The Backlog: Metroid Prime

As the drought of summer continues, so does our weekly foray into our individual backlogs. As with previous weeks, this is the feature where we discuss the games that we're finally getting around to, whether they be a year old, five or ten. If you missed list week’s trilogy concluding look at

Halo 3

, check it out 

here

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I have probably started Metroid Prime more times than any other game I've owned. And that's saying something, because I have a really bad habit with a lot of games of getting started, going in maybe 2 hours, and then letting it fall to the side. The first time I played Metroid Prime was the Christmas that I got it on, and I actually really hated it. I'd also received Metroid Fusion the same day, and that game was awesome--you got infected by parasites, got sliced apart, and it was such a cool side-scrolling thing that started so quickly that I fell in love. Prime, on the other hand, was much slower. You start on a space pirate craft where everything is dead--I don't want everything to be dead. I wanted it to be alive! I wanted to shoot them all and show what an awesome bounty hunter I was!

I didn't even get off of the freighter the first time I played it. I thought it was bad, and I didn't understand where everyone was coming from. I mean, I was 12. It wasn't the game for me at the time because I thought everything needed to be more actiony, or I didn't care at all.

As I played it through the years, though, I started to appreciate it more, and I would slowly start getting further and further in. But it was always short-lived. I'd get a little further, but then the idea of going past the sections I already knew actually kind of scared me. And that doesn't even make sense, since the joy of this game lies in the discovery of new things. But I sort of felt like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption--everything I knew I was comfortable with, and leaving that gated area to explore new things just didn't interest me. And then something else would come along and make me forget about this game and move on to that one.

This pattern repeated for over 10 years. It began to seem even more insurmountable when they started releasing the sequels. Now I didn't have just one game to play--I had three. An entire trilogy. A whole story arc and I couldn't get more than two hours into the first one!

Enough was enough, though. I got a copy of Metroid Prime Trilogy, spent the beginning of summer playing through Super Metroid, and finally decided it was time. I broke open Trilogy, erased my old save (as is part of the Prime restart ritual I've by now perfected), and restarted, this time telling myself I'll at least finish the first one.

And holy crap, this game's good.

Now that I've played every Metroid game that came before this one, I realize just how great the opening of Prime is now. It's a perfection of the ideas that came before--even Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion attempted to create a feeling of foreboding about what's to come, with the opening in abandoned or destroyed spaceships. These scenes fall short in comparison to Prime, which presents everything that's to come in a much more assured and involved way.

Where in those other games they tend to be in-and-out affairs that you're done in a couple of minutes, the Space Pirate Frigate in Prime can take around 15 minutes and is full of everything you need to prepare for what comes ahead. The vicious experiments that the Space Pirates were running; the creatures that you're going to see once you go down to Tallon IV; the Space Pirates themselves, mutilated and near death from something gone horribly wrong; Ridley, that unkillable flying beast, flashing by overhead; the word "Phazon."

What this all means seems to be abandoned once you go down to the surface. This section seems like it's just a non-sequitor once you hit the planet and start shooting beetles and exploring ruins. You could even just completely ignore this story, because of how it all ties in to scanning. If you don't scan the right things, you'll miss out on the entire backstory and never quite figure out why anyone is doing anything. It would just seem like random enemies on a random planet that you're just killing because: video games.

Scanning is brilliant. You start to understand what happened in the world through logs left behind by the Chozo and records that the Space Pirate computers have. The story of this poisoned rock that fell to the planet and corrupted the creatures on it comes to light, as does the narrative of how the Space Pirates began to try and exploit it for their own gains. It's also something that other games just haven't been able to do as well, since every important thing you scan has a log entry that actually fills in what everything is and why it's there. Even things like save rooms and health packs have lengthy logs discussing them. It's a more interesting system than something like Mass Effect, which automatically fills in your log. You're more engaged in it, and thus more likely to actually care about what they have to say.

You wind up feeling less like a bounty hunter in Prime than just a badass trade regulation agent, trying to figure out exactly what sort of illegal activities the Space Pirates are up to. And when you eventually learn what's been going on, it's a story of deep and long-running corruption that then drives the rest of the trilogy. And I've still got that entire trilogy ahead of me! That's so exciting because there's so much that these games do that other games just... don't. Even in the decade since we've seen this series run an entire trilogy, refine its mechanics, and fade into happy, nostalgic memories and "greatest games ever" lists, it almost seems like people have ignored it when it comes to doing their own games--what should have been influential winds up instead feeling like a strange offshoot for the FPS genre that everyone acknowledges is really awesome, but then they don't try and chase its successes.

I don't think I've played many other games that create such strong senses of place and character. While you do go through a couple of usual game worlds (Lava! Snow! Desert!) the architecture and visual styling of the world is very cohesive. It feels like someone came in and attempted to tame this land, and was mostly successful... you know, until they all died. Even weird things like the powered doors and save spots are rationalized. Retro did a great job of explaining the world and the mechanics, so even things you take for granted (I shoot this door and it opens, whatever) now has a more concrete logic behind it.

There are also the small ways they create the feeling of Samus actually being a character. The limits to the way you can look up or down almost feels like you're constrained by your neck and your suit. When you try to aim precisely, her hand will shoot up and rest against the gun, as though she's trying to counter her motions and be more precise with her shots. Snow, rain and steam mess up your visor. I still remember being shocked the first time something bright lit up the visor in such a way that I could see the reflection of Samus' eyes in the visor. It was startling; such a cool moment and use of lighting that it sticks with you.

And for being over 10 years old, this game is no slouch visually. Art design also takes it a long way, and there are a bunch of moments where something visually makes me stop and just admire it. The first artifact you discover is in such a beautiful area and I wandered around it for a few minutes just to make sure I saw everything. Even their use of lighting feels so advanced--watching darkened corridors light up with your beam or seeing rays stream into a room with a broken roof is still gorgeous.

And that's just for the regular visor. The game actually has 4 visors, including the main one, and each presents a unique view of the world. The scan visor overlays the world with scannable spots that then fill in more details about the world. Thermal lets you see weak points and special areas, and allows you to see in the dark by following heat signatures. The X-ray visor does just what it says, and gives you a view of enemies who don't even show up in the visible spectrum.

These tie in with your usual Metroid upgrades to make exploring the world even more involved than before. Getting stuck in a room requires you to have the right visor on, have the right equipment, and navigate around in just the right way to get where you want to go. Finding secrets feels much more victorious than previous entries' "shoot that wall and look, there's a thing!" because it requires more navigation, more involvement and more thinking in creative ways. Even small differences from previous games in the series makes the game feel completely unique. The fact that you have to change out your beams manually to fit each situation gives each battle a much more tactical/puzzle oriented feel, requiring you to switch weapons for enemies and always be ready to try a new tactic.

It's really a shame that I waited so long to play Metroid Prime, but it's fun to go back and see just how different this game is as a first-person shooter. Instead of being focused on just shooting a bunch of guys, the way it pulls in exploration and puzzle solving makes it feel unlike almost anything out there on the market right now. It's weird to think that such a popular and praised game didn't have a huge impact on the industry, but things have moved less towards Prime's subtly fleshed-out worlds and more towards heavy action and set-pieces. Metroid Prime feels a lot more like what I personally think a game should be, and it's sad to see that big budget games are really moving away from that.

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That does it for this week’s Backlog. Be sure to come back next week for another look into our stacks of video game shame. Until then, let us know what you thought of Metroid Prime and which of the trilogy was your favorite.