate is sent plummeting into the planet, she makes her escape. Along the way, she finds Ridley, the commander of the Space Pirates whom she defeated on Zebes alive and well. His associates found his body and reconstructed him, turning the fearsome outlaw into a cyborg. Samus successfully flees the spacecraft, and in her gunship, follows Ridley to the surface of Tallon IV, determined to stop the Space Pirates once and for all.
Metroid Prime is notable for being the first 3D entry for the series. Many of Nintendo’s other famous IPs such as Mario and The Legend of Zelda made the transition to 3D in the fifth console generation, yet they did not stray from their established genres. Super Mario 64 was still a platformer and Ocarina of Time was still an action-adventure title, though the third dimension added innumerable new facets to the gameplay. Metroid Prime, on the other hand, superficially presents itself as a first-person shooter. On the surface, one could be forgiven for assuming such a game would have nothing to do with the familiar 2D exploration-heavy installments that preceded it. This notion is far from the truth.
This game is played almost entirely from Samus’s perspective. That is, you see everything she sees from the inside of her Power Suit. Her visor displays her suit’s energy level and missile supply. On the left side is a danger meter, which fills the closer she is to hazardous materials such as lava or corrosive acid. There is a radar in the upper-left corner of the screen that indicates the location of any hostiles within the vicinity. In the upper-right corner is a map detailing Samus’s immediate surroundings.
First-person gaming on consoles is typically considered inferior to their PC counterparts. This is not a wholly undue criticism; the first-person shooter genre as a whole originated in the PC scene, and many attempts to port that experience to consoles ended in disaster. By the late nineties, mouselook, the practice of using the mouse to aim the gun, and using “W,” “A,” “S,” and “D” on the keyboard to move became standard. Barring a few exceptions, such as the classic Nintendo 64 game, Goldeneye, it was perceived that a controller couldn’t register precise movements to the same extent as a mouse. Fortunately, Retro Studios, many members of which worked on Turok, put their expertise to good use.
To begin with, it takes little time to get used to controlling Samus with a single control stick. There is an auto-aiming system that allows you to lock onto any onscreen enemy, thus handily dealing with the potential problem of being unable to look up or down easily before it had a chance to become an issue in the first place. A typical PC first-person shooter would use the number keys on the top row of a keyboard to switch weapons. As with the 2D installments, Samus’s primary means of defense are a beam generated by her Power Suit and missiles. The beam never runs out, but the missiles are stronger and more percussive, allowing her to destroy brittle barriers. Because the beams and missiles are fired with separate buttons, switching between them is very simple.
Unlike Super Metroid, beams do not combine with each upgrade collected. In addition to the default Power Beam, you will also collect the Wave, Ice, and Plasma Beams. These weapons deal electrical, ice, and, fire elemental damage respectively. Knowing the correct beam to use in a given situation can make fighting the various hostiles easier. Not only that, but like everything else, they serve an instrumental purpose outside of combat as well. For example, the Wave Beam can be used to energize disabled power conduits.
During your adventure, you will come across tunnels and other narrow areas that must be navigated in order to proceed. In these situations, Samus can use her famous Morph Ball ability, transforming her suit into a small, spherical shape. When this happens, the game switches to a third-person perspective. In this state, Samus can drop bombs. They are capable damaging enemies, but Samus herself is unharmed by them. In fact, she can take advantage of this, for the explosion can propel her upward, granting her the ability to jump in a matter of speaking.
The 2D installments had plenty of narrow areas that required the power-up to navigate, but Retro turned it into its own game. The tunnels are often elaborate, intricate mazes that require precision timing and bomb jumping to pass through. Not only that, but they even saw fit to reintroduce the misbegotten Spider Ball upgrade from Metroid II. This time around, it’s used to latch onto magnetic rails, which can form surprisingly complicated paths, though not to the extent where you would get lost easily. With this minor change, Retro successfully turned the worst power-up in the series into an inventive game mechanic.
Metroid Prime is an instance where you can tell why it was held in such high regard during the time of its release almost immediately upon starting it. It opens with cutscene showing the dilapidated frigate, and after a few seconds, you see Samus’s iconic gunship docking on it. She then exits the spacecraft, uttering not a single word. It may seem unimpressive when described word-for-word, but it really is a powerful moment, and upon seeing it for the first time, you know you’re in for an incredible experience.
This feeling continues when she lands on Tallon IV. Rain pours down as the ship lands, and an alien world once again presents itself to you – only this time, it’s much more immersive thanks to the additional dimension.
With many series making the conversion to 3D, it wasn’t uncommon for creators to begin to explore new avenues of storytelling. One of the most noticeable cases of this could be seen in the Metal Gear franchise. All of a sudden, a series that historically had a fairly basic action-movie plot, albeit with one with a few inventive twists, became an unapologetic deconstruction of itself, focusing more heavily on character development and presenting itself through cinematic cutscenes. This even occurred to a lesser extent with Ocarina of Time, whose story took cues from its direct predecessor by experimenting with its own tropes.
The reason I mention this is simple – Metroid Prime, despite its upgrade in visuals, does not stray far from the storytelling pioneered by the efforts of Mr. Yokoi and his staff. Retro created a game where the environment itself tells a story, and only by immersing oneself can one grasp the full scope of what that entails. The greatest asset to help to accomplish this is the scan visor. By switching to it, you can scan enemies, items, obstacles, and other objects to gain information about them. For example, by scanning a creature, you are informed what it’s called and how it interacts in its environment. After all, many of the monsters you encounter aren’t actively antagonistic; their aggressive nature is purely instinctual. It continues the trend of Super Metroid where you feel less like you’re traversing a video game level and more a living, breathing biome. It’s a refreshing change from the approach that was beginning to manifest around this time wherein video-game storytelling tried to emulate films because it allows you to engage with the plot on your own terms. You can choose to delve into the game’s rich lore or simply have fun with it – both choices are perfectly acceptable.
Most of the time, flavor text describing objects, people, and places in great detail are told by an omniscient narrator. That is to say, the information exists purely for the audience’s sake; it’s unclear how anyone within the game would obtain it. What sets Metroid Prime apart from its peers is that it’s a case where the storytelling technique is actively woven into the narration. Samus is presumably reading the data log entries, and the audience gets to follow along. This is why I can say the scan visor was the best addition to the series; it serves a gameplay purpose while also having a reason to exist within the confines of the fictional universe.
Similarly, there is a hint system, and it’s usually presented as Samus’s Power Suit detecting anomalous activity somewhere within the region. This is useful for newcomers, and it subtly synchronizes the player’s goals with those of the protagonist. It’s not intrusive for experienced players, for it is easy to disable in the options menu.
Intentionally or not, Metroid Prime followed a similar path as its sister game, Metroid Fusion, in that what you’re fighting against isn’t clear. Samus’s journey begins when she follows her nemesis to Tallon IV, and there is definitely something amiss in this world, yet the exact nature of its disorder isn’t immediately obvious. There are remains of an advanced civilization where you can scan certain walls to get an idea of what happened long ago, but it’s not until the end of the game where the full scope of its central conflict becomes clear. It’s a good way to keep the audience wanting to know more, and by remembering to have a payoff in the end, Retro ensures the goodwill isn’t wasted with endless speculation.
Along those lines, it’s apparent how it was able to convince the people who were expecting it to fail they had nothing to worry about. Namely, despite a radical shift in gameplay, the spirit of the series is alive and well in this installment. The game features numerous callbacks to the installments produced by Gunpei Yokoi. Series veterans will recognize remixed musical tracks and the morphology of the creatures that inhabit Tallon IV. Retro succeeded where many other artists fail by not overloading them to the extent where they obviate the original content.
In spite of its presentation, Metroid Prime is seldom referred to as a first-person shooter. This is because labeling it as such would be a disservice to Retro’s work. Make no mistake, there is quite a lot of combat to be found, and even if it’s not quite the main focus, it was executed perfectly. Bosses cannot be vanquished by mindlessly shooting at them; you will have to study their patterns to have any realistic chance of defeating them. The scan visor can be used on them to reveal any potential weaknesses or otherwise help nudge the player in the direction they must proceed to achieve victory. If you choose not to do this, you can instead opt to observe the boss’s health meter to gauge the potency of your tactics.
Considering that Metroid Prime is the series’ first 3D installment, it wouldn’t be unfair to question how well it has aged. I would say that the visuals, though somewhat outdated by today’s standards, still hold up. Anyone used to modern gaming would have little trouble picking it up themselves, and having the right context in mind, it’s an astoundingly well-crafted experience. The only real complaint I have is that in order to enter the final area, you must find twelve artifacts, which form a key when combined. To be fair, the game does give you hints on where each one is located, and you’re given opportunities to pick them up as you’re adventuring. Therefore, if you seek them out as soon as possible, it cuts down on the backtracking you must do. It does break the otherwise excellent sense of pacing the game had, but not to the point where it ever felt tedious or draining – quite the opposite, in fact. Finding all the keys makes confronting the final boss immensely satisfying with the knowledge that you earned it.
Lastly, every installment in the series leading up to this one had an ending that changed depending on how long it took for you to complete the game. I personally was never fond of that, as it discourages players from exploring in favor of rushing through it as quickly as possible, which to some degree, runs counter to the nature of a Metroidvania. The developers at Retro likely realized this, as the ending you get is instead determined by how much you engage with the material. This means getting all of the scans and collectables. Granted, this does present the possibility of locking yourself out of the best ending, as some scans are lost forever once certain event flags are triggered. Luckily, the endings mostly amount to minor cosmetic changes, so it’s not too big of a loss.
Drawing a Conclusion
One of the most difficult things anyone can ask of an artist is to take a risk. This was especially true going into the 2000s in regards to gaming. Back when the medium was young, even high-profile, AAA games had development teams composed of only a few people. Without real-time audience feedback, it was common for these teams to change genres up within their own series. Granted, it’s not exactly a dead practice; most of the time when this occurs in the modern era, these radically different sequels are invariably declared spinoffs.
When playing Metroid Prime fresh off of the installments which came before, it’s clear that it was a risk on an unprecedented level. It pulled a series of games that, even with its then-limited canon, were firmly established as 2D platforming affairs and transplanted its ethos into a first-person shooter. The genre was at the height of its popularity, so any derivative effort would have been lost in the crowd. With that in mind, it would have been remarkable if the final product was merely passable. That it was co-produced by a new company, went in a completely different direction, had a troubled production, and still ended up being a product of this caliber is a miracle in hindsight. It was a turning point that demonstrated to a skeptical audience just how versatile gaming from the first-person perspective could be.
It’s poetic in a way; the series is all about exploring uncharted territory and achieving greatness in face of dire circumstances. By involving such a deep cultural collaboration and never losing focus despite all of the cynicism, Retro Studios and Nintendo managed to perfectly recreate the Metroid experience not only within their work, but through their own trials and tribulations.
Final Score: 9/10