Notes On Distractions
Note #2

A love letter to Metroid Prime

A decade ago this month – 17th November 2002, to be exact – gaming titan Nintendo released Metroid Prime, the long-awaited follow-up to the 1994 SNES classic, Super Metroid. It was the latest in a small series of science-fiction adventure games in which the player, taking the role of female bounty hunter Samus Aran, explores a hostile and foreboding alien planet, their only company a fleet of increasingly nasty monsters.

This arms race is matched on the player’s side with a veritable toybox of weapons and gadgets, which are tantalisingly drip-fed throughout the game. With the exception of a few forgettable spin-offs, this is the classic structure of a Metroid game – one dragged kicking and screaming into 3D by American developers Retro Studios.

I wasn’t aware of Prime for at least another year and a half after its release, but as soon as I played it at a friend’s house I fell in love. I had never experienced a game like it before, so atmospheric and engrossing. I declared it “my favourite game ever” (back then, having absolute favourites was very important to me, for some reason).

Even to this day, there are still few other books, movies or games that have captured my heart in such a way. It invaded my dreams and daily thoughts. During particularly boring school assemblies, I would daydream about curling up into a morph ball and rolling beneath my classmates’ chairs.

Metroid Prime screenshot - sheegoths

One of the game’s most memorable foes, Baby sheegoths are smaller and nimbler than adults, but also more susceptible to a blast from the plasma beam.

The Return of Samus

Replaying the game earlier this year, the first thing that struck me about Metroid Prime was the quality of the graphics. Most games as old, especially those going for a realistic style, have aged horribly.

Prime‘s secret is that it’s far from realistic, with an art style intentionally paving over the hardware’s limitations without becoming a cartoon. Occasionally, overly square scenery and horrifically low-resolution textures spoil the illusion – pixellated doors are particularly irritating – but the quality of the animation more than makes up for it. 1

What has aged well are the controls. The choice of a lock-on was unusual for a first-person game even in 2002, and nowadays it’s almost unthinkable in a world dominated by twin-stick FPS controls. Going against all traditional logic, it works, allowing combat to focus on movement and timing instead of aim. The Gamecube’s idiosyncratic controller is put to such stunning use that you’d almost swear it was designed for Prime exclusively, and almost elmininates the need to dip into immersion-breaking menus.

Then again, it’s difficult to imagine a contemporary open-world game with respawning enemies and colour-coded doors – not in the age of Skyrim and GTAV. Indeed, many of these elements were already outdated when Prime launched, a symptom of being so slavishly devoted to Super Metroid.

To describe Prime as a 3D remake of Super Metroid would do it a disservice, though. It may not reach its prequel’s level of inexplicable mystery or have anything to compare to its sprawling mazes, but it’s a far more polished package with a world that feels crafted out of stone and steel rather than pixellated blocks.

What the game takes from Super Metroid it enhances and reimagines. Super missiles become not just another form of ammunition, but a special attack that needs to be charged and deployed at the exact right moment; the space pirates are upgraded from squawking, clawed bird-things to fearsome enemies with cloaking devices, jet packs and creepy laboratories. Even classic songs from earlier games’ soundtracks appear, remixed and re-recorded.

The Metroid series’ wackiest idea – that Samus can roll into a ‘morph ball’ to traverse narrow spaces – could have been difficult to translate across to the third dimension. Unbelievably, it’s not only made to feel like a natural part of Aran’s toolkit, but appears in Metroid Prime in an even wackier form. One upgrade provides the morph ball with the ability to cling to certain walls, climb vertically and even hang precariously from the ceiling, while another provides a speed boost, allowing the morph ball to ride well-placed half-pipes like a spherical Tony Hawk.

The morph ball hanging precariously over a lava pit.

The morph ball’s compact size and third-person camera inject some variety into the gameplay without feeling out of place.

This is no free-spirited platformer, mind you. While Prime isn’t strictly a horror game, its enemies succesfully raise the pulse, most notably the titular metroid itself which launches itself into the player’s face with a distinctive screech – again a successful translation of earlier games’ ideas made even more effective with the first-person perspective.

Inspector Gadgets

One of the key elements ported across is Super Metroid‘s lust for new weapons and gadgets, two of my favourites being the the thermal and x-ray visors. The former works exactly as you’d expect, displaying the game’s world as bright reds and yellows to indicate heat. As well as making cloaked enemies visible, this visor can be applied to every element in the game, from one-off bosses to ventilation pipes in the corner – a remarkable effort by the game’s developers. 2

Any sense of power is quickly dashed, however, as the lights go out and the metroids escape their tanks; your new gadget providing an unfamiliar view of the world. There’s a quiet, underlying static while the thermal visor is active, which only serves to make its use even more discomforting.

Even more immerse are the ways in which your visors are affected by the world and its scenery. Exhaust pipes cause it to mist up; security robots flood it with static; and ice-breathing sheegoths will coat the screen with ice, freezing Samus to the spot. These are less gimmicky than they may might sound – making the player feel rooted inside the world, rather than a floating camera with a gun attached.

Goo splattered on Samus' visor.

Goo splattering on the screen is near-cliche these days, but in 2002 novel effects such as these helped give the world a sense of physicality.

Overlayed on top of Samus’ visor is the HUD (health, ammo, map, radar and so on), which manages to present essential information in a way that makes the game more immersive, not less.

While the pause-screen menus leave something to be desired, I personally consider the HUD to be one of my earliest and strongest influences as a designer: not only because it’s aesthetically pretty, but it feels so good to interact with. In fact, the HUD, controls and onscreen feedback are so perfectly calibrated for one another that just interacting with the game – let alone playing it – is supremely satisfying.

But by far the game’s best gadget is the scan visor which, judging by its lack of copycats, must surely must have patented, as it solves two issues still plaguing games today: providing unobtrusive narrative exposition and precise environmental interaction. This simple tool colours Prime‘s world surprisingly effectively.

Hostile territory

Metroid Prime is set on a single planet, Talon IV, which on the surface appears to follow generic conventions: ancient ruins, lava-filled caves, icy mountains and laboratories bursting with mutated freaks. It would be a stretch to describe these areas as believable, but they’re crafted with such strong identities and intriguing details that they rise above their generic limitations.

Though the game may be about exploring deadly and mysterious lands, not all are ugly, dark places. The developers expertly balance the tense underground corridors of the likes of Phazon Mines with stunningly beautiful areas like Phazon Drifts and Crashed Orpheon.

The beautiful Impact Crater area.

Architectural remains of the Chozo civilisation often serve as the backdrop to some of the game’s most serene moments.

With much of the game dedicated to the art of shooting things, there is of course a wide range of wildlife – all hostile, of course – present on Talon IV. Beginning in the Chozo Ruins with oversized bugs, the enemies ramp up to giant, bipedal sheegoths, scrambling crowds of parasites and of course those face-sucking metroids. And that’s before we get to Prime’s bosses, a smorgasbord of towering titans always happening to stand before your suit’s next upgrade.

Scanning these nasties is essential to provide a bit of sci-fi guff context and sometimes to reveal a hidden weakness, not to mention the collectable aspect: with each scan logged and archived, analysing every new creature becomes a gotta-catch-em-all compulsion.

The other major targets of the scan visor are small chunks of text encoded within ancient tablets and space pirate computers which provide snippets of background narrative. It’s an obvious trick, but it fits perfectly and means that Prime‘s exquisite atmosphere isn’t ruined by long cutscenes or incessant yapping from NPCs.

Both the music and sound design deserve a special mention: they help to build much of the game’s gripping atmosphere, and even manage to make the series’ traditional fanfares a bit less cheesy.

Corruption

I’m by no means alone in my love of Metroid Prime. According to GameRankings, it is the seventh best-reviewed game of all time, above celebrated classics like Super Mario 64 and Half-Life 2. Yet it still remains something of a cult classic, very much a gamer’s game.

What went wrong? If Prime is so universally adored, why hasn’t it seen the kind of sales figures and cultural awareness that other series like Halo – which launched only a year earlier – have obtained?

There’s several reasons. The double-edged sword of being a Nintendo game ensured an incredibly high quality, but also brought about the unfair perception that it wasn’t a ‘grown-up’ game. After all, it was released onto the Gamecube, a console that generally struggled to keep up with ‘dark and gritty’ titles on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox (despite some absolute stonkers like Resident Evil 4, Animal Crossing and a multiplayer version of WarioWare, Inc.).

The sequel was ‘darker’ – well, up to the point that Samus could venture into a parallel ‘dark world’ – but was foiled by the fact that the Gamecube, now almost entirely out of mainstream credibility, was on its very last legs.

While that console was hobbled by the perception that Nintendo games weren’t for ‘hardcore’ gamers, its successor, the Wii, thrived on it. The Wii also brought with it the hilarious notion that motion controls were superior, or at least a decent addition, to traditional gamepads, and so Prime 3 was bogged down by tacked-on gestures and manual aim, undoing the control scheme already perfected back in 2002.

It also featured a considerably more fleshed-out storyline, albeit one that most trashy sci-fi television would laugh at. The cast of colourful, superpowered cardboard cutouts were instantly forgettable, eroding the mystery and the tension introduced by Prime‘s understated narrative. (My issues with that game could easily fill another 2,000 words, so I’ll leave it at that.)

Secondary characters from Metroid Prime 3.

Who are these guys, and why don’t they just shut up already?

If there was any hope of Metroid returning any time soon, the series has been well and truly finished off by Metroid Other M. Instead of learning from Prime 3‘s example, the external developers of this ill-fated reboot actually thought it would be a good idea to make the narrative a key focus, with linear environments, reams of dialogue and emotional cutscenes. Its failure, critically and commercially, has poisoned the Metroid brand, and there’s been no news of further Metroid games since.

Still, Metroid Prime alone is a stunning work that doesn’t need sequels to justify its brilliance. The game’s opening narration describes Samus Aran as “one light burning brighter than all others”: it’s a description that could equally apply to Metroid Prime itself, a game that still continues to dazzle ten years on.

Notes:

  1. The screenshots in this piece look particularly good as they’re taken from an emulator modified to upscale the game’s resolution to 1080p. Doing it yourself requires a fairly powerful computer, but luckily there are videos available.
  2. Compare this to contemporary AAA games like the recent Dishonored which, though in its own right a terrific game, takes the lazy option of using sepia filters and highlighted silhouettes.