Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Prime

How the acrobatic Samus Aran pulled off the toughest leap of her career: The jump into 3D.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

This review of Metroid Prime originally ran in September, but we are re-promoting it in celebration of the game's 15th Anniversary.

How do you top perfection? That question loomed over the creators of Super Metroid. The series' 16-bit entry had essentially closed a circle of creative inspiration, revisiting its 1986 NES predecessor while amplifying everything good about it. Super Metroid had nearly flawless structure and flow: A lean adventure that embellished its mechanical efficiency with immersive atmosphere. There simply wasn't much that could be done to improve on the game's design without radically overhauling it, or else disrupting its careful balance of elements.

There also wasn't much of anywhere left to take the narrative. By the end of Super Metroid, Mother Brain had been thoroughly annihilated, and the metroid species itself had become extinct thanks to the player's own efforts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Metroid franchise sat out a generation. Nintendo revolutionized their core franchises during the Nintendo 64's lifetime, and with those franchises, the medium as a whole: Super Mario, Zelda, Mario Kart, and even Pilotwings and F-Zero. Yet Metroid remained missing in action for a whopping eight years, the only hint that it hadn't been forgotten altogether by its creators coming in the form of heroine Samus Aran's presence in all-star brawler Super Smash Bros.

Metroid's absence most likely reflected the reality of an additional factor: Polygons. Super Metroid arrived right at the absolute tail end of the age of hand-drawn bitmap sprites; a few months later, the PlayStation would launch in Japan. The Super NES still had a couple of years of life in it, but the arrival of Donkey Kong Country would make it de rigueur for 2D games to try to disguise their nature by adopting pre-rendered computer-generated graphics. The move into 3D precipitated by PlayStation, N64, and SEGA Saturn created a dilemma for Metroid. Nintendo found natural extensions for Mario and Zelda into 3D space, but Metroid worked differently than those games. With its long-range combat and infinite jumps, Metroid made use of space in a way that would be challenging to convert into 3D. The action in Zelda and Mario on N64 mostly focused on in-close scenarios: One-on-one combat, solving puzzles, making a jump to the next platform. Metroid had tried in-close action with its second entry, cramped by the Game Boy's screen resolution, and the result was the least convincing portion of the trilogy.

No, the question of what to do with Metroid would stump Nintendo for an entire console cycle. Even when their answer finally arrived, the company hedged its bets by delivering two completely separate Metroid games on different hardware, each with its own distinct style, each with its own independent developer.

Of the two Metroid games to arrive in November 2002, Metroid Prime for GameCube felt the most ambitious and progressive. And, again, Nintendo hedged it bets. Prime took the series' action into 3D, but it pushed the storyline backward. Rather than following on from Super Metroid (that task fell to the visually regressive Metroid Fusion for Game Boy Advance), Prime instead rewound the saga to an indeterminate point in the past, presumed to fall somewhere between the first and second games. This meant nothing of true narrative consequence could happen during the course of Prime to move the franchise's plot line forward; but, on the other hand, it also meant Nintendo could quietly slide the game over to the dustbin of obscurity if the whole thing turned out to be a disaster.

That turned out not to be a concern. Prime immediately catapulted Metroid to the rarified ranks of legacy franchises to successfully navigate the transition from 2D to 3D. While not quite perfect, it nevertheless presented a convincing Metroid experience from an immersive first-person perspective.

Somewhat surprisingly, Nintendo didn't produce Metroid Prime internally. While it was overseen by veteran developer Kensuke Tanabe (best known for designing the American Super Mario Bros. 2), the heavy lifting for Prime happened in Texas, of all places, at a fledging developer called Retro Studios. The news that Metroid's next chapter would take the form of a first-person shooter designed in Texas didn't sit well with the Nintendo faithful. What business did a bunch of Texans have turning Nintendo's sci-fi masterpiece into a brain-dead shooter? Sure, Texans knew the FPS — Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake all came into existence in Dallas — but Metroid had always felt measured and exploratory. Shooting and combat played a secondary role to Samus's need to poke around into every corner of the world at her own leisurely pace. Surely, surely this "Metroid Prime" would be a disaster.

Miraculously, though, Retro made it work. Prime may have looked the part of an FPS, but it didn't entirely play like it. The game had its share of combat-intensive sequences, but here as in Super Metroid, those showdowns felt secondary to the task of mapping out the sprawling underground labyrinth of planet Tallon IV. The phrase "first-person adventure" was thrown around in reference to Prime's format, in an effort to distinguish it from arena shooters like Quake III. Prime turned out to be its own unique creature, and it had more in common with early explorations of the form like System Shock and Pathways Into Darkness than even measured, scripted contemporaries such as Half-Life.

A big part of Prime's throwback vibe came from the heavy emphasis on diegetic narrative, which in turn emerged from the game's single most important mechanic: The scan visor. Retro's design team took what was practically a throwaway element of Super Metroid, Samus's X-ray visor, and installed it at the heart of their new game. The X-ray visor allowed players to see hidden passages and destructible blocks, which came in handy if they became stuck at a dead-end, but for most players it became a nearly forgotten element of the Super Metroid arsenal. Prime built on the core premise of the X-ray visor — revealing hidden objects — and expanded on it. Here, Samus could use her scan visor mode to reveal hidden passages, but it could also pinpoint cloaked enemies, log tactical data about hostile life forms, and access computer terminals.

While largely optional, the computer terminals allowed Prime to present players with far more narrative and world-building material than previous chapter of the series without fundamentally altering the essentially lonely nature of the series. Samus never interacts with any character who doesn't seek to destroy her; instead, she soaks up details from computer logs and databases scattered around the planet. Again, this approach called back to the likes of System Shock and Marathon, and even then it avoided those games' clichéd element of text messages directed at Samus herself. Though she shows up as a topic of discussion in certain logs (which can be a thrill for players, seeing their avatar addressed with such open fear and respect), no one is barking orders at her or relaying clues about her quest. Instead, Prime leaves the heavy lifting to the player, allowing them to piece together story details as they glean data around Tallos IV.

The scan visor also differed from Super Metroid's X-ray visor in one critical respect: It didn't slow the pace of the action. Where the X-ray scope froze the entire game while you slowly panned around a room, the scan visor let you dash through a room with your gaze affixed to a computer terminal, collecting information to be sorted through later without the need to stand while the info loaded. Likewise, the scan visor also allowed players to collect critical tactical info Tallos IV's native life and Ridley's space pirate minions while sidestepping their attacks. The visor's special mode proved to be an invaluable asset in the game's first major battle, and the deft writing throughout the text logs that piled up in Samus's database — alternating between dry scientific data and volatile communiques between the pirates — keep things lively.

Metroid Prime stood apart from its FPS contemporaries by placing its emphasis strongly on Samus's gear, as in earlier chapters of the series. Ducking into morph ball form opened up new ways to get around the planet, while the weapons Samus collected — both expendable missiles and alternate beam modes — granted her access to new areas while giving her a critical leg up on the space pirate hordes. Prime even included the classic bomb-jump maneuver!

The one critical component Prime didn't carry over from Super Metroid was Samus's space jump. The power to chain together infinite jumps worked well within the confines of 2D space, but it would have been disastrous in first-person mode… especially while traversing open areas with effectively limitless skyboxes. Players found Samus's aerial skills greatly reduced in Prime; she didn't even retain her traditional spinning flip while in mid-air. Given the central role aerial maneuvers play in Metroid games, this might seem to undermine the integrity of Retro's attempt to reinvent the series.

Thankfully, the studio didn't effect such crucial changes lightly. Prime doesn't dismantle Metroid standards; it merely rethinks them. Infinite space jumps vanish, but Samus can still maintain some hang time and reach out-of-the-way ledges by chaining a couple of jumps in midair. Her head-over-heels flips may not have a place in Prime, but she can still acquire the destructive screw attack power. Most importantly, though, the fact that jumping works here, at all, stands as a minor triumph for any FPS. The genre has never been known for making platforming pleasurable; after all, it's difficult to leap confidently when your point-of-view makes it impossible to see your own feet. Nintendo's last Texas-developed FPS exclusive, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for N64, more or less fell apart around the point that it forced players to make multiple precarious leaps across tiny footholds. Now, here was Prime, determined to make high-bounding action a core tenet of its design. It could have been a disaster.

Retro took a page from the only other FPS series to have pulled it off: The first-generation PlayStation cult shooter Jumping Flash! That game's developer, Exact, had graced Jumping Flash! with a simple, brilliant play mechanic: When players launched themselves into the air, the game camera automatically pivoted slightly downward to give players a better sense of the ground below. It was a subtle effect that many people didn't even notice, but it went a long way toward smoothing over a technically challenging game concept. Jumping Flash! managed to present a first-person action experience centered around enormous triple-jumps that played well even on the PlayStation's limited original D-pad controller. It was a tremendous feat, and Metroid Prime cheerfully lifted the auto-head-swivel idea from Jumping Flash!'s robot her Robbit for Samus.

Prime admittedly wasn't without its flaws. The measured pace of the game didn't sit well with core FPS fans; yet the occasional intrusion of frantic, high-intensity combat sequences felt at odds with the exploratory pace. The control scheme, which involved a lot of weapon toggles and view modifier buttons, proved to be entirely too clunky for its own good. And most disappointingly of all, Prime's second half gave a distinct impression of padding. Where Nintendo's own Metroid adventures all demonstrated a lean and highly focused flow, Prime grinds progress to a halt near the very end to send players backtracking through the world in search of a dozen widgets. It's certainly possible to collect some of those keys before triggering the mandatory quest, but the way the pace of the adventure stalls out there feels decidedly un-Metroid-like. It comes as a terrible disappointment in light of how many things Retro either held over from older games or reinvented in an authentic way.

Despite this endgame misstep, Metroid Prime managed a seemingly impossible feat: It brought Metroid into 3D and made it work as an FPS. Creative game mechanics, clever world design, and memorable bosses helped establish Tallon IV and Samus's quest there as a place apart from Zebes and SR-388 that nevertheless belonged to the Metroid universe. And, of course, the metroids themselves factored in as well, appearing in three dimensions in surprising and sometimes unsettling ways. Nintendo may have been hedging its bets with Prime, it's true, but the gamble more paid off by making the Metroid franchise more intriguing than it had been since the original game debuted.

Metroid Prime allowed players to feel like they had stepped into Samus Aran's armor, bringing an entirely new context to the workings and processes of a Metroid adventure. It was only when lightning flashed across Tallon IV's skies, or a particularly bright explosion lit up the room, that you saw Samus's eyes reflected across the interior of her visor and remembered that YOU weren't saving the galaxy from the threat of the metroids. It was all Samus, once again. You were just there to help her find her way.

4.5 /5

Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Prime Jeremy Parish How the acrobatic Samus Aran pulled off the toughest leap of her career: The jump into 3D. 2017-11-11T19:50:00-05:00 4.5 5

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Comments 29

  • Avatar for dard410 #1 dard410 5 months ago
    Great writeup. This game is one of my favorites and has been since the day it came out. One more thing I think needs to be said. Even 15 years later, it still looks beautiful. Yes, you can see the polygons and the resolution is a bit low by current standards, but it truly is a triumph of the smart art direction and care of the graphics designers.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #2 Monkey-Tamer 5 months ago
    The padding at the end is what puts Super Metroid ahead of this one. And the music when the Space Pirates ambush you is horrible compared to most of the other tracks. Still a great game. Someone has been developing a VR version of Dolphin to play Metroid Prime. It may get me to buy a VR set for my PC.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #3 chaoticBeat 5 months ago
    Metroid Prime is one of my top 5 games. I loved the time that I spent with it and am itching to revisit it soon. One of the stand out details that I remember is having rain and precipitation show on the visor, this is before I remember seeing it anywhere else. I swear that you could see Samus's face in certain lightings as well.

    I have been playing a lot of No Man's Sky post patch and I have this vision of what Metroid Prime 4 could be if they combined it with the planet hopping of NMS. Of course, I'd want it all to be a lot tighter experience with a fewer number of planets (maybe 14) but packed dense with encounters and unique missions. Can you image flying Samus's gunship through space and landing it on different planets with those famous Metroid melodies and sound effects?
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  • Avatar for BulkSlash #4 BulkSlash 5 months ago
    I loved pretty much everything about Metroid Prime aside from the combat. If always felt to me like I was having to hold down half the buttons on the pad during fights (A to charge the beam, B to jump around the enemy, Y to fire missiles, R to lock-on to the enemy and a direction on the stick to strafe). Given how much backtracking was needed and how most of the Space Pirates were such bullet sponges I hated those moments where the doors would lock and I'd have to fight through them; especially as I'd likely already killed them the last time I walked through that room.

    Other than that, I loved the music, the exploration and the atmosphere. I even managed to 100% it by finding all the hidden items, although I was never able to beat it on Hard mode, I just couldn't beat the last boss! I also liked that it would eventually detect seismic anomalies which were actually hints on where to go next when I was completely lost!
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  • Avatar for themblan #5 themblan 5 months ago
    If Metroid Prime 4 is to be modernized, it has to get rid of respawning enemies. Respawning-enemies took away from the immersion, atmosphere, and believability of the universe.Edited August 2017 by themblan
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  • Avatar for dard410 #6 dard410 5 months ago
    @chaoticBeat, Metroid Prime 3 did something like that. You could go to a few planets and a derelict ship. It worked... kind of. Unfortunately, I think what happened was that instead of one big planet with lots of diverse environments like in Prime, we got a handful of small, homogenous worlds. I still like Prime 3 a lot, but it somehow feels less like a grand adventure than the original. Given Nintendo's success with open-world design with BOTW, maybe they'll hit upon a new formula for Prime 4.
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #7 Dorchadas 5 months ago
    Metroid Prime is a fun game, and it plays much better than I initially thought when I heard the phrase "FPS Metroid," but-

    alternating between dry scientific data and volatile communiques between the pirates

    I found the logs weighted far more toward the former than the latter. The pirates came off as idiot bureaucrats who would Do Science at things and then get into trouble when it blew up in their faces, so the logs simultaneously bored me and reduced the status of the pirates as an enemy. I scanned every single log when I played and the only one I remember is the pirates' experiments with the morph ball and how they gave up when too many test subjects were crushed into a spherical pulp.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #8 chaoticBeat 5 months ago
    @dard410 Yeah? I didn't play enough of Prime 3 to get a good feel for it. I want to come back to it now. I think you're absolutely right about the open world of BOTW: it feels like a reinvigorated Nintendo right now and I hope 4 gets some of that love too.
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  • Avatar for atrb79 #9 atrb79 5 months ago
    I love the sound of this. I still have a wii; Should I make the effort to get this (I would need to buy a gamecube pad or pro controller) or can I go straight for Metroid Prime 3 and have a similar experience?
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  • Avatar for captainN2 #10 captainN2 5 months ago
    Fantastic game and so atmospheric!

    The art direction of Metroid Prime is so tremendous! The game still looks gorgeous all these years later! I am really waiting for Nintendo to release a high res version.
    The soundtrack is stellar as well. The sequels were all well made but never quite captured my imagination the same way the original did. Hopefully the fourth installment can do something new and exciting with this series.

    Also great to have Metroid return as a handheld. Maybe somber Metroid fans have reached a turning point?
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  • Avatar for tomjonjon #11 tomjonjon 5 months ago
    @themblan I'm in the middle of replaying this game (haven't played it since the gamecube release) and I couldn't agree more. Every time I go back through an area and the turrets I shot down an hour ago reappear I just shake my head.

    I can understand some of the flora and fauna style enemies reappearing and I wouldn't mind the space pirates coming back but everything being reset just pulls me out of it.
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  • Avatar for matt-b #12 matt-b 5 months ago
    You are good at writing words. Thank you.
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  • Avatar for manoffeeling #13 manoffeeling 5 months ago
    I THINK I enjoyed the scanning mechanic in this game, and while it is a smart way to deliver important information and story, by MP2, the clunky writing and huge amount of frankly uninteresting detail made it so that it took months and several restarts before I was actually able to push through its first few hours. I couldn't really enjoy that game until I made the decision to scan the bare minimum of objects.

    Anyways, love MP forever
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  • Avatar for moochan #14 moochan 5 months ago
    @Dorchadas I actually enjoyed the Space Pirate logs. As you read the Pirates actually slowly start to realize you are on the planet and start to panic. Painting you as the one thing in the universe that they are actually terrified of.

    I know Jeremy has his grips with Metroid Prime but at least saying that gameplay wise it's fine even if it isn't for him.

    Personally Prime 1 is where it felt right. 2 never felt right with it's Dark World being a slog to go through and the areas didn't really feel right to explore. Plus they double down on the scanning in a lot of annoying ways like having to scan the bosses twice and if you missed the first you lost it forever (wouldn't be a problem but the Wii Trilogy had unlockables if you scan everything). And 3 felt like their main focus on combat which felt fun but took away a lot of the explorations with small areas on different planets instead of one big planet.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #15 Roto13 5 months ago
    I remember a lot of resistance to the term "First person adventure." A lot of people really didn't want to accept that a game with a first person camera and shooting can be something other than a shooter.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #16 donkeyintheforest 5 months ago
    the music is so good! underwater frigate reactor core is one of my favs of all time
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  • Avatar for reptilio #17 reptilio 5 months ago
    Metroid prime is Metroid perfected. It captures the isolation and mood of the series while being an absolute joy from start to finish. The best in the series and one of the greatest games of all time
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  • Avatar for dard410 #18 dard410 5 months ago
    @atrb79 you can get the Metroid Prime Trilogy on Wii or Wii U (I think it sells for around $20). Definitely worth getting it. You can play with the Wiimote and use the wiimote as your gun pointer, which I actually quite like. The first game is definitely a classic, and the two sequels are both fun as well.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #19 NiceGuyNeon 5 months ago
    I gotta say, I had zero faults with Metroid Prime's controls. In fact, I actively miss them when I play on Wii. Maybe I'm just nuts, but Prime 3's controls might be more intuitive for aiming, but the measured pace of the original really made it the best for exploratory purposes, and that's really why it is the best of the trilogy.

    The widget hunt didn't bother me much either because it's pretty explicit about WHERE these things are and usually on the way I'd use my new abilities to find even more powerups, but it was definitely unnecessary. Personally, i wouldn't dock points on Prime for that though. I would 100% dock points for both Prime 2 and 3 for not getting rid of that final end-game key/widget hunt across the entire trilogy though.

    I really do love Metroid Prime though. It is easily in the top 5 of the series. A lot of folks say it's number 1 or number 2. Number 1 is without a doubt Super Metroid, but when I look at Metroid Fusion, Zero Mission, and Prime I have a hard time picking between them for second best. But 2002 was a hell of a year to be a Metroid fan when you factor in Fusion being the direct sequel to Super Metroid and really pulling it off damn well.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #20 Vonlenska 5 months ago
    Some easy listening for this and future articles:

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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #21 chaoticBeat 5 months ago
    Deleted August 2017 by chaoticBeat
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #22 LBD_Nytetrayn 5 months ago
    Not related to this article specifically, but the reposting within the same day or so is making the front page confusing.

    I'm glad I scrolled down anyway, because this and the thing about the USgamer podcast in the third and fourth slots had me thinking it was a really slow day around here, and I almost missed out on the other new stories below.
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  • Avatar for Toelkki #23 Toelkki 5 months ago
    "Just my opinion", but I think Primes are the reason I consider 3D Metroids far superior to 2D ones. And Minish Cap is why I consider 2D Zeldas superior to 3D ones.

    Scanning for data is possibly my favourite part of the whole Metroid series.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #24 VotesForCows 5 months ago
    This is the only Metroid game I've ever played, and I'm sorry to say that I really didn't like it at all. Not saying its a bad game - just not for me.

    That said, I've just downloaded Super Metroid for my 2DS, looking forward to trying that.
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #25 Mr.Spo 5 months ago
    "Prime grinds progress to a halt near the very end to send players backtracking through the world in search of a dozen widgets."

    That's only if you don't bother to explore the central hub on Tallon IV thoroughly. You can access the Chozo Temple from a very early point in the game - I think possibly even as soon as you land - and you can then scan the artifact statues to get clues about where the statues are. I've never found Prime to be poorly paced. In fact I'd say it's one of the best paced games I've ever played. If you pay attention to environmental clues and to the key lore information you can scan, your path through Tallon IV unfolds incredibly organically.

    I'd rate the original Prime as highly as Super Metroid, and despite its flaws, I did love Echoes, too. Echoes felt (aesthetically and in terms of narrative) more like Retro's own take on the series. It kept some key archetypes (ancient alien race giving Samus abilities) but put their own spin on it.
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  • Avatar for AstroDemon #26 AstroDemon 5 months ago
    Metroid Prime did such a good job putting players inside the visor of Samus. I love immersive experiences. The feeling of loneliness as I uncovered the mysteries of Tallon IV as I gained new tech is something that is unforgettable to me. 5/5 for me, even though it has a couple of flaws. I want more immersive 3D Metroidvanias!
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  • Avatar for atrb79 #27 atrb79 5 months ago
    @dard410 that's a great recommendation. Thanks!
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  • Avatar for calebhawkins37 #28 calebhawkins37 5 months ago
    I was sure Prime was going to be terrible and Fusion great. I actually ended up disappointed by Fusion. Prime, however, blew me away in how it captured the essence of Super Metroid, both in gameplay and atmosphere.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #29 NiceGuyNeon 5 months ago
    @Mr.Spo I don't think you can access it quite that early, but yes, I had like 75% of them located before I even hit the point where it was mandatory and that was on my first playthrough. Now on replays I'm always golden. It was incorporated into the game pretty well.

    I wasn't a fan of the same design finding its way in Prime 2 and 3, but in the original it felt natural and didn't detract from the experience in my opinion.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBananas #30 JohnnyBananas 5 months ago
    Deleted August 2017 by JohnnyBananas
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  • Avatar for mshukla8130 #31 mshukla8130 A month ago