Metroid Prime Review
I really thought the high-ups at Nintendo had lost it when they announced that Retro Studios, a new company based in Austin, Texas, were making their next big Metroid game. As a big fan of the series, I was baffled at how Nintendo would even possibly consider letting a third-party company, especially one from the US, work on a flagship franchise game.
After playing Metroid Prime, though, I can see why Nintendo went ahead with these guys - they are skilled. Retro Studios have made one of the best action games I've played in years, and the Metroid formula is almost fully intact. It also shows a change in Nintendo's usually stubborn attitude towards hiring third-party developers for big projects. Since the announcement announcing Metroid Prime a year or two ago, Nintendo has even allowed Sega and Rare to work on games in their major franchises. If Nintendo continues to utilize developers like Retro, they will definitely see a lot more sales; I doubt, though, that they will ever dominate like they did in the NES and SNES days.
In Metroid Prime, you're the famous galactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran. The game takes place just after the very first game, and before Metroid II on the old GameBoy. The original Metroid game's revelation that Samus is female character, something that was only shown with a specific ending, was pretty huge for its day. At the time, there were very few female main characters in games back then. Metroid Prime provides a full storyline of how Samus came to be, how she got her armor, and what the evil Space Pirates' newest plans are.
Metroid Prime is a first person shooter. I've seen it said so many times that it's an exploration/adventure game in a first-person mode. To me, that just means it's an FPS with non-linear gameplay. First-person games generally haven't really gotten along well with console controllers, and while Prime does well on the GameCube controller, I still feel that a mouse and keyboard would do this game far more justice.
Most console FPS games follow a specific formula that started with Halo on the Xbox last year - the left analog stick does the strafing and moving forwards or backwards, and the right stick allows you to turn and aim up/down. In Prime, however, they decided to go with an enhanced version of the older style console FPS controls - it uses a single analog stick which moves you forwards and backwards, and turns you left or right.
One might wonder how the player is supposed to aim or sidestep then. Holding the right shoulder button allows you to free-look around, which is very handy when scanning around looking for clues. Holding left shoulder button allows you to sidestep and even lock onto enemies - if you do that, sideways movement works like a classic "circle strafe". The D-pad and yellow C-stick control weapon and visor changes, and these are definitely handy to have at a single touch. The system works fairly well, although the argument could be made that a Halo-like control scheme could have been added anyway.
The lock-on system is extremely handy, and while FPS purists generally hate any form of auto-aim, this game isn't about aim - Retro knew this from the start. Keep your aiming skill for FPS games on the PC where a mouse and keyboard are available; Prime is about dodging and picking which weapons to use against enemies. Still, in a perfect world, I would have loved to have seen some sort of mouse and keyboard option to appeal to everyone.
I'll say it right now: I think Metroid Prime is the best-looking FPS ever made for any system. The style is highly varied, environments are just plain wondrous, and I very rarely saw the frame rate drop below 60fps. This is a visual masterpiece; anyone who doubts the power of the GameCube has to see this game.
The first graphical thing about Metroid Prime you'll notice is that Samus' front visor is fully modelled, which shows the HUD and other information. There are different visors to use, which is a source of many of the game's breathtaking visual effects. Certain enemies in the game will also affect your visor, blocking your vision and the like. The coolest thing about the visor, though, is when a bright blast hits nearby; you can see Samus' own face in the visor's reflection. While it is a subtle effect that only lasts for a split second at a time, it is one of the coolest bits of eye candy in the game.
The monsters that you fight in Metroid Prime are in the classic style; they range from tiny nuisances to massive bosses that you won't be able to even see all of at one time. Prime is also non-flinching in its presentation of the whole package, as many of the flashiest fights also happen in very highly detailed environments. I have to wonder now just how much further the GameCube can be pushed, because these graphics are outstanding.
Prime just oozes tons of special effects; weapons charge up and let out huge blasts, the ice beam freezes enemies very satisfyingly, and the game supplies plenty of visual feedback when you get hit or are near environmental hazards. Even the most mundane of activities, like scanning a monster for information on it, will bring up multiple diagrams of the monster along with a description. Extra details like these contribute to the atmosphere of the whole game, and I'm very glad they spent the time to do it.
If you dislike the standard Metroid formula of exploring, killing, returning to older areas with new abilities, and having to re-kill when you return to those old areas, this may not be the game for you. Metroid Prime modernizes the old formula, yet keeps it classic enough to where many of the tricks and abilities from the old games are reused here.
It seems that the biggest complaints about the previous Metroid games were that the playable world became massively wide open. Sometimes players would search and backtrack for hours to find the next area to advance the game. It was made even worse by allowing you to get new abilities and items, which allowed access to doors and other places you might have never thought of trying.
Retro has fixed this completely by giving you hints on your next destination. That doesn't mean you are led around by the nose, though; there are still quite a few visual puzzles you will need to solve. But getting a new ability means generally that Prime will give you a place to check out in some other area - it's generally one that you can now only get to because of your new ability.
Well, what happens if you like the old style of gameplay with no hints whatsoever? You can turn them off and explore all you like. This system makes everyone happy, and it shows that Retro has spent a lot of time analyzing the previous games for their biggest faults.
Exploration is a major part of Metroid Prime, although there is plenty of killing to do as well. The general formula is to enter a room and kill everything in it; then the scanning for secrets or other clues starts. The thing about this game is that almost every single room is obviously unique from the rest - that's a big deal for such a massive game, and it helps players become more familiar with the game.
If Metroid Prime wasn't helpful enough in getting you through the whole adventure, the map system is easily the best map setup I have seen in any game. The map is in full 3D, and is easy to move around and look at. Doors that require certain beams (which you may or may not have at the time) are clearly marked, and each room on the map even has its own unique name. That makes it easy to find stuff and to get an idea for where to go for the last section of the game.
One impressive thing about Metroid Prime is that you will never see a loading screen. The game is structured in such a way that Samus is always moving; if you take an elevator, it shows Samus on it. Many of the major rooms are connected by small tunnels, which allows the game to load up necessary data before the player actually gets to the next room. Those small tunnels are still loaded with detail, though, making the player forget even the possibility of interrupting the game to load up more data.
Let's move on to secrets. One of the major draws in previous Metroid games for me was finding the secret items that were hidden away in the most devious of places. Retro has done a bit of this, although they generally are employing visual puzzles more than just hiding an item inside a block in the wall. Now you'll have to use your scanning visor to find clues about certain secrets, as well as look at certain rooms or tunnels and figure out a way to get to or through them. Rest assured that some of these items are hidden very well, which means beating this game with a 100% ratio is going to take a while. The environments are so detailed that Retro even hid a few of the secret items right out in plain sight; it will take a keen eye to see a few of them.
Fights in Metroid Prime are somewhat unique. Since aim isn't a big issue, the focus is instead on dodging your enemy's shots, finding weak points, and figuring out how to exploit them. Bosses will require you to do a wide variety of things to kill them, including switching visors and weapons throughout a single fight. On top of that, you'll need to target specific areas of a boss at certain times, all which add to the challenge. The bosses come in quite a few varieties, although the old classics are here - space pirates, Metroids (of course), and more.
If you dislike jumping "puzzles", then Metroid Prime probably won't wind up being your favorite game. There are several areas where several fairly exact jumps in a row are needed. While instant death is never done in Prime's jumping puzzles, it can still be frustrating to land in lava, lose a bunch of health, and then start over.
Metroid games will generally require you to return to older areas with your new gear, and Prime is no exception. Gaining new weapons and abilities means opening up new territory in older areas, but it might also mean that new monsters have inhabited areas you've been to. Sometimes this element is really cool, making the world feel a bit more alive. Other times, though, it gets a tad annoying. You might even see some of the early bosses in a few areas when you return later, and they're generally easier because of the new items you wind up with.
Samus can also turn into a little ball, which allows her to roll through tunnels and sneak under blocked passages. When in morph ball mode, the camera switches to a third person view, and then gracefully moves back to FPS mode when you switch back. It all looks wonderful, and plays just about as well; some of the game's hardest-to-find secrets will involve you searching around while rolled up into a ball. There are even some old 2D-style visual puzzles you will have to do in order to get a few extra items.
This time around, Metroid Prime includes quite a bit of plot, which is all played out through your scanning visor. There's no speech or anything of the sort, but here, that's a good thing. The game's overall style is similar to classic Metroid, but here there is enhanced gameplay, awesome visuals, and a deeper story than in any Metroid game.
While Samus is a female character, Nintendo and Retro have refrained from cheapening the Metroid name by playing this up. She's a warrior, and she stays that way. While the Metroid games have always given players a small visual reward for beating them with high completion ratios or low times, a picture of her in a bathing suit is the most we've ever seen. And during the game, the most you'll see is Samus' eyes through her visor. The rest is left as pretty much a mystery.
During my time playing Metroid Prime, I've had the game crash on me multiple times. These are full system lockups, and even the GameCube's Reset button did nothing. No other games do this for me. After talking to a Nintendo representative, it seems that my GameCube itself needs servicing and that this is not a common problem. It seems that Prime is a bit more demanding of the GameCube itself, and it can bring to light problems that other games don't. Despite the fact that none of my other games crash my GameCube, the Nintendo rep assured me that it was a hardware problem. I still managed to get through the game, but a crash every few hours was irritating.
Prime has a very wide variety of sound effects, many of which are perfect for the overall sci-fi theme of the game. Ambience is all over, and it all mingles with the sounds of your weapons and nearby enemies very well. Explosions are big, the weapons sound terrific, and the screams of fallen opponents are very satisfying.
In my opinion, Metroid games should have music that is used very often and conveys the mood of the environments being explored. Music is something that is so often ignored in first person shooters - especially the ones that are trying to be as realistic as possible. Retro Studios understood that music is a major part of a Metroid game's mood, though, and it greatly enhances the overall atmosphere. The original composer of the classic Metroid themes has done the music here, and it's almost as good as the old stuff. Maybe it's my rose-colored glasses, though.
Many of the older themes are re-done in Prime, with a slightly modernized sound to them. The best one is probably the Magmoor Cavern music, which is a pretty strict remake of the classic Norfair theme. While I find that the music is excellent in Prime, I still think that Super Metroid's music was superior.
It just amazes me that Nintendo actually went that far out on a limb with Metroid Prime; on top of that, Retro Studios has delivered an awesome gameplay experience as a result. Prime is an excellent single-player game that successfully follows the classic Metroid formula while modernizing the graphics, atmosphere, and non-linear style. This is an instant classic that appeals to the casual players, and yet still will keep dedicated players searching for secrets for weeks.
While Nintendo has lost a massive part of its market share in the last five to seven years, it's games like this that will bring them back to the forefront of console gaming. As long as they allow excellent developers like Retro Studios the freedom to make great games with their proven franchises, Nintendo will prosper.