We look back at Nintendo's greatest trilogy.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of three articles on the titles in the Metroid Prime series, leading up to the release of Metroid Prime Triliogy
The Metroid Prime series has become one of Nintendo’s big success stories. Hailed as one of the best series on the GameCube (and finishing off on the Wii), Metroid Prime was and still is considered top-tier in terms of production values and game design. It brought the Metroid series—traditionally one of Nintendo’s lowest-selling franchises—to the masses. It’s hard to believe that prior to its release in November of 2002, the original Metroid Prime was one of Nintendo’s biggest gambles. A 3D, first-person Metroid game that transitioned between first and third person? An FPS on the GameCube? Hand over a major Nintendo franchise to an unknown team like Retro Studios? Metroid fans decried the game as doomed to failure, pointing at Super Metroid as the franchise's standard bearer . Retro Studios had a lot to prove. Here's how they did it.
It all started in 1998, with the formation of Retro Studios by Jeff Spangenberg. Spangenberg previously headed up Iguana Entertainment, the company responsible for the first two Turok games on the N64. Retro Studios was formed in a partnership with Nintendo (thus making them a 1st party developer), who offered them a opportunity to work on the next Metroid game for Nintendo's next home console, the GameCube. Prior to getting the Metroid license, Retro had planned five other games. Among those canceled titles was Raven Blade, a game that had actually begun the development cycle, but was canceled so that all of the developer’s resources could go toward making the ultimate Metroid title.
The game went through several false starts, but Super Metroid was always seen as the game’s inspiration. Metroid Prime began life as a third person shooter, reminiscent of Resident Evil 4. A short demo of the game was even shown at SpaceWorld in 2000, with Samus walking down a corridor and being attacked by insectoid aliens. Fans reacted positively to the demo, having been waiting for a new Metroid game since 1994, and seemed to ignore the fact that the series was in the hands of a brand-new developer.
The game was still early in development when Miyamoto himself suggested that Retro should switch from third person to first person, and almost everything created up until that point was scrapped. The game was shown again at E3 in 2001, this time in first person. Suddenly, fan response was not so positive. The first-person perspective was widely decried, and there were concerns that Retro Studios was turning Samus into Master Chief. How would the Morph Ball work in first-person, or would switch to third person be awkward? Would Samus suddenly find herself searching for ammo? How would the franchise's 2D, exploration-heavy, atmosphere translate into a 3D shooter?
Fans wondered what Nintendo was thinking. Frustratingly, Metroid Prime was largely kept under wraps during its development, and detailed previews were scarce. In one issue of EGM a single screenshot of Metroid Prime was pored over for information on beams, visors, missiles, hit-points, and enemy information.
When the game released in November of 2002 (on the same day as Metroid Fusion), critics and fans alike were eager to give it a shot. What they found, for the most part, surprised and satisfied. It was clear that, while Retro Studios put a different camera perspective on the Metroid franchise, the gameplay itself was retained from older titles. Nods to the 2D titles are all over the place. To this day, it remains clear that Retro took much of their inspiration from the franchise's benchmark title, Super Metroid. And while subsequent Metroid Prime titles would go on to do their own thing, the original is the most faithful to the games that came before.
Fan response was overwhelmingly positive, and most publications gave Metroid Prime incredibly high marks, including a perfect 10 from EGM. Most complaints were rallied against the control scheme, a necessary evil given the constraints of the GameCube controller: players must depress both shoulder buttons (at times) to freely look around and lock onto objects.
Retro focused much of their efforts on the Morph Ball transition and physics; it shows. The game’s Morph Ball mechanics are spot-on, and feature heavily in the game’s many puzzle rooms. While the majority of the game is in first-person, activating the Morph Ball swings the camera back for a more traditional third person viewpoint with an automated camera. Old standbys like bomb jumping and the Spider Ball make a return, but Retro added the Boost Ball for use to gain momentum in half-pipe puzzles and leaving out Spider Ball tracks. All in all, they nailed the Morph Ball physics.
What Retro Studios did to really further the Metroid experience was to add a coherent plot and overarching backstory, beginning their tale with the destruction of the Space Pirate’s Zebes base in the first Metroid game. The story is told through logbook entries and Chozo lore: there is a lot of reading in Metroid Prime. You pick up entries with the game’s inventive visor system, obviously inspired by the X-Ray Visor in Super Metroid. Scanning objects with the Scan Visor picks up information on the environment, enemies, items, Pirate databases, and ancient Chozo writings. It all seamlessly blends together to give Metroid Prime an archaeological bent: you are alone on this planet and learning about it every second. The game rewards players who scan relentlessly with concept art bundles unlocked at various percentages of logbook completion. It takes a dedicated researcher to read everything the game has to offer, but it’s rewarding not just for the concept art, but the detail of the game’s mythos. The game itself has a unique storyline: Space Pirates have discovered a highly radioactive, mutanogenic, compound called Phazon on Talon IV. They are experimenting with using Phazon to create an army of beasts and soldiers. Aside from the planet’s already-dangerous wildlife, the Pirates have created mutant breeds, and even experimented on their own. And of course, the titular Metroids are back in new, more dangerous forms.
The game’s other gigantic success is its art direction. Every square inch of Metroid Prime looks unique and gorgeous; there are no cut-and-paste rooms here. The game’s different environments, from the rainy cliffs of the Talon Overworld to the icy snowscapes of Phendrana Drifts and claustrophobic hallways of the Phazon Mines are each alive with life and ambiance. You don’t move through the world as much as stop to appreciate every little detail, like icicles building up in the Pirate’s Phendrana research lab, or the cogs and tumblers on a giant raising platform in Magmoor Caverns.
The most inconsequential room is given a meticulous level of detail. This helps the entire game create an atmosphere lacking in so many other 3D games. The level of dedication that went into Metrod Prime is matched perhaps only by Super Metroid and by the proceeding Metroid Prime titles. Environmental believability is something the Metroid series has always been known for, and Retro rose to and surpassed the challenge.
Character design is equally stupendous. Familiar faces, like Zoomers and Shriekbats, are given new life in 3D. Their behaviors remain intact but suddenly given focus and purpose by the Scan Visor. The many, many new creatures are entirely unique and fit the world extremely well. My favorite has got to be the Sheegoth, a gigantic bipedal carnivore sporting a tough-to-crack ice shell, wicked fangs, and uses its freezing breath as a weapon. The game’s bosses are enormous and imposing: the terrifying Omega Pirate is challenging and awe-inspiring, requiring quick wits and an even quicker trigger finger to dispose of—I’ve been in more than one fight with him where the fight came down to “him or me.” In fact, the game’s enormous bosses are Metroid Prime’s only real difficulty. Exploration and back-tracking provides the bulk of the content, and Retro clearly wanted to allow players to simply wander around at their leisure, without worrying about being eaten alive by the planet’s native species. Of course, the final leg of the game is more challenging than the rest, but generally, Retro saved the tough stuff for the sequel.
Retro Studios proved that Metroid can work in 3D, and in the first-person, no less. There are those who would dismiss the Prime series as being apart from the Metroid franchise proper (that is, the 2D titles), but such a distinction is barely useful. Metroid Prime changes little more than the camera position—in most respects it is extremely similar to Super Metroid, even in terms of player progression. Retro Studios even kept the X-Ray Visor! The team went in a radically different direction for both sequels, but for their maiden voyage, I believe it was wise to stick with the source material. Exploring Talon IV is just as\enjoyable as it was to wander Zebes, if not more so. There are just as many items and secret passageways on Talon IV, and the richness of the art direction and depth of the information available (via the Scan Visor) makes the world feel all the more alive and real.
But perhaps Retro’s biggest success was bringing Metroid, which was until then the least visible of Nintendo’s “Big Three,” to the masses. In fact, to this day, Metroid has amassed the main series titles by comparison to Zelda (11) and Mario (13).* The series has also consistently sold better in the west than the east, and in fact Super Metroid was only a modest success in its native land. Retro was good enough to add incentives for players to become familiar with the rest of the series: players who bought and completed both Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion could hook the two up with a GC/GBA link cable and unlock Samus’ Fusion suit and the original NES Metroid (Prime’s immediate predecessor in the series timeline) in the GC game. Retro would immediately go on to create a sequel to Metroid Prime, one that felt very different from the original while retaining its critical gameplay elements. New worlds, new gameplay features, and new challenges would greet players just two years after they conquered Talon IV…
*By canonical, I mean games that are traditionally seen as part of the series’ “core” legacy. For Zelda games, things like Legend of Zelda, A Link to the Past, and Ocarina of Time. For Mario, I mean games like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario 64. By comparison, the Metroid series has: Metroid, Return of Samus, Super Metroid, Metroid Prime, Metroid Prime 2, Metroid Prime 3, Metroid Prime: Hunters, Metroid Fusion, and Metroid Zero Mission. Almost half of the canon is made up of Retro games.
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By the way, folks: pictures taken from one of the greatest Metroid websites I've ever been to: The Metroid Database, a Samus fan's dream come true. Thanks to Infinity's End (who some of you may have heard in the marathon) for letting me use the images.