Reviewed: January 30, 2004
Released: November 19, 2002
One of the things that never gets old about video games is revisiting a favorite world or universe again and again. Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, Super Mario and Metal Gear are just some of the venerable series that have been wowing players for decades, not only because of their innovative gameplay and high production values but also because of the places and characters they have created.
Perhaps the most underappreciated of all such series are the Metroid games. The original Metroid for the NES was actually kind of a flop in Japan, though it and its two sequels were successful stateside and have developed quite a cult following. Unfortunately, the lack of a series update on the N64 means that only older gamers really know about it.
Hopefully, the release of Metroid Prime for the GameCube will change all that. Ms. Aran has given Lara Croft her PS1 time in the sun; with the advent of the 128-bit systems, it's about time for a fashionably late return. The series is back with a vengeance, this time as a first-person shooter style game that's so much more than just a first-person shooter, it's a shame there isn't a better term to describe it. It's a hybrid of platformer, adventure, and FPS, with enough cool sci-fi style and pulse-pounding action to make any self-respecting gamer sit up and take notice. Start your drooling, fanboys: Metroid Prime is here and it's set to redefine the single-player FPS genre.
They say a woman's touch can change everything for the better, and this conventional wisdom seems to hold true for Metroid Prime. No sweaty, steroid-pumped soldiers running around spouting off one-liners here - from the very start, this game exudes a sleek, cool sci-fi sensibility that's less "Dogs of War vs. the Creepy Mutated Things" and more like what we all dream being a hyper-cool outer space bounty hunter would be like.
At the outset, we find Samus responding to an unidentified distress signal from a seemingly derelict space station. Soon, the story blossoms into a simple but well-paced and entertaining tale complete with old foes and a new planet to explore.
Tallon IV, the planet on which most of the game takes place, is a masterpiece of interlocking level design. An intuitive map system keeps everything in perspective and occasionally lets players know where to head next, though it doesn't map out how to get there, which keeps it from feeling too guided. Tallon IV is divided into several regions, each with a different theme. The ice-covered Phendrana Drifts, mysterious Chozo Ruins and fiery Magmoor Caverns all have distinctly different feels to them. I never knew what to expect when I entered each new door. It never stops being exciting because the areas are so expertly designed and there are so many new sights to see.
Gameplay, at first, feels like a standard (albeit very polished) FPS - there are targeting buttons and an auto-strafe ability while locked on. However, the main point of play in Metroid Prime isn't to go as far as you can against an insurmountable horde of enemies until you die in a blaze of glory. It's exploration, up, down, around, beneath and through every nook and cranny. In this way it's more like many platform games. The resulting crossbreed is pure magic. It's hard to explain because it's so subtle, but the differences are profound.
Every area is a delightful hybrid of platformer and adventure-game levels - Precise jumping and looking for secrets can get you far, but there are always a few things that you can't... quite... get to, which adds to the anticipation factor and keeps the game interesting when it could otherwise become frustrating. With each suit upgrade, more of the tantalizing items become available.
Each "room" is separated from the others by doors that must, as in every Metroid game, be blasted open. Different weapons must be used on different doors. Figuring out how to reach or open a door is immensely satisfying because it's rewarded with a new room to explore and the subsequent promise of a new upgrade to Samus's space suit.
The upgrades themselves represent one of the best changes Metroid Prime makes from the standard FPS formula - there are only five weapons-based upgrades in the whole game. Instead of just supplying more and more ways to frag things, Metroid Prime is filled with all sorts of inventive and useful toys. "This one has a higher rate of fire, but that one's more powerful" has been the extent of strategy for many FPSs, aside from honing strafing skill and finding new places to hide. That sort of play gets old really fast, which is why FPSs (with a few notable exceptions) feel tired and warmed-over. In this game, the options feel infinite by comparison. Over time, Samus gains the ability, among other things, to perform double jumps, roll into a ball, use a heat-vision scanner, swing on a grappling apparatus and more.
The monsters are another high point. Each enemy is a new challenge, unique from the rest in the game, and there is often a trick to defeating them. Very rarely did I see enemies that you could just stand there and shoot at. The bosses in particular are as devilishly difficult as game bosses get: as of this writing, I have just beaten one of them - after six tries. That's an awful lot for someone who's been playing games as long as I have. They aren't impossible, but be prepared to have your ass handed to you on a plate more than a few times by Metroid Prime. Most of the time there are at least two or three steps involved in landing a blow on a main boss, and scanning to find any hint of a weakness (they don't just tell you; you have to infer it) is mandatory.
The really interesting thing is that sometimes, monsters that were bosses two hours ago will reappear as strong regular enemies later in the game. At that point, they seem like more of a joke than a challenge. This is a testament to the perfect difficulty curve the game has.
Metroid Prime is progressive scan compatible, but who cares? With graphics this crisp and effects this realistic (if you will), I can't imagine it looking much better in HD than it does already. It looks like a top-of-the-line PC game running on a sweet graphics card. Every line is laser-sharp and the textures are eye-popping. It's very difficult to put Samus in a position where the view is confusing, thanks to textures and actual damage mapping on the walls - things like stress fractures and small impact craters. These not only keep the larger textures from getting repetitive, they occasionally hide secrets or enemies as well.
Despite expansive, open environments, there's no draw-in to be found. Tallon IV looks so solid it's hard not to believe it might actually exist. Likewise, breakable objects shatter with a satisfying heaviness to them. And instead of just texture-mapped rocks and walls, there are also several plant species, running water, magma and more. Environmental effects include steam, snowflakes and sunlight that makes it harder to see the more directly you look at it, among other things.
Enemies are designed with nostalgia in mind, but there are plenty of new creatures to shoot at, too. Seeing zoomers and shriekbats in hi-res 3D was a huge trip for me. The new creatures take the cake, though - all are ingeniously and curiously designed. It really feels like another world.
One of the most impressive aspects of Metroid Prime's graphics are the visor effects, both environmental and upgraded. The upgraded effects include a scan visor, a thermal visor and more. Each one gives a different way to analyze things, and some (like the thermal visor) look really cool, too. As far as environmental effects, how's this for you: When Samus fires a bright blast close to a wall, the reflected light makes a reflection of her eyes appear on the inside of the visor. Talk about attention to detail! Raindrops, steam and mist from waterfalls all show up on the visor in different ways that look very realistic and add a lot to the feeling of being immersed in another reality.
The cutscenes are rendered in-game, but the graphics are so unbelievably razor-sharp (even for the already-clear GameCube) that it's no problem whatsoever. Watching a cutscene is a treat in Metroid Prime and they are well placed to advance the story.
The RIAA can arrest me if they want - I couldn't live without some of the music from this game and I had to go about acquiring it by... "unconventional" means. In these paranoid times, that itself should say a lot about the quality of Metroid Prime's soundtrack. A few songs are awesome remakes of numbers from the original Metroid, but most are entirely new and original pieces. At every step of the way, I was enchanted by the music. That's what it does - it adds another layer of that dreamy sci-fi coolness that this game is imbued with. It reminds you that this is not a gritty blast-em-up at a terrorist compound; it's a sweeping, action-filled epic adventure about a bounty hunter from outer space trying to stop dastardly villains from inadvertently destroying civilization. Each song is wonderful by itself; taken together, they are an entire facet of this game in and of themselves.
It's rare that I have anything to say about sound effects beyond that they're there and they either sound good or they don't. Metroid Prime is an exception. Owing to the sort of game it is, it was imperative for Retro Studios to come up with some killer sound effects for it. They've done an admirable job. Rather than thick, textured sound effects, they've opted for a lot of metallic and electric-type noises. Again, this is in keeping with the sleek look and feel of the game's world. Things don't rumble as often as they hiss in this title. The fact that Retro was so careful in picking effects is a testament to their quality. When I first used the Spider Ball upgrade to roll vertically up an electromagnetic track, the sound effects almost had me jumping up and down going "Cool! Cool!" Of course, my roommates wouldn't have appreciated the noise at 2 AM, no matter how cool it was, so I didn't. But I wanted to!
There's basically no voice acting in Metroid Prime - instead, the game overflows with text that can be saved for later reference. I have no reason to complain, though - unless Samus wanted to talk to herself, she wouldn't have any excuse to speak. She's basically alone except for the occasional hostile alien, and they never want to talk it out. Due to the very nature of the story, voice acting actually has no place in this title. It would have seemed extraneous and it was a good choice to not add any.
At its minimum, most players should be investing at least 25 hours the first time they play Metroid Prime. It took me about 32 hours to beat it, though. Both numbers are impressive for a game in which you really don't die all that often. Also, almost none of that time is spent just wandering aimlessly - there really are 30-plus hours of things to do here. There's a lot of world to explore on this little gigadisc. At the most, I can't see anyone taking longer than 40 hours to finish it. Still, this is well above and beyond most FPS games these days. Replay value is there in that playing the game never gets old. It gets quite a bit easier the second time through, but players won't want to stop visiting Tallon IV just because they beat Metroid Prime once.
Of course, in classic Nintendo gimmick tradition, players have the option to hook up their Metroid Fusion GBA game to the GameCube and unlock stuff. For completing Metroid Fusion and then linking up, Samus's Fusion Suit is unlocked in Metroid Prime. For beating Prime, the original Metroid is revealed as an option on Fusion. If you want to look at it that way, there's at least another 15 hours of gameplay value involved in this. Of course, getting to play the original Metroid is a treat, and getting the Fusion Suit is pretty cool. But don't bother if you don't already own all the necessary goods. I never like it when I'm forced to buy a $70 handheld system, a second $30 game and a $15 cable just to get a bit more out of my first $30 game. Still, for those with the dough, it's a nice bonus.
There's no multiplayer option whatsoever in Metroid Prime. In most FPS’s, this would detract significantly from the rating. Usually, the only real fun to be had in these games is playing capture the flag or "Frag the Scrub" with friends. In this case, however, the exploration-oriented levels and much tighter controls make Metroid Prime a game I just couldn't see in multiplayer. Besides, there's only one Samus; who would she fight against? The game was conceived as a solitary adventure and, as I mentioned above, simple combat is really not what it's all about. A multiplayer option would have felt like a cheap contrivance to sell more copies and I'm glad they didn't add one.
Go forth and purchase this game if you aren't just reading this so you can agree with me about the copy you already own. There's no need to rent it – it’s already dropped to $29 ($19 in some stores). If you like any sort of game genre with even a bit of an action element to it - racing, fighting, sports, platformer, anything - I guarantee you will like Metroid Prime. If you can't stand games in which you have to actually move around, then what are you doing here?
Metroid Prime looks as good if not better than the most cutting-edge PC games available. It's got a unique, cool as ice visual style and a soundtrack that should be winning awards. Most importantly, the gameplay is so finely tuned and tweaked as to be a sublime experience in and of itself. Even people with a record of bitter resentment toward FPSs can get the hang of it, and the most seasoned veterans of the genre will have their hands full and find themselves yelling, "that's impossible!" more often than they think.
For the amazing sound and graphics, the amount of solid playtime, and game design that's a work of art, I give Metroid Prime my highest rating.