In the winter of 2002, waiting to finally get my hands on the latest installment of The Legend of Zelda
on my beloved Nintendo GameCube, I settled in with a new game I knew little about. At this time, I had never played a Metroid game, save for maybe ten minutes wandering aimlessly in Super Metroid at a friend’s house years prior. I was familiar with Samus Aran through Super Smash Bros. and Super Smash Bros. Melee only.
Sixteen years later Metroid Prime sits firmly in my list of all-time favorite games. I have played quick rounds from start to finish and I have soaked in its world. I watch few development teams as closely as I watch Retro Studios thanks to this game.
As far as games go, I love Metroid Prime.
I love the title screen. It’s eerie. It’s strange. The music is fantastic. Right off the bat, there’s something different, something serious, something alien about this game. For me, in 2002, it felt profoundly distinct from any other Nintendo game I’d played.
I love the opening. You begin the game investigating the frigate Orpheon in orbit above Tallon IV. Samus’s gunship moves in slowly as the music builds. The bounty hunter emerges, leaps, flips, lands, and observes her surroundings coolly. The camera swings around and pushes you into her helmet. You’re alone here. It’s quiet, haunting, and mysterious. An anxious curiosity moves you forward as you learn how to control each of Samus’s abilities: her scan visor, charge beam, morph ball, and missiles. Finally, there’s a boss fight followed by a three-minute escape sequence – all a great homage to the original Metroid’s ending. Finally, you land on the surface of Tallon IV and the exploration, and investigation, begins.
This is such a good introduction. In the first thirty minutes you get a small taste of every mechanic in the game, the core game loop, minus claiming a power up. Everything here sets the mood for what the rest of the game will be. It’s a perfect demo, tutorial, and pilot episode, all in one.
I love the immersion. Before Metroid Prime, and sometimes even after, I did not enjoy first-person games. They felt claustrophobic: where’s my peripheral vision? They also felt faked: am I really a person or a floating camera with a gun? Metroid Prime offered a simple solution: Samus wears a helmet, so your screen should look like a visor window. The inside edges of the helmet are drawn around the edges of the TV screen. Rain drops, bug juice, and steam obscure your vision. Reflected light illumines Samus’s eyes behind the helmet you’re looking through. Electronic equipment and drones produce static interference in the interface. It feels like you’re actually walking around in the world, interacting with it as it’s interacting with you.
The additional visors take this further. The X-ray visor reveals Samus’s hands beneath her armored suit. The thermal visor shows the working of organic life and artificial power sources around you. The scan visor gives details about how this world moves and breaths. The world is alive; you are an alien here, uncovering its secrets, interrupting its everyday life.
I love the boss fights. Thardus. The Omega Pirate. Meta Ridley. Metroid Prime. Each one is large, imposing, and unique. Each one tests your mastery of the game’s mechanics, along with your ability to switch between tools at a moment’s notice. They’re challenging, but just enough so that if you know what you’re doing, you will win, and the victory will still feel satisfying. They feel like battles Samus deserves.
I love the lore. Everything about the scan visor makes me happy. Learning how plants work and when structures were built give Tallon IV life and history. Seeing X-rays of creatures make them feel like they might exist somewhere in a distant galaxy. Giving hints through material types – this is made of sandstone, this is made of brimstone, etc. – is brilliant for directing the player without giving away the answer, allowing the player to feel clever.
Reading about the Chozo, their life on this planet, their plans for the future, their history with Samus, is all very chilling. There’s a sadness to it that rings in the loneliness of the game’s exploration. This place was once vibrant, but you now walk its decrepit halls alone. Seeing the hope the Chozo held for a savior, a “Defender,” Samus, bolsters your commitment to the task at hand: it is no accident you are here, and you must win, for the sake of those who made you what you are now.
Coming across the space pirate’s various logs is equally enjoyable, especially as you piece together the fear and disdain they have for Samus – for you. They know that they cannot match you in combat. They know they cannot fully match your abilities, though they still try. And to then defeat them, time and time again, is incredibly satisfying. It’s good to be the hero.
I love the controls. This may be more controversial, but I feel like Metroid Prime was built beautifully for the GameCube controller – or perhaps that the GameCube controller was built for Metroid Prime. Sure, it doesn’t have dual-analog control, so there’s no way to move while aiming freely, but I honestly don’t feel that the game needs it, at least not as it’s designed. Plus, there’s something visceral about clicking down the L button – which does “click” on the GameCube controller – when targeting or swapping between targets. Using the D-Pad to toggle between visors and the C-Stick to flick between weapons feels natural, possibly more so because of their appropriate layout on the HUD. Even the over-sized A button right in the middle of the right side of the controller, which fires Samus’s arm cannon, seems intended specifically for this game. Plus, movement in general is smooth.
I love the 3D map. There’s not much else to say here. The map is awesome. It looks and feels like a sci-fi map. It also helps in a game focused on exploration that encourages poking into every nook and cranny for power-ups.
I love the audio. I hum the music to this game weekly. Each track fits its environment perfectly, and the tracks switch out when moving between zones or from non-combat to combat with utmost precision. The aesthetics of loneliness, exploration, and danger or fully realized thanks to the music. Creatures and weapons sound great and distinct enough that you can tell what’s nearby based solely on audio cues as well.
Best of all is the soft hum from power-ups hidden throughout the game. The first time I reached 100% on this game I did so by turning the music to 0 and the SFX to 100 with my surround-sound speakers turned up to guide me. The fact I could do this to navigate a world in a video game was astounding to me!
I could likely go on and on about this game, and I’m sure I have when talking to friends about it. Level design is excellent; mechanics are taught well; the graphics hold up great; the game even supports widescreen! I don’t know if there’s any way to empirically declare a game a masterpiece, or what the accurate criteria for such a claim would be, but I would gladly nominate Metroid Prime for such a category.
Retro Studios, thank you for this wonderful product of craftsmanship.