Review by Da Dood

"Raindrops keep falling on her head."

Metroid Prime (2002), Retro Studios - R004 - 07.05.2007

Distress call for Samus Aran: your Y chromosome is missing!

Featuring one of the weirdest and most cherished twists in the videogame universe, Nintendo's space dungeon Metroid trapped lady Aran in an ostensibly deserted planet called Zebes, where a particular mission briefing suggested a routine appointment with her personal Armageddon.

That was 1987, a time when the trend in videogames concerned actually reaching a goal instead of looping the same three levels ad nauseam. Around that time, the coolest motion picture mania involved epic sci-fi tales and their wholly impressive special effects -- including one about a group of alien-hatin' space mercenaries led by a female named Ellen Ripley. It wouldn't be a bad idea to take advantage of both, creating a mysterious and interactive alien world and attributing the salvation of whateverkind to a woman... as soon as the game was beaten.

Intergalactic bounty hunter Samus faced tremendous success back then, and it had little to do with how shocking the "plot twist" might have been. The truth is, Metroid had an inventive premise: as opposed to storming through linear sidescrolling levels a la Mario, Samus would trot (that's the word!) along a series of dull-looking tunnels forming a gigantic subterranean world. The only thing that would keep her from investigating the entire domain was the fact that her future abilities were hidden in strange rooms decorated with statues of bird-like entities. In short, Samus' progression was limited solely to the items and abilities she had acquired, bringing an indisputable sense of freedom to the experience. You could go back to a previously visited corridor to use a new weapon and reveal another power-up, or you could try some other route to the next major item. The game had a puzzle-y quality that favored minute inspection with Samus' abilities, and one of 'em quickly turned into an elegant representation of all things Metroid: the Morph Ball. Both Metroid II and 3 (Super Metroid) followed that concept, and the latter introduced several dazzling elements that recent complex games have yet to surpass or adapt with style.

Time rolled by. A rather long time.

It took Nintendo eight years to release the all-new Metroid episodes. Lots of criticism and doubt surrounded the bigger project, especially when it was revealed that the whole game would play from a dangerous first person perspective. It's easy to understand why players felt that way: the formula wasn't stale, even because only three Metroid games had been released until then; Konami's Castlevania dug up fortune by mimicking the Metroid formula and became a massive hit at the peak of the 3D frenzy, one decade after the first space journey came out; besides, how the bleep does anyone implement things like Grapple Beam and Morph Ball in first person view, and how would they prevent the game from becoming a shooter?

Thanks to the efforts of Retro Studios, a then unknown videogame company standing against a brutal challenge, Metroid Prime was conceived. FP schmeff-pee, we only had to worry about the transition until the game started: every single Metroid subtlety was there, from impressive physics to a frantic space station escape sequence. Ignoring one of the aspects that make 3D games so rich and open, Retro resisted the temptation of creating endless fields in order to maintain the Metroid way: we still traverse room after room and shoot doors open, we still focus on clearing a room out of enemies to explore it in peace, we still look for clues and examine every mildly distinguishable twig to find items.

And more importantly, that amazing sense of isolation is there. Since playing a Metroid game is often referred to as "being" Samus, one cannot help but admire how much the ability to see exactly what Samus sees suits the franchise. Her Visor is not simply an invisible wall separating player and videogame, it's an intelligent source of primary data, accessories and add-ons that bonds them together. And it's important to trace this player-protagonist connection as blazingly as possible, because Samus is all alone there. The hunter once again kicks ass while facing solitude, as there is no lifeform advanced enough to communicate with her in Tallon IV. The only way to find out what happens in the fascinating Metroid mythology is using the newly presented Scan Visor to translate research data and log entries, from the mysterious Chozo race to the ever annoying Space Pirates. That information is stored in Samus' personal files, so you don't have to stop in the middle of a boss fight to uncover detailed analysis about the foe -- though it might actually be a good idea, since each Creature Scan offers tips on how to deal with enemies you encounter in Metroid Prime. Like in a Resident Evil game, examining certain things is required, but most Scan icons are there simply to enrich Samus' escapade. You may glide through the whole mission without knowing a thing about Chozo or Phazon. There is no dialogue, no cinematic cutscenes and zero supporting characters in Metroid Prime. This is a silent experience.

Admittedly, that wonderful emptiness wouldn't bear any special significance if not for Prime's gorgeous environments, directly influenced by flawless atmosphere. What complicated and expensive cutscenes would tell Samus in scripted minutes, Tallon IV does just by existing. As soon as you arrive on the planet, you're greeted by light rain interacting with Samus' Visor and all around her. Each area you enter will display its lifelike characteristics in a timid, natural way, be it through a stunning view of a crater from an outdoor shrine or a breathfreezing land where ancient statues are covered with snow and soft piano keys set the relaxing tone. In one area, plantlife has occupied so much space that bridges are now made of tree branches, roots and vines. The ruins look and sound abandoned. Audio in this game is so unbelievably moody that it doesn't sound like multiple tracks being played; it sounds like what you'd actually hear in those places. Although we've all seen Metroid Prime's areas in some way before, they're delivered elaborately enough to be considered fresh even when compared to similar themes in previous installments. Magmoor Caverns and Norfair share the hellish fiery motif and a demonic chant, but Prime's caves have plenty of majestic sights and an overall noble quality that Metroid's bubbly lava world doesn't quite pull off in the same fashion.

Tallon IV does such an incredible job at capturing the player that you'll find yourself unable to resist exploration -- and since Prime's areas inevitably place Samus within labeled and limited rooms, searching is an organized task that rarely feels thrown in. You'll visit countless locations that contain a sparkly item around teasing you, and it's comforting to know that the puzzle leading to that item is always solved in that very room. Puzzles themselves can be tricky, but even the simpler ones are worthy of our ooh-in' for being effectively executed and guiding the player throughout the big picture: for example, the essential upgrades you collect are often followed by a microscopic puzzle that'll teach how to use 'em. You may abuse scanning and the excellent audio to seek nearby items (a low hovering noise indicates an unusual presence), plus an optional hint system for tools considered important to the adventure. Going for the next mandatory item is a probable sign that you have new weapons and tools to find more upgrades and open more passages on your way. It's a simple, yet undeniably effective formula.

Nonetheless, a couple of exploration issues may bother the unaccustomed or less patient. There's a big fetch quest near the end of the game that demands a lot and seems slightly cheap when you finally realize that it's happening. To put it simply, Samus has searched those areas quite enough by then. Looking for items is what the game is all about, it's just that most of 'em end up being used for something during gameplay and therefore feel rewarding, while the Artifact quest is merely an out-of-place shenanigan meant to artifically extend playtime. It's not a flaw, but should be reported anyway. Plus, no matter how much the game wants you to believe, there is no overworld in Tallon IV and it takes a good while to get the hang of how/when to use all the elevators. In the end, playing Metroid Prime means that you'll be running back and forth from start to finish. If what you expect is to blast enemies and proceed to the next monster-ridden area, you shouldn't even consider picking this up. Metroid games are big exploration puzzles at heart; despite the perspective commonplace, this one is no exception.

Not to imply that there's no action in Metroid Prime, of course. You'll find plenty of fun toys to play with, and they do make the action part more entertaining. Combat itself works basically like recent Zelda games, in that you're given a convenient lock-on reticle to avoid losing enemies' position and aim without trouble. You may press the jump button plus either left or right to rapidly strafe around a locked object, and a couple of weapons even have homing capabilities. It is true that the system isn't as deep as in elaborated shooters, but Metroid Prime prioritizes exploration and consequently revolves around that. Dispatching enemies as fast as possible makes perfect sense considering the sheer amount of observation that must be done in Tallon IV.

Another reason for the combat system's contradictory nature is that Samus' arsenal has been revised into a sort of "elemental" scheme: the toughest Prime enemies normally favor one of the four Beams and nothing else, reducing potential strategy and limiting combat variety to the type/form of enemy you're facing. It shouldn't be a bad thing and the dynamic boss fights are sure to cover that; the problem for some is that few enemies provide decent style variety. Most you'll find is one creature or two with an unorthodox weak spot that requires strafing at the best moment for a clear target, or invisible enemies becoming visible with the right Visor. A few background elements can be used in your favor (blasting Sap Sac to kill plants, scanning turret control panels or luring Troopers into radioactive Phazon), but that's about as far as it goes. If you can buy it, you're in for many exciting situations. You're not allowed to mix-and-match Beams as in Super Metroid, but Retro didn't let old-schoolers down and included eight Charge + Beam/Missile combos for extra depth. The Ice Beam freezes enemies and yes, you may orgasmically destroy them with a single Missile once they're frozen. The Plasma Beam is still an exaggeratedly powerful neither-solid-nor-liquid weapon, and the Wave Beam no longer goes through walls, instead serving as some kind of long-distance stungun and an electric enabler/disabler for puzzles. Visually, they're all imposing and appropriate. A notable tidbit: for each Beam you equip, Samus' cannon will feature a singular energized pattern that affects its many segments and brings an idea of the cruel damage you're about to inflict. All in all, Samus' Beams carry the same punch as ever, even if they lack the pseudo-level-up approach from 2D Metroid Beams.

With projectile jumbo out of the way, it's time to analyze the rest of Samus' gadgets -- and 'rest' is a horrible word choice given how much they add to the game as a whole.

Since Metroid Prime contains numerous sections that center their challenge around players' [in]ability to cross distances, Retro also planned part of the gameplay around mobility. The Grapple Beam is back, the Gravity Suit is back and there's a fancy double-jump upgrade motivated by how Samus obviously cannot spin-jump her way up a narrow shaft in first person view.

(I so wish I could talk about how freakin' awesome the Screw Attack was made in Prime 2. But I won't. Don't worry.)

Two additional Visors are introduced in Metroid Prime, albeit more closely befriended with action than the Scan Visor. The Thermal Visor works like an infrared scope, detecting otherwise invisible enemies and objects with hot properties. It's fun to notice that Retro didn't just toss in magically visible weak spots and the such: everything you look at falls into thermal context, with Magmoor Caverns being the best example of how screwy things can look if you only stare at hot background elements. Use the Ice Beam with the Thermal Visor equipped and you'll see a hilarious black goo moving forward. It's not strictly necessary to beat the game, but it sure helps and entertains a lot. The X-Ray Visor is similar as far as basic functionality goes (you see what you normally can't), but the main effect is different. Along with making enemies and hidden platforms visible, the X-Ray Visor allows Samus to see through certain walls. It's a bit forced in comparison with Thermal, but the effect is beautiful. You can actually see Samus' skeleton if you're wearing the X-Ray Visor and her arm happens to cross your view. In fact, the amount of Visor effects in Metroid Prime is absurd: enemy goo will splat and obstruct Samus' vision if they die too close, her face will flash for a split-second near explosions, electricity will cause static interference and so on.

Then there's the spectacularly implemented Morph Ball. First of all, it's a treat for third person purists: the camera will pull back and you'll see Samus fitting her many feminine molecules into a tiny sphere. The Morph Ball is controlled just like in olden Marble Madness days, with full freedom to go wherever you want on a plain surface. Second, Morph Ball's main use in 2D Metroids has been amplified: Samus will frequently come across 2.5D layouts created exclusively for Morph Ball puzzles. It's almost as if a completely new level materialized right in front of her. Third, it's an efficient form of transportation: with the Boost Ball add-on, miss Aran will travel so fast that enemies won't have time to even confront her, and there's a bunch of halfpipes properly scattered around Tallon for your everyday boosty needs. While somewhat gimmicky and at times too slow, Spider Ball tracks are used creatively a good deal throughout the game. Bomb-jumping is back - though painfully crippled - and Power Bombs ditto. Responsive and practical, the Morph Ball is a great way to escape the FP cliche and perfectly translates Metroid Prime's fantastic physics.

Samus' moves are incorporated into Metroid Prime in a way that stimulates exploration, and you may use them for multiple purposes (the Charge Beam conveniently "vacuums" power-ups left by enemies, Thermal and X-Ray Visors may spot hard-to-find upgrades, etc.). They're part of that interactive world and will certainly make you feel more powerful every time you hear Metroid's classic fanfare.

Furthermore, they're crowned with pixel-perfect, intuitive controls that, like most games originally released for the GameCube, were designed specifically for Nintendo's controller. There's a trigger to lock the target/strafe and another to aim freely, as well as an easy map button and an option to reverse the Y-axis for the anti-airplane-nose players. If you must make an urgent decision, the fittingly simple control scheme will assure that the response is delivered as quickly as needed (Visors and Beams assigned to D-Pad and C-Stick is absolutely genius).

Every single particularity in Metroid Prime will encourage future playthroughs, because it's that polished. Retro even offers a number of side features for those who prefer starting a new run with some extra spice: Hard mode, optional items (I didn't find more than 70 on my first run, and there's a special ending if you collect all 100), the story, image galleries and two GBA-link Easter Eggs with Metroid Fusion (Samus' scuba-wannabe suit and... the very first Metroid game!). The Metroid series is very famous for allowing what's commonly defined as 'sequence-breaking', where the game's standard order of events is manipulated to experiment unintended scenarios and make the journey less repetitive. These methods involve messing with programming errors and naturally won't attract every soul on the planet. From personal experience, I can say that performing strange moves to finish the game faster feels great (the fact that I felt kinda cheated with the Artifact quest might have something to do with it), and it's yet another valid way to find replayability.

To be honest, writing this review was a surprisingly difficult achievement. Metroid Prime's features are so very intricately connected that it's almost impossible to divide them into specific categories like 'gameplay' and 'visuals' without mentioning everything all over again in the next paragraph. It's one of the greatest efforts in videogame history, one that might appeal to old and new players pretty much equally. The transition is impeccable, and the additions are more than welcome.

(By the way, the Screw Attack in Prime 2 rocks.)

Plus
- One of the finest 2D-3D transitions in history;
- Technical elements and gameplay blend together flawlessly;
- Elegant, stylish design;
- Wonder why I didn't mention load times in the review?
- Sequence-breaking as a healthy tool;
- Equally appealing to old and new players.

Minus
- 1.200 lbs. of raw backtracking softened by the ability to, well, cheat;
- Artificial item hunt after the game was supposed to be over;
- Level design might be confusing due to lack of an actual overworld.

Similar Titles
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ][ Metroid's gothic relative.
- Banjo-Tooie ][ Exploration, jumpin' action, evil witch.

(Note: the first game in the Banjo series is just as good, but the sequel is closer to Metroid in that your progress is always limited to acquired abilities, level design is wonderfully complex and there's a lot of backtracking for new items. Banjo-Kazooie is much more conventional and you can play it almost like a 2D Mario game, one level at a time.)

Ten out of ten.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 07/05/07


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