a review of Metroid Prime
a videogame developed by retro studios
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo gamecube and the nintendo wii
text by Ario Barzan
Analyzing Metroid Prime as a successful piece of entertainment is a strange business. The game itself is so damned together that it can, at face value, appear simply sufficient, as a “Well, of course” sort of deal. This deceptive effortlessness is at the heart of the execution. I have to wonder if its self-comprehension was so . . . “there,” that the people at Retro never had the subsequent thought of stepping back and moving around it to understand why the thing worked. No doubt, Retro recognized Prime as a success in the critics’ and players’ eyes. What they seemed to have glossed over, when developing future titles, was that it wasn’t exclusively Prime’s base structure that propelled it upward. And so along came Echoes and Corruption, both at once just like Prime, and sufferers of sequel-itis, where generalities and for-the-sake-of-newness contrivances reigned like greasy monarchs. But, I’ll not get into sequel bashing. Not yet.
Metroid Prime: here is the game representing the only 3D jump from a 2D series to exude such grace. People might be quick to point out the benefits of its console, but being smart has always outweighed technology – and, well, look at how frumpish Twilight Princess turned out to be. What about Ocarina of Time? Back in 1998, it made our eyes melt from their sockets when we got to Hyrule field and saw that the sun set, the moon rose, and skeletons burst from the ground at dark. Digested now, the field is more nakedly exposed than ever as dead space, miniaturized by the format’s expanding scale, though still big for no good reason, and still suffering from the aftermath of an atomic bomb – a stomach-growling, Kingdom Hearts-esque notion that exists through much of the game’s world. For how important, how exciting Link’s quest is made out to be, there’s barely anything worth rescuing or doing (see: Majora’s Mask on how to get this right). Those skeletons never did much, you know, hobbling like incompetents, taking a second to wind up a clumsy swipe, unable to step on dirt trails. What I am saying is that Ocarina doesn’t have that element of endurance to call me back today. In spite of this, people continue to hold it up on a throne; its exhaust fumes have put them into a dazed high from which they don’t want to snap out of. These could be the same individuals whose bottom lips quivered, “E . . . epic . . .” whenever a cutscene in Super Smash Bros. Brawl ended. Ocarina of Time is mentioned with a swelling of chests, as if it’s our honorary duty as Proud Video Gamers to get hot for Zelda in 3D because it’s Zelda in 3D. I feel pushed by a hidden, whinier force to say that Ocarina was an initial epiphany. I hummed the music when walking to school, and I bought a fly-fishing rod because of Lake Hylia’s fishing hole. It was also my first 3D game. Still, a decade after being released, it drifts in an abject barrenness that only the most determined and self-deceiving players can overlook.
Ghoulish hands intertwined with Ocarina’s, Super Mario 64, too, remains floating on a cloud so high, so unquestioned, that criticizing it is tantamount to directing a cyclone of diarrhea at Bernini’s Pieta. In truth, the game can be summarized with the Stretch Mario’s Fat hecking Face meta-game, or the garden outside the castle where we climbed up trees, leapt off of them, and screamed “OH, MY GODDD.” That is, Mario 64 was the Z-axis’ chief launch, yet never much more than a cute tech demo. The sky was breached, the rocket’s occupants have been long dead, and the main thing fueling it now is blue-sky nostalgia. Scrapping the series’ defining momentum in place of wide adventure (all right), Mario 64 then gave us a bumbling action hero to guide, over and over, through hollow, unattractive levels in search of shiny things. And the kids sure like them shiny things. And, you know, the game isn’t bad; it’s just plain, carpet-flavored, though Bowser’s stages are nice. Super Mario Sunshine, at the very least, made its settings more purpose driven and contextured.
There are others, sure. Metal Gear Solid, whose cinematic aspirations are intruded upon by the creaky gameplay; Grand Theft Auto 3 smudging its big world by having it be an ugly world, as well as giving too much, and consequently too little, to do; Rygar: The Legendary Adventure and its combination of beautiful areas and horrid combat; Project Altered Beast, Street Fighter EX, Sonic Adventure – so on and so forth. No, Metroid Prime is the leap to outclass all other leaps. Dread was emerging on the Internet after the game’s unveiling. It wouldn’t be in 2D, or third-person 3D. It was going to be a first-person shooter. Everything would be shown from inside Samus’ visor, her upheld arm visible on the front right. Those three letters, “F.P.S.”, let loose a fearful undercurrent. After Mario and Link got the polygonal treatment and went on to sell millions of copies, Samus might burst onto the scene and fall flat on her face. The series’ fans were an abandoned lot, their last game had been Super Metroid in 1994, and the promise of a new title being too Halo-ish (or something) frightened them. Then, Metroid Prime came out, lean and mean, and everyone fell on their own faces.
Know this: the game’s control is wonderful. It is finely whipped. It results in the best handling first-person shooter for a console (no, I’m not going to get into the whole “first-person adventure vs. first-person shooter” debate). In each action allowed is an unrelenting cleanliness, not least of all because of how clear-minded the button mapping is. As dedicated as I am to Super Metroid – seriously, A to jump? B to run? X to attack? Then, pick up Metroid Prime. It’s like the system’s controller was made for the game. The plump, green A button fires shots from Samus’ arm; the smaller B button is for the spruce jumping; the curving X button puts Samus in her morph ball. Everything that should be next to something else is, and the schema gets absorbed in the most digestible way. Platforming has a delightful magnetism, in spite of Samus’ feet never being visible. When a leap isn’t a success, it’s because you messed up. If anyone still rolls their eyes and spits air out because of auto-lock aiming, there’s no bigger indicator they’ve not played Prime than outright saying they haven’t played it. Auto-locking is nothing more complicated, nothing less fresh, than the enemies having been designed with it in mind, which is all that’s required, you know. There’s a group of jetpack-toting space pirates. So you click a finger down on the L button and Samus’ arm swings to the very thing you’re thinking about shooting at. I don’t know how the game manages to read minds, but there you go. It’s so understanding that it keeps noiselessly flowing. And once you’re locked on, the game doesn’t turn dumb. It’s still just, well, Metroid Prime – brisk, mostly fair (more on this, later), fun. You can strafe to the sides as you dodge scores of gun shots and missiles, firing your own with as much immediacy. If you don’t keep on your toes when the game expects you to, you’ll be left hurting. And you’ll feel a nice sizzle when you’ve bypassed nimble enemies, heat wavering from the mouth of your gun.
Above all else, Metroid Prime is about atmosphere – and that’s kind of been the point from the start, with the first game’s creepy-crawly caverns and hidden rooms. On a larger scale, and more often than any other medium, video games are about atmosphere, how it feels to exist in their universes, a characteristic strengthened by putting you in those places and letting you feel the friction of Avatar against World. How do we dwell on games? It’s usually not going to be the way we remember a movie or novel, which often relates to characters, their relations, the overall narrative. Instead, it’s more like conjuring up spots we’ve existed in. The memory of walking above mounds of crimson woodchips in Maine on a steaming summer day is not too dissimilar from a memory of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, or even Super Mario Bros.. In the end, it depends how conscious the game’s focuses on its ambiance is. Metroid Prime doesn’t assume you’ll go on because you like Metroid. It works its hardest to ensure that you, whoever you are, will enjoy being a part of its world, emotional baggage or not, and succeeds like few efforts out there.
On paper, the locales are the stuff of basic elemental listings. A green overworld, the underground caves of lava, blank snowscapes, the dust-covered ruins, techno-industrial bases. Thank god the game isn’t by-the-paper, though. Introducing itself as a raining, ever-storming lushness, the overworld is flanked by fresh waterfalls and grounded with moist ferns, mossy boulders, and ponds holding fish. There’s an afternoon glow on the ruins’ architecture, flora burst from cracks in the brickwork, and golden points of dust float in retro-futuristic corridors. The wintry drifts have temples sitting on top of blank hills, capped by constant snow. The game has a hell of a talent for visual language and giving itself a face. When you discover each zone, they’re so curiously and deliciously layered that you could almost eat or drink them, act as a sponge and soak up their ambiance. And the best way to do this is by going on. Here’s where things get really interesting, though before I do that, I’d like to bring up Symphony of the Night, again.
Like Metroid, the Castlevania series has grown to establish itself as an atmospherically self-aware family tree. That’s what the most revered entries are considered to uphold, anyway. Nowadays, outside of the GameFAQs crowd that would be content to eat stalks of celery and peanut butter every day, there’s a general clearing of throats, tapping of heads, and puffing of mouths when a new Castlevania is shown. We click on link to a preview, read something akin to, “Things don’t seem to have changed much – however, this promises to be one of the year’s best games!!!”, and spot ten references to Symphony of the Night along the way. Annoyed as I am with the title’s continued prominence, it’s not exactly like we can help it (well, some of us could shut up on a greater basis): it was the promise of things to come that never came, and the Castlevania games haven’t gotten over it, so . . . why should we? Since its release in 1997, there has been no Castlevania approaching Symphony’s sense of Place, and the games have increasingly turned into sardine tins to peel open and jab at and gobble, oil dripping from the crevices of one’s mouth. Pick up, peck at, put down. It’s an exercise free of savoring. Creatures are stocked, regardless of their nature, onto ledges and near the entrances of the rooms for Grinding Proficiency – not even because the designers can, but because they must, in the way that most enemies “must” drop an item or two. The games are improvising with a blindfold and handcuffs on, and it’s a frightfully strict mess. Compare, then, the castle in Symphony. Through and through a video game, it was also a cosmos. Because of loving positioning, the monsters became an inseparable extension of the castle’s character and ecosystem. Dracula’s servants didn’t just serve to show how big your numbers had gotten: they had a home. Frozen shades appeared in the coldest parts of the caves, hovering over iced pools. Crows and ravens had nests perched on the wooden structures of chapel towers. Ouija tables were nestled in the warm corners of the gallery, where you’d imagine some soul would go to read. Playstation turned off, it felt like that world could continue to exist beyond you.
This concentration is in Metroid Prime. The whole planet of Tallon IV isn’t “waiting” for Samus; it breathes and functions without her. There are animals that live here, and you’re intruding on their habitat. Large arthropods erupt out of sand, fire-breathing worms rear their heads from bodies of lava, pods of fungi shiver and expel gas near water, and shelled critters dink around on rocks, sporting spikes if you’re too near. The fauna take on the role of threats and atmospheric set pieces. Since Prime, the focus has turned towards making the games arena-based fragfests with an overabundance of the “doors will be locked until you kill all the bad guys” deal. Really, who are the space pirates, again? All of a sudden, they’ve become the universe’s central obstacle; this bleary-eyed over saturation has robbed them of presence. Why not let Metroid shine in its own uncommon way? When Prime feels the need to introduce non-inhabitants, it does so with a well paced richness. While one part has Samus using the thermal visor in a blacked-out shaft dotted with silent enemies, another sees you navigating corridors, cloaked pirates bursting from the ceiling and rushing you. It’s legitimately unnerving.
It doesn’t end with Prime’s fauna being themselves, or the excellent spacing of other life forms. Samus can use her visor as a scanning tool. Pressing right on the D-pad causes a small box, magnifying whatever is in its view, to appear. Scan-worthy objects have red and orange symbols on top. Target them, and a little download bar will appear. You can scan each creature in the world, and the game will tell you about it – or, you can skip the description and visit it later in the bestiary. Samus isn’t just a bounty hunter: she’s a documenter. Every animal has its quirks, and as you learn about each, look at the provided X-ray shots, understand why one may behave or look the way it does, the world starts to build itself up around you and increase its layers moreso. Shriekbats, Prime’s database says, have a high internal heat, and are super-territorial, ready to sacrifice themselves in a hive mind fashion. So it follows that, when you approach, they’ll descend from their perches and dive-bomb, exploding upon impact. One of my favorites is the stone toad, which will sit still for days on end, chowing down on anything that comes near its mouth with shocking speed. These basic instincts can be taken advantage of: roll into a ball, get swallowed by the animal, and plant a bomb. The stone toad explodes, and a passageway is revealed.
The story’s always there, even if you never actually “see” it. And the game is fine with that; it’s confident you will be, too. Literally speaking, the thing ain’t hot. Talking about it would be like talking about the frame of a painting. As in, no, I’m not going to even give a summary. Though, look at how Prime handles its story. Traditionally, in Metroid games, Samus’ actions were the plot. As such, the games didn’t have segments, so much as they had crosshatching branches. They were continuous, in the moment. Samus came to a planet, explored alien terrain, braved foreign enemies, and left. That is essentially the same with Metroid Prime. Whatever cutscenes emerge are voiceless and brief, often for the sake of introducing a boss or environment. The in-game progression is the narrative, and it’s all Prime requires. Still, the game has a nice trick: in each setting are things to scan and read – fragments of lore inscribed on walls, data stored in computers. Each record acquaints you with a historical fact or technical detail. When you read one, it’s a blip of context to add to your surroundings and, in return, your efforts and place in the world – a world “fixed” to fit the game’s mechanic evolution, but a world, nonetheless, endowed with a thick, pure architectural spine. These levels were not designed by accountants; they were built by people who might have loved climbing on rocks as kids. Areas are textural and weighty. Individual rooms have a sense of belonging. It’s hardly ever as utilitarian as straight-hallway-with-flat-floor. If it is, it’s done for the love of pacing.
In an isolated sense, all of the bosses are wholesome. View them from an angle of challenge-oriented growth – our first blemish (of little there are) – and Prime spikes at a less than gorgeous incline during the last three: the Omega Pirate, Meta-Ridley, and Metroid Prime. Well, the last’s life bar could’ve been shortened anyway, thanks. It feels like the developers were trying a little too hard to get across the idea that the game is nearing its end, and I won’t blame anyone for getting bugged enough to switch the console off in the interests of other pursuits until they’re in the Right Mood again. Prime suddenly makes the expectation that the player will be able to perform on a level that they’ve hardly brushed against prior. It bears confirming that each opponent is a heart-pounding affair, frightening and exciting in scope and ferociousness, satisfying, in the end, to overcome. These monstrosities are out to get you, and hell if they’re not going to get the belt out and bend you over their knee.
And there are the Chozo ghosts, which I still don’t “get” like I don’t “get” why Twilight Princess told me how much each rupee was worth every time I started up a save file. To be fair, that may have been an accidental hiccup (a hell of a hiccup (more of a burp)), but Prime’s Chozo ghosts – aliens who were corrupted by an infectious material from a meteor’s impact – are a real wonder. The game has you fight a few, ala mini-bosses, in certain spots. Re-enter those rooms, however, and you need to do the whole shebang all over again. In a godless maneuver, these locations become eternal battlegrounds, darkening and locking their doors and letting loose ghosts if you ever return. A meaningless curse, and I’d be less annoyed if the battle music weren’t so reminiscent of metallic crows banging in a factory full of angry/horny robot-giants. It screams and crashes and wanks, and you will want to turn the volume down.
These are the problems, mainly. I know there are people who are bummed by the game’s handling of secrets, and, all right, I can sort of get on that – as before, a hole in the wall could lead you around and under an environment’s bowels towards a power-up, rather than providing an upgrade on a pedestal within a nook. This extensive tunneling gave the worlds of Super Metroid or Metroid 2 a peculiar network. Still, when the task at hand is as consuming as Metroid Prime‘s, it’s hard to count this loss as a real bump, and easier to see it as a part that didn’t exactly need to be carried over (. . . just yet?), like the wall jump. There’s also a hint system – horror of horrors – though it’s contextual and courteously translucent. A minor beep will sound if an item is nearby, and your suit will indicate if there’s been a “disturbance” in a sector. You can press Z to view the location on the map, or you can ignore it and let the message fade away. With the introduction of the Z-axis, and the largeness of Prime’s geography, each is a breezy feature the most reasonable human should be able to welcome.
I don’t even think that Retro really knew what they were going to end up with on their hands before Metroid Prime’s completion; at the least, it would be good, and engrossing, and right. I like to imagine that the game came into the world the same way a certain drawing or piece of writing might’ve – when you reach that certain point where everything is flowing, and it’s only when the thing is done (at seven in the morning) that you step back, and a product throbbing with knot after knot of miracles is in front of you. Prime, we believe, was born out of this white hot zone of rationality, yet its two sequels tried so hard, became so self-aware and prone to tripping over their shoelaces, one might’ve mistaken them for missing half their brains. While Echoes prods Samus into a dark world where you walk around and take damage, idle in a bubble for half a minute to regain health, move forward, etcetera, Corruption has a boss fall off a platform – never mind the absence of gravity – get hit by a space ship below, and explode. Metroid Prime doesn’t get stupid in the hopes of boom, nor does it sacrifice rhythm for molasses-drenched ornamentation. Outside of its own series, it’s a grand game with a presence and fine-spun veracity worthy of ten (if not more) gallons of drool per person. On that pleasant note regarding mass amounts of bodily fluids, I’ll let this go.