Review by emister

"Sippin a glass of Phazon in Phendrana"

A Long Time Comin'

It's a matter of mostly technological logic that games started out in 2D. When the first platformers were designed, budding creators did not imagine placing their characters in 3D worlds like we know today. They knew what the hardware of the day could do, and that dictated their visions. Now, in 2004, with over 20 years of console history behind us, the classic games of the 80s have long since made the transition into glorious 360 degree 3D goodness. For those of us who grew up with series' like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid in their original 8-bit forms, the last 10 years have been like watching an infant transform into a fully functioning adult. Some crazy changes, people. In the case of Mario and Zelda, heavy bonds were formed with the fans early on, with multiple games in each series released on the NES alone. Nintendo followed up strong, by bringing the Italian plumber and the Hyrulian hero successfully to the 16-bit era as well. The real change (and challenge) came with the Nintendo 64 though. This was a console obviously designed to make 3D environments a reality (arguably to a fault, as that's about all it did really well). And BOOM, we had Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Players were free to go where they pleased, when they pleased. No longer was a camera fixed in a side-view (Mario) or in a bird's-eye view (Zelda), but roamed free to show the player that yes, all the degrees were there, all 360 of them. Many fans of these time-honored series' will call the 64 games their favorites without hesitation. This was all well and good, but where the hell was METROID?!

The Waiting

By the dying days of the Nintendo 64, Metroid fans had learned to deal with disappointment. They had taken to writing whiny, depressed poetry about the landscape of the planet Zebes, and mostly avoided direct exposure to sunlight. These were the dark days. Series creator Gunpei Yokoi*, (architect of the Gameboy and the infamous if not innovative Virtual Boy) had fathered quite a brainchild in 1986's original Metroid. This NES classic has aged considerably over the years, but at the time, its brilliantly chilling music, the devastating solitude conveyed by its ever-present black background, and a massive, bizarre alien environment hooked gamers far and wide. We were in control of Samus Aran, a platform-jumping, spacesuit wearing badass with a laser cannon embedded in one arm. The story was classic ''plot-lite'': stop the evil Space Pirates in their plan for Galactic domination by destroying their scary, new bio weapon, the Metroid, and defeating their leader, the Mother Brain on the Pirates' base planet Zebes. Sound weird? It was freaking weird man, especially if you were an impressionable 9 year-old like me. If you haven't had the pleasure of NES Metroid, turn off the lights and crank the volume for an overdose of 8-bit insanity.
With appetites appropriately whetted, salivating fans waited as patiently as they could. They beat their chests with wild abandon when the SNES made its debut, but fate is a fickle lover, and Samus was a no-show. FINALLY, in 1994, 3 years after Nintendo went 16-bit, it came: Super Metroid. The prayers of a million dorks had been answered. Super Metroid was a souped-up side scroller, bigger than the original, looked great, and played just like an improved version of the 1986 hit should. Time passed. Mario 64, 2 (TWO) Zelda 64 games, and 6 years later it was 2000, with still no sign of 3D Samus. By the time Nintendo announced that it would stop production of 64 titles, the Mario and Zelda series' had a combined total of no less than 10 games on the company's 3 main consoles. Metroid had 2. Feelings of doubt and confused betrayal set in, as it became unclear if Nintendo had any intention of ever ''going back to Zebes'' againc.

Tragically, Gunpei Yokoi passed away in 1997 in a traffic accident, but in 2001, word got out that his bizarre, alien legacy would live on, resurrected for the Game Cube. Fans the world over experienced a frightening mix of emotions when they learned their blessed platform-princess (yes you dweebs, Samus is a girl) would become a First Person Shooter, but these weren't just any fans. These twisted people had been bitten hard by Metroid in the mid 80s and had passed SIXTEEN long years with only one full color release in the interim. The wait had hardened them, and they hung on tightly, not knowing what else to do.

A New Direction

Metroid Prime has been out for over a year now. It is an amazing example of quality innovation and originality, continuing many elements that made the series so loved, but doing so in a bold, uncompromising new direction. Anyone who is a fan of games, sci-fi, or life in general should own at least one copy. That said, let's get busy:
The success of Metroid Prime lies in the fact that it shakes the series up and makes it something new. Super Metroid was a bigger, better version of NES Metroid, and making another side-scroller for the Game Cube would have been beating a dead horse (besides Nintendo seems to be using the GBA for this purpose as it releases its second Super Metroid look alike: Metroid: Zero Mission). Instead, in a sort of uncharacteristic move, the usually cautious Nintendo went out on a limb. They contracted out the first Metroid title in 8 years to a team of young, but experienced Americans (Texans at that!). Hold on, they did what? Retro Studios, is an Austin-based company working only for Nintendo, and under the Japanese company's guidance, they went to work on their first major project, Metroid Prime. The end result looks like a beautiful First Person Shooter on the surface, but also contains many of the action elements that made the previous Metroid games so great. After an 8 year hiatus, the Metroid series has emerged from its chrysalis like a butterfly, transformed and new! (can't resist those tasty similies)

A Planet in Turmoil

The basic story of Metroid Prime, is quite light in the way of the previous games plots. Samus receives a distress signal from a space frigate in orbit around the planet, Tallon IV. The game opens as she lands on the frigate, and must make her way inside to determine what has gone wrong. This portion of the game doubles neatly as a tutorial, with messages explaining controls and techniques being explained as needed. Samus eventually meets an old enemy on the ship, and is forced to flee as the damaged vessel comes apart. Questions are raised in these opening scenes, and Samus turns to Tallon IV for some answers. Once landing on the planet, the game begins in earnest, and opens up to more of a free, exploratory feel. It is also upon landing on Tallon's rainy turf, that the classic theme that begins the original Metroid plays (albeit in an appropriately mellow remix). We have arrived.

From this point on, determining the depth and detail of the story in Metroid Prime, is left largely in the player's hands. This may sound strange, but is accomplished by way of Samus' indispensable visor. I had mentioned that the perspective in the game is first person, and indeed it is. We see things through Samus' eyes, and Samus is always wearing her trademark ''power suit''. Thus, we are actually viewing the world from inside her helmet, and through its transparent visor. The visor acts as Metroid Prime's Heads Up Display, and provides all sorts of information. The info also appears partially transparent so as not to obscure the player's view. The whole effect looks decidedly cool. When the visor is put in scan ''mode,'' a small colored box will appear on any object or creature that can be examined. With the press of a button, Samus' visor analyzes the target and displays information about it on screen. In this way, Samus can learn about the weak points of enemies, or nab important clues on how to progress in the game, something not possible in 2D Metroid. A certain amount of scanning IS necessary in the game: opening some locked doors, activating switches, and solving some puzzles requires a quick peep in scan mode, keeping it light for players who just want to cruise. But for those who are interested, Retro has constructed an elaborate tale that can be pieced together, detective style by scanning objects with the visor.

This brings me to discuss the crazy attention to detail pumped into this game by Retro. For players on the move, the game can be played without much investigation, and will still look great no doubt. Those taking their time to explore the 3D environs though will find all kinds of cosmetic touches that set Metroid Prime apart. The area surrounding Samus' landing site on Tallon IV is obviously untouched wilderness. Bare rocks and roots protrude from the grassy earth, and rain pelts the ground from the cloudy skies above. Once the character delves into Tallon's caves though, the raw nature subtly gives way to clear signs of some kind of ancient civilization. The deeper the player progresses the more rocks take on detailed, carved shapes, until we eventually emerge in the game's first main area, the Chozo Ruins. Fans of Metroid will remember the Chozo from previous games. An ancient bird-like race that attained an incredibly high level of technology and civilization, the Chozo have long since left Tallon for unclear and ominous reasons. With the scan visor their legacy can be slowly unraveled, revealing their motivations for escaping the planet, their connection to Samus, and an ancient evil living deep below the planet's surface. Exploring the Chozo ruins for the first time will likely be the event that hooks most players into Metroid Prime's charm. The surroundings just gush with originality: dusty, crumbling stone architecture, plants and trees slowly overtaking every surface. Steam jets blast from some walls and cloud the glass of the visor temporarily. Some great beings obviously lived here once, but they have just as clearly been gone a LONG time. As the player continues to grow familiar with the controls, the Chozo Ruins make a beautiful training ground.

Powering Up

In this, the first stage of the game, Samus will collect many of her time honored basic power ups. Metroid was basically responsible for creating the ''item hunt'' genre where an initially limited map is expanded by the player finding some well hidden power up that allows progress. Retro managed to transfer this scavenger hunt style progression to its first person vision of Metroid flawlessly, an aspect of the 2D games that if poorly executed would not have jived in 3D. Electronic doors that separate areas are color-coded (as in the past) and many can't be opened until the game's later stages, requiring a certain weapon. Weapons like the missles, ice beam and wave beam are here, as well as supplemental items like the protective Varia suit, and the maru-maru morph ball. Energy tanks, ever the means for keeping our girl alive, will expand Samus' life, like Zelda's heart containers. That all of these items made it into Metroid Prime isn't a shock. What tickles MY fancy though is that Retro made finding all this stuff just as fun and hard as in previous games. When the X button is pressed for example, Samus flips into ''morph ball'' mode and becomes basically a big metal marble, able to roll around and access much smaller spaces. The camera smoothly pulls out of the helmet to give an overhead view of ''ball Samus'' and her surroundings. The morph ball must be used creatively in order to locate many of the more well hidden items (as in previous games), but in Prime's 3D world, the player must roll around half pipes, or navigate claustrophobic tubes to reach their goal, rather than moving just left and right along a 2D corridor. There are of course many new additions to Samus' arsenal to be discovered as well. My favorite example of this and another way that 3D changes things in Metroid is the Spider Ball. This power up for the morph ball, will allow it to roll along special tracks on walls or ceilings like a magnet, and can make for some gosh-darned intriguing puzzles, that are also just swell. In addition to the scan visor, Samus will also find a thermal visor, useful for seeing enemies in the dark as well as an x-ray visor to locate otherwise invisible objects and track lightning quick enemies.
One element of gameplay I didn't expect to play such an important role in Metroid Prime was jumping. If Samus could do anything right in her early adventures, it was jump a lot. She would even do like 10 somersaults per jump automatically just to show off. Well in Prime, Samus is still a jumpin' fool, but she has cut out the somersaults (which in a first person game would just make you throw up in a hurry). Retro has obviously worked hard to include platform jumping elements in this FPS which is not something often done well. Hell, one of the controller's 2 main buttons is assigned to jumping (B) which is saying a lot. Many of Prime's larger areas are grand vertical spaces, requiring the player to navigate a complex arrangement of ledges and platforms, all the while looking up, down, and all around to find the next destination. So much jumping in an FPS can take some getting used to, but after some initial missed leaps into poisoned water or lava, you'll be hoppin' like a little rabbit (that wears power armor and has an arm cannon).

Because movement is at once so important in Metroid Prime, and is also freer than in most games of its kind, the other nugget of gameplay that will initially cause some frustration is combat. One of the shoulder buttons is responsible for enabling strafing (L), while the other (R) lets the player move Samus' head around (free look). Both strafing and free look are controlled by the analog stick, as is normal directional movement. Using all 3 of these functions smoothly, so as to not end up looking at the ceiling while a metroid sucks on your head, will take a little time. Add a lot of jumping into this equation, and things can get out of hand. Mercifully, enemies early in the game don't move very fast, and make easy targets. Later though, Samus' foes will keep pace with her, running, jumping, flying, and shooting all manner of nasty projectiles. If you haven't learned the control scheme well enough by that point, Samus will begin to take a heavy beating. It just takes a little practice, and before you know it, you'll be zapping zoomers and geemers to your heart's content. Once mastered, Samus controls like a Ferrari (that jumps), and sailing through the environments at high speeds is very satisfying.

Not a Cake Walk

Any action game's crescendos should be it's boss battles, and Prime comes through here too. There are more bosses and mini-bosses in Metroid Prime than in any of the prior games, and they are pretty darn tough. Again, the learning curve rises sharply in the boss battles of the game's second half. Earlier bosses are more forgiving, but will still have players struggling to stay alive while managing the controls. The last few bosses in the game however, are some cold, unforgiving bastards if you ask me. In the recent Wind Waker, I never had to fight a boss more than once, and fashioned myself some invincible boss-battle super stud. Prime quickly put me in my place. I've heard some people claim this game is easy, and that the bosses were ''wussy.'' I found my self looking at the ''GAME OVER'' screen a number of times before finishing this bad boy, and if you can take down the Omega Pirate or Meta Ridley on your first try, friend, you are more man (or female bounty hunter) than emister will ever be. Bosses in Prime are big, fast, and often block all but a certain attack. Almost always, once a strategy can be figured out, they go down without much trouble, but until then it's often a case of ''Zap! Stab! BOOM! Sizzle! Arrrrrgh!''.

Aural Goodies

Music in Metroid Prime is varied and appropriate to each location. A soundtrack of creepy, strangely patterned ambient noises permeate the abandoned Chozo Ruins while the frozen white expanses of the Phendrana Drifts are accompanied by a serene, crystalline melody that emphasizes the quiet of the place. The fevered panic of boss battles is definitely increased by fast-paced tunes that convey desperation. Well into the game, when Samus first encounters the translucent Chozo ghosts, the lights of the room go out, the doors lock and the calm music becomes a shrill theme of fear. The chilling effect of this assault on the senses had me going out of my way to avoid these guys whenever possible. Sound effects are plentiful, and anytime Samus' metal boots contact a new surface, be it snow, sand, or other metal, the results are satisfyingly real. The only noise that might have been changed is the rather intense, grating hiss (accompanied by pained grunts from Samus) you get anytime you wind up in one of the many pools of lava, acid water, or radioactive sludge found in the game. It makes sense though, I mean hanging out in lava isn't really good for your health, so in a way, the game is giving a message: ''if you don't want to hear this again, get out of the lava and make that jump!''

A Stout Adventure

In terms of length, Prime shouldn't disappoint: a careful player in their first run through the game can expect to log between 25 and 35 hours getting all the way through. Item collection plays a big part in time consumption as it did in previous Metroid games. Certain weapons and suit upgrades are a must in order to progress, but expect some hair pulling if you aim to find all the optional missle expansions or energy tanks for example, tucked away in the game's most secret nooks and crannies. This leads me to another feature the game offers that is related to length. Metroid Prime's options menu (accessible at any point during play) is loaded with features to customize the game. Everything from control configs to screen width and brightness is there. Also tucked inside the menu is the important hint system. This is set to ''on'' when the game begins, and must be turned off if the player so desires. When on, the hint system gives Samus frequent messages about where to go to achieve her next objective. A message will appear on screen with instructions to press the Z button. When pressed, the game's useful 3D mapping system will automatically appear with Samus' next destination highlighted. Beginning players, or those coming back after a long break from the game may want to use this tool for extra guidance or to help recall an obscure objective. Those wishing to unlock the game's challenges without any help should turn it off, and doing so will no doubt make for a longer, if at times more puzzling game. The first and larger portion of the game will have Samus outfitting her suit with increasingly cooler tools, defeating bosses as she goes, all the while learning more about the dire situation on Tallon IV and collecting the 12 mysterious Chozo Artifacts. Once these are assembled, the game enters its second and final phase, progressing deep below Tallon IV's surface to discover and hopefully eliminate the source of the planet's blight. In her quest, the heroine will pass through the Chozo Ruins, caverns of fire, fields of ice, and deep caves. These ''levels'' are expansive and beautiful, though none equal the minute detail present in the Ruins.

Buy this One

Even as I write this, having not played the game in some time, I long to do it all over again. Metroid Prime is a blast to play all the way through, and in that aspect alone it has more replay value than many action titles. It also has a few unlockables that could be gathered on a second run through once a player is familiar with the game. Scanning certain key objects and all of the enemies will cause them to be recorded in Samus' log book, and as this is filled, some image galleries and other treats are unlocked and made available on the main menu. Also in traditional Metroid fashion, certain elements of play will determine what ending the player will see when the game is cleared. Like Super Metroid, this element is item collection with each item in the game representing a percentage point (thus 100 items total). In order to see the best ending, you have to collect em all! A final reason to play Prime more than once is the hard mode that opens up after the game is beaten once. Enemies are tougher, and in some cases the AI is smarter. Bosses that were tough the first time, become nightmares in hard mode. Not relating directly to replay, but broadening its use, if the player owns a Gameboy Advance and a copy Metroid: Fusion, connecting the GBA to the Game Cube will open a playable version of NES Metroid once Fusion has been beaten. Like any classic movie, Prime is the type of game that you will pull off the shelf from time to time, quality being the only reason needed to head back to Tallon IV for one more go.

Retro should be proud of Metroid Prime. It looks wonderful, and it plays like a breeze when the controls are mastered. Most importantly though, Retro brought Metroid into the 3D realm in a way that expanded the possibilities of this crazy Sci-Fi world, while continuing to celebrate all the traits that made it so great to begin with. And that my friends, is artistry.

*This is a great little comic all about the late Gunpei Yokoi: http://web.syr.edu/%7Erenricos/pages/yokoipage1.htm


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/25/04, Updated 02/27/04


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