If there were ever a reliable way to determine the best game of all time, Metroid Prime would be a serious contender for the title.
I have something of a history with Metroid, but it’s not all that relevant to my appreciation of Metroid Prime. When the first game was released, I was quite young and naïve. I simply tended to like some games and dislike others. I couldn’t put any specific reasons on it most of the time and I didn’t try; I just knew that some games were fun, and some weren’t. I remember when I picked up the original Metroid. Neither of my two brothers were interested in helping me buy the game, so I eventually had to beg my dad to help me pay for it. This gave me weeks (months?) to get hyped up for it. Well, it did not disappoint! The graphics and music weren’t quite as flashy as some Capcom and Konami titles, but I really enjoyed the game. I remember when our first Nintendo broke and we were saving up for a replacement, we each had a game that we were just waiting to play again. My game was Metroid. I didn’t even beat the final boss until many years later. Even so, Samus’s first adventure was enough to instill a love of the franchise in me. When Metroid II and Super Metroid were released, I jumped on each of them. There was just something about the series that I liked and even now, I can’t really put my finger on it. I imagine it must have been the combination of powering up an awesome character by progressing through an intoxicating blend of action and exploration. I figure that must be it, because that’s a huge part of what makes Metroid Prime such a joy to play.
When it was revealed that Metroid Prime would be a first person game, I was just as shocked as the next guy, but I was far from distraught. Some of my favorite games in recent years have been first person shooters. My only concern was that Retro would screw up the controls. In the realm of console first person shooters, my choice method of aiming is the one used in Goldneye, Perfect Dark and Time Splitters 2, and I practically demand full customization. I had a feeling that Nintendo wasn’t going to use this scheme, and I also had a strong feeling that the controls would not be customizable at all (in Nintendo games, they rarely are). Thus my fear was that it would control like most other console FPS’s: that is, I figured that the crosshairs would be locked to the center of the screen, leading to the usual aiming problems that are best solved with a keyboard and mouse. I should have known better when I heard in late 2001 that Miyamoto was getting involved specifically with the control design. I don’t know who is ultimately responsible for making Metroid Prime’s controls so perfect, but I shouldn’t have feared once I learned that Shigeru Miyamoto was on the case. My worries were completely obliterated at E3 2002 where I played the game’s intro and learned that Metroid Prime would feature lock-on targeting in a similar manner to the 3D Zelda games. This immediately put to rest any arguments that Metroid Prime was going to be a “Doom clone”. By taking the emphasis off of aiming and putting it on timing and reflex, Retro and Nintendo have concocted the perfect vehicle for delivering Metroid in 3D, and boy have they delivered.
Metroid Prime’s gameplay and control is exactly tailored to the GameCube controller. I was certain that the lack of dual analog would become extremely annoying, but it never does. Dual analog is only necessary for turning and strafing at the same time. However, the most vital time to do this is in combat, and this is handled automatically by the lock-on system. Even so, simple environmental movement is extremely smooth. The analog stick controls turning and forward/backward movement so if you really want to turn sharply while moving, you can simply jump and turn as momentum carries you forward. Another good example of Prime’s flawless control is the ability to lock onto thin air. This converts your analog stick’s horizontal axis from turning to strafing, and at the same time locks the vertical portion of your view at the current angle if you were looking with the R button. This is just perfect when you need to jump down to a platform below you or keep an eye on a grappling point as you jump toward it. Meanwhile, the C-stick and D-pad can function as visor and weapon selectors, and your right thumb is free to use the face buttons for jumping, shooting, firing missiles and switching to morph ball mode. The morph ball physics are detailed, but not at all unforgiving thanks to the environment design. Many will find long distance traveling in ball form to be a joy. It’s also notable to me that you can change between forms even in mid-air and the camera system handles this just fine. It’s not at all necessary (or helpful) to the gameplay, but it’s a lot of fun and it does help you get around as quickly as possible if you’re in a hurry. Overall, the controls provide simplicity for beginners, and at the same time, they hide depth for advanced gamers. This is the perfect balance that all game designers should strive for in control design.
What good would excellent controls do if they weren’t used in an equally excellent game? Not much of course. Fortunately, Metroid Prime’s excellence extends to every other portion of its design as well. The gameplay, in classic Metroid fashion, consists primarily of exploration, punctuated by intense fighting sequences with the rewards being an item or weapon of some type that increases your ability to explore the environment. Unlike most games of this type though, you’ll find that the areas you are hindered from are intricately woven together into one massive world that nearly defies description. Unlike previous Metroid titles, Prime is filled with a healthy dose of story, but it is completely optional. In fact, Metroid Prime may just be the most cleverly designed action-adventure title in gaming history. By using the game’s built in hint system (turned on by default), impatient gamers can stay in the action with minimal effort and generally ignore all traces of the story. On the other hand, those who are interested in the little details can scan countless objects, enemies and documents to get a clear picture of what they are doing and why. For those who do get involved in the story, they’ll find that it is well crafted and surprisingly well told, considering that Samus never encounters another living being who she can speak with. It contains everything from suspense to humor. The fighting is extremely fulfilling and contains just the right amount of difficulty. You’ll find that new creatures (offensive ones anyway) can be mastered with time and effort. This is notable because Nintendo’s first party efforts are usually too easy for experienced gamers. Finally, I have to mention Metroid Prime’s inspired boss fights. Not since Link’s N64 adventures have I found boss fights this satisfying in a 3D game. I’ll leave the rest for you to experience first hand.
To play through Metroid Prime, quite a bit of backtracking must be done. Even in such a great game, this might become tedious if not for the exquisitely crafted world, the changing enemies, and the flawless control scheme. Still, not only is the backtracking in Prime bearable, it’s mostly welcome because it gives you a chance to experience the breathtaking graphics again. The overall visual presentation is one of the best I’ve ever seen in any game to date (unreleased games don’t count). Although I could pick out some individual areas where other games are better in terms of graphics, this completely misses the point. It’s not about the individual parts, but how they come together. The now-famous visor system is executed extremely well. I’d rather not go into the details for fear of spoiling things, but it becomes a significant part of the gameplay. As for the environments, each room is somehow unique. There’s something about every major room (and even most of the insignificant hallways that connect them) that distinguishes them from one another. Even within a single area where nothing really changes about the surroundings, each room has different character and life. In fact, each room has a name on the map. It gives the rooms a sense of purpose. These aren’t just set pieces that are made to look cool; they have implicit meaning that is often explicitly clarified if you scan diligently. There are so many little details that you could replay the game many times and still see new things in a previously explored room. While the detail doesn’t hold up if you get extremely close to a surface (there’s no bump-mapping or anything), I found this to be more helpful than not. I might be accused of trying only to see the good side, but in truth, when a game features bump mapping or detail textures, it’s usually not featured on every surface in the game. In these games I find myself examining walls and objects looking to be “wowed” by the detail, and when I don’t find it, it’s disappointing. In fact, the whole enterprise of seeking out the little details breaks the immersion that it’s supposed to help create. If you were truly Samus exploring a foreign world, would you be concerned with closely examining every object and surface in sight simply because you think it might look neat? You would more likely take in the environments as they are: a complete world. This is exactly what Metroid Prime’s graphic design does. It immerses you in a way that I haven’t experienced since Half-Life, but it does it with the increased punch that you would expect from the current generation of hardware. When the budding graphics technology of today can be done in every part of a game at sixty frames a second, bring it on. In the mean time, I’ll happily accept Prime’s medium-high-res textures, gratuitous special effects, unmatched art design and perfect framerate any day. Though I believe in my newfound anti-surface detail philosophy, during the elevator sequences (the only appreciable loading times in the entire game), the game pans across Samus’s chest plate showing an extremely pixilated texture. Something should have been done about that since the game forces you to see it. Additionally, unlike other surfaces in the game, you often find yourself extremely close to doors; so a little more detail could have been used in that area as well. And in a couple of areas, there are some sun-cast shadows that could have used more detail. I’m just nitpicking here so that you know that the graphics aren’t perfect even if they are nearly so. I should also mention that Prime accomplishes all of this with almost no stops for loading. The game loads new rooms as you approach them. A lot of gamers probably won’t even notice this because you’re free to walk around as you wait for the doors to open (although most open immediately or by the time you can finish running to them). Finally, for those who have the equipment, Prime can be played in progressive scan mode, but there is no wide-screen option.
In closing, I want to make a brief mention about the sound. I’m not a huge sound connoisseur, but I know detail when I hear it. It seems like something is always making a noise in Metroid Prime. The power suit makes many mechanical noises. Each beam weapon sounds different (even when charging). Samus’s footsteps sound exactly as I’d imagine (especially those heavy metallic thuds after jumping). All of the creatures make various sounds as they attack or die trying. The music, though generated on the fly, is compositionally excellent (I am a music connoisseur). The tracks range from catchy to atmospheric. About half of them are remixed from previous Metroid games to good effect. To ice the audible cake, Prime features Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound. I’ve yet to experience this in a game, but you can bet that I’ll be digging up my copy of Prime when I get hooked up with it.
There you have it. Unless you have an unfortunate aversion to the first person viewpoint, you owe it to yourself to put Metroid Prime on the very top of your wish list. This game is easily worth buying a GameCube for. It’s the best game I’ve played in years and it might just be my favorite game of all time.