Thursday, November 30, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns - Thoughts

I feel bad for developer MercurySteam.

It's not hard to surpass Metroid II: Return of Samus—the Game Boy entry is claustrophobic, confusing, and very repetitive. Applying typical Metroid tropes to it would work wonders, which is what Another Metroid 2 Remake did... almost a full year before Metroid: Samus Returns was even announced. Nintendo hitting AM2R with a DMCA notice only made Samus Returns look like a big bully in comparison too, even through MercurySteam had little to do with it. Add in a trailer full of zoom-ins, sprites swapped out for polygons, and a developer ludography that—while great—leaves fans with plenty of reservations, and you're left with the sinking feeling that Samus Returns is going to be the final nail in the blonde bounty hunter's coffin.

Thankfully, this is not the case; Metroid: Samus Returns is an excellent, modern companion piece that works with AM2R, not against it.

Part of the reason why I sympathize with MercurySteam is that for many fans, Samus Returns is inevitably going to be compared to AM2R instead of (the far inferior) Metroid II. Luckily Samus Returns sidesteps this issue by being retaining an identity that's unique to the other two titles. While AM2R looks to Metroid II as a wizened master it must study the blueprints of, Samus Returns treats the Game Boy original more as a reference than a template. Sure, you'll have to hunt 50 metroids in one-on-one duels, and the number of demarcated areas remain the same, but besides that there's not much connective tissue between the titles. Samus Returns has a slew of new mechanics, new enemies to wrangle, and most notably—a massive new world.

Metroid: Samus Returns is unarguably the largest 2D Metroid game to date. It took me nearly ten hours to 100% it, and that was without getting stuck or lost; the amount of land you'll have to traverse is staggering. MercurySteam knew this, so they tweaked Samus to move at a swift pace, but it nevertheless remains a gargantuan game to explore... which is cool! It's nice getting such a huge Metroid experience to sink your teeth into, especially since uncovering the map manually turns you into a one-woman deep-delving pioneer. The problem that comes from this however, is that a lot of the areas feel... samey.

There's not a lot besides background decorations that separate one setting from another. The most interesting "room" I can think of is the one with the crystal structure deep in Area 3; nearly all of the foreground architecture follows strictly to this gray concrete/stone theme. Each area has their own specific color hue, but that's not enough of a differentiator—the geometry and structural design between levels is essentially interchangeable. This is a huge bummer for someone that loves how distinct Maridia feels from Norfair, whereas with Samus Returns it'd be tough to look at a snapshot of a room and determine if it's from Area 2, 3, 4, etc.

The silver lining in the "sameyness between levels" is that it's probably the game's largest fault—everything else is handled with care and precision. Animations are smooth, Samus feels great to control, the parry mechanic is a blast to execute, and the Aeion abilities are fairly good additions. Missile expansions are sneakily hidden away in cramped, snake-like passages, which makes running around looking for secret entrances highly rewarding when you find them. The game is also really combat heavy, forcing you to stop every now and then to parry or dispatch a foe with a beam burst, but if there's one Metroid game you want the developer to nail the combat for, it's Metroid II.

Unlike AM2R, where the fights with the metroids became exhausting and drawn-out, there's a number of ways to subdue a metroid here. The manual aiming allows you to sneak in a couple of missiles on a their vulnerable underbelly, and it's invigorating to stare that energy sucker down right before you parry their ferocious bite. The zeta metroid in particular is an awesome enemy to engage with, having a wide variety of attacks while also not being as obnoxiously protective of its weak-point as the gamma mutation. The larger bosses are few and far between but they're also hell of a lot of fun to fight, really pushing you to be as accurate and responsive as possible. Perhaps what helps tip the game from "good" to "great" for me is that Samus Returns puts up a fight—you feel well-rewarded for finding every upgrade, since you'll routinely expend your energy tanks and missiles trying to survive the nightmarish depths of SR-388.

The core distinction between Metroid: Samus Returns and AM2R is showcased by how each game handles its final area: the latter retains the unsettling, monsterless jaunt to the final facility, while the former pumps that stretch full of enemies and power-ups. The difference here is in the influence of the original, as well as explosiveness—Samus Returns will happily discard the design of Metroid II if it can find a way to entice the play with intense combat or labyrinthine passageways. This may not sound like a design shift that honors the original, but it doesn't need to; AM2R is the devout successor to Metroid II, while Metroid: Samus Returns is its advanced contemporary. Both are directions I appreciate, and both are games worthy of the Metroid moniker.

Kudos on shattering expectations, MercurySteam.

Images obtained from:,,,

Monday, November 27, 2017

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I couldn't never put my finger on why Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was so... odd to me. I don't think it's because of the shift to Wii-pointer controls, since I think the new control scheme suits the series better than the restrictive Gamecube setup (don't get me wrong—it was great for the time, but it wasn't really satisfying). I don't believe it was the greater emphasis on plot nor the focus on bounty hunters besides Samus either. Something about Corruption just didn't... capture me, despite the game being fairly engrossing and fun, maintaining the longstanding tradition of excellent art, music, and design that the series is known for. Whatever reason there was for Corruption sticking out like a sore thumb eluded me...

... but now, I think I understand why.

The Metroid franchise has always been about exploring strange alien worlds, but nothing feels quite so foreign as the start to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Listen to how crazy this is: your ship drops you off on a sci-fi military cruiser and you're greeted by two guards that tell you the captain wants to see you! Was the tutorial guest-designed by Bungie? Not only does the opening to the game feel strange due to the amount of dialogue and friendly NPCs you encounter, but there's a whole second half to the tutorial that's completely linear and profusely combat heavy. Suddenly, Metroid's penchant for loneliness and exploration has vanished, leaving behind an FPS shell that pretends combat and plot are core pillars of the series. In trying to appeal to newcomers, Metroid Prime 3 had succumbed to what fans feared most.

... But then you arrive on Bryyo, and suddenly everything feels normal again. Before you lies a bizarre landscape riddled with ancient machinery and aggressive fauna—distinctly Metroidian traits! Prime 3 only goes up from here, offering the player the jaw-dropping wonder of SkyTown, and later the gloomy Pirate Homeworld. The former is one of the most gorgeous areas in the entire series (rivaling Sanctuary Fortress), and the latter has this oppressive infiltration feeling to it, similar to exploring the Phazon Mines—except this time you're delving into a mechanized alien hell. Both areas have a really distinct feel to them whereas Bryyo is just kinda... there? It has some cool lore and differently themed zones, but everything kinda feels like a "been there, done that", while the worlds toward the end of the game—especially the final level in particular—really flex the creative muscles of the art team.

Metroid Prime 3 undoubtedly maintains the great enemy design and architecture of the series—so how the combat hold up? The most accurate way to surmise it is that the actions shifts from combat depth to combat proficiency. No longer are you equipped with multiple beams and missile combos; the brunt of the action is knowing when and where to activate Phazon Mode in order to salvage your energy tanks—even at their partial cost. Instead of having to decide between your ammo and your health like in Prime 2, here your ammo is your health, and I feel it's a step forward as you no longer feel powerless against the bigger foes in the game. This keeps the action at a brisk pace, even on the hardest difficulty.

Unfortunately, this comes at a great cost: triggering Phazon Mode is often the best combat decision to make in almost every encounter. Missiles continue to do pitiful damage, and the Seeker Missile is a poor replacement for the missile combo attacks, due to its long charge time. Combine this with the fact that enemies have the ability to go into a hypermode (and do so often on hard), and the simplest solution becomes pumping them full of phazon, especially since you can reap health from their defeat. This isn't a categorical step down however; there's plenty of smaller enemies to blast with your standard beam cannon, and your foes are far more nimble and engaging than in the previous Prime entries, thanks to being designed for the Wii controls. The bosses provide excellent battles by and large—my only qualm being that Mogenar's shielded weakpoints make the fight an abominable chore.

Okay, so the worlds are great, the combat has its pros and cons, and I'll mention now that the sound, music, and lore roughly retain the same quality. So why would Metroid Prime 3 leave me with such ambivalent feelings the first two times I played through it? The answer to this, as I've discovered, is deceptively simple—so much so, that it feels unfair to fault the game for this one addition.

It's because of Samus's ship.

And it's not because it's often used to justify the backtracking (though that does bother me), nor is it because there are a lot of "Wii gimmicks" in the cockpit (which I actually don't mind). Where the ship and I part ways is that's it's used to ferry you from place to place, thereby breaking up the world into quarantined parts. Bryyo is the worst offender of this, having three distinct areas that are mostly inaccessible from one another, forcing you to return to your vessel and hop around. The ship doubling as a warp-point causes the design to be far more linear too; Bryyo is chock full of straight paths that only serve to connect two rooms, rarely giving you alternate options when you go to backtrack through the game. Elevator loading times were also a necessary evil in the previous entries, but they're nearly tripled here thanks to the amount of traveling you'll do.

This aspect doesn't make or break the game though—all it really does is make Metroid Prime 3 feel... different. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how any developer would go about making a Metroid title feel cohesive when it's spread over half a dozen different planets. I suspect a single terrestrial setting is something that's core to Metroid's DNA in the same way that wildly diverse lands are core to Mario's. But in any case, it makes the experience feel more artificially segregated, thereby dealing a huge blow to the "isolated immersion" that I love the franchise for. It's easy to become numb to it after a while, but you still spend roughly half the game playing something that just feels... uncomfortably weird. It's almost like Metroid: Streamlined Edition.

The last thing I need to cover is something absolutely worthy of praise: the endgame fetch-quest is optional! Well... not really—you still need to collect 5 of the 9 energy cells to reach the final level, but the fact that you don't need to gather them all is fantastic. Additionally, you can pick all five up without doing any backtracking, which is a huge boon for replays of the game. The GFS Valhalla is also really cool: it's an eerie wreckage infested with phazon monstrosities, where the majority of things to scan are chilling descriptions of how its crewmates died. It was an impressive level when I first played the game, and my adoration for it has only grown since then.

No matter how many times I tried to analyze what Metroid Prime 3 had done "wrong", there was little I could criticize that wasn't also present in other entries. There are exceptions of course—the atypical opening leaves a terrible first impression on Metroid vets, and missiles are not only useless but you can stumble upon their upgrades without looking—but nothing sticks out to me more than the physically separated worlds. It's a complaint I admit holds little weight if one doesn't care for it (I feel the intrusive plot could probably be more nettlesome to certain players), but it deprived Metroid Prime 3 of one of Metroid's cornerstones. Besides that, Prime 3 is a rather fitting closer to the trilogy, offering up a decent challenge along with some of the coolest worlds seen yet (did I mention how much I love the final level?) Retro not only handled the franchise with respect and admiration, but built further upon its foundation and style, leaving an proud, enduring mark that many now see as inextricably tied to the series—including myself.

Well done folks!

Images obtained from:

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The main reason why I don't consider Metroid Prime 2: Echoes superior to the first Prime game is evident from its gimmick: you have to explore every area twice. I find that very few video games justify the use of this mechanic, as it tends to come across more as lackluster padding than a necessary expansion to "original" world (the Silent Hill series being the notable exception). That's not to say any game that uses this concept is automatically bad, but exploring two identical environments makes a playthrough feel significantly longer. Even though Metroid Prime 2 features more interesting abilities, puzzles, and settings than the first, it does not escape the detriment of the "dual worlds", especially considering that it's placed into a franchise teeming with backtracking segments as-is.

It's difficult deciding whether or not to air my complaints or compliments first, since a lot of them are inextricably tied together. For instance: the ammo system. Attaching ammunition to opposite beam types strengthens the combat, since you're forced to decide whether you want to endure a long battle at the potential cost of your health, or fight a short battle that quickly depletes your ammunition. Missiles had always served this purpose, but every enemy was weak to them in equal measure; the Dark and Light beams are primarily world specific, forcing you to weight your options before jumping into a trans-dimensional warp-gate. Add in the missile combos for each weapon and you're suddenly looking at a Metroid that's surprisingly resource intensive, and therefore a lot more engaging on the survival front.

Buuuut ammo in Metroid Prime 2 is scarce and unreliable. Beam recharge centers are only available in the dark worlds, and there's a number of bulky enemies that drain your munitions should you choose to fight them. This leads to my second point—foes are too durable. This was a complaint from the first game (and similarly, I'm judging it based off the game's hard mode), but the problem is greatly exasperated here. The Ing are shockingly resilient to the Light Beam and since the missile combos cost so much ammo (it really should've been about 20 missiles & 20 ammo), you're frankly better off skipping a majority of the encounters. The Dark Pirate Commandos are the worst offenders, as without the Dark Beam (which they shouldn't be weak to?), fights against them take so long that the brigands just up and leave after a certain amount of time elapses—but the doors are locked until they decide to do so.

This is a shame since the enemies you'll encounter in Echoes are more diverse and fun than in the original Prime. A number of familiar critters return but there's also plenty of new fauna to interact with, the most interesting of which is saved for the final area of the game. Bosses are also more engaging, utilizing your own power-ups against you in creative ways (the Spider Ball Guardian being my favorite sub-boss). But outside of these titanic tussles, there's not much of a point to challenging the Ing forces. Had larger foes dropped more bountiful caches of ammo & health, maybe I'd be singing a different tune. Luckily, puzzles are much more challenging and extensive in Echoes, so I have no qualms in that department. I also appreciate that the game isn't too taxing to 100% without a guide.

If my entry thus far seems fairly negative, I don't intend it to be; following up on Metroid Prime was going to be a difficult task for Retro Studios, no matter how hard they tried. In a way, I'm kind of glad they aimed to go "bigger and better", as the ambition on display here is commendable. Power-ups like the Echo Visor and Screw Attack are excellent additions—the timing on the shift from first person to third for the Screw Attack is remarkably fluid. Each major area loops around itself quite nicely, allowing the player multiple paths to reach their destination during backtracking. Each setting is simultaneously gorgeous and lonely; Sanctuary Fortress in particular is a breathtaking sight to behold, really drilling home how utterly amazing the art team is. Lastly, the Ing have a menacing and grotesque design, perfectly befitting of their monstrous nature. The aesthetics of the game alone make it worth playing.

Lore-wise, I'm satisfied with what's presented here, though nothing in particular really blew me away. I think part of the problem is that there isn't much of a distinction between entries of the Light and Dark versions of each creature—it would've been interesting to read about how the Ing repurpose certain animals and technology for more than just warfare. I mean, their emphasis on battle accurately conveys the priorities of the Ing, but their civilization has a hierarchical structure that barely gets touched upon, and I feel like more entries could've been written around that. Perhaps I'm a little disappointed because the Ing aren't nearly as fascinating and flawed as the space pirates are... at least uncovering the various ways the Luminoth honorably stood against their hordes was intriguing (as well as tragic). Oh, and I quite like the area names given on the map of the Dark World—what's not to love about "Bitter Well", "Profane Path", or "Doomed Entry"?

Finally, I need to harp on the return of my lest favorite Prime aspect: mandatory endgame item collection. Echoes is ~50% longer than Metroid Prime due to repeated visits you'll undergo to the Dark World, an aspect that gets amplified when you're forced to find the nine Sky Temple keys. You spend enough time in each locale that the requirement to go through them all again just feels like a waste of time, especially considering you've essentially traveled through them twice as is. It doesn't help that the structure of the overworld requires repeated visits to the Great Temple (until the end of the game), and that returning power to each of the energy controllers is dull and uneventful. The interlocking layout cuts down on the tedium, but just barely.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is a sturdy sequel that expands on the Prime name in interesting ways. It's unfortunate that the "interesting ways" make the game a mixed bag; none of Echoes' concepts are bad, it's just that the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed my replay of Echoes; sadly, there was just no way to turn off my inner-critic while I played it. If you enjoyed Metroid Prime I see no reason why you won't value and cherish Echoes as well, but prepare to feel fatigued once the journey is over.

Images obtained from:,