Could a developer’s first published title end up being one of the best games ever made? You’re damned straight it can …
No game in recent memory has been the subject of as much unwarranted controversy as Metroid Prime. Skepticism was running high when it was announced that newcomer Retro Studios was going to helm the title. Red flags were raised when it was learned that the game was going to abandon its 2D roots and become a 3D game with a first-person perspective. Then the rumors of wasted money and parties that would rival Caligula were spread. Soon after, the head of Retro Studios sold his share to Nintendo (making them a wholly-owned subsidiary). Staff was slashed, projects canned, and you’d have thought the world was going to end.
Somehow, in the midst of all this turmoil, Retro Studios managed to make a game that is not only completely faithful to its history and lineage, but also puts the image of GameCube being a kiddy console firmly to rest once and for all. Nintendo clearly saw the potential that the Retro staff was struggling to realize, and with a little close tutelage, the two companies are now ready to unleash that potential upon the world. Until now, Splinter Cell and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City were the front runners to be Game of the Year, and deservedly so. Let them have it. Retro Studios will just have to settle for usurping Super Mario 64 as the best video game ever made. It’s not flawless, but when it’s this damned good, it doesn’t have to be. Metroid Prime is a perfect example of a game that is greater than the sum of its parts, easily overcoming any deficiencies (minor though they be) in its design.
Visually, the game has no equal. Sure, there are games that use more recent technology; Rogue Leader and Star Fox Adventures both managed to implement bump-mapping to great effect. But neither title had the incredibly solid framerate of Prime. As a result, the controls are very responsive, and characters have amazingly detailed animation frames. But where bump-mapping is a nice effect and gives the illusion of great detail, Prime delivers detail in a way never seen before. Nothing was deemed to infinitesimal in the art design. Rain bounces off of Samus’s blaster weapon, ichors splatter on her visor, water splashes, heat waves rise from her overheated blaster … you could go on forever! Each is impressive and adds to the atmosphere of Prime in a distinctly tangible way, something a prettier rock face just can’t do.
Not to be outdone by the art direction, the soundtrack is absolutely fabulous. Borrowing themes from previous titles as well as offering new tunes, each riff grabs you by the throat and shakes you around a bit. They all set the mood for the individual areas perfectly. While there’s nothing here that’s going to have you humming it afterward, the music instantly lets you know where you are every time you play. The most surprising part is the revelation that the music is done entirely in MIDI. The instruments are varied and flavorful enough that most people will never know it’s not a pre-recorded track. So why did they decide to go with MIDI? It’s so that you can change the tempo of a composition, or do complex transitions in real-time, depending on player input. This effect is put to great use, as the game music will abruptly change on you when you enter a room populated with Space Pirates or some other threat. Even more impressive is the fact that the soundtrack was the only part of the game handled in Japan; the rest of the project was done in Texas. Of course, it stands to reason that they’d tap the man that scored all of the previous Metroid titles, Kenji Yamamoto and his team at R&D1, to handle the music and sound duties.
The individual areas are pretty widely varied, if a tad on the clichéd side. Magmoor Caverns is a hot, lava filled area, where jets of steam fog up your visor with condensation, and flame threatens to roast Samus alive. Phendrana Drifts is an icy wasteland, inhabited by creatures that have managed to acclimate themselves to their frigid climate. The Chozo Ruins spark memories of a bygone civilization, while the rainforest-like Tallon Overworld serves to show off the gorgeous rain and mist effects. The way in which these areas are delivered to you visually are anything but cliché, boasting incredible architecture design.
However, the real star here is the Visor. Someone at Retro is a true visionary (no pun intended), as the Visor makes Metroid Prime more than just a 3D Metroid game. Aside from the Scan Visor, you have a Thermal Visor, which lets you see heat signatures. It’s particularly effective at finding hidden switches, or tracking enemies in the dark. Better yet is the X-Ray visor, which lets you see through semi-solid objects. All of a sudden, it becomes clear why dual-analog control was left out: being able to switch Visors on the fly (along with your weapons) becomes a key facet of Prime’s outstanding gameplay. In fact, discovering new ways to use those Visors is much like finding that first bomb-able passageway.
Therein lies the true genius of Metroid Prime. Discovery plays such a huge part in the enjoyment of the game. Even if the game is guiding you along (through use of the game’s built-in hint system), you still feel like you’re discovering everything for yourself. Enticements like an out-of-the-way Missile Container or Energy Tank have you dreaming up ways of reaching them. Being able to see a platform or item you can’t reach has you waiting on pins and needles until you acquire a power that will let you explore those further reaches. There is a fair amount of backtracking and revisiting areas that you’ve already explored, but this nearly always results in opening more of that area or acquiring a new item.
The weapons are limited (at first) to six fairly classic Metroid staples. The Power Beam is your main weapon, able to be charged for a more potent shot. Missiles are your heavy artillery, while Bombs are used for demolitions. The Wave Beam, Ice Beam, and Plasma Beam round out the list. Each of these weapons also has an upgrade that can be fired in a “Combo” by charging the weapon and hitting Y. These upgrades must be recovered as well and can be tricky to find. As a result, they are some of the more impressive weapons in the game. There are also abilities to be recovered, such as the Morph Ball and its speedy counterpart, the Ball Boost. A Grappling Beam allows Samus to swing Tarzan-style to new areas, and there are multiple suit upgrades to bestow Samus with new abilities. Sadly, a few favorites did not make it into the game, namely the Screw Attack. Since Samus doesn’t spin during her jumps (how disorienting would that be?) there was little point in adding that famous attack. Likewise, the Jump Ball didn’t make the cut, though you can still bomb your way to new heights in classic Metroid fashion by chaining bomb explosions together.
Samus has a fairly lengthy stay on Tallon IV, clocking in at 20-25 hours of game-calculated time, but expect to spend 40-60% more in actual gameplay. Many of the boss battles are difficult, and it will take several retries to find a method and rhythm that will allow you to prevail. Gamers unfamiliar with standard Metroid-style gameplay might double that number as they learn the nuances needed to proceed. There are also unlockable surprises, both for Metroid Fusion owners and for scanning and acquiring all of the items, including the original NES version of Metroid and an image gallery featuring some pretty damned cool concept art and renders.
It’s hard not to wax poetic about the experience that is Metroid Prime, but there has not been a sequel this true to its heritage, yet fresh and new since … well, since Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Both are considered excellent and near perfect games, one prompting the evolution of an entire industry, and the other a pinnacle of game design. Well, Nintendo better make room on their awards wall, because Prime is on track to make those games look like Fischer Price toys. Prime successfully punctuates Nintendo’s commitment to the “mature” gamer, and does it without pandering or compromising the product. It’s a dark, gritty, immersive title and one that no GameCube owner should be allowed to miss without submitting himself to some serious corporal punishment.