Part One :: Part Two
Metroid Prime is an exceptionally beautiful game. Its mode of representation is both
technically adept and artistically mature. Instead of rationing impressive sights to a
few widely-spaced setpieces, Retro Studios have expended effort on making every part of the game world
visually compelling. Every room in the game is uniquely modelled, textured, lit and furnished, completely
casting off the orthagonal, cookie-cutter architecture that has been the mainstay of so many first- and
third-person action games. The process of exploration is constantly rewarded with graphical novelties
large and small, tempting the player (long after the corners of the map have been filled) to occasionally
stop for a moment and pan the view around to take in the sights. Indeed, short of actively seeking out a
darkened corner under some stairs, it is difficult to not have something visually interesting in
view at any given time.
The attention to detail is the game is continually surprising. Even the least functionally important
objects and locations have been subjected to layer upon layer of refinement, ensuring that the player will
notice new details each time they play the game.
Many of these details work to strengthen the illusion of the environment being dynamic and interactive,
the numerous ways (described previously) that the environment can affect Samus's visor being the most
obvious example. Many elements react to being shot at or approached. Schools of fish scatter from weapons
fire and regroup to travel in another direction. Leaves can be dislodged from trees. Water splashes and
ripples. Charged Power Beam shots even bend the air around them. The birds circling far above the
Chozo Ruins can be shot out of the sky. Walking through a thick carpet of flowers releases clouds of
pollen - walking over charred volcanic rocks releases black ash.
The most impressive details are those that try to anticipate the expectations the player might
reasonably have of a real location. Pieces of machinery such as save stations might seem incongruous in the
wilderness areas, so we see that they are lashed into place with suspension cables and rivets, and have
power lines trailing across the floor to unseen power sources. In the Phendrana Drifts, prehistoric
fish can be seen frozen in the glacial ice. Space Pirate computers have claw-shaped control panels. At the
Landing Site, the player can observe that the water level has changed recently, and can even see the
direction of the current from the pattern left in the mud of the river banks. (A similar effect is seen in
the tree roots in the Life Grove.) When using the X-Ray Visor, the player can see the bones in
The opening scene aboard the Orpheon contains some of the most exhaustive attention to detail, with the
scan visor relaying a unique forensic analysis (complete with diagrams) of each dead or wounded Space
Pirate, giving the player an insight into the events that have recently taken place. Throughout the game the
scan visor readouts alert the player to tricorder-style measurements of environmental factors, sometimes
providing clues but just as frequently simply adding some atmosphere through slightly hokey technical
jargon. (Many of the buttons in the visor display, in accordance with the Power Suit's origins, are
labelled with Chozo pictograms.)
Even once the player thinks they have seen everything, new observations will still surprise them. Noticing
that the Space Pirates have rows of fine hairs on their limbs like houseflies. Or how the balls of ice
that encase enemies attacked with the Ice Beam taper away from the direction of the shot. Or how the
light pulses outside of the Phazon Mines to simulate clouds moving in front of the sun. Or how stray shots
illuminate the banks of invisible forcefields at the boundary of a Space Pirate outpost. Or how Samus
adjusts the controls of her Beam Cannon or holds out her palm to feel raindrops (along with many other
idle animations) when the controls are left alone for a few seconds.
Metroid Prime does not use bump-mapping to increase the apparent detail of walls and surfaces. Instead,
most of the walls are not decorated solely with a flat texture, but also feature some extruded 3D modelling.
Chinks and cracks in walls, vines, pipes, rivets, machinery, ornamentation and missing or scattered
bricks and tiles are generally modelled in 3D instead of being 'painted on'. In most cases each room is a
unique model so the illusion is not broken by rows of identical wall sections.
The game also manages to include a fair amount of high quality two-dimensional artwork as well. A great
many of the items presented by the scan visor (and stored in the logbook) are illustrated with one or more
stylised rendered image.
The modelling and animation of Samus and her adversaries are difficult to fault. Environment mapping is
used liberally to give everything (from the Plated Beetle's carapace to Samus's suit) a polished metallic
appearance. Space Pirate blades and Samus's Morph Ball leave light trails (as used to great effect in Soul
Calibur). Animation and character detail might not be quite as extravagant as the cutting edge 3D fighting
games, but it is well above the standard set in most first person action games.
From a technical standpoint Metroid Prime successfully realises a number of ideals that have been quietly
sacrificed in games from less disciplined developers. After the title screen and initial menus, everything
in the game is rendered in real-time. The game runs at a solid sixty frames per second, with only the very
rarest extremes of on-screen activity lowering the frame rate momentarily. 14 Adding to the level
of immersion still further, there are no dead-stop loading pauses in the game (those that remain manifest
themselves as elevator rides and the occasional door that takes a couple of seconds to open). Round this
off with hardware lighting, ragdoll physics, rippling water, and some fairly advanced particle effects
and you're looking perhaps the best technical performance so far coaxed out of the GameCube platform, and a
vindication of Nintendo's faith in the talents of Retro Studio's coders.
The Metroid series has always been reliant on a distinctive audio portion to help build an otherworldly
atmosphere, and Metroid Prime continues this tradition. The game's music15 seems to be tracked
rather than pre-recorded (to reduce disc-accessing), although this is not particularly noticeable especially
as much of it is synthesizer based.
The overall effect of the soundtrack is to give the game an epic, operatic feel - at least where it is
needed. For the less dramatically charged sections, the music drones along inoffensively. Each unique
encounter (i.e. boss) in the game its own piece of music. The Metroid title theme and the Chozo theme
repeatedly crop up as leitmotifs during certain key events in the game.
During the Orpheon sequence, the music is based around a creepy, gothic organ, building up an air of
suspense as the player edges closer to the thing that has killed the crew. The organ stabs become more
frenzied and urgent as Samus makes her escape.
The regions of Tallon IV are all backed with distinctive musical styles. The Chozo Ruins have a low-key
soundtrack of whistling wind, muffled percussion and sand-shakers. The Tallon Overworld has unobtrusive
bass guitar noodling. The Phendrana Drifts feature uplifting harp and piano. The Magmoor Caverns
have rhythmically pounding drums, wooden blocks and deep chanting, suggesting hard labour. The crashed ship
has some of the best music in the game, with a dreamy piano theme fitting well with the reduced gravity and
mysterious atmosphere of this underwater environment. Chozo holy places have similarly haunting themes,
based around harp, chanting and synth whooshes.
A surprising amount of ambient sound effects are built into the musical score. This is most apparent in
Phazon-rich areas, where the music becomes a garbled mixture of resonating chimes and Geiger counter
The one piece of music that the player will learn to dread is the Space Pirate theme. After a shrill organ
build-up that seems to go on forever, suddenly all hell breaks loose with a siren-like insistent
synthesizer punctuated by a discordant, wounded-animal guitar wailing.
The game's sound effects were handled by a separate team of external contractors. Samus's suit makes
metallic clanks and car bonnet thuds as it collides with foreign bodies. Servos whine as the player
adjusts the pitch and yaw of the view. Tallon wildlife make suitably alien clicks and growls as they
attack, and eerie shrieks as they are vanquished. The European version of the game adds a female computer
voice to better alert the player to data being added to the logbook, and hazardous environmental situations
(such as intense radiation and triggered security systems).
In spite of the substantial advances it makes in many areas, Metroid Prime is still some way short of being
the perfect game. A number of issues have been raised by players and critics with such regularity that
they have practically joined the list of the game's distinguishing features. Some of these criticisms are
completely justified, whereas others are more disputable.
The primary bone of contention raised by Metroid Prime's detractors concerns the control scheme. The game
does not implement the system used by most first-person console games. Movement (walking back and forth and
turning left and right) is controlled by the left analogue stick. Strafing and pitching are performed by
depressing the controller's trigger buttons while moving this stick. The right analogue stick (the C-stick)
is not used for movement at all, instead being used to select between the four beam weapons (mirroring the
function of the d-pad to its left, which is used to select between the four visor modes). The system is
most reminiscent of the cursor keys and toggle-freelook control scheme used by early Quake players. As
with most first-person console games, pitching the view does not play a major role most of the time, so the
lack of an analogue stick dedicated to freelook does not have a serious impact. Aiming is mainly handled
by the 'lock-on' auto-targeting system (bearing in mind that Metroid Prime is not an FPS, so does not demand manual sharp-shooting skills).
The control scheme is perfectly serviceable for the bulk of the game, with only situations with multiple
fast-moving, close-range targets overstretching it. A few players claim that they just can't get to grips
with the controls, however this does not necessarily indicate a failing of the system itself. Control
preferences are a highly personal matter, and any game that offers a pre-determined control scheme is bound
to upset some people.
This brings us on to another issue with the controls - the fact that they cannot be configured to any
great degree (for instance, the buttons cannot be remapped). It could be argued that there is basically
only 'one of anything' on the Nintendo GameCube controller, meaning that it would be difficult to remap the
entire control scheme in any meaningful way, but it would have been nice to switch the missile and map
buttons, for instance.
A criticism raised by many players who have spent an extended period of time with the game is that the later
stages involve too much backtracking through regions that have already been explored and solved. This
criticism is odd because it seems to judge Metroid Prime to a different standard to any other moderately
non-linear adventure game. The only games that explicitly don't involve backtracking in fact are
first-person shooters, which in the wake of GoldenEye 007 and Half-Life have by and large stuck to a
rigidly linear structure.
The problem with Metroid Prime is the nature of the backtracking. Traversing areas in 3D seems to take
much longer (and require more concentration) than traversing their 2D counterparts. For most of the game
the respawning enemies turn from a deadly obstacle to a fun diversion as Samus's arsenal expands, however
in the twilight stages some random encounters are added that are a formidable threat, and can take several
minutes to wipe out before the doors are unlocked. This is unfortunate, and seems to have been implemented
to dissuade players from revisiting certain areas to find the last few secrets. The deterrent is too
effective and the player ends up seemingly getting punished.
The most audacious criticism of the game is that it is too 'dull'! There are a number of faulty
observations that could lead to this conclusion. Again, a large contributing factor is the game being
judged by the standards of first-person shooters. Metroid Prime is not a narrative-driven game, at least
not in the sense of character interaction (which would have probably really pissed off Metroid
purists anyway) and cinematic cutscenes. Apart from the computer voice that dictates certain cues,
there is no speech in the game. The players' experience is also probably being unduly coloured by
frustration at the later sections of the game, which might cause them to forget the eventful ride (the
first encounter with a Sheegoth, when the lights go out in the lab, the flying pirates, and so on...) that
got them there. A classic case of concentrating too much on the destination and ignoring the journey.
(Anyone still thinking the game is dull should go and play Myst for a few hours, that should give them
Another common trap that critics fall into is singling out one element of the gameplay as the only one that
is important to the experience. "The combat is too simplistic," or "the puzzles are too obvious,"
or "the platforming is too difficult". The point is that the game is about combat, puzzle-solving,
manual dexterity and exploration, sometimes all at once.
A criticism that does have some validity is that many of the game's 'toys' (see the Power Suit
section above) are under-utilised. The thermal visor is only useful in a few sections of the game, and some
of those feel rather too contrived. (To be honest, the thermal visor's thunder was stolen to some extent by
the one seen in Splinter Cell, which is put to ingenious uses such as detecting the heat signatures left
on the buttons of numeric keypads.) The X-Ray visor is used even less, and the grapple beam is only
necessary (needing as it does predetermined 'grapple points') on about two occasions in the entire game. The
morph ball (and its additional abilities) are used a great deal throughout the game, however it could be
argued that its use is not as well integrated as it could have been. (Generally, the player switches into
Morph Ball mode, traverses a discrete Morph Ball-specific area and then switches back at the far end.)
The final criticism (and flaw) is one that has a major effect on the game as a whole and cannot be put
down to subjective differences. This is the only issue that prevents me from lauding Metroid Prime as the
Best Game Ever Made without hesitation. Ironically, it starts to become apparent as Samus gets
closer to the source of the corruption on Tallon IV. Once the Phazon Mines are accessed, the game becomes
progressively more challenging to the point where all but the most skilled players will be broken. The
Phazon Mines themselves (one part of the game where combat becomes the main focus) I found to be
unforgiving, but fair. (After all, it can hardly be expected for the Space Pirates to roll out the red
carpet for the main enemy of their species. And of course the save stations are widely spaced - honestly,
some people want everything handed to them on a plate...)
The encounter with the penultimate boss (Meta Ridley) took me about a dozen attempts, and nearly caused
me to give up until I finally figured out how to do beat it. (Victory, when it came, was indescribably satisfying.) However it was the final boss that finally made me
throw in the towel and resort to cheating. Without wanting to give too much away, the final enemy in the
game is graphically flawless, and has been lovingly crafted to feature many different attacks and surprises
for a truly epic battle. Unfortunately, it is also nigh-on impossible to beat and not much fun to
It is hard to say how much this problem detracts from the game as a whole. The only thing the potential
purchaser should be aware of is that this game will almost certainly provide hours of entertainment, but
they should enter into the quest knowing that they might never triumph over it. (Unless they're better
than me, which isn't saying much.)
Metroid Prime is a big, important, complex game. It is one (and perhaps the only) game that should
definitely be in all GameCube owners' collections, and is a powerful argument for
purchasing the system in the first place. It marks the point, more so than GTA III,
MGS2, or even Halo, where the current wave of console gaming truly begins. There is
no point of reference with the previous generation of console games (although the series history of course
ensures there are links going back further). And it has no direct competitor in this generation.
Everything in the game is there for a reason - there is no flab. Each element has been implemented with
care far above and beyond the minimum standard that so many developers settle for in an effort to tick off
all the items on their checklists. In spite of a potentially daunting level of complexity, the game's
premise could be argued to work irrespectively of the underlying technology.16
Metroid Prime turns many pieces of accepted wisdom on their heads. It's a first-person game that isn't a
shooter. It's a game that presents a world without resorting to cinematic conventions to
tell a story. One that lets the player explore at their own pace. One that features a female
protagonist who doesn't express her 'empowerment' by wearing skimpy costumes. Best of all, it basically
solves the problem of making platform gameplay work with a first-person view, which was for a
long time considered hopelessly difficult (with only the obscure early PlayStation game
JumpingFlash! having had much success previously).
It is incredibly, inexhaustibly atmospheric and immersive. The rich aesthetic
feedback not only makes the game satisfying, it goes as far as making the player feel
cool. In control. Feathering the left trigger to kill multiple targets with the lock on. Freeze/missiling
Metroids and flying pirates. Effortlessly leaping from platform to platform. Negotiating tricky obstacles
with the Morph Ball. Uncovering secrets with the aid of the visors. Learning to anticipate a boss's attacks
and exploit their weaknesses. Striking kick-ass poses in snap cutscenes. OK, so it doesn't quite have the
'cosiness' of some role-playing games where the world is large enough to allow branching away from the
main plot, but this is inevitable given the Metroid premise.
In short, Metroid Prime is how we imagined Super Metroid would be in the scary world of the 21st Century.
Only better. It's actually quite astonishing to think how far things have progressed in under a decade.
Metroid Prime represents the current state of the art in video games. Unsurprisingly, a sequel is already
in development. It will be interesting to see whether Retro Studios will manage to coax still greater
performance from the GameCube, and whether they will address the few but important
criticisms levelled at their first game.
Japan: Series history, interviews with contributors, online comics.
United States: Unconventionally presented encyclopaedia of Metroidiana.
Europe: Slightly clumsy Flash-based exploration game.
Oh, I forgot to mention the title screen, but Tim Rogers does a good job of describing it here:
Finished the game? Speed-running and sequence-breaking tricks (plus a rundown of the numerous differences between the different territories' versions of the game) can be found here:
http://www.metroid2002.com/ (warning: many spoilers)
1. An event that had contributed to this lengthy hiatus was the untimely death of series creator Gunpei
in a car accident in 1997
. It has also been suggested that it was felt that the hardware releases of
intervening years (the Nintendo 64
and Game Boy Color
) were not up to the job of bringing the game into a
modern context, or maybe Nintendo
just didn't have the resources to juggle another franchise, as for much
of the period their development staff were engaged in cranking out lucrative Zelda
games as fast as they could. It was also true that the Metroid series had only ever been moderately
successful in Japan
(although it had faired better in North America
2. Previous instalments: Metroid (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1986), Metroid II: The Return of Samus
(Game Boy, 1991), and Super Metroid (a.k.a. Metroid 3, Super Nintendo, 1994).
3. The stunning establishing shot before this battle is recreated in Nintendo's (pointlessly live
action) TV commercial for the game.
4. With the exception of the thermal and x-ray visor technology, new additions to the suit's repertoire
which are stolen from the Space Pirates.
5. 'Varia' is a mistranslation of 'Barrier', a hold-over from the original Metroid that is presumably
now retained for nostalgia (or consistency) reasons.
6. It's perhaps worth mentioning that one of Metroid Prime's Senior Engineers was David 'Zoid' Kirsch,
creator of another famous game with a grappling hook, Threewave CTF.
7. This ability is inherited from the earlier Metroid games, where, if I recall correctly, it was not
originally anticipated by the developers and allowed players to reach certain areas earlier than they were
'supposed' to be able.
8. There is no implementation of file management. Once a game has been started, it can only be saved in the
same slot. This demands a degree of caution from the player as it is possible to save the game after having
missed the only opportunity to scan a particular logbook item, thereby ruining their chances of getting
100% of scans.
9. Each of the main regions has its own colour motif: Tallon Overworld (forest green), Chozo Ruins
(ochre), Magmoor Caverns (brown and dark red), Phendrana Drifts (blue-white), Phazon Mines
10. If it's not obvious from that spoiler-avoiding description, the Chozo themselves were being affected by
the Phazon. Their ghosts haunt the Ruins to ward off intruders, but Phazon madness causes them to
attack Samus, not recognising her as their prophesied champion.
11. Four Bonus Galleries (collections of production artwork, similar to the bonus features found on many
movie DVDs) can be unlocked by completing the following goals: Collecting 50% of all logbook scans;
Collecting 100% of all logbook scans; Collecting 100% of all items; Completing the game on 'Hard' difficulty
mode (which is unlocked by completing the game at the standard difficulty level). The bonus galleries
(especially the gallery of creature designs) are full of remarkable pieces of concept art, giving some idea
of the incredible amount of planning and preparation that went into the game. Slightly fuzzy screen captures
of the images can be seen here: http://members.lycos.co.uk/metali/
12. A similar storytelling approach is used by the System Shock games, Bioforge, and other games where
there are no non-hostile characters remaining in the game world to inform the player.
13. Or alternatively the appropriate Action Replay code. The data for the bonus features is already present
on the Metroid Prime game disc. No data (apart from an 'unlock' command) is transferred during the
14. Without wishing to ignite a format war, the Microsoft Xbox, by comparison, seems to play host to more
than its fair share of games where someone has decided that thirty frames per second is 'good enough'.
15. Music by Kenji Yamamoto assisted by Kouichi Kyuma.
16. It stands a fighting chance of passing the '92 test' (http://www.setpixel.com/content/?ID=109),
that is, it could be implemented using only technology available in 1992 and still be enjoyable. In fact a
game exists (Super Metroid) that pretty much proves this.