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.