A look back at Nintendo's greatest trilogy.
After the critical and financial success of Metroid Prime, Nintendo asked Retro Studios to craft a sequel. With far more freedom in creating the game, Retro's vision is more present than Nintendo's. Although Echoes had a two year development cycle, many ideas had to be scrapped in order to make the publisher’s strict holiday 2004 release date. Among the deleted content was an unlockable port of Super Metroid.
After Echoes was released, producer Kensuke Tanabe revealed that the game was only thirty percent complete three months before the release date. With that kind of a time crunch, one would think that Echoes would turn out horribly, but that is simply not the case. Echoes came out of the oven very different from its predecessor, but just as good in almost every way.
Retro had several goals for the sequel: make it more challenging overall, implement a more cohesive and motivating in-game storyline (instead of relying exclusively on the Scan Visor), include ideas that didn’t fit in the first game, and add a multiplayer mode. They succeeded on all fronts, though critical and fan reaction to these elements has been mixed. The gameplay is distinctly different from the original game. While Echoes is still AAA t quality and craftsmanship, it remains perhaps the most polarizing of the Metroid Prime trilogy.
While Retro stuck close to Super Metroid as inspiration for Metroid Prime, they went in a decidedly different direction for Echoes, looking to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and its duel-world gameplay. In that SNES classic, players traversed both light and dark versions of Hyrule—similar in overall geography, but entirely separate in terms of aesthetic and puzzles. Additionally, actions in one world have consequences in the other.
In Echoes, Retro implemented this duel-world setup on the planet Aether. Like Talon IV before it, Aether was hit by a Phazon comet. Instead of corrupting the water table and poisoning the local wildlife, the comet’s impact created a rift in space-time; suddenly granting access to a mirror dimension, Dark Aether. While the sentient beings of Light Aether (the Luminoth) are peaceful and kind, the ruling beings of Dark Aether (the Ing) are warmongering monsters. The Ing found ways to exploit the dimensional rifts and infiltrate Light Aether. The Ing hope to steal Light Aether's energy, so that it completely overtaken by the darkness.
While the Space Pirates return, it is in a smaller role. Having detected Phazon on Aether, they begin to build research facilities but are somewhat thwarted by the Ing and a new villain: Dark Samus. Briefly revealed at the bitter end of Metroid Prime, Dark Samus is a sentient Phazon-based doppelganger that mutates throughout the game. Dark Samus continuously grows stronger with each encounter. Samus’ involvement begins when she catches a Galactic Federation distress signal from Aether, only to find a squad of marines was wiped out by the Ing. After meeting the last remaining Luminoth (U-Mos), Samus accepts his request to wipe out the Ing and restore Light Aether’s planetary energy, thus stopping the rampaging Ing from spreading throughout the universe.
Echoes introduces several new gameplay ideas, almost the least of which is the duel-world setting. The most controversial addition is new beams with limited ammo, the Light and Dark Beams, which are each most effective in their opposite environment. In order to prevent players from abusing the beams, Retro added an ammo count. Defeated enemies will often drop additional ammo, and players can also find ammo upgrades for their beams just like they would find ammo upgrades for missiles or additional energy tanks. The new beams function much differently from the Power Beam: the Light Beam is essentially a white Plasma Beam, but the Dark Beam is a slow-moving globule.
Another addition is the atmosphere in Dark Aether; it is corrosive and damages Samus whenever she walks through it. Safe zones (in the form of crystal-powered fields) present temporary relief, though trips through Dark Aether almost feel like a game of “connect the dots” and are fraught with peril. Retro said they wanted players to constantly be worrying about Samus’s health, and they weren’t kidding.
Lastly, Echoes also introduces several new items. The long-awaited Screw Attack makes its move to 3D, and the game also features two new suit upgrades, both of which reduce damage taken while wandering through Dark Aether.
The game is well known for its high difficulty. Enemies are not only more aggressive but more damaging overall. Boss battles are more complicated, and the battles on Dark Aether are made much harder by the world’s corrosive atmosphere. In fact, Echoes is home to one of the most difficult boss battles in gaming: the Boost Guardian. You should fear and loath the Boost Guardian not only for his high-powered attacks, but also for his arena’s total lack of safe zones. You are forced to rely entirely on drops from the minions he spawns. Echoes also spaces save points farther apart than Prime did, forcing players who play it safe to backtrack often.
Additionally, while the Dark and Light beams are powerful forces in their opposite dimensions, players must carefully watch their ammo meter and not abuse the weapons. The Dark Beam has Ice Beam properties in that enemies hit by a fully charged shot are covered in dark matter and briefly frozen, and a barrage of missiles will usually finish them off. The downside is that the Dark Beam has a slow rate of fire, and is virtually useless on distant foes. The Light Beam is a faster weapon, but instead of freezing enemies, it can set them aflame. The missile combos in Echoes drain not just missiles but also huge quantities of ammo, so players must be careful about when to use them.
Many players criticize the game’s final mission: finding 12 “Sky Keys” to give access to the temple, where the final boss is held prisoner. While a key quest was also present in Metroid Prime, it was far more doable: you were actually given hints as to where particular keys were, and you could collect them at virtually any time, as long as you had the proper equipment (which usually meant “Super Missiles”). By contrast, the vast majority of the Sky Keys are only acquirable after your suit is upgraded a second time, which means at the bitter end of the game. Your only real hint as to the location of a particular key was a faint outline of the key’s container when using the Dark Visor in the light world, at which point you would find the nearest portal and shoot down the container in the dark world.
Most (including me) saw this as a way to artificially lengthen the game, though I’ve come to realize that’s not entirely true. While it does, indeed, extend the life of the game significantly, it also allows the player to fully digest and appreciate Dark Aether without worrying about losing health. This is not something you could do before you got the second suit. I would encourage players to wander through Dark Aether at their leisure; it offers some really wonderful sights.
Both the changes in gameplay and the general aesthetic of Aether give Echoes an entirely different vibe from Metroid Prime: this is Retro doing its own thing. The scan visor is more useful now, displaying scannable images with different colors rather than a small icon. Scans now give more information than they did in Metroid Prime, and the world is larger, with scannable background objects and enemies galore. Very few creatures are carried over from the old Metroid canon. The Space Pirates and Metroids are here, but with much smaller roles and with different designs. The villainous Ing are wonderfully twisted and threatening, even if the group as a whole isn’t very diverse. The best monsters are those that guard the Luminoth Sky Fortress: hulking mechanical behemoths, whirling spiderbots, and abstract holographic droids that are the most alien of all of Aether’s bizarre inhabitants. Even more off-kilter for series enthusiasts is Aether itself, which is not easily categorized by environmental type. Aside from the marvelous Luminoth fortress, Aether blends together seamlessly, from the barren rocky expansions of the overworld to the desert ruins of the Agon Wastes and the rainy, aptly-named Torvus Bog. In a rare moment of cross-dimensional agreement, Dark Aether is similarly even-toned, though it has its own moments of ecological grandeur.
Echoes also brought a unique but ultimately middling multiplayer aspect to the series. Up to four players, all playing as Samus, wander through a scant number of battlefields trying to either kill each other or collect coins by…killing each other. While matches doimprove with more opponents, the overall tone of the game is one of constraint, and the biggest constraint is dealt by the construction of the GameCube controller: locking onto your opponent becomes the only real strategy for success, though those targeted can break away by curling into Morph Ball mode and boosting away. Thus, every game becomes cat-and-mouse with no real depth (or, if you’re playing in Agon Wastes, abusing the overpowered plasma cannon). While Echoes’s multiplayer has its apologists, it’s hard to take seriously amidst more robust FPS multiplayer offerings available at the time. It certainly does not hold up well today, being bested far and away by Metroid Prime: Hunters on the DS.
In all, Metroid Prime Echoes still stands as one of the best titles of the GameCube library, though its value to the series overall is more difficult to clarify. Its high difficulty kept many from completing it, and despite its overall similarity to its predecessor, Echoes does not always feel like a Metroid game. On the other hand, Retro Studios put its heart and soul into the art direction, and Echoes presents a much prettier, more realistic planetscape than Metroid Prime did. It also furthers the cause of Dark Samus, who appears coherently for the first time here. She (it?) is a wonderful villain, and the final tense minutes of the game make my heart race every time. Dark Samus’s story in Echoes is central to the plot of the final game in the Metroid Prime trilogy, though we would have to wait almost three years to find that out…
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