When Metroid Prime was released on the Nintendo GameCube back in 2002, it kicked off a trilogy of 3D titles that ran into the Wii’s lifetime. Metroid had always been a 2D game, so naturally there was a lot of scepticism about Retro Studios' new effort, but on release the game received serious critical acclaim, and is now heralded as a true classic of its era.
As a young teenager, I was captivated by the mysterious and spooky world of Metroid Prime. Hunting for power-ups and battling space pirates in Samus’ first 3D outing was an unforgettable experience that I’ve been eager to enjoy once more. With the recent announcement of Metroid Prime 4, I decided to revisit Talon IV and see if this Nintendo legend still lives up to its name.
The most striking thing about Metroid Prime is the planet itself. Though it’s split into traditional game world archetypes (snow level, fire zone, underwater bit), the way they fit together creates the impression of a real planet. Each area is filled with flora and wildlife tailored to their habitat, not all of which are directly hostile. New locales are a thrill not just for their differing landscape, but also to see what sort of creatures inhabit them.
The first time I stepped out into the icy tundra of Phendrana Drifts was breathtaking, and though the graphics have aged significantly, it’s still a moment of impact. Retro Studios did impressive work with a console that was far from a powerhouse, so it’s a testament to the artists and sound designers that it still holds up today.
Speaking of audio, that music. For a game largely filled with ambience and background tunes, it has some truly gorgeous pieces. The menu theme remains one of my all-time favourite gaming tunes, and Phendrana Drifts brilliantly evokes the serene beauty of the landscape. Music is never center stage, but instead serves to amplify something the game has in spades: atmosphere. Metroid Prime has you jumping through wet, muggy jungles one moment, then exploring claustrophobic, half-sunken, derelict spaceships the next, each accompanied by an appropriately inquisitive or tense score.
Perhaps the most memorable moment is when you find the thermal visor. Battling your way through a long and complex space-pirate facility, you pass countless vampiric metroids, trapped in glass cages and hungry to get out. The tech you’re after is at the base of a huge, multi-tiered chamber, and as soon as you touch it, the lights go out. In the darkness, you hear the sound of breaking glass, and that all-too-recognisable screech. Every single metroid you passed is now free, and you need to backtrack in the pitch-black void. It’s a scene straight out of Resident Evil, and a perfect encapsulation of the way Metroid Prime amalgamates exploration, action, puzzle and horror. The memory of a of a space pirate’s corpse is still etched into my brain, sliding slowly down a ramp as a metroid drains the last vestiges of life from his brain.
Talon IV is certainly a lonely place, but it never feels empty. A key aspect of the Prime series is a visor with the ability to scan almost every single plant, enemy and, well, thing in the room. It’s an unusual method of storytelling, but allows the player to control their interest in the narrative. The game encourages its use, marking a completion percentage based on creatures scanned and often highlighting weaknesses, but it’s rarely required. Apart from scanning a few buttons here and there, you can play through Metroid Prime without diving into any of Talon IV’s backstory. While this requires a good chunk of reading if you are keen, a nice upshot is that the game remains untainted by cringeworthy acting. The quality of video game VO has come a long way since the early noughties, and Metroid Prime is fortunate to sidestep this through its mechanics.
Metroid Prime does highlight how design philosophy has changed, however. The game offers little to no handholding, allowing you to wander the levels as you please and find the correct path. You need to check the map regularly (arguably one of the series’ worst systems, sadly - confusing to control and read) to find each door you’ve yet to explore. The game stays true to its 2D roots, so levels remain uncharted until you find them or a map room to fill in the blanks. It's easy to forget what you were doing and why if you leave a long break between sessions.
If you can maintain your bearings, however, then every time you unlock a new ability - like a grapple beam or super missile - will feel like a revelation as you remember a plethora of inaccessible areas you can now reach. If you get stuck for too long, the game will eventually offer a pointer, but it leaves the bulk of discovery to you. This was a fairly old-school approach even in 2002, but nowadays it makes for a delightful change of pace.
All too easy for Samus Aran
One thing I found surprising on my return was how easy the game felt to play. Enemies respawn whenever you stray just a few rooms away, but most deal relatively little damage, so it’s often best to simply ignore them and run quickly through levels to go where you want. A few enemies do lock you in until you dispatch them, but this proves more irritating than challenging (let’s not mention Chozo ghosts - the miserable teleporting sods). Some bosses and later enemies pose a minor challenge - most notably the Fission and Hunter Metroids - but most aren’t much of a threat, especially once you collect a few upgrades. I can’t help feel this must have been an intentional choice, knowing players would have to travel back and forth through the same rooms, but it did dampen the tension when it dawned on me.
Combat forms a huge part of Metroid Prime’s gameplay, but I’ve avoided talking about it because, in truth, I cheated a little. I’ve actually been playing the Metroid Prime Trilogy Wii U Virtual Console release, which updated the base game to support Wii lightgun-style aiming. This renders small, zippy enemies like the early wasps a relative breeze compared to the GameCube’s single-analogue targeting, and improves the overall experience by some measure. If nothing else, this version is great justification for hanging onto your Wii U.
A renowned hunter
Metroid Prime has been a firm favourite since I first got my hands on it, and returning 15 years later has done little to change that. It remains an exemplary title from a console that was severely underloved in its time. I’ve since moved on to its sequels, Echoes and Corruption. Both are great games in their own right, but nothing quite matches that first Metroid Prime experience. I can only hope Metroid Prime 4 will recapture that spirit. In the meantime, I can thoroughly recommend revisiting the first game to see why the Prime series remains so celebrated.