20 Years Ago, Metroid Prime Brought Samus Into the Future

Metroid Prime
Metroid Prime

November 18th, 2002 saw the launch of Metroid Prime, a bold, new first-person direction for Nintendo’s long-running (and, at the time, long neglected) sci-fi action franchise. What might appear on paper as a dicey prospect – Nintendo was hardly known for their mastery of the first-person shooter genre, after all – ended up being a smash hit and one of the most celebrated titles on the Nintendo GameCube. Two decades later, Samus hasn’t had that many other outings compared to her Smash Bros. brethren, but Prime still represents a fascinating leap forward for the Metroid series, and for Nintendo’s first party experimentation as a whole.

Metroid Prime was an overdue return to the Metroid franchise, which sat out the N64’s entire console life cycle. Metroid Fusion released on the GBA a few days before Prime, but for major home consoles, Samus hadn’t had her own adventure since 1994’s Super Metroid. Where the Nintendo 64 had revitalized Nintendo mainstays like Mario & Link with the glory of a third dimension, Samus Aran had to wait until the GameCube to get her chance to play.

But it wasn’t like nobody wanted Samus to ride again – the path there was just a deeply fraught one. Developers at Nintendo were uncertain on how to translate the Metroid series from 2D to 3D and unwilling to proceed without a strong direction. When they finally gave it to the new company Retro Studios, the fledgling studio had quite a tough road of development. Still, after a harrowing development process, Metroid Prime finally saw the light of day, and did so in a brand new perspective.

Metroid Prime’s most obvious reinvention was its new first-person perspective. Players inhabited Samus Aran’s power suit, with the HUD display integrated into the visor’s design. While the camera would pull back and revert to third person when Samus shifted into her typical morph ball, the majority of the gameplay kept things set firmly behind Samus’ eyes. We also got a new item in Samus’ arsenal, the scan visor, which was used to solve puzzles and learn the lore of the world. This means of player-motivated exposition-finding that feels like it’s become more and more commonplace in games like the cryptics worlds of the Dark Souls franchise and the advent of expository audiologues in series like Bioshock or Horizon.

Metroid Prime’s new means of exploration, sticking players in the driver’s seat and scaling the usual metroidvania experience into a completely new dimension, made Prime feel truly like exploring an unknown world. The same exploratory focus of the Metroid series persists here, with plenty of backtracking and secret paths, but the 3D version made the whole experience feel more full of mystery and novelty.

As for the world itself, the planet Tallon IV is a heck of a backdrop for this voyage. Previous Metroid games had always had an alien atmosphere, but Prime feels more textured, more industrial. The structures and biomes Samus moves through feel extra harsh and oppressive – whereas previous planets were evocative, Tallon IV is tactile and immediate. The new tech of the GameCube also presented opportunities for more enemies and stranger environments, making for an adventure that’s full of thrilling and dangerous surprises.

Revisiting Metroid Prime in the year 2022, what’s remarkable is how well it holds up (beyond some unavoidable fussiness in the controls). Prime maintains an impressive balance between action and exploration, keeping the sense of tension and uncertainty behind every door that was so palpable in Super Metroid. The pivot to 3D feels as organic and intuitive as Super Mario 64 back in the day, and the use of three-dimensional space in forming the various battlefields and environments results in a game full of dynamic settings and set pieces that still quicken the pulse two decades later.

At the time of its release, Metroid Prime was an immediate resounding success, becoming one of the highest-rated and best-selling games for the GameCube. Metroid fans felt that, after so long out in the cold, they were finally getting their due and Samus was rightfully getting her seat at the Nintendo first-party table. For a little while, at least, they were right.

Prime was enough of a success to get two sequels, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes on the GameCube in 2004, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption on the Wii in 2007.  There were also two spin-off titles, Metroid Prime Pinball (2005) and Metroid Prime Hunters (2006), released on the Nintendo DS. The appeal of FPS Samus remained, and remains, a strong one, though Nintendo has yet to give us any kind of rerelease of the Metroid Prime trilogy on the Nintendo Switch.

Beyond that, there’s still the specter of Metroid Prime 4, which was announced in 2017, and has had very little information in the ensuing 5 years. What little crumbs of info that we have heard haven’t always been the most encouraging. Still, every day is a brand new opportunity to be surprised, and if Bayonetta 3 can crawl out of the fog of vaporware and suddenly become real, we have hope for Metroid Prime 4.

Metroid Prime’s legacy is fairly easy to comprehend for those that have played the game. It’s a darn good FPS, a moody and evocative sci-fi action game, and yet another example of Nintendo being unafraid to take a mean swing on reinventing an established IP, and knocking it completely out of the park. It’s entirely likely that, since we haven’t had a new Metroid Prime in 13 years, absence has made the heart grow fonder of this trilogy and its first entry in particular. However, when you’re starting with a foundation that is this solid, and this worthy of praise, nostalgia feels less like romanticizing the past and more like just being honest. While the franchise has slowed, and Metroid returned to its 2D roots with last year’s also stellar Metroid Dread, the acolytes of Prime still hold a candle for the hopefully coming Metroid Prime 4.

It’s been a long time since Nintendo made another bold swing like it did with Prime. While Breath of the Wild springs to mind as a recent example of Nintendo fully reimagining the core mechanics of its franchises, that may be the exception that proves the rule. Super Mario Odyssey, Kirby & The Forgotten Land, and Pokemon Legends: Arceus are also relatively recent installments that sought to bring something new to their relative tables, and great games in their own right, but they feel more iterative than something like the full teardown/rebuild of Breath of the Wild or Metroid Prime. Has the changing nature of the games market since 2002 made Nintendo more reticent towards big gambles, or more protective of their franchises? Have games as an industry turned more toward being homogeneous and same-y, rereleased ad infinitum with only enough changes to keep players distracted?

Regardless, Metroid Prime remains a superb game in its own right, and a fascinating isolated moment in the histories of games, the Metroid series, and Nintendo as a company. While the years have kept rolling, Metroid Prime remains, within the confines of this tiny GameCube disk, just as awe-inspiring and eye-opening as it was 20 years ago.

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