This following piece is a doozy! Consider it an impulse of passion, but this is quite a mouthful. Brace yourselves for a ride back to 2002 as I take a look at one of the greatest video games of all time, Metroid Prime.
The Third Dimension:
From the early years of video games up until the early nineties, video games have only been displayed in the second dimension. Whether it was a side-scrolling title or an overhead projection, a video game had always been presented on a 2D plane field. Early attempts at video games making a leap into the third dimension involved forced perspectives and parallax scrolling, most of which was possible through the SuperFX chip that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, (or SNES), included or was already possible on PC. Gaming in the third dimension was not fully realized until game developers stopped working with pixels and switched to polygons for graphics. The earliest attempts at a video game featuring polygons for graphics can be seen on failed home consoles such as the Sega 32X, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer and the Atari Jaguar. The official and successful realization of 3D graphics was presented on home consoles that came afterwards such as the Sega Saturn, the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64, which all comprised of the fifth generation of home consoles. At the time of all these consoles’ releases, three-dimensional iterations to well-established franchises were in production. Super Mario 64, for example, was the first 3D Super Mario platform game to be released and by then, at least five 2D entries in the main series had already been published. Players were graced with multiple full-fledged worlds to explore on a three-dimensional plane field and the way Super Mario titles would be played was forever changed.
One thing that people often do not take into consideration when it comes to video game series’ taking the leap to the third dimension is that all the rules that revolve around gameplay and level design change. For example, while the main objective in Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World is to reach the end of the stage, the objectives in the levels in Super Mario 64 vary and there are multiple missions and tasks to be completed per world. This did not just apply to the Mario franchise at the time, but applied to all of them. Franchises such as The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man, Star Fox, Kirby, Metal Gear and Final Fantasy all eventually made the transition to 3D in the late nineties or at least a year within the millennium. The only franchise that had not produce a 3D installment during this console generation was Metroid. The latest Metroid game at the time was Super Metroid and it was released on the SNES, back in 1994. Where was everyone’s three-dimensional Metroid game? In 2002, players finally had a chance to behold Metroid Prime for the Nintendo GameCube. What players were not braced for was seeing that Metroid’s transition to 3D was something entirely different and unexpected. Though the rules of game design are altered when a franchise made the dimensional transition, the genre remained intact. Super Mario 64 was still a platform game and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was still a non-linearly structured action-adventure. Metroid Prime on the other hand, had a complete shift in perspective and everything changed. What would this mean for the franchise and was it for the better or for worse? Before taking a look at Metroid Prime, it’s important to set up the series.
How It All Began:
Metroid is a series of science fiction action-adventure video games by Nintendo. The first title in the series was introduced in 1986 and produced for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Before the game’s release, Nintendo had already established titles such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, which were both known as a 2D-sidescrolling, platform game and a non-linear action-adventure game with puzzle elements, respectively. Metroid was designed to be a shooting game, but was noticeably influenced by these two franchises because it borrowed elements such as extensive areas of platform jumping and non-linear exploration. The one aspect that made Metroid stand out from its influences was its eerie atmosphere of solitude and foreboding.
In terms of design, Metroid is also known for being one of the video game pioneers in featuring an exploration to the left as well as the right, and backtracking to already explored areas to search for secret items and paths. Because of this design choice, players were introduced to linear story-based progression that did not entail the typical leveling progressing that they may have been familiar with initially. For example, the structure and layout of Super Mario Bros. is divided into levels and worlds, such as World 1-1, World 1-2, World 1-3, World 1-4, World 2-1, and so on and so forth. Even though The Legend of Zelda was non-linearly structured, it still included a set of implemented stages that must be completed in order to progress, and they were defined as “dungeons” or “temples”. The world in Metroid, on the other hand, was all interconnected and it very much made the game feel like a large maze. The maze-like structure proved to be effective and innovative for the time of its release, because its foreboding atmosphere complimented the game’s feeling of terror and helplessness. It very much made you feel like a rat in a maze, and as the player, you were determined to thwart the narrow corridors and challenges that laid ahead, so that you can see the game to its end.
Although not initially a design intention at the time of its release, because the character you play as remains in a space suit for the entirety of the game, it was easy for the player to immerse himself into the shoes of the main protagonist. One can sub-consciously pretend that the space marine you are playing as, is in fact, you. This added to the devotion that the player would have to complete the game, because they wanted to see themselves, the space marine, succeed in the mission presented. It is not until you complete the game quickly and efficiently enough that you discover that the player’s character, named Samus Aran, is an established character, follows a backstory, and is, in fact, a woman. This especially came off as a surprise to gamers, as the character is depicted in armor almost all the time and identifying one’s gender at the time was as simple as narrowing down to unfortunately typical stereotypes and exclusive sexual traits. This was also a notable aspect of Metroid, because Samus Aran was one of the first female protagonists in video games. The gender staple in the established character would remain with her for the rest of the series, and even become centralized, but throughout the series’ lifespan, attempts have been made to make audiences forget for a moment that Samus is female, particularly in Metroid Prime, but more on that later.
The 16-Bit Era
The fourth generation of home consoles brought us the 16-bit Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive) and the Super Nintendo. Players were able to enjoy more advanced iterations to all their favorite series’ and each one brought about innovation in a particular way. Super Mario World was more colorful, fast-paced, provided new sorts of platform challenges included several new power-ups, and the ability to ride on a dinosaur and play the game differently than as Mario on foot. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past provided the series with towns and NPCs (non-player characters) to visit and communicate with, and brought about new ways to approach combat and solve puzzles. Super Castlevania IV provided the player with more control over the character by making jumps less about precision and strategy and more manageable, as well as giving the player the ability to whip in eight directions and much quicker, pushing a greater emphasis on action-oriented gameplay. Each series saw some innovation and Metroid was no exception.
The third entry in the Metroid series, Super Metroid made its mark well into the Super Nintendo’s lifespan, so it needed something special in order to gain recognition and praise. Thankfully, Nintendo succeeded by making Super Metroid everything that was noteworthy and praised about the original Metroid and multiplied it several times over. The advanced sound chip allowed the game to include more free-range tracks that brought about an even tenser and more eerie-inducing experience. The game also allowed Samus Aran to move about much faster and more nimble, in order to move about the narrow corridors more quickly and the game even included a map system, so that players were not forced to become lost and suffer the conventions of a trial-and-error based design. Nintendo wanted Super Metroid to grasp the player’s attention, not riskily drive one’s patience by having their time wasted and have them invested all the way through. The title also implemented save points spread out throughout the game, which proved that Nintendo was successfully able to subtly integrate a save feature within the means of a design choice. Players would look forward to finding the next save station and do whatever it takes to make it to the next one, in order to not have to consider all their hard-earned progress a waste. Super Metroid has been found within the top list of Super Nintendo titles on many gaming publications, both online and subscription-based. To this day, it is arguably considered to be the best installment in the entire series. There is, however, one other game in the series that diehard fans contemplate and debate over being the best entry in the franchise and that is Metroid’s first three-dimensional installment that came eight years later, Metroid Prime.
Metroid Prime: Initially Misunderstood Part 1 – Perspective & Design
As was stated earlier, players were initially thrown off by the way Metroid Prime was going to be presented. While the 2D entries were side-scrolling, action-adventure games, Metroid Prime was presented in a first-person perspective. If one took the time to think back as to what games were starting to become popular at the time and one might be able to comprehend all the rage and disappointment that was initially being expressed. First-person shooter games were all over the place. Though the Call of Duty line of games had not yet been established, players had already familiarized themselves with GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Medal of Honor, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, System Shock, and most notably and recent at the time, Halo: Combat Evolved. To see the beloved Metroid series seemingly give into the first-person shooting craze was pretty heavy on the heart. Fans and video game enthusiasts alike were convinced that Metroid Prime was doomed to fail and that it would run a series that was already eight years overdue for a comeback into the ground. What came off as an even bigger surprise than the game’s actual reveal, however, was how well the game was received when it was finally released on November 17, 2002. Metroid Prime was critically acclaimed and on GameRankings, a website that collects review scores from both offline and online sources to give an average rating, it is the 11th-highest rated game ever reviewed, with an average score of 96.35%. To this day, many critics and gamers consider Metroid Prime to be one of the greatest video games every made. How could a game that was so negatively received upon its initial reveal become one of the most well received games in existence?
Where Metroid Prime succeeds is that Nintendo and developer Retro Studios saw something in the original concept that non-developers simply could not see or comprehend until they would get to receive a hands-on experience with the game. Ultimately, it was the beauty of blending in elements that make up a first-person shooter, other than the actual shooting, along with the conventions that made Metroid so well received in the first place, such as its heavy emphasis on exploration. Certainly, Metroid Prime contains a lot of shooting elements, but it is very much a single-player, action-adventure game with exploration and platform-oriented design choices, similarly to that of the 2D entries that came before. Developer Retro Studios merely uses the first-person perspective in an attempt to place the player back into shoes of the series’ protagonist, Samus Aran. More than ever, the player feels like he or she is Samus Aran, because we see what she sees, through her glass visor. Instances will occur in-game where the player will forget that they are playing an already-established character. The one aspect that reminds us that we are in control of the Samus Aran is the occasional grunts that she would sound off when hurt or even nearing death. In the end, Metroid Prime still looks and feels very much like a Metroid game. In terms of design, only the perspective has changed and for the better, because it aids the feeling of being in control. Meanwhile, all other familiar aspects and traits that the series is known and praised for remain intact: the music is moody and ominous, the atmosphere is eerie and foreboding and the layout, although presented in the third dimension, still very much feels like a maze. Admittedly, there is a heavier emphasis on areas that take place outdoors, but all the narrow and suspenseful corridors are still present and are plenty.
Metroid Prime: Initially Misunderstood Part 2 – Gameplay & Functionality
Even with all the right design choices intact, what ultimately matters is how Metroid Prime plays. It is important to keep in mind that up until this point, all games presented in the first-person perspective were shooters. Video games that utilized the first-person view for the sake of being experimental, unique and innovative such Portal (2007), Mirror’s Edge (2008) and Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010) were not out yet, so Metroid Prime was initially expected to play similarly to the first-person shooting games that came before. Interestingly enough, Metroid Prime does not control like a first-person shooter and actually controls similarly to that of a 3D platform game, if it were presented in the first-person view anyways. A trigger button is required to be held in order to control the camera, jumping is essential in order to progress further, you collect necessities, battle bosses and unlock powers. This was a very wise decision to have been made, because it reminds us how much the original Metroid was inspired by Super Mario Bros, in regards to platform segments. Speaking of inspirations, what comes off as even more interesting is how Prime is still inspired by The Legend of Zelda. Similarly to how Ocarina of Time and any other 3D Legend of Zelda title that followed implemented a Z-targeting lock-on mechanic for the combat segments, Metroid Prime gives the player the ability to lock-on to enemies and auto-aim Samus Aran’s arm cannon to fire. While the game is worrying about the aiming for the player, he or she can focus on strafing and dodging incoming attacks and projectiles from enemies; something that the 2D Metroid titles were well-known for.
Just like the installments that came before, Metroid Prime also requires the player to collect upgrades that are essential in order to progress through the story, revisiting locations once you have upped and diversified your equipment and face bosses that guard the artifacts or advanced upgrades that are required in order to complete the game. The only difference here is that because the environments are fully realized the third dimension, traversal and progression is not made leftward, rightward, downward and upward, and instead, all horizontal-involved directions are being considered, such as North, South, East, West. Even with the implemented map system, after long periods of playtime of both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, one may realize how much easier it is to get lost in Metroid Prime because of how much more diverse and demanding the emphasis on exploration is. In other words, the 2D Metroid titles, (the ones that include a map system, anyways), provide the player with a greater sense of direction. This is not to say that Metroid Prime has misdirection or that there is anything wrong with it having less direction in general, but it slowly becomes clear that Metroid Prime was intentionally designed so that you can get lost in it. The developers wittingly placed emphasis on the sense of helplessness and uncertainty for the player to feel, so that they can take the time to admire the scenery or tune into beautifully set-up set of music pieces that the game includes. For the sake of avoiding similar complaints of that of the original Metroid, such as the demand for patience and commitment to trial-and-error procedures, once Metroid Prime is convinced that you are lost and seeking help, it will subtly provide you a small hint on where to go. At the end of it all, one cannot deny that the beauty of the game comes from how well crafted it is. Every nook, cranny, corner and aspect of Metroid Prime feels well thought out and ultimately, the game feels planned and cared for, all the way through.
Metroid Prime: Initially Misunderstood Part 3 – Narrative & Storytelling
For the most part, the storytelling in Metroid games is particularly basic and straightforward, for it simply entails Samus Aran fulfilling her objective of destroying Metroids and Space Pirates. The narrative through the majority of the entries also relatively straightforward and simple, but Metroid Prime goes for a more complex approach. Like the games that came before, it includes an opening set of text that sets up the plot, similarly to that present at the beginning of every Star Wars film. While the majority of the games’ plots involve Samus completing her mission and nothing else, Prime has a lot of lore to discover that allow the narrative to be as extensive and rich and the player desires it to be. A lot of the evidence and the ability to dive deep into the roots of the narrative are all up to the player. All of this is made possible through the game’s ability to scan enemies and objects through Samus Aran’s scan visor. This feature made its debut in Metroid Prime and has proven to be a unique and efficient tool for discovery and exploration throughout the rest of Metroid Prime sub-series. When enemies and objects are scanned, they are uploaded to Samus’ logbook and database, allowing her to access it whenever the player wishes and some of the evidence that can be found within the game pieces together bits of the story. In the most direct sense, it is like Henry Jenkins said, in which game design could be used as narrative. Without giving away the context of the plot, further scanning can indicate potential conspiracies present within the game and players who seek plot-driven games are provided with another incentive to see the game to completion. Of course, another way to gain access to more exhibition and story would be to read the setups provided in the instruction booklets that come with the video game, but that has been a standard in the industry for a long time.
It should also be noted that Metroid Prime is a game that does not make use of dialogue. No characters speak or communicate with our main heroine and the story unfolds without being clear or revealing. The sequels that would follow make use of NPC characters, but this is primarily about the original 2002 title. As a game that is perfectly realized in the third dimension, makes use of cinematic qualities and contains heavy amounts of lore, it may come off as a surprise that Metroid Prime provides no speech or dialogue from any of the characters, but the developers intentionally made use of this aspect, by making the story a great mystery that one would desire to see unfolded. Even for players that are not too interested in a story-driven experience, the way the narrative is set up also works, because a player is not obligated to scan every single enemy or object and he or she does not have to follow or recall certain events or circumstances that have occurred or they might have missed. Ultimately, the narrative proves to be naturally, realistically and sensibly accessible to all kinds of players. In a way, it is very much like the narrative structure of old arcade classics such as Space Invaders, because those are games that are as plot-filled as the player desires it to be. After all, with a concept as simple as shooting down some space invaders, it is easy to conceive a potential plot, conflict and objective in your head.
In Conclusion: From Skeptical Risk To Admirable Masterpiece
Metroid Prime has certainly left its mark in the video game industry for many reasons. Not only does it uniquely transfer and perfectly immerse the Metroid series into the third dimension, but also it provides several key innovations and elements that allow the game stand on its own relatively well. With tight controls, varied and detailed environments, engaging combat, well toned music and sound design and a sublime, foreboding atmosphere, it may not even come off as a surprise as to why it is so loved by many fans and video game enthusiasts alike. The sole reason why Metroid Prime succeeds is because it takes all the necessary risks in order for it to establish and make a name for itself. It did not try to be an advanced versionof the Metroid formula that players were initially familiar with. It did not try to be the best first-person shooter on the market. It did not try to be some unique social experiment or even attempt to implement a multiplayer component. Rather, it tried to be, based on its own concept, the best game it could possibly be. If its rankings in the charts, lists, publications, and from its fans are any indication, Metroid Prime succeeded.