With the critical and commercial success of Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion, Retro Studios and Nintendo managed to revitalize the dormant Metroid franchise. Naturally, in response to this, Nintendo requested the creation of a sequel. For the follow-up to their hit, Retro opted to use new sound models, weapon effects, and art designs in lieu of recycling assets from Metroid Prime. With an established engine and control scheme, they now had the artistic freedom to do as they wished for this new installment.
Production went smoothly until August of 2004 when Nintendo issued an ultimatum: the game needed to be completed in three months to coincide with that year’s Christmas season. This was highly troubling for the Retro staff, as only thirty percent of the game had been completed by that point. Suddenly, they found themselves in the exact same situation they faced when developing the original Metroid Prime. By this point in history, there were many stories of promising games being rushed only to be utterly unplayable upon release. The most infamous occurrence was the Atari 2600 adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s highly regarded film, E.T., which ended up being one of the factors behind the industry’s crash in North America in 1983. Another similar incident many years later involved Electronic Arts forcing Origin Systems to rush Ultima IX: Ascension. Despite the countless overnight shifts they pulled to get it done, the result was a broken, barely functional mess that effectively spelled the once-venerable series’ downfall. In short, this installment, named Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, had all of the warning signs associated with a high-profile failure. How did it turn out? The praise was almost unanimous, with many critics quickly declaring it the best GameCube game of 2004. Coming off of a second troubled production, was Retro truly able to pull off another miraculous coup?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain minor, unmarked spoilers.
After her expedition on Tallon IV, the famed bounty hunter, Samus Aran, has received a mission file. The Galactic Federation has informed her that they have lost contact with Squad Bravo, a battalion consisting of forty soldiers. Communications ceased eight days ago with their last known location being Aether, a rogue planet in the Dasha region.
As Samus’s gunship traverses the atmosphere, it is struck by lightning. Though badly damaged, it retains just enough of its power to land safely. Shortly after touching down on the planet’s surface, she discovers the remains of G.F.S. Tyr, the spacecraft used by Squad Bravo, only to learn that not a single member yet lives. Examining the commanding officer’s final entry log reveals the entire crew had been slaughtered in an ambush set up by a group of creatures of unknown origin.
She eventually finds herself in a temple that overlooks the surrounding area. After battling the creatures infesting the area, she meets a native of the planet: U-Mos. His people, the Luminoth, have been waging war against the Ing for the “Light of Aether”. The Ing appeared five decades ago after the planet was struck by a meteor.
It had cataclysmic effects on an already unstable planet, creating a “dark twin” in the process. It is from this dimension that the Ing appeared. U-Mos implores Samus to help them, as the Ing have stolen nearly all of the light. As it acts as the world’s planetary energy, should one side obtain all of it, the other dimension shall vanish forever. Sensing the connection between Aether’s plight and the incident on Tallon IV, she accepts U-Mos’s mission, determined to save the Luminoth from their fate.
Enthusiasts coming fresh off of Metroid Prime will recognize the gameplay of its sequel instantly. Everything you see and perceive is from Samus’s point of view. The interface is cleverly justified within the confines of the game’s universe by being projected onto the inside of the visor of Samus’s Power Suit. On the top corners of the screen are a radar that detects nearby enemies and a map detailing her immediate surroundings. The left side features a danger meter that informs her of hazardous substances capable of damaging her suit. Only the Power Beam can be fired without any meaningful restriction; every other weapon has limited ammunition. This information is displayed on the right side of the screen. Knowing which situation calls for what means of attack is key to maximizing your damage output.
As with its predecessor, Metroid Prime 2 avoids many of the pitfalls of console first-person shooters, a lot of which resulted from porting a PC game heavily dependent on a keyboard-and-mouse interface to a platform that uses a single apparatus for controls. Because the control stick is used to advance, backtrack, and turn rather than look, Retro made good use of their knowledge by prominently featuring an auto-aiming system. Targeting any onscreen enemy is a simple matter of pressing the appropriate button when facing in its direction. Moreover, there are two “fire” buttons; one shoots the currently equipped beam while the other launches missiles, allowing you to easily switch between them.
Though it would be easy to write it off as a first-person shooter, there is far more emphasis on exploration and discovery than in a typical example of the genre. To encourage this behavior, there is no shortage of energy and weapon tanks that increase the Power Suit’s overall performance. Furthermore, the scan visor makes a return. Not only does it allow players to activate certain switches, it can also be used on creatures and items to obtain information about them. By using them in a boss encounter, you can receive a hint on how to go about fighting it. You can even read log entries from the planet’s various inhabitants.
On the surface, it would appear as though the gameplay of Metroid Prime 2 is largely interchangeable with that of its predecessor. From a superficial standpoint this is true, but it would be wrong to dismiss this game as a mere token sequel. It’s best to think of the original Metroid Prime as a set of blueprints; once Retro created them, they were free to experiment with their own formula.
A running theme throughout the game is duality. Aether is in a state of civil war with its denizens fighting against a horde of monsters from another dimension. The concept of a Dark World, a twisted parody of its Light counterpart, is not a foreign concept to Nintendo’s canon, as it famously featured in A Link to the Past, the third installment in their heralded Legend of Zelda franchise. It marked a spike in difficulty, as the realm was swarming with stronger monsters and its dungeons were markedly more complex. These aspects are also true in Metroid Prime 2, but then it goes a step further in that not only is it infested with tougher creatures, the environment itself damages Samus’s Power Suit.
To counteract this, the Luminoth invented Light Crystals, which projects a barrier that keeps the fauna of Dark Aether at bay. Not only this, but remaining within its field will gradually restore Samus’s energy, making up for the damage she sustained between beacons.
Similar to Metroid Prime, two of the beam upgrades do not combine with the standard Power Beam when collected. Rather than the mainstay Wave, Ice, and Plasma Beams, Metroid Prime 2, tying into its central premise, gives you the Light and Dark Beams. Creatures on Aether and Dark Aether are weak to the beam representing the opposite world from which they spawn. Both weapons were created by the Luminoth to combat the Ing. They created the Dark Beam first because they believed they could overload the Ing and destroy them that way, but it proved ineffective. In response, they took note of the Ing’s weakness to brightness and developed the Light Beam, which proved far more effective at combatting them. As was the case with Metroid Prime, the beams serve a utility purpose as well. As one would expect, the Light Beam activates the crystal beacons while the Dark Beam turns them off. They are also used throughout the game to open passageways or power certain machinery so Samus may progress in her mission.
As a result of the planet’s instability, some objects will appear in a state of transdimensional flux, effectively being stuck between the two realities. You will find their images, yet you can only interact with them in the opposite world. Once there, you can go through the appropriate motions, which will effect a change in the world where you spotted the image.
Interviews with Retro’s staff reveal that they asked the producers of A Link to the Past for advice when developing Metroid Prime 2. Even setting aside the obvious light and dark world dichotomy, I could see several parallels between the two games. In both titles, navigating the Dark World is much trickier with natural barriers preventing you from accessing passageways easily accessible in the Light World. Regardless, observing the minute differences between each world’s layout is vital to reach areas you couldn’t in the other.
Though they share the same fundamental concept, Retro went a step further with it. A major one concerns when the alternate dimension in each game is introduced. Those going into A Link to the Past blind could conceivably be unaware of the Dark World’s existence, for it doesn’t make an appearance until you have made significant progress. In Metroid Prime 2, Dark Aether was not kept a secret, being heavily featured in promotional materials and alluded to in the summary on the back of the box.
In A Link to the Past, your navigation of the parallel worlds didn’t extend to dungeons; they were functionally the same regardless of what plane of existence on which they resided. Metroid Prime 2, being an example of a Metroidvania, doesn’t really have dungeons per se. One could argue the entirety of Aether is a continuous dungeon that reveals more of itself to you with each upgrade you procure, but in practice, it’s more akin to an initially restrictive overworld. This means dimensional travel comprises a greater chunk of the experience than in A Link to the Past where the realms primarily served as a means to access dungeons and cave systems.
Though it can be irritating dealing with Dark Aether’s poisonous atmosphere, Retro realized the potential problems it could raise. The first time you enter the Ing’s dominion, beacons are placed relatively close to each other, so if you’re quick enough, the time spent recovering will be greatly shortened. It also isn’t too long before the game gives you the Dark Suit, which greatly reduces the damage taken by the atmosphere. You will still need to maintain the suit’s energy wisely, but it alleviates the problem enough so that it’s not actively harming the fun.
Metroid Prime 2 differs from its predecessor in that you’re introduced to the main villain rather early. The Space Pirates have set up a base on Aether, and their log entries make for a fascinating read, as without the proper context, one could get the sense that they were intended to detail an apocalyptic scenario. Namely, Samus Aran’s exploits has earned her a reputation among these ruthless outlaws. While exploring their installment, you happen upon a fight between them and a mysterious doppelgänger dubbed Dark Samus. They are quickly dispatched by the lookalike, and it’s from here their ultimate nightmare scenario is realized. At the same time, despite being members of an unequivocally evil faction, that same sense of dread is shared by the player – even when in control of someone as accomplished as Samus Aran. It’s one of the series’ greatest moments, and the fact that it’s not part of a cutscene is what makes it so effective. You’re made to process this in real time with no one to explain to you the enormity of your situation.
It works in a thematic sense as well; Retro wanted to create an antagonistic force that was the same size as the protagonist, and who better to serve such a role than a dark version of the famed bounty hunter? Better still, you fight her several times throughout the game. Although she’s relatively simple at first, the average Metroid aficionado will have to employ significantly different tactics against her because a vast majority of the boss encounters in the series thus far have been against monsters of an enormous size. |As a clever nod to her true origins, her primary weakness is, ironically enough, the Dark Beam.|
Speaking of which, my favorite aspect about Metroid Prime 2 is how challenging it is. The only other comparatively difficult installments would be the original and its first sequel. However, most of the challenge present in those two titles involved fighting the decidedly unpolished controls and navigating indistinct, monotonous backdrops without a map. Conversely, one of the reasons Metroid Prime 2 is considered one of the hardest games in the series is because of its shift to a more action-oriented style. An early plot point involves the Ing stealing technology from Samus’s suit.
Like in Metroid Fusion, they need to be fought one-by-one to reclaim the stolen features, and these boss fights tend to showcase them in action, lending traces of the Mega Man franchise to the proceedings. This highlights one of the biggest differences between Retro’s first two entries. While Metroid Prime often had a single major boss fight per area, equivalent encounters in Metroid Prime 2 are mandatory just to collect an upgrade.
Once again, Retro crafted levels that are both incredible to look at and fun to navigate. Metroid Prime 2 is notable for being the first game in the series where Samus directly interacts with one of the planet’s denizens. Even if the interactions are limited, they succeed at adding another layer of depth by providing an interesting contrast to a typical Metroid scenario. Samus has explored the remains of once prosperous civilizations in the past, but there was nothing she could do to save them, as their citizens, the Chozo, were already long gone. This time, the Luminoth are hanging on by a thread, so her goal is to prevent them from meeting the same fate. Despite these new developments, Retro stayed true to the series’ ethos by allowing the environments to tell a story as well, allowing them and the scant pieces of narrative to build off of each other.
Although there are many good things that can be said about Metroid Prime 2, there were some facets I felt could have used some work. I think this game has a sense of fair play, but on occasion, Retro went a little too far, not realizing what was more annoying than challenging. To wit, the stretches between save points tend to be quite long. As you play this game, be prepared to allot yourself a fair amount of time because you cannot quit whenever you want without losing your progress, as there is no suspension option. This can get immensely frustrating if you’re made to fight multiple rooms’ worth of enemies which then culminates in a boss battle under the threat of starting over should you fail.
Another complaint I have with the game concerns the Light and Dark Beams. It’s understandable that they have limited ammunition because if you could fire them without restraint, there would be little reason to use the Power Beam. All you would need to do is use the Light Beam against the Ing and the Dark Beam when fighting Aether’s hostile wildlife. Unfortunately, defeating enemies with one of the beams usually results in them dropping ammunition for the opposite one. Because there are almost no situations that pit you against both factions at the same time, chances are great you will end up with a lot of ammunition for the beam the current situation doesn’t call for.
Metroid Prime was an incredible game, but one of the worst parts about it involved finding keys to access the final area. Many of them weren’t guarded by a boss or powerful enemy, so it wound up saddling the endgame with mindless busywork the rest of the experience was deft to avoid. In Metroid Prime 2, the problem is worse because even if you’re diligent and try to obtain the nine required keys as soon as they become available, you can only get four of them without the Light Suit, which happens to be the game’s final upgrade. As before, it brings the otherwise brisk pacing to a screeching halt as you scrounge the areas you cleared long ago for these keys.
Fortunately, if it’s one aspect Metroid Prime 2 shares with its predecessor, it’s that suffering through the misbegotten portions carries with it immense sense of accomplishment. These feeling are magnified when watching the final cutscenes. There’s no dialogue, yet it’s a powerful sequence which demonstrates that Retro truly understood the appeal of Samus’s character.
Drawing a Conclusion
I never would have suspected that Retro Studios needed to complete seventy percent of the game in three months because the final product shows no signs of having been rushed. It doesn’t come across as incomplete, nor does the experience truncate when approaching the final act. There are certainly problems with the game, but they’re relatively minor grievances that feel as though they would have been present even if the developers hadn’t hurried to meet the rapidly approaching deadline. Under those circumstances, it would’ve been remarkable if Metroid Prime 2 was just playable upon release; that it manages to be a worthy follow-up to one of the greatest debut games of all time indicates the Retro staff somehow pioneered a method of getting lightning to strike twice in the same place.
Some fans have argued that with Metroid Prime 2, Retro fell into the dreaded sophomore slump. This is technically true in that I wouldn’t say it’s quite the masterpiece its predecessor was. However, like Super Metroid before it, I believe Metroid Prime 2 is the kind of sequel all developers should strive to make. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it successfully takes the canon in a new direction, giving it an identity distinct from that of Metroid Prime. Its status as one of the highlights of the GameCube’s library is well deserved, and it absolutely should not be passed up by anyone.
Final Score: 8/10