The Middle Child
Our celebratory, albeit intermittent, tribute to the anniversary of Metroid’s return to Nintendo consoles continues with a look back at Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Truthfully, it’s been a bit difficult to choose the order of retro-reviewing these games. Kicking off with Fusion was the easy part, as it fit right in with the tenth anniversary of Samus’s long-overdue return. We’ve held off on Prime, and part of that is because one needs context to understand and appreciate its greatness. You don’t need to look any further than its direct sequels to see just how difficult an act Prime was to follow.
Echoes, released a mere two years after Retro’s stunning debut, is a fabulous game in its own right. We’ve called it one of GameCube’s unsung heroes, praise that isn’t doled out lightly. In almost every sense, it is bigger than the original Metroid Prime: bigger scale, a bigger world and a bigger challenge. But it isn’t better than its forebearer. Size, no matter how impressive, isn’t everything.
Well, OK, that is impressive.
And, in a way, that image hits two main themes of Echoes’ overall presentation – it’s big, and it’s purple. The planet Aether is appreciably larger than Prime’s Tallon IV, with some of the most ruggedly beautiful locales that have ever been burned to disc. Each area is huge, with some of the most lovingly-crafted level geometry you will ever see. The alien structures of this land arc gracefully to the sky as much as the land itself juts menacingly in its rocky passes. The main areas – Temple Grounds, Agon Wastes, Torvus Bog and Sanctuary Fortress – unfurl their secrets methodically. They each also have dark doppelgangers, which is where things get quite…purple.
You see, Aether is a planet that has gone all A Link to the Past on poor Samus. A mysterious Phazon meteor impacted the planet decades before our heroine’s arrival, creating a dark alternate dimension (the aforementioned doppelgangers of each area). Dark Aether is a bit like Prince’s boudoir, save for the tiny pants and Minnesota-bred funk. Which is unfortunate, because it needs a bit of funk. Whereas Aether has a chiseled sort of charisma, its darker half is…well, boring. It succeeds in being dark and foreboding; the mood is deadly serious and claustrophobic on the Dark side. But it’s also so pervasive that the same rooms that feel so exquisitely crafted in Light Aether end up feeling quite dull when draped in dark purple. The entirety of Dark Aether feels all too similar, no matter where you are.
Thankfully, you can always head back to regular ‘ol Aether, where Retro’s ace lighting (watch out, those mirrors will blind you) and impressive texture work are bound to knock your socks off. The color palette is (mostly) subdued, but think of it as the restraint of Miles Davis – beautiful, not bland. This game was released in 2004, and the visuals still hold up. The tunes? Even better. From the majestic Temple Grounds theme to the sparse (and spooky) instrumentation that accompanies you in the Agon Wastes, Echoes’ score is full of win material. Oh, and the dynamite tribute that greets you underwater in Torvus? Magic.
As previously mentioned, Aether has beeen split in two, ALttP-style. The wreteched Ing occupy the shadow world, and you’ll be seeing a lot of them. The real natives are the Luminoth, who have gone into a deep slumber after a civil war broke out and decimated their world. One remains as a sentinel, U-Mos, who acts as a guide and benefactor to Samus.
The first portion of the game reveals a promising, yet understated, brand of storytelling. Samus crash lands after chasing Galactic Federation troops, and a chilling encounter with Dark Samus (the essence of Metroid Prime, reformed using the Phazon Suit stolen from Samus in Retro’s original) soon follows. She then comes upon a video of the G-Feds’ unsettling demise; at this point, it appears that we’re in for a distinctly more hands-on brand of narrative delivery to this chapter. But from there on, it’s mostly a steady diet of scanning and logbook entries, with the occasional U-Mos update (as well as a few deceased Luminoth checking in via holographic projectors). This isn’t exactly a complaint, mind you. It’s simply that the early story is delivered so wonderfully that I can’t help but wonder why Retro didn’t maintain such a high storytelling standard for Echoes’ own sequel. But that’s a tale for the next article in this series…
U-Mos spills the beans on Aether’s particular brand of schizo, detailing how the Ing hijacked the Light of Aether (the planet’s energy source), and enlists Samus to retrieve it via a lock-and-key progression structure (find keys, enter temples, defeat bosses) that wouldn’t feel out of place in The Legend of Zelda. In fact, combined with the dual-world theme, this particular entry in the Prime series can feel uncannily like Zelda in space.
Gameplay and Conclusion
Echoes can be an unforgiving beast of a game, especially if you’re playing the original version on the GameCube (the difficulty is somewhat tamed on the Wii). There’s a lot to keep track of, outside of the typical Prime series scanning. Dark Aether’s atmosphere slowly leaches life from Samus, save for strategically-placed safe areas (light crystals activated by shooting with your arm cannon, which provide a protective dome). The screw attack makes its long-awaited debut in three dimensions here, with somewhat mixed results (it’s a tad wonky), and you are also given the task of managing ammunition for your beam cannon with light and dark ammo, which can get a bit hairy if you become fond of those weapons.
There’s also the matter of Prime 2’s sheer size. Aether is larger than Tallon IV, but it’s also less well connected. Backtracking is a feature of the Metroid series, but it’s handled here in a far less elegant fashion than the original Prime. Between hopping back and forth between the light and dark worlds, and a mind-numbingly crass fetch quest tacked on at the end (as well as a new suit power-up introduced far too late), you really can make the case for this game feeling less like Metroid and far more like a first-person Zelda.
However, those are complaints for the back half of the game. The first half? You could argue that it’s the best thing Retro Studios has ever created (and that’s saying something). They seamlessly melded together the first-person shooting, platforming and adventuring bliss of Prime with a hybridized Zelda-troid. It’s pretty remarkable.
And it’s such a shame that the second half of the game, despite a dynamite finale, can’t quite live up to the same standard. Then there’s the local-only multiplayer; despite being an interesting curiosity, it is quite possibly the least impressive thing that the men and women in Austin have released. Retro’s reach exceeded their grasp with Echoes.
Taken as a whole, then, Metroid Prime 2 can feel quite hit and miss. Where Prime couldn’t seem to hit a dissonant note, Echoes manages a few. But oh, those first few hours. Those alacritous opening hours will haunt you, and they damn near redeem the whole game.
On the whole, though, the introduction can’t redeem the overall uneven character of Echoes. But as Sir Francis Bacon once said, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”