10th Anniversary – Metroid Prime
There is a phrase repeated often in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, in which the book’s narrator interrupts himself to correctly assert the wise words of a holy man: “As it happened – as it was supposed to happen, Bokonon would say…” You see, nothing simply happens, according to Bokononist philosphy; it’s all supposed to happen in a particular manner.
A decade ago, Metroid made its return to Nintendo consoles. As it happened, an unruly collection of talent stationed half a world away from Nintendo’s Japanese offices was given the task of creating the first 3D entry in the series. The ambitious young development house, Retro Studios, went through a trial by fire, nearly razed before being raised. The hellish forging process cost the studio its founder, numerous employees and four Nintendo GameCube titles it had been developing. What did Retro have to show for it? One of the greatest achievements in the history of videogames. As it was supposed to happen…
Metroid Prime – forged in chaos, tempered by discipline, sharpened by raw talent – is very nearly gaming’s response to the Pantheon. It is a monument to a particular way of crafting videogames. Yes, games bigger in scope and sharper in visual detail have been released in the ensuing decade since its appearance, but has there been anything else quite so elegant?
To start, forget everything we’ve been told is important about graphical beauty: the latest and greatest in technical wonkery. There will always be a new technique, a more advanced iteration of yesterday’s cutting edge. Prime has aged so gracefully only partially because of its considerable technical achievements; its greatest strength against visual decrepitude is the artistic vision of its creators. The game’s opening chapter aboard the Frigate Orpheon, while dazzling in its own right, does nothing to prepare you for landing on the planet of Tallon IV. When you first step foot on the Tallon Overworld, you are greeted by a lush, bizarre landscape. It curves, bumps and juts; it looks both familiar and alien, at once organic and ornamental. A few steps in the right direction brings you to the Chozo Ruins, which looks like Egypt by way of Star Trek. Its cracked hieroglyphs lead you down to the molten caverns of Magmoor, and from there to a greater tour of a poisoned planet. It’s all achingly beautiful, and the sense of wonder that is imparted isn’t about technological horsepower alone. It’s about art.
It’s also about moments.
It’s about the awe that strikes you, the indescribable “wow factor” that us hack writers try to put into words, but fail. I can’t write a sentence about walking into the Phendrana Drifts for the first time, because I can’t do it justice. You can only grok it by doing it. Prime is full of these moments, when the presentation and player converge into something more. Aiding in the creation of such moments is a timeless soundtrack – the opening bars that greet you upon landing on Tallon IV, for instance, or Phendrana’s icy theme. They are the heart of this Metroid.
On the other hand, the brain is the writing. Perhaps the most ingenious (as well as unappreciated) of Retro’s many creations for this title is a decidedly comprehensive logbook system that records…well, everything. The story of Tallon IV’s fall is documented by using one of Samus’s helmet visors to scan the entire ecosystem (which cues up text for your reading pleasure, available anytime through menu navigation). While some may feel that the majority of your recorded information is superfluous data, it’s nearly encyclopedic in its breadth. By the time you beat the game, you not only know planetary trivia, but you can feel an affinity for the place. There are a few spare cut scenes, but the primary plot delivery system is through your own research and scanning. Sadly, in our current age of games using voice acting to ape Hollywood, almost no one has copied Retro’s decade-old “you could only do this in a videogame” method. The story is delivered methodically, detailing the fall of a once-thriving society. The ghosts echo loudly, and the loneliness of being the only intelligent being walking the land is palpable.
Of course, if that’s too abstract, it also helps that Prime is incredibly fun. But like the plot delivery, it’s a unique type of fun, especially for a first-person perspective videogame. Whereas the ostentatious battering of human senses is de rigueur of blockbuster gaming today, you will mostly find a different brand of gameplay here. The aforementioned unorthodox scanning is accomplished via selecting a visor (through a brilliant and immersive HUD design that is deserving of its own article), but it isn’t the only one in Samus’s arsenal, and there’s a cerebral fun to observing and unlocking the secrets of each environment with them. Visors aside, it can be easy to conflate Prime with first-person shooters, but doing so would be akin to saying Super Metroid is a third-person shooter. It’s simply not accurate. Prime, like Super, is an action/adventure game. Shooting is a supplementary activity, taking a back seat to exploration and long bouts of platforming. It takes a little getting used to from a first-person viewpoint, but once acclimated, platforming is a blast. In fact, no one else has really made a first-person platformer that can stand up to Prime (Retro’s subsequent efforts in the Trilogy included). There’s a quiet joy to scaling the ruins.
Then again, if you want spectacle – challenging spectacle – Prime has you covered, too.
“Epic” is a word tossed about too easily, but Retro’s debut deserves it. The boss battles they crafted run the gamut from small-scale challenges to giant mountains of controller-throwing fury (like the bastard above). You have to work to save Tallon IV, and it is a solitary task. Echoes had U-Mos as a background benefactor; Corruption provided the entire Galactic Federation. But in Samus’s first encounter with Phazon, you must go it alone. The challenge is never unfair, but it will test you (it is a somewhat easier affair on the Trilogy compilation with the benefit of Wii controls; the original GameCube version, with its target lock-on and single analog stick control, is less fluid, but still workmanlike).
And, in a way, how Metroid Prime tests its audience is what makes it so astonishingly good. The progression structure here will test you in a way that Retro’s other efforts (Echoes went a bit too Zelda, Corruption a bit too Halo) do not. The plot delivery can also test your patience. Ditto the combat and platforming. But somehow, it all works together in a perfectly complimentary manner.
As it happens – as it was supposed to happen – this game is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
If you were wondering all along...of course this counts as a 10/10 review for Prime!]