When Metroid Prime was released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003, I had never owned anything quite like it. Granted as a child I was predominantly playing Mario and Pokemon games, and my only foray into ‘first person’ was in games like Goldeneye and Doom that I would play at friends’ houses. Something about first person perspective didn’t sit well with me – it sounds juvenile, but I liked to be able to see the character I was playing as. But when the reviews everywhere were telling me that Metroid Prime might be one of the best games of the generation – if not all time, there stood more than enough justification to buy it with my pocket money and add some prestige to my Gamecube library, which at the time only contained Sonic the Hedgehog and Starfox. Maybe there was some merit in the game that starred that strange robot from Smash Bros; what’s that? He’s not a robot? He’s not a he? Yes, the protagonist Samus Aran was a woman, which added even more mystique to the game in a media form populated with mostly male characters.
Always one to read the instruction manual first, my initial impressions of the game carried a degree of fear; “Evil waits beneath the surface” was stated on the back of the box – this game looks scary! Granted it’s not much compared to other Gamecube horrors like Resident Evil and Eternal Darkness, but for a teenage me who relished the colourful worlds of Mario and Pokemon, apprehension continued to abound. Even the title screen was creepy – I’d never heard the isolated piano notes of the Metroid theme before, and hearing that alongside an extreme close up visual of the inside of a Metroid (parasitic jellyfish-like creatures from which the series gets its name) had me reconsidering my purchase – was this game for me? The game begun, and when Samus leapt off of her ship onto the cargo dock of Frigate Orpheon, the eerie silence that I was met with stunned me. The first section of Metroid Prime is a tutorial setpiece; Samus begins with all her abilities and this opening stage gives the player a chance to play around with all her weaponry and learn the controls.
The attention to detail was incredible; this trashed space station wept with minor touches. Electricity snapped from broken circuitry, the lights blinked and failed, and some machinery smouldered slowly in flame – what happened here? The game taught me about Samus’ scan visor – an ability that allows the player to gather information from the world around them by scanning various objects. Seemingly everything can be scanned, with some of the information less important than others, but all of it adding more and more detail to the world of Metroid Prime. With a mindset of ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ I paraded around the space station scanning everything I could, until I analysed a certain computer screen which prompted a little robotic voice to say ‘recording to logbook’. Woah, this one must be important. ‘Zebes has fallen. All ground personnel are presumed dead, exterminated by the bounty hunter clad in metal’. Woah, what is Zebes? Who was the bounty hunter in metal? Surely it wasn’t Samus? The unsettling traversal of the Frigate Orpheon concludes in a dramatic fashion – Samus fights the Parasite Queen, a grotesque alien monster that sets off a self-destruct sequence of the space station – Samus has seven minutes to escape! It is during this escape that Samus is stripped of all her power-ups (this video game trope is called an ‘Abili-tease’). The fallout results in Samus evacuating the station and finding refuge on the surface of nearby planet Tallon IV.
The contrast couldn’t be more stark; Tallon Overworld is a quiet, sombre forest, drenched in water and under a constant stream of gentle rainfall, and there is the player, the protagonist, Samus Aran, all but defenseless except for her most basic weapon – her arm cannon. As the player takes this quiet moment to explore the forest, once more the little details of the game shine through. The game’s HUD (heads-up display) gives the impression of looking through the eyes of Samus herself; the edges of the TV screen are housed in the shape of Samus’ visor, which reacts to the environment around it. Looking skyward, the drops of rain spatter off the visor, and passing through streams of heat or water will see condensation build up on the glass. The enemies here are little more than bugs and fungi – no match even for an underpowered Samus Aran – and destroying these creatures at close range sees their blood splash onto the visor for yet another touch of detail. Close by the landing site, Samus discovers the Impact Crater, where an ancient temple sits atop. The temple has been built by the Chozo, the extinct avian inhabitants of the planet, to seal off a ‘great poison’ that struck the planet in the form of a meteorite decades earlier. The Chozo are long gone, presumably destroyed by the great poison known as Phazon, and their history is revealed in logbook entries stating that twelve artefacts act as key to the temple. By this the player is subtly told that Samus must collect the artefacts, open the temple seal and defeat the source of the Phazon, and from here the game opens up to a wonderful traversal of exploration through the environs of Tallon IV.
The player could easily be forgiven for not knowing quite where to go or what to do in Metroid Prime, due to this obtuse form of optional storytelling, like reading one page of a book only to find that the next page has been ripped out. Thankfully Metroid Prime has a hint system that, like most video games, can nudge lost players in the right direction. Even this is given a special touch – a cryptic clue will pop up on the HUD, and Samus’ map will zoom out to show an unexplored area marked with a large question mark. Some players don’t like being told exactly what to do in a game, but in this case I think it adds to the mystery of exploration. I recall the tense anticipation that would build as I’d venture ever closer to the destination, and the result was always a new power-up for Samus’ suit, usually hidden behind a tough boss monster. More and more logbook entries litter the game as you explore the crumbling Chozo Ruins, the molten lava of Magmoor Caverns and the snowy shorelines of Phendrana Drifts; these entries are a balance of excerpts from the Chozo’s history or research notes from the Space Pirates who are trying to harness Phazon for their own evil deigns. The picture becomes clearer as Samus grows in power and recovers her lost abilities; by the end of the game, Samus feels next to indestructible.
Above the aforementioned attention to detail, where the game excels best is through certain theatrical set-pieces that happen in such an organic manner that the player can experience them in real time. Too often a game will rely on cinematic cut-scenes to divulge story or set up a plot point, but in Metroid Prime they happen right before Samus’ (your) eyes. One hallway in Chozo Ruins sees you enter, only to see an emaciated apparition disappear through the wall before you; entering the room beyond gives you a frantic fight with the apparition – a Chozo Ghost. The anticipation in the lead up to this fight – the careful walk down the hallway, the double take (did I just see a ghost?) followed by the climax of a frightening battle with a true horror, is just another example of how Metroid Prime builds its world and immerses the player. Another moment sees Samus infiltrate the Space Pirate base in Phazon Mines via a secret door, out of sight from the Pirates. From her vantage point she disables a forcefield that was holding back deadly metroids, which proceed to wipe out the Space Pirates present before turning to Samus herself. Later in the game Samus even returns to Frigate Orpheon – the opening stage of the game – only this time exploring the flooded ruins of its crash site from where it impacted the surface after its original introduction. In this beautifully ruinous underwater level, darkness reigns, but when Samus fires her beam cannon at close range, for a slightest second the player can see Samus’ eyes reflected back at her; I must admit, of all the little moments in the game, this one was my favourite.
Beyond the Scan Visor, Samus also picks up Thermal and X-Ray abilities along the way, and again they are organically introduced for the player to be thrust into learning their capabilities immediately; the lights go dim when Samus collects the Thermal Visor, and she must rely on the heat signatures given off by different platforms, doors and even enemies to navigate her way around. Likewise the X-Ray Visor allows her to see invisible platforms, but the keen-eyed player may have already noticed raindrops bouncing off seemingly nothing. Applying the X-Ray Visor reveals a hidden platform – brilliant. The X-Ray Visor even goes so far as to show Samus’ finger bones when she raises a hand to her face, and the Thermal Visor won’t pick up any heat signature from her Ice Beam – seriously, the developers thought of everything.
By the games closing stages, Samus is fully powered up and ready to tackle the Impact Crater and whatever it may contain. But there is still the little matter of those Chozo Artefacts that unlock the entrance. The player may have found a few during their adventure, but no doubt a few artefacts will remain undiscovered, prompting a treasure hunt through all the areas of the game and following cryptic clues to uncover them. Some people hated this part of the game – saying that it padded out the ending unnecessarily, and I see what they mean. Myself, however, see this section as a chance to fully show off how powerful Samus has become in this adventure, a sort of victory lap around the game world where previously difficult areas are just breezed through with ease. The finale goes full circle with the game’s introduction – a quiet creep through the Impact Crater, before a phenomenally tough boss fight against Metroid Prime itself – a gigantic spider creature that mutated on the Phazon poisoning the planet. Samus destroys it and escapes as the Chozo Temple crumbles atop the collapsed crater, and Tallon IV – what’s left of it – is saved. Samus looks on from her ship, before giving the player one last surprise. She removes her helmet, and player sees her face fully for the first time. She closes her eyes, melancholic, before disappearing back into her ship and flying away – mission complete. Other Metroid games ‘reward’ the player with a shot of Samus in skimpy clothing – but Metroid Prime has more respect and subtlety than that – Thank God.
Ok, a few final praises and comments; Metroid Prime is a game that builds its world through so many discreet design choices, and it is this artistic commitment to detail that few other games achieve. Many praise Dark Souls for a lot of what I’ve just mentioned about Metroid Prime – and I agree – but Metroid Prime was released a decade earlier! No work of art is universally perfect – be it a video game, music, movie, what have you – but to the individual who experiences it, perfection is undeniably attainable. Think about your favourite song, or maybe the best book you ever read – that’s what Metroid Prime is for me. And if you need any further excuse to play it yourself, consider this – Samus Aran’s Ice Beam weapon becomes encased in frost as it is charged, only for tiny shards of ice to shatter and scatter when the shot is fired – genius!