Review by MSuskie

"The best game of the generation."

Metroid Prime has precisely one flaw, and it takes place repeatedly within one of the game's recurring cutscenes. Whenever the player decides to move to another area of the world via elevator, they are asked to step into a hologram, at which point the loading cycle for the next world starts up and we're asked to watch a brief scene showing Samus riding the elevator up or down. The camera briefly zooms in and we get a closer look at her face. At this point, we see that some of the textures on the chest portion of her suit are not exactly high quality… In fact, they suck. The textures look pixelated and unpleasant. It's very distracting, especially since we have to look at that pug-ugly texturing every time we move to a different portion of the planet. Whew… Nice to have the negative stuff out of the way.

I hate intro paragraphs.

With games like Metroid Prime, I honestly don't know where to start. This game has such an amazingly intricate story behind its development cycle. Should I jump right into the big, heavy details about this game? Or should I give you a typical, brief, boring history lesson on Metroid and Samus Aran and so forth? In a normal review, I could go into this whole thing about how the Metroid series had a big outburst in the late 80's and early 90's then lived a quiet, sheltered life for eight years until it was finally given a 3D adaptation on the GCN under the title of… well, c'mon. I could also describe developer Retro Studios, a mostly rookie studio that took on the enormous and ambitious task of creating a three-dimensional Metroid environment. But you know what? I'm going to skip all of that. Or something. Maybe not.

I'm terribly sorry. That was an awfully awkward opening to an otherwise (hopefully) in-depth review for what I consider to be the best game of the generation so far. Metroid Prime, the aforementioned first 3D adaptation of the popular Nintendo sci-fi franchise, is a game that, as with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, changes the pace with a new look and a new way of playing while at the same time sticking to its basic roots. If you've played Super Metroid – and if you haven't, you're a sick, sick person – then you may have a general idea of how exactly this wildly ambitious project worked out in the end. I'm a big fan of the Metroid license and was obviously both excited and nervous about whether or not… Ah, screw it. The point is that Prime fully lived up to any possible expectations that could have been given to it and lives on three years later as not only the best current game but one of the greatest games of all time.

While this is technically the fifth game in the series, it's really the second in the Metroid storyline. Remember? This is right after Samus took off her helmet and let the whole world know that she's actually a woman. In Prime, you're once again Samus and you've been sent to locate a distress signal, leading you to planet Tallon IV, where the Space Pirates have desecrated the ruins of an ancient Chozo civilization to find a powerful creature and blah, blah, blah… What's the point? You've heard this all before, and Metroid has clearly never put a big focus on story elements (save for Fusion, which actually had a really good plot). Most of the impressive moments in the plot come not from the plot itself, but from the little bits and pieces of it that you'll pick up on the way that make this world seem bigger and give it a history. Samus still doesn't talk, which doesn't necessarily detract from the cinematic presentation because it helps strengthen the feeling that you are truly alone and isolated on this planet. It's actually a great effect.

(The European version of this game sports a narration at the beginning. It kicks ass.)

In fact, Prime does a particularly amazing job of making you feel like you actually are Samus Aran, on a desolate alien world, without requiring some sort of goofy helmet or arm-cannon peripheral. You never really talk to anyone because, well, who were you planning on talking to? Samus has long been a one-woman army, and I for one am actually pretty glad that Nintendo has never tried any ridiculous attempts at beefing up the series by placing our favorite intergalactic bounty hunter in a platoon on a chaotic battlefield. Although there are occasional moments when Prime erupts into an action-packed firefight against a group of Space Pirates, the majority of the game is played slowly and carefully by the player. There are plenty of enemies spread throughout the planet, but this is not an action-oriented game. But when was Metroid ever a truly action-oriented franchise? Metroid has always been about exploration and discovery, and in this rendition takes a somewhat slow and low-key pace. And you know what? I like it that way.

For one thing, Prime's slower pacing gave me enough time to stop at appreciate how beautiful the game really is. Prime's environments are crafted with such an amazing and delicate sense of realism and perspective that I often times simply halted my progress in the game so I could take the time to examine every piece of architecture. The idea of an alien world isn't new, but Tallon IV has this quality that gives it the exact look the developers were going for – that this is a place that hasn't been touched for ages and is beginning to wear down. Tallon IV is a Chozo world, so rather than simply creating generic sets with boringly placed trees, rocks, etc., the artists at Retro instead chose to fill the world with Chozo architecture. Stone walls look weathered and dusty from decades of abandonment, while each building, cave, bridge, pillar, platform and structure was individually crafted for every scenario. Rather than having an abandoned alien environment filled with rooms that all look identical and in perfect condition (i.e. Halo), Prime's environments look appropriately rigid and worn. The Forerunners could learn a lesson here.

What's more is that each area of the world is given its own unique look and feel. Tallon Overworld is the grassy starting point of the adventure, and it's covered with all sorts of exotic plants and trees that come to life, while a rain cloud constantly hovers above the area and releases a gentle drizzle upon you. Chozo Ruins is a set of buildings once inhabited by the Chozos that is now dusty and crumbling, with overgrowth seeping through the cracks. Phendrana Drifts, my favorite section, feels just as cold and rigid as it probably is, and as snow floats down onto this environment, it covers everything – from the rock formations to the old Chozo structures – with a thin layer of ice. Everything that fills these places is so convincing and seemingly real – well, as real as an alien planet can get – that it immerses you into the design. Where Retro could have placed a generic bridge, they instead created a formation of roots that join together and can be used as a bridge. Fire shoots through cracks in the wall of a volcanic cave, fish group together in an underwater level, and the lights of various pieces of machinery blink and shine in an underground mine world. It's a sight to behold.

I suppose it helps that the game takes place almost entirely through Samus's own eyes. But to call Prime a first-person shooter would be to completely disregard the ways that this game does its best to separate itself from the standard FPS market. I'm not disrespecting Halo, but I feel that Prime just has so much more to offer. Most FPS's are structured based on missions. You complete one level, you move on to the next. Prime takes place in one huge world (separated into aforementioned sub-worlds) that you are free to explore assuming you've got the tools and abilities to do so. And while Prime does have you shooting things (in first-person, that is), it's far from a FPS simply because it doesn't put a huge emphasis on shoot. Just because an enemy is able to kill you doesn't mean it wants to – Tallon IV is covered with wildlife, and some (such as the familiar Zoomers) simply wander around on their own path and will only hurt you if they meet contact. Now, to be fair, quite a few of the enemies out there do want to kill you, but it's not always that way.

In fact, it would be very accurate to say that, despite having 3D environments and taking place in first-person, Prime plays very much like any other Metroid game out there. Environments themselves are separated by doors, meaning that the worlds of Tallon IV are actually just a series of rooms. You'll never actually be in any big, wide, open environments – just really big rooms. All of the rooms themselves are different in scope – you've got big hallways and hub areas, narrow tunnels, dark caves, temples, mine shafts, labs, etc. It really is essentially one large world that happens to be split into parts by doors and elevators. You're free to explore the game at any time, but you've got to have the tools and abilities. As with any Metroid, you'll gradually be given new suits, weapons, and powers that can be used to upgrade your combat ability and allow you to explore. Most of the abilities gained are ones found in other Metroid adventures, though there are a few new surprises along the way.

Another way in which Prime puts a space in between it and the standard FPS market is its control scheme. All movement in Prime is done with one analog stick, which will without doubt feel strange to a lot of people. Rather than having a dual-analog setup, with one stick to move and the other to aim, Prime gives you the option to either stop in place and aim manually or lock on to a target and strafe around them, similar to the Zelda games. You would think that this limits combat to some extent, but the lock-on feature doesn't really detract from the experience at all since the action will never become overly intense. Retro smartly designed the combat to reflect the controls, so while a lock-on feature would seem like a disaster zone for a first-person game, you can think of it as being like Zelda combat with no physical combat but much more shooting.

Retro also had some ideas that opened up for some variety in exactly how you kill your foes. In previous Metroid games, whenever you scored a new beam power-up, it would replace your old one. In Prime, when you find a new beam, it's simply added to your roster and you can select it at any time. You'll start out with just the standard power beam and be stuck with that for a while, but as you venture on you'll find such familiar weapons as the wave beam and plasma beam. Each weapon has its own unique uses. For example, the wave beam is electrically charged and can briefly disable machinery and electronic defense systems, while the ice beam can… Well, I'll let you figure that one out for yourself. What's more is that these beams, like with previous entries in the series, don't run on ammo, so you can use them all you want. Missiles are another combat option, and while they pack more of a punch than the beams, they do run on ammo and must be conserved as such.

That whole “first-person thing” really got to me the first time I started jumping around. Platforming has always been a major part of the 2D side-scrolling Metroids of yesteryear – levels were overloaded with platforms, pits, ledges, falls, and so on that really had players leaping to and from at just about every conceivable moment. Prime is designed precisely the same way. Jumping in first-person would seem like a curse for the game, as in just about every first-person shooter I've ever played (even the awesome Half-Life), jumping feels awkward and as such any platforming situations were a chore to complete. And it's true that Prime's jump ability is tough to manage at first. But, like everything else in Prime, it just takes some time to get used to, and then it becomes second nature. You just always have to keep in mind that you're jumping farther than you initially think, and that when you start off you'll often underestimate your own jumping ability. There's a lot of platforming in Prime, but you'll get used to it in no time.

Changing the subject a bit, one benefit of having the game running almost entirely in first-person is the inclusion of different visors, which give Samus various visual “modes” and all have their uses at some point. This leads to one of the most controversial aspects of Prime's gameplay, and that is the scanning. One tool you'll have in your arsenal from the get-go is the Scan Visor, a visor that allows you to scan certain objects in your environment. When you switch to the Scan Visor, you'll see little scan icons spread throughout the area, marking things that can be scanned. When you scan an object, you'll be given information about it. Just about every computer, switch, enemy, item, or peculiar object can be scanned, either for a brief one-sentence sum-up or a long and detailed description.

Most of the scanning in the game is completely optional, and is used only for some extra insight on the player's part. Most of the game's story is updated through Chozo scriptures and Space Pirate journal entries, meaning that if you don't take the time to scan computers and stone tablets and read through the pages and pages of (eye-strainingly tiny) text, it would almost seem as if Prime has no story whatsoever. I was sometimes too excited and too yearning for action to read every journal entry I came across, but thankfully, it's all saved into a very convenient personal info database that can be viewed at any time in the pause menu. There were moments in the game in which I stopped and simply read over all of my entries. Aside from story information, scanning is used for gameplay assistance as well. Scanning can give you insight on an enemy's weakness, point out destructible walls and secret passages, display names of mystery items, and just flat-out give tips. It's a really intuitive and interesting gameplay feature and one that most people (not all) will love having.

Though essentially being a game played in first-person, Prime does offer the familiar ability to transform Samus into a little ball and roll around environments in third-person. Though this isn't a new ability, I thought it was particularly amazing to see how Retro used this feature to the game's advantage, usually to take a break from action and introduce some more puzzle-like elements into the design. In other Metroid games, I usually felt that the Morph Ball move (as it's called) was simply a way to move through secret passages (that were too small to get through normally) or to open hidden paths via bombs. In Prime, not only is the Morph Ball integrated seamlessly into the design, but it's given a feel that makes these segments unique. Often times, the Morph Ball is used to traverse little side-scrolling areas that require both careful navigation and skillful bomb-jumping – something Metroid fans should be familiar with. Prime's puzzle-related segments usually involve the Morph Ball in some form. In one area, you've got to carefully move through an electric maze and drop bombs in puddles of water to short-circuit some of the power lines. It's an often-brilliant feature that gives the game some additional depth.

But I think the main focus of Prime's world is exploration. As I said before, the whole idea behind Prime's enormous world is that you can go anywhere at any time given you have the right accessories. Although there's a lot of backtracking, this never bothered me simply because every time you visit a place you've already been to, you've usually got some weapon or ability you didn't have before. There are dozens of secrets to be found throughout the game, whether they be secret weapons (including the ever-so-cool Wavebuster) or upgrades for the capacity of your energy, missiles, or power bombs. There were so many points throughout the game in which I traveled through an area I'd been through a thousand times and discovered some destructible wall or hidden compartment that I never noticed before, and led me to a secret power-up. Every upgrade in the game is accompanied by a low, quiet humming noise – you have to listen very carefully to hear it. Often times, I was walking through a level and heard that noise, and suddenly I knew that I was close to a power-up and usually wound up spending several minutes trying to find the source of the sound. Prime is one of those game that shouldn't be played with a strategy guide, simply because it's so rewarding to find secrets on your own.

And while Prime may not be technologically the best-looking game on GameCube, it's certainly close. Art direction aside, the game visually makes the most of the GameCube hardware, with amazing lighting, animation, particles, etc. There were a few moments in which the graphics didn't seem quite up to the level of, say, Star Fox Adventures (the completely inanimate water comes to mind), but the weather effects and character models are all some of the best I've ever seen. On another positive note, Prime has perhaps the best sound design on GameCube. Each world is bursting alive with the noises of various creatures – seen and unseen – that filled the gaps and give an incredible sense of atmosphere. Prime also sports one of the very best soundtracks I've ever heard, with each melody feeling catchy and also fitting perfectly with the situation it's set to. The fiery Magmoor Caverns is equipped with a deep, menacing choir chant, while Phendrana Drifts is set to mood with a beautiful and soothing piano theme. The menu song is also one of my favorite videogame tracks of all time.

And finally, Prime is, despite being strictly a single-player game, full of longevity and replay value. The quest itself will probably add up to about fifteen hours by the end on the counter, but that doesn't count the time you spend studying your map or reading over the game's many scans, nor does it count any lost time between when you die and the last time you saved. What's more, if you wish to complete the game in full by scoring every item and power-up, expect a long run. It took me months of hard work and exploration before I was able to even come close to getting a 100%. Even then, the game has a hard mode for those who wanted to tackle the adventure again. As a bonus, anyone who links up their game with a copy of Metroid Fusion will be rewarded with a couple of great extras, including a fully playable version of the original Mertoid right on your GameCube! The game even saves your password, so it's a pretty whoopass feature.

Pros

+ The first 3D Metroid game is a stunning achievement.
+ Gorgeous to look at with some of the most amazing art direction in any game.
+ Structured like the older Metroids but with all the joys of 3D play.
+ The new targeting system gives the game a fresh feeling.
+ Scanning is mostly optional and adds depth.
+ A huge world completely open to exploration.
+ Morph Ball segments mix up the design.
+ A lengthy quest with tons of secrets – you'll get your money's worth.
+ Amazing graphics and stunning sound design.
+ Cool bonuses if you link it up with Fusion.

Cons

- A couple of very minor graphical issues.
- The story isn't quite as deep as the rest of the game.
- Some people won't like the controls, backtracking, etc. but I had no problems.

Overall: 10/10

Metroid Prime is the very best game I've played since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time itself. Aside from being a faithful transition of the series to the 3D world, it's also a stunning achievement and a brilliant combination of rich level design, jaw-dropping art direction, intense battles and a vivid and enormous world to explore and delve into. The game is deep, warm, intricate, fantastic and a hell of a lot of fun to play, and is such an amazing accomplishment on so many levels that I honestly couldn't talk about everything in the space of this one (rather lengthy) review. Not only does this make the GameCube an absolute must-buy for any self-respecting gamer, but it's also the greatest game of the generation and a landmark in the world of videogames. There is nothing more to be said other than if you haven't played this game yet, shame on you. This review has come to an end, so buy it, love it, and be one with the masterpiece that is Metroid Prime.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/16/04, Updated 11/14/05


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