Step through the portal to a new world where everything is familiar, yet creepier and more difficult.
The sequel to Metroid Prime is largely more of the same. It’s more stunningly organic environments, more smooth but restrictive lock-on controls, more spatial puzzles, more cool weapons and upgrades, more regenerating stealth enemies, more exploration, more classic Metroid backtracking, more fluid jumping, more searching for keys to the last area. In one sense, Echoes is a disappointment in that it fixes none of the original game’s flaws and does little to advance the franchise beyond the dozens of innovations introduced in Metroid Prime. At the same time, the sequel easily lives up to its predecessor’s outstanding degree of polish, while subtly enhancing some elements of story and mood. In terms of raw quality, disregarding legacy and innovation, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is easily one of the best titles on GameCube and of this entire generation.
On its surface, Echoes seems to bear a heavy new emphasis on story. There are more and better cinema scenes and, for the first time in any Metroid game, direct interaction with another living, sentient being. The actual implementation of the Luminoth encounters is hardly dramatic, though. The friendly sentinel talks at Samus, not with her, and his pleas for help hardly generate emotional involvement by the player. Samus is content to take his requests and fulfill them with no argument at all. Even in such a fantastic setting, the plausibility of our hero (who ostensibly works for money as a bounty hunter) silently taking orders from this alien stranger is a hard sell. It’s not painful to watch or listen to, since the scenes are handled with a measure of grace as is everything else in the game, but the attempt to strengthen Metroid’s narrative qualities is largely fruitless.
The new multiplayer mode is similarly out of place in the game, but that’s not to say it’s unpleasant. Death matching with Metroid controls and weapons turns out to work better than you might expect, even if it seems to go against everything the series stands for. There is going to be a learning curve for anyone who hasn’t played Metroid Prime or Echoes, but multiplayer can make for a fun couple of hours with three or four players and a bit of trash talk. Just don’t expect the depth or wealth of options that you’d get in a real FPS like Halo or Timesplitters 2. Multiplayer in Echoes is a clever bonus feature that you’ll probably dive into occasionally; as a complement to the substantial main game, it’s a fine addition.
The single-player adventure is where you’ll spend 95% of your time with Echoes, and it’s well equipped to draw you in for several days of intense play. The expansive world of planet Aether is mirrored by Dark Aether, which features similar geometry but a poisonous atmosphere and more difficult enemies, along with its own share of secrets and upgrades. Samus travels between the worlds with portals, which seem rare at first but turn out to be more than abundant. Later in the game, many rooms have two or more portals each, allowing for very complex puzzles that require you to go back and forth repeatedly to cross barriers and gaps that may exist in one world but not the other. It’s an interesting mechanic, if not terribly original (the Zelda series did it over ten years ago), and Echoes milks it for all the level design it can support. That turns out to be quite a lot, and you probably won’t get annoyed with portal-jumping until near the end of the game. Aether is much like Tallon IV from the last game, with themed environments and even similar enemies. Dark Aether is a murky, twisted version of Aether, inhabited by the amorphous Ing and their symbiotically controlled pawns. Your first journey to the dark world is truly intense, as you run from one safe zone to another and defend yourself from durable Warrior Ing. As the game progresses and you slowly become more resistant to the atmosphere and enemies of Dark Aether (through energy tanks, new suits, and new weapons), it loses its horror-movie appeal and becomes simply more real estate to search and explore.
The game’s pacing bears mention, because it is improved since the last game. With more story-based objectives and disorienting navigation introduced by the dual-world system, Echoes feels less like a segmented trek from one upgrade to the next. I would often guess at the next ability, based on the number of doors and the types of unreachable areas in my vicinity, only to be completely surprised by what the game would throw at me next. There are still points where intuition alone will offer little help on where to go, and that’s a shame, but the hint system is back in case you get really stuck. You can still choose to ignore its offer of guidance, of course. Pacing is particularly important on Dark Aether, where you must time your attacks and movements based on the locations of safe zones. It is a bit unfortunate that this element is lost over the course of the game, at the expense of greater mobility and endurance in the dark world, because it contributes greatly to the game’s mood in those first few hours.
Playing through Echoes yields many memorable experiences, but the bosses are by far the game’s best moments. The designers at Retro Studios really designed these bosses “out of the box”, as is most evident with the bosses fought only in Morph Ball mode and with the gigantic temple guardians. Many boss fights are puzzles unto themselves, though they can be quite challenging even after you figure out their patterns and weak points. Dark Samus figures into the game less prominently than Nintendo’s marketing would have you believe; fights with her are like interludes within the larger framework of the game, but they are nonetheless valuable in that capacity. Just when you get into a rhythm of finding keys and upgrades and moving from one temple to the next, here comes Dark Samus to block off a passage or give you (upon victory in battle) an unexpected new ability. She’s pretty freaky in her own right, and fans of Prime’s scan-based narrative will enjoy the Space Pirate logs devoted to her disruptive activities.
As an audiovisual experience, Echoes is virtually uncontested on GameCube. The graphics are considerably better and more varied than in the last game, with even more art and flashy effects used to keep environments from seeming repetitive. Some areas of the game sport a visual style almost cartoonish in nature, while others skew heavily towards the series’ sci-fi roots. That these styles never clash, even when mixed in with the separate Light and Dark motifs, is an impressive feat of art design. Echoes features many more expansive, outdoor areas than the last game, which are accompanied by some far-off (unreachable) architecture and beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds. The obsessive details that made Retro Studios so revered two years ago are back in full force, so much that you make look back at the original Metroid Prime and find it to be vaguely sterile in comparison. The game is nearly as accomplished on the audio front. Low-key, unsettling techno music once again dominates the soundtrack, and it dynamically alerts you to new threats or a change of location. The musical backdrop is punctuated by loud, rhythmic sound effects that make all the difference in Dark Aether’s overwhelming creepiness. The heavily layered sound design is desecrated by TV speakers, so be sure to connect headphones or a full surround system to get the full effect. A last note on sound: Echoes features the first voice-acting in the Metroid series (notwithstanding a few words added to the European release of Metroid Prime), but there isn’t much to say about it. Your Luminoth guide utters a few garbled alien phrases while delivering his real message in text subtitles, and some English can be overheard during a fallen Marine’s log entry, which is presented as a cinema scene.
With its modest advancement of the series and an onslaught of competing games being released this fall, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes has no hope of turning heads the way its predecessor did. It is, however, an excellent adventure game and yet another showcase title for the GameCube. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a solid multiplayer experience or a game you can play through easily in a weekend, but for Metroid fans and all Nintendo loyalists who can appreciate a great puzzle mixed in with the action, Echoes is a knockout.