Following up one of the most celebrated games of all time is not an easy feat. But imagine having to do that more than ten years later, transition the game from 2D to 3D and having received the license as a developer who hadn’t previously worked on the series. The Retro Studios team was partially made up of former Iguana Entertainment staff (the guys who made the original Turok) who had a hit and miss record. Unsurprisingly, it was with great trepidation that I approached Metroid Prime.
When I first started playing this game back in 2002, I was not expecting to be so immediately taken in by the world. Very few titles of that era managed to be cinematic, so It was even more surprising when Retro demonstrated an innate understanding of what a 3D Metroid game should be. The camera knew when and where to pan, the sound effects accurately conveyed what I imagined a rusty metal door would sound like, and the neon hues not only flickered and sparked, but indicated which direction to head or item to use.
This was a fully realised and fleshed out world that yearned to be explored, ushering the player through ironically unfriendly environments. The decaying ruins are viewed from inside Samus’ HUD, the weight of her armour impacts the speed in which the player can move the gun, and receiving damage causes the whole screen to temporarily scramble. It is a bleak reminder that this is dangerous world and her heavy armour will only go so far to protect her.
Prime opens with Samus moving around a spaceship where debris is falling from the ceiling, swarms of strange insects cover the ground, and long empty corridors are encountered one after another. It is lonely, intimidating and yet doesn’t threaten the player’s life. Then, as soon as you become accustomed to the ebb and flow, a terrifying multi-story enemy is encountered.
After this terrifying early battle, an electrical surge strips Samus of most of her abilities while she is flying off to a new planet. Imminent danger suddenly became a lot more real as the protection she had from her powerful arsenal disappears and she must fight powerful foes using a limited array of abilities.
Tallon IV, the new planet that she lands on, comes to life quickly as each environment features its own theme. When you enter a new area, you may be greeted by a relentless snowstorm, volatile lava pools, or poisonous fauna. Each will need to be approached differently, forcing players to search for platforms, gaps, doors, or holes that you can transform into a ball and roll through. Often solutions aren’t immediately clear and will require some lateral thinking before it finally clicks.
The developer’s passion for the franchise is immediately clear. The soundtrack often works in homages to the 2D titles, and even small details such as Samus being able to see her own reflection when charging up her gun are frequently encountered. These inclusions, added with the incredible sound effects, further immerse the player in the cruel world of Metroid.
Retro, using the knowledge they gained while creating Turok, took full advantage of the decaying ruins and futuristic locales by utilising them as sandboxes for Samus. Sometimes you will find a path impossible to pass until you have a new ability and this is half of the fun. When you backtrack through previous locations, you will approach it differently as you will be looking for a different door or place where you can use a recently acquired item.
During a first run through, your attention may be drawn to a single puzzle that requires you to transform into a ball, but the next time you may be heading towards platforms that lead to a previously inaccessible area.
This variety of ways that you approach environments is partly thanks to the array of tools at your disposal. Most shooters only let you run, crawl, strafe and sometimes include a limited jump mechanic. In Prime, though, jumping plays an important role. One that can be used to avoid enemies, or tactically climb to launch an attack. In most shooters, controller nubs can make aiming in these scenarios difficult, but Metroid’s lock on feature allows players to quickly and accurately target enemies.
Throughout Metroid Prime, another one of the more prominent mechanics is the ability to scan environments using her visor (an advanced visual attachment that Samus can call upon at any time). A device that enables potentially invaluable information on enemy’s weaknesses, switch locations, or just general tidbits about the planet to be easily attained.
I loved that I could build a strong understanding of the world by patching together details that I scanned along the way. Retro do not hold your hand and if you overlooked an important piece of information that explained where you needed to go next, you could spend hours mindlessly walking backwards and forwards between rooms looking for the next objective.
Another area that most shooters fail to get right are boss fights. Metroid Prime not only perfectly bumps up the difficulty with each successive encounter, but also requires players to make use of a combination of the previously acquired items and scan for weaknesses. These battles functioning as a way to highlight how players are becoming progressively more capable of downing more powerful enemies.
Understandably, this is not a game for everyone and while I enjoy the often slow and methodical gameplay, some will be put off by having to revisit previous environments and scanning for clues. It’s a shame as this may be the reason why few developers have taken some of these clever ideas and incorporated them into their own games in the years since its release. I guess I will have to wait for Metroid Prime 4.