Friday, October 20, 2017
Metroid Prime - Thoughts
[contains minor spoilers]
Back in 2001, I thought it was impossible to render Super Metroid properly into the 3D world. Super Mario 64 & Ocarina of Time turned out to be superb games—don't get me wrong—but they faced inherently different hurdles than those intended for Nintendo's shoulder pad-clad bounty hunter. Super Metroid was fast, fluid, and moody, placing a massive emphasis on exploration and atmosphere, featuring both fantastical creatures and labyrinthine locations. When Metroid Prime was described as a "First Person Adventure Game", I imagine that I must've guffawed heartily at reading that, confident that the developers behind Turok were on the verge of ruining one of my favorite franchises.
Evidently, that was probably the most wrong I've been regarding a video game in my entire life. Not only is Metroid Prime a masterpiece of video game design, but it is the perfect rendition of Super Metroid into the third dimension. It takes an appropriate amount of nods from its predecessors while simultaneously carving its own bold path, framing the world of Metroid through an immersive first person perspective. Retro Studios understood what made the world of Super Metroid tick: they nailed the combat, scaled gaining power through items appropriately, and captured the feeling of being isolated on a gorgeous alien planet—even the music and sound effects were on point! Against all odds, Metroid Prime became the best single player experience you can have on the Gamecube, bar none.
I feel bad for constantly comparing Metroid Prime to Super Metroid, but the way Prime directly honors its forebearer without copying it is worth inspection. Both games open the same way, thrusting Samus onto a derelict space station that closes out with a timed escape section. But the experiences are largely dissimilar—Super's vessel is a brief sprint and faux-boss fight, while Prime's frigate is significantly larger and alludes to the story to come. Aboard the desolate space pirate facility you'll learn the fundamentals of both combat and scanning, the latter of which is the most inventive addition Prime contributes to the Metroid universe.
I heap massive amounts of praise on the Souls series for its environmental storytelling, but Metroid Prime is one of the earliest 3D pioneers of the style (to my knowledge). The plot in Prime aims to be so unobtrusive that it's practically tucked away—hell, you'll only encounter 2-3 lore entries regarding its titular antagonist. But if you seek this information out, you'll be well-rewarded with a fairly interesting story that's more about the methodology of the space pirates than the history of Phazon. There's so many quirky details that help to distinguish the pirates apart from other intergalactic menaces, from the way they meticulously log the successes of their brutal Phazon experiments, to the human-like errors they constantly make (eg keeping the local fauna as pets and teasing captive metroids). They're both alarmingly competent and hilariously buffoonish, being able to replicate Samus's weaponry in one experiment but fatally crushing their Morph Ball test subjects in another. The way they blatantly disregard life all for the sake of research and progress is a fascinating quality to add to a group of enemies that previously had no traits besides being "evil".
The scanning system is the most novel idea in Metroid Prime because it allows the player to dive into the lore and biology of the world according to their whim. You can scan the local flora to discover that some of it has evolved to produce a volatile chemical in order to ward off animals, or you can just shoot the glowing sac and observe it exploding without ever understand why it does that. Metroid Prime provides plenty of reasons for its silly and archaic game design (like that most technology is manually activated in order to avoid the dangers of a network-wide security hack), a touch I personally love. Being able to research the wildlife and uncover the lore of the Chozo without having the game relay this information in a mandatory cutscene places the power of discovery into the hands of the player, which is what Metroid has always been about.
This is primarily why I say that Metroid Prime understands what made Super Metroid special: Retro Studios knew to put exploration front and center, relegating combat off to the side. The combat (and challenge) of the game is still important—and there's some pretty fun fights to be had—but the priority was on immersing the player in a living, breathing world with its own culture, identity, and history. Most of the non-space pirate foes aren't all that dangerous, but they're far more unique and interesting—creatures like the Plazmite, Triclops, and Jelzap are creative in a way that humanoid enemies can't be. Of course, a huge reason for why the world of Tallon IV is so compelling is that the art direction is impeccable; I'd contest that the visual style of Metroid Prime is just as memorable as its highly lauded soundtrack. Seriously, go check out the concept art for some really stellar sketches.
Returning to the Super Metroid comparison, Prime adheres to its basic world structure (five large interlocking areas) but mixes up the general theming, discarding the underwater and vegetative zones for some wasteland ruins and a frozen canyon. There are similar beats here and there but for the most part Metroid Prime operates according to its own rule book; one of my favorite sections in the game is the underwater journey through the crashed frigate from the opening act, harkening back to the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid but replacing "dread" with "tranquility". There are moments that are meant to invoke Super Metroid (the Lower Norfair melody, power bombing the cracked tunnel, using the grapple beam on a Glider), but they act more like classic call-backs rather than aped design tropes. For instance, power bombing the tunnel rewards you with a completely new ice+missile combo attack rather than allowing you to traverse into a new area. Likewise, you only need to use the grapple beam on a Glider for an optional missile expansion—never to complete the game.
For all the merits I could heap onto Metroid Prime's design (trust me, I could go on for a while), I have to discuss the three shortcomings I feel the game has. The first is that most missile expansion & energy tank puzzles are relatively simplistic, but this complaint is somewhat excusable considering Metroid Prime is the franchise's first foray into 3D. My second grievance is a bit more particular: enemies on Hard have too much health. I appreciate the amount of damage they deal to Samus, but the tankiness of the later foes and bosses reveal the weaknesses of the combat, namely that there's not a lot of variety—all of the beam troopers act the same way and most of the endgame bosses prefer to spam the "expanding ground ring" attack (which is a cinch to jump over). This isn't an egregious problem on Normal, but Metroidvanias thrive in their Hard modes, forcing you to scavenge for every little pick-up in order to gain an edge in combat.
My third point of contention—and the most serious one—is that collecting the Chozo Artifacts is a bore. They might be interesting to sniff out on a first playthrough but there's no optimal path to acquiring all of them outside of abusing glitches. The biggest offender is Phendrana Drifts: all three of its Chozo Artifacts are scattered in entirely different locations, each requiring the final beam in order to obtain. Had the player been given the opportunity to nab them over the course of the main adventure (like the Chozo Artifacts in Magmoor Caverns) I would rescind my complaint, but this backtracking unnecessarily pads out the length of the game, especially considering that you do enough backtracking as-is to get the regular power-ups. Artifact collecting a boring endeavor that shouldn't be compulsory—leave the repetitive backtracking for the completionists.
This comes as such a major disappointment to me because—similar to Wind Waker—some of the game's strongest moments come at the end. The final area is unnerving in that special way only Metroid can be, and the final boss is my favorite in the entire series. Gating such a spectacular climax behind a ho-hum scavenger hunt is nothing less than tragic, but I suppose a silver lining is that exploring the world is rarely boring. Part of this is due to how every room feels necessary and purposeful, but I think an even better reason is that Samus is just plain fun to control. Her speed and jump height feel perfectly tailored for the Tallon IV sojourn, and the platforming and morph ball sections rarely become annoying. The sublime quality of the controls really caps off what a fantastic game Metroid Prime is; every aspect has been expertly honed in order to craft a truly unforgettable adventure.
As I was replaying Metroid Prime, I found myself repeatedly exclaiming, "this is a really cool idea!" It's a game that continued to surprise me even on my sixth playthrough, new details and clever design decisions awaiting around every corner. Had obtaining the Chozo Artifacts been more streamlined (or made so you only needed 3/4ths of them), the case could be made that this is the definitive Metroid experience. Unfortunately, Super Metroid is a high bar to pass (did I mention it's my favorite game of all time?) so Metroid Prime has to settle for being the "astoundingly good with exceptional design" runner-up. I have my doubts that the Metroid franchise can reach these astronomical heights again, but hey—I've been wrong before.
Images obtained from: metroid.retropixels.net, Giantbomb.com