I was at Staple!: The Independent Media Expo at the weekend. As I browsed the stalls, I wandered into range of a conversation between (I think) a guy from Dreampunk Productions, and someone who mentioned that he was a video game developer. Nothing unusual so far, there are a lot of video game developers around Austin. They were talking about a comic strip I hadn’t heard of, and the artists’ interest in making a video game about it–also not unusual. Then, the man with his back to me mentioned which company he worked for: Retro Studios.
The comic book guy hadn’t heard of them. But I had, and couldn’t help myself. “You made Metroid Prime. The best first person action-adventure game ever.” And so it was that I found myself talking to Mike Wikan, senior game designer for the Metroid Prime series.
Returning home and searching my web site, I found that I had written very little about the Metroid series–surprising, given how impressed I was with the games.
Let’s get the obvious statements out of the way first: If you have a Nintendo Wii, you should go buy the Metroid Prime Trilogy Collector’s Edition. You should probably hurry to do so, as Mr Wikan tells me that it’s out of print, and no more will be produced; prices are already starting to climb.
If you have an old GameCube sitting around somewhere, you should go buy at least the first Metroid Prime, which is the all-time highest rated GameCube game on Metacritic. Yes, better than Legend of Zelda. Better than Resident Evil 4.
If you don’t think first person shooters can work on a console, then you particularly ought to at least buy Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii and try it out, for reasons I’ll get to later.
First, let’s go back to the mid 80s. Having achieved commercial success with classic arcade games like Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers, Nintendo wanted to branch out and prove that their NES console could do more. So 1986 saw two groundbreaking games: the original Legend of Zelda, and the original Metroid.
Metroid was designed to be approachable to players expecting arcade action. At first, it seems like a scrolling platform game with a heavily armed protagonist. As you continue to play, however, it emerges that there’s a more complex story going on, and that exploration and mapping are an important part of the game.
There were many details of the game which were brand new at the time: The player was given freedom to explore in any direction. The soundtrack was moody and ambient, giving a feeling of loneliness. Completing the game required revisiting already-explored areas. Power-ups were permanent, rather than timed. Most famously of all, the protagonist was revealed at the end of the game to be female.
Metroid II continued the franchise on the Game Boy, before Super Metroid moved it to the SNES and added an inventory and save points. Super Metroid was universally acclaimed, and amongst SNES games is perhaps second only to Super Mario World.
So when Nintendo decided to revive the Metroid franchise for the GameCube, there was some major skepticism expressed by fans. The announcement that the new Metroid would be in first-person 3D convinced many that it would be another dumb FPS, especially since a US development team was building the game.
Retro Studios defied expectations, however.
Metroid Prime started me off in a wrecked spaceship, where I quickly discovered I would have to scan objects for information if I was going to get very far. The screen used translucent graphics to provide a heads-up display with radar and rotating 3D short-range map, and I learned that I could switch visors to go into thermal imaging mode–a trick I often used to get the jump on enemies lurking in the darkness. Before long, I was following a trail of clues to the planet Tallon IV.
As I left my ship, I discovered that it was raining. Water droplets speckled the view through my visor. As I scouted further into the wet vegetation of this new alien world, I noticed condensation forming. Seconds later in a nearby cave, I fired my blaster at a threatening creature and caught a glimpse of my face reflected from the inside of the visor. That was it–I was captivated. Mimesis achieved.
This was also the moment back in 2006 when I said that I really didn’t need video game graphics to get any better. Metroid Prime is beautiful. Compare it to the other big console games from that year, like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the PS2, and it blows them away. Not only that, but the game runs at a rock solid 60 frames per second throughout, no matter how complicated the action on screen, and the controls feel responsive at all times.
By the time I acquired the ability to switch into the morph ball, I was so engrossed in exploring ancient alien ruins that I didn’t stop to worry about the physics of the transformation. Instead, I delighted as the Tron-like neon glow from the ball left subtle tracer effects.
More beautiful still was the scene that greeted me once I managed to make my way through the old transport tunnels to the snow-covered Phendrana Drifts. That was where I learned that different alien creatures would require different tactics to defeat them, with my scanner providing hints.
Yes, there were boss fights–something I personally dislike–but they were mostly fair, and required some intelligence to get past rather than simple twitch reflexes. When the game was finally over, I was genuinely sad that it had to end.
I wasn’t as happy with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. The first and most obvious annoyance was that I suddenly had to worry about ammunition. Coming to the new episode straight from the freedom of the first game, this was an unwelcome development.
The second annoyance was that Prime 2 had me travel to a dark energy world where the atmosphere continuously ate away at my suit’s shielding. This effectively introduced an arbitrary time limit to exploration, and I hate arbitrary time limits almost as much as I hate random mazes.
The third annoyance was the level design. I’m not a big fan of bottomless pits, and I started falling into them with annoying frequency towards the end of the game. So overall, a disappointing outing compared to the first Metroid Prime, but still worth playing.
Third time was the charm, though. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption made the jump to the Wii, and that allowed a whole new control scheme. Now I could move around in any direction at any speed using the analog control stick on the nunchuk, while simultaneously aiming and firing at any part of the screen using the Wii remote. (This is called “expert mode”, and isn’t on by default.)
As IGN put it, this new control scheme “simulates the accuracy of PC first-person shooters almost perfectly”. In fact, I’d go further–when I try playing games with keyboard and mouse, I find the lack of precision achievable with WASD movement keys extremely frustrating.
The nunchuck was also used for the grapple hook and for ripping armor off of enemies, giving battles a very visceral and physical feeling. The switch to 16:9 format for the graphics also helped improve my feeling of immersion in the game.
The annoyances from the previous game were mostly gone. I fell into infinity a few times in the cloud city, but it never felt as frustrating as leaping over chasms in the dark in Prime 2. Also gone was most of the annoying backtracking, as I could now call up my spaceship to travel between distant parts of the world, an innovation so welcome that I remember saying “Aww, _yeah_” when it was revealed to me.
I don’t really understand some of the negative reviews the final installment received. Perhaps those reviewers didn’t find Expert Mode, or were expecting an FPS? I had a wonderful time, and resolved to replay the entire game some day.
So with that in mind, I’ve ordered a copy of the now-discontinued Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Wii. If you are any kind of video game fan, I strongly suggest that you do likewise. If nothing else, you’ll get the chance to play the greatest GameCube game ever, with the added bonus of precision aiming via Wii controls and widescreen graphics.