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Metroid Prime (GameCube) artwork

Metroid Prime (GameCube) review

"Prime. "


Interesting word choice. They could've called it Metroid 2.5, Metroid Gaiden, Neo Metroid, or even (God help us) Metroid 128. But no; they called the series' comeback Metroid Prime. A word that promises grandeur and excellence, in a title that could befit only the series' peak.

How dare they?

You might've asked. A reasonable attitude, especially after the series has suffered such neglect and is facing such apparent change. It's 8 years since Super Metroid. The SNES is but an oft-emulated memory. Series creator Gunpei Yokoi sleeps in a Kyoto grave. The revival is developed not by Nintendo, but by Texas-based Retro Studios. And it's in first-bloody-person 3D.

A reasonable attitude, but a needless one. Against all the odds, Prime succeeds; this is clear immediately you start it up. If the tearing static synth and squirming neon Metroid innards of the title screen don't blow away your cynicism with their eerie orchestration, then the moment the game begins and the camera circles the glorious Power Suit of the Hunter herself before swooping inside her helmet and settling behind her emerald visor will.

Skilled and mysterious, series heroine Samus Aran once again tiptoes the line between icon and genuine character, remaining as inexplicably enduring as ever. Perhaps it's due to the claustrophilic curves of her Power Suit's helmet, or its sleek HUD's perfect iconography; perhaps it's the frequent third-person shots (for elevators and use of the fantastic Morph Ball) that display the beautiful armour itself in all its gold-and-red glory. It might be due to the occasional moment where the roaring arm cannon pulses in a certain way and wide, desperate blue eyes are reflected in the visor - an imagination-sparking glimpse of humanity.

Either way, it's important - this time out, the lady could easily have been overshadowed by the sumptuous depth of her surroundings. Prime sees her steel soles setting down on Tallon IV, a planet with a history as frightening as its geography. Your first few hours of excited exploration see you learning about both as you get to grips with the game. Lore carvings and computer logs lay among the vine-laced ruins and rusted industrial mazes, ready to be examined by inquisitive adventurers; sad history unfolds itself in the apathetic text box of your new Scan Visor. Skillful platforming and thorough exploration reap tales of poison, exile, and invasion that give reason for the corrupted planet's thick atmosphere and difficult geography.

Perhaps that's why Samus is so alluring; her confident agility. Eschewing dual-stick control, the game demands archaic use of the left stick for movement, and, after a practice period, feels all the better for it. Navigating the bridges and cliffs of Tallon IV is challenging, but frustration-free due to the controlled momentum to Samus' movement and her genre-defyingly precise jumps; it's also very rewarding for you both, as overcoming the convoluted terrain (and the creepie-crawlies that skitter across it) reaps new moves and upgrades. The collectible beams and visors, essential for advancement as well as combat, trigger giddy excitement on first use, and satisfying progress in the long run.

Rejoice, backtracking fans; the series' trademark explore-upgrade-reexplore structure is present and well here, with the difficulty dial turned to frequent upgrades and away from complex exploration. The move to first-person 3D has resulted in a more streamlined adventure for Samus; Super Metroid's subterranean mazes and obscure secrets have yielded to beautiful environments that slot neatly together in layouts that are unlikely to confound, especially with the flawless map system guiding your way. The obvious, yet forgivable downside is that finding your way through this relatively-simple world is rarely taxing.

Upsides, however, are many. Despite being as disparate in its climates as Zebes or SR388 ever were, Tallon IV feels like the most coherent and affecting world Samus has ever tackled, due to sheer quality of presentation. Dewy plant-life and twisted roots are obscured by scorched rock and dilapidated temples as you creep from the overworld into the depths of the Chozo ruins; echoing whistles fade to pleasant melodies as you leave the ruins to dive into a submerged frigate; serene curiosity sizzles into angry intensity as you march from the frigate into the blazing Magmoor caves. Through a combination of subtle visual effects and masterful music, Prime effectively maintains the series' lonely atmosphere while creating a creepy tension that's entirely its own.

The whole game feels like one prolonged immersive highlight, but highlight of highlights has to be your infiltration of a Space Pirate laboratory; Samus' mortal starfaring enemies have dug their vile claws into Tallon. The trip inbound takes in a few terrifying encounters with the wild nomads, but is mostly quiet, chilling the blood with cold ambience and bitter computer logs; an entire army of taskmaster generals and rowdy grunts has developed in your mind by the time you reach the core and pick up a new visor, triggering an environmental twist that ends up being far more frightening than it should be. After a desperate rush past brutal new enemies through the industrial caverns and groaning machinery, you finally burst back into the enchanting white of Phendrana and the tension drifts away on gentle snowfall and lilting pianos.

It's difficult not to love the game right there, in face of such gripping atmosphere. Considering that it's nigh-on impossible to find a moment in-between the pulse-quickening prologue and the vision-shattering finale in which that grip loosens, Metroid Prime is an easy game to like.

Oh, sure, there are niggles. Little things that you could be coerced into disliking by a picky conscience or forum tittle-tattle.

Such as the controls, for instance, and the unorthodox battles they give rise to. Fair enough; if you want to let the occasional moment of disorientation sully scores of locked-on side-darting duels with shrieking Pirates and the tactical opera that are the game's astonishing boss battles, then feel free. Or the difficulty; if it's your desire to hold an adventure's relative ease over its awe-inspiring settings, psyche-sculpting soundtrack, and enthralling, addicting gameplay, then be my bloody guest. You can join those who are busy bemoaning first-person and American developers.

The rest of us will be enjoying Prime for what it is.

The nervous care of your first tentative leap off the surface of Tallon; the satisfying rumble as, 20 hours of practice later, you land your confident last. Your spine shivering in the Chozo Ruins; your teeth bared in Magmoor. The desperate skirmish of your first Space Pirate encounter, and the skilled dance of the last one. Occasionally catching the eye of the Hunter herself, and imagining what she's thinking.

Prime is what Metroid needs, wants, and deserves to be.

autorock's avatar
Community review by autorock (December 27, 2004)

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