Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

The Prime comes to a head, simultaneously elevated yet diminished by technology.

Nintendo ruled gaming in the ’80s; the NES console reportedly gave the company a staggering 90% control over the U.S. and Japanese home markets at one point. With each successive console generation, though, that percentage shrank. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Nintendo owned less of the market because the NES set the market along a journey of ongoing growth. The company still had a healthy slice of the pie, but it pie itself became larger with each passing year.

Alas: Nintendo's shrinking market share actually did reflect dwindling sales. The Super NES sold fewer total systems than the NES; the Nintendo 64 didn't sell as well as the Super NES; and the GameCube practically bottomed out altogether. It was around that point that the company stepped back and made a concentrated effort to get back to its philosophical roots. Both the DS handheld and Wii console saw Nintendo's put an end to its pursuit of the horsepower arms race. Rather than competing on sheer power alone, DS and Wii fell back on less expensive (and thus less powerful) processors than the competition used and placed the bulk of their manufacturing costs into innovative interface concepts. Critics jeered that the Wii was "two GameCubes duct-taped together," and they weren't wrong… but power wasn't the point. Accessibility, ease of use, and competitive pricing together were the point.

The Wii's emphasis on a remote controller-like interface over sheer graphical prowess made sense for sports and party games. It did not, however, work so well for first-person shooters. In principle, Wii was perfect for the FPS; the motion-based interface allowed the sort of point-and-shoot directness that made light gun games like Duck Hunt and Time Crisis such hits. But the Wii also happened to make its debut right as the entire world undertook the transition from chunky CRT-based standard-definition televisions to slim HD flat panel sets. Shooters on competing systems could offer a degree of precision detail impossible in standard definition… plus, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 shooters didn't suffer from the input lag that dogged Wii games when played on HD sets.

It was into this complicated transitional space that Retro Studios and Nintendo delivered the third and, until recently, final chapter of the Metroid Prime series: Corruption. Fittingly, then, Corruption goes down in history as the most complicated entry in the Prime series. On some levels, it exceeds both of its predecessors; on others, it falls flat.

Unsurprisingly, Corruption falls flattest on a pure technological level. The original Prime stood out as perhaps the single most beautiful first-person shooter that had been seen to that point; it glowed with the same luminous high-tech designs as Halo and other, similar shooters, but with a richer, more pleasing color palette and cleaner textures. Echoes in turn stood toe-to-toe with the best-looking graphics seen in its own 2004 contemporaries, including Half-Life 2 and Halo 2. With Corruption, however, Nintendo's decision to go with reduced hardware power and standard definition output on Wii made it difficult to view the game as serious competition to its own contemporaries… which, once again, included another Halo game. Halo 3 on Xbox 360 brought the series into HD, and it incorporated all kinds of dazzling tech tricks like simulated high-dynamic range lighting and meticulously crafted sound stage design. Metroid Prime 3 still had knockout aesthetic design… but mired in 480p resolution, everything felt chunky and simplistic.

On a more conceptual level, Corruption frequently offered oddly backward explorations of the Metroid concept. Many of the designs and puzzles Retro incorporated into the game came off as bizarrely literal interpretations of long-standing series concepts shoehorned into a new context without much consideration for the underlying logic of the resulting scenarios. Corruption took place across a wider variety of settings than ever before — not just in a single planet's ruins per usual — but Samus's progression through these locations operated on the same fundamental principles as usual. This resulted in moments of sublime ridiculousness, such as ancient mechanical foundries that could only be operated by someone with Samus's weapons loadout and lost temples that could only be traversed by destroying ancient statuary.

Corruption also wrapped up the saga of the Metroid Prime itself — the artificial life form from which the series took its title — in a decidedly uninspiring manner. In the end, the game pits you against what for all intents and purposes appears to be a prototype of Mother Brain. It should have made for an absolutely incredible FPS showdown. But instead of riffing on the Mother Brain battles in Metroid or Super Metroid, Corruption turns it into a ridiculous bit of nonsense where the whole Mother Brain/Aurora Unit apparatus — you know, the mechanical tank and tubes filled with malevolent space brain — spins around a big empty arena at you. That kind of thing was fine in early 3D action games of the ’90s like Super Mario 64 and Mega Man Legends. By 2007, and at the climax of a series so steeped in thoughtful design sophistication, we deserved better.

So, that's where Metroid Prime 3 misses the mark. But to simply write it off for these creative missteps would be a mistake. Corruption succeeds admirably in many respects, and many of its off-the-mark shots result from Retro's efforts to recontextualize Metroid and freshen up the game universe. For the first time in a decade, Corruption doesn't feel like a recreation of or attempt to push back against the gravity exerted by Super Metroid. Instead, it explores a different facet of the fundamental concept behind the series: Samus as a bounty hunter.

Corruption follows on from Metroid Prime: Hunters, the DS-exclusive multiplayer spin-off whose demo came packaged alongside the first wave of DS systems. (We'll look at Hunters in a later Game-By-Game entry.) Together, both games represent the first time the franchise's designers ever really took a step back from the standard Samus-versus-Metroids concept and said, "Wait, isn't there more to the character than just fighting space pirates?"

Indeed: Before the first Metroid incident, Samus had already earned acclaim as the toughest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Much of that backstory would effectively be unraveled by the next entry in the series (more on that next week), but Corruption arrived before Other M hit with the dull thud of needless retcons, and its storyline explored Samus's relationship with her professional peers. While the addition of other bounty hunters didn't substantially change the game mechanics — aside from providing a few interesting boss encounters — they gave the narrative a different vibe than usual. There's a lot more conversation in Corruption than in previous Metroids, save Fusion; unlike in Fusion, though, Samus seems an active participant in the proceedings rather than a penned-in rat running through someone else's maze. Much of Corruption takes on the feel of a race against other hunters, which adds a hint of urgency to the action… even if, in practice, it's all every bit as scripted as Fusion's SA-X encounters.

This goes hand-in-hand with the somewhat radical restructuring of the game. Rather than taking place on a single world in a vast, interconnected labyrinth, Corruption spans multiple planets. Of course, previous games had broken their monolithic world into compartmentalized spaces; Fusion went so far as to create hard divisions with a uniform structure for its different areas. But even in Fusion, the map designers could take advantage of the fact that these standalone areas nevertheless existed in close proximity to one another. Corruption made that impossible. There were no opportunities for surprising inter-area connections like the glass tube in Super Metroid, or Fusion's Portal-like escape into the hidden structure of the space station. Metroid Prime 3 sends Samus from one world to the next, and each planet presents a wholly self-contained environment and attendant set of challenges.

Many fans at the time decried Corruption's divided world, but in practice it doesn't cause that big a change for the flow of the game. Most Metroid excursions funnel players through a single conduit from one region to the next, and Corruption's landing points serve the same purpose. And the game even had Retro's obligatory tedious late-game fetch quest — a search for nine energy cells scattered throughout the galaxy — which proved to be neither more nor less of a hassle across multiple small regions than in a single contiguous map. For the most part, the compartmentalization worked in Corruption's favor, creating firm boundaries for each phase of the adventure to minimize the likelihood of players becoming lost and wandering in the wrong direction without the need to impose arbitrary gates to steer players in the right direction. This approach would probably feel more limiting in a 2D setting, but in a 3D space where movement around the world is more time-consuming and slower-paced, it creates a smoother overall play experience.

But none of that gets to the game's greatest achievement. Corruption may have lost the graphics race against its competition, and it may have broken up the design traditions of the franchise, but it nevertheless plays better than any other Prime entry for one key reason. Heck, it arguably plays better than any of its better-looking contemporaries, for that matter. And it all boils down to a simple detail: Motion controls.

Motion controls and the FPS proved to be a match made in heaven. Corruption wasn't the first shooter for Wii, and it wasn't the first to turn the Wii remote into an analogue for its protagonist's weapon. However, it was by far the best use case for the concept. The precision aiming of the Wii remote could work well in fast-paced shooters, but it absolutely soared in Prime's more deliberate format. Players didn't need to worry about thumbing around quickly and making instant snap turns when the game had been designed around puzzles and complex enemy encounters. Instead, the remote aiming helped streamline the sometimes cumbersome control scheme of Prime, long a sticking point for the series. It helped enhance the puzzle-like nature of combat, giving players greater precision for their aim without the need for the previous games' lock-on mechanics.

In fact, Corruption's motion control system worked so well that Nintendo folded it back into the previous Primes a couple of years later. The Metroid Prime Trilogy reissue for Wii compiled all three games, with motion aiming integrated into Metroid Prime and Echoes. In a way, it almost felt like Prime and its first sequel arrived too early — only with Wii's interface did the games at last feel natural. On the other hand, Corruption felt like it arrived a little too late, with its visuals failing to stand up to those of contemporary releases on other platforms due to their low-definition limitations. In a sense, there's never quite been a perfect Metroid Prime that manages to lead the way in both visuals and interface. But maybe Metroid Prime 4 will bring fluid controls and high-impact visuals together for the series at last.

While uneven in places and plagued by both a weak climax, Corruption in many ways plays better than any other Prime entry. Unfortunately, its host platform — the Wii — giveth, and it taketh away. Metroid Prime and motion controls were a perfect match… but the system's limitations meant Corruption fell a long way from the cutting-edge visuals the series had boasted a mere five years earlier.

4/5

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