Part One :: Part Two


Visuals

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 Samus's hands.

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.

Technical Merits

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.

Sound

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 feedback.

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).

Criticisms

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 some perspective.)

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 repeatedly attempt.

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.)

Conclusion

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.


Official Websites

Japan: Series history, interviews with contributors, online comics.

http://metroid.jp/

United States: Unconventionally presented encyclopaedia of Metroidiana. (Flash required)

http://www.metroid.com/prime/

Europe: Slightly clumsy Flash-based exploration game.

http://www.nintendo-europe.com/microsite/metroidprime/flash/player.htm

Oh, I forgot to mention the title screen, but Tim Rogers does a good job of describing it here:

http://insertcredit.com/features/moments/number1.html

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 Yokoi 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 and Pokémon 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 (violet).

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 unlocking process.

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.

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