I've always been a fan of the Metroid series, as I'm sure are many of the kids who grew up in front of a square controller with those two distinct red buttons. The NES title was legendary, introducing to the console world the ideas of almost limitless exploration and discovery. No explanation was given, you were merely dropped into an alien world and forced to determine the goals for yourself. The original Metroid also featured the first real storyline twist in all of video gaming, as Samus Aran was revealed at the game's conclusion to be, in fact, a woman. While series such as Zelda, Mario, Mega Man and Dragon Warrior were expanded into true franchises in 8-bit, the original Metroid never received a proper NES sequel. The series was instead taken to the fledgling GameBoy, before landing with emphasis on the Super Nintendo with Super Metroid, perhaps one of the greatest titles in the system's incredible history.
The series then lay dormant for some time, completely missing the N64 boat, before resurfacing in style as the highlight of the GameCube's introductory video package. It was like you could just FEEL the anticipation, building to a fever pitch. This game had to be outrageously good to even land near the expectations.
From the moment you press that little white "power" button on the system's roof, there's no doubt that this baby has been polished to an absolute gleam. Everything from the opening sound effects to the theme song to the incredible background footage that enhances the options screen is flawless. The in-game Heads Up Display is simple, yet effective, and the options and status screens are an afterthought to navigate. Five minutes into the action, you'll be expertly navigating the most complex screens without so much as a second glance.
The attention to detail in Prime is off the charts. This is more than just a three dimensional first person shooter. It's an entire WORLD, with every single possibility accounted for. Moss grows in humid areas. Birds circle overhead after you've slaughtered a family of large animals, and then explode in a cloud of feathers when you open fire toward the sky. Lightning streaks through the clouds, emphasizing a brutal thunderstorm. If an errant missile explodes at the right angle, you'll catch a glimpse of Samus's face, reflected in the glass of her visor. Wander too close to a cloud of steam, and the visor will fog up for a few seconds. Quality control was all over this game, and it really shows.
Ditto for the visuals. The new title is everything I imagined it might be, and more. This is Metroid fully realized in three dimensions, to stunning result. Classic series enemies such as the Space Pirates, the little spikey things that hang on walls (with names I can't remember off the top of my head) and the Metroids themselves coexist side by side with new creatures perfectly suited for the same atmosphere. It's like every new title in the series serves to peel away another layer of ecosystem. The new animals match the old flawlessly.
The terrains, the vehicles, the weapons, the mazes... everything is simply stunning, to the point where I'd say it's among the top three or four games, visually, of all time. I'd rank it just above Halo in terms of breathtaking, heart-stopping beauty. That's right, the GameCube outguns the Xbox in this fight. It's an immersive environment, to the point where you'll forget that you're firing on giant roaches in a strange alien world, and begin to accept what you're seeing as reality. This is truly the crossroads of artistic vision and technological know-how. It's exactly what I expected, the moment I purchased my first next-gen console.
If the visuals of Metroid Prime are works of art, the audio is in a league of its own. Though I underplayed the importance of a strong soundtrack in my recent review of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and I still stand by those words, there's really nothing in the world that can serve to pull an entire package together as tightly as a perfectly placed tune. It's in this area, which Metroid makes its greatest impression. The music, occasionally a touch repetitive, is thoroughly compelling and, at times, an enormous chunk of icing on an already delicious cake. While the hours you'll spend underwater are truly a sight to behold on their own, they become absolutely awe-inspiring when paired with the perfect, slow, ambient melody chosen as their accompaniment. There's a true story of techno meets industrial meets trance hidden within the soundtrack of Metroid Prime, one with which you'll never grow tired.
It's when I begin to examine the gameplay that Prime takes its first missteps. While one might suspect the title would control very similarly to Halo, Unreal Tournament or Quake III (where one stick controls movement and the other aims), Metroid instead took a small step backwards, to a control scheme reminiscent of Doom and Wolfenstein 3-D. The left stick moves the player forward and backward, and turns the screen left or right. Players can strafe by holding down the L button and pressing left or right, and may look up or down by holding the R button and maneuvering the control stick in any direction. The Y and X buttons fire missiles and convert Samus to her ball mode, respectively, and are incredibly easy to mix up early in the game, when missiles are notably difficult to come by. The B button is used to jump, something that becomes increasingly hard to do when you can't look down in mid-air. I can't tell you how many times I've climbed to the top of one of Metroid's characteristically tall, platform-based chambers, only to miss one jump and fall all the way to the base again.
Moving backwards in FPS history is somewhat acceptable, though, as the right stick is used to choose between the four weapons you'll eventually acquire; the regular power shot, along with individual weapons derived from electricity, fire and ice. As with previous titles in the series, doors are opened with a quick shot from your arm cannon. Each weapon is required to open certain doors around the world, and serves as an indicator of where exactly you should be at any moment in time, as the game often loops back to previously-conquered areas. Unfortunately, doors don't always open on the first shot. Or the second. Or, occasionally, the tenth or eleventh. I've literally stood in front of a door, constantly firing, for over a minute while I waited for the thing to "sense" my gunfire. While that's a minor annoyance while exploring a remote area, it's more than a little frustrating when running from an angry pack of bloodthirsty enemies.
Honestly, though, I'm being a little tough on the system. Through the use of Aran's visor, players can lock on to their opponents and adopt a few advanced fighting techniques in the process. The visor itself is also upgradeable, eventually offering X-Ray, heat-sensor and scanning modes which alter the way you look at the game itself. Some enemies have the ability to cloak themselves to the naked eye, and must be tracked by their heat signatures. Invisible platforms float in the sky, crystal clear to everything but your X-Ray display. Finally, an addition that's an almost insurmountable challenge for anal retentive types such as myself, nearly everything in the game is scannable. Enemies, items, plant life, weapons upgrades, documents written in foreign tongues... it's all there to be documented, translated and studied if you so desire. I can't begin to tell you how addicting this scan visor really is.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Prime is the implementation of the morph ball. The moment you press X, the screen shifts from first person mode to third person, and the game transforms from a first person shooter to a 3-D puzzle game. Surprisingly enough, the two genres merge flawlessly and act as an enjoyable change of pace from one another. With the eventual addition of a speed booster, explosives and "spider tracks" (in which players cling to specially designed tracks, defying gravity to reach new areas), the morph ball mode never grows old, and remains Metroid's greatest claim to fame.
Much like the first title in the infamous series, Metroid Prime throws players directly into the action without any sort of backstory whatsoever. Though you're immediately equipped with everything available throughout Super Metroid, all that power is eventually torn from your repertoire, effectively starting you off at ground zero. The rest of the game's storyline is explained through the use of computer terminals and wall writings, scattered throughout the world. Scanning (and occasionally translating) these will slowly unravel the storyline, piece by piece.
It's a really innovative concept, one that serves to actively involve the player in the events as they unfold rather than merely showing them a movie, giving them a new level, rinsing and repeating. You'll uncover bits and pieces about an asteroid colliding with the planet, the infestation of a mysterious, all-empowering (but eventually insanity-inducing) mineral, and the Space Pirates' plans to exploit it. I enjoyed the storyline, despite being confused on more than one occasion, and was kept enthralled until the final battle, completely expecting the closing sequence to blow me away.
Well, it didn't quite turn out that way. My fifteen hours of game time, the limitless scanning, the hours spent jumping through hoops to retrieve that special weapon or extra energy tank... it was all capped off by one of the most disappointing endings I've ever witnessed. I fought fifteen hours for a minute long closing sequence. No joke, the credits rolled for THREE TIMES AS LONG as the final cinema. Then Metroid proudly announced that I'd unlocked "Hard Mode." What a crock.
There are a few secrets to be found within Metroid Prime, many of which involve scanning everything in the game. There is no multi-player mode in the title, which more than evens out the scale in the inevitable comparison to the Xbox's Halo. GameBoy Advance connectivity is supported, though it's merely for the purpose of unlocking a new wardrobe in the GBA's Metroid Fusion, or the original NES title on the Cube.
Despite my qualms and my intense irritation over the unacceptable closing sequence, Metroid Prime remains a very solid game, spanning two notable genres with impressive results. The visuals and sounds are setting a new standard for the industry, and the game is a tremendous rush to play. The sense of exploration and discovery has carried over flawlessly in the transition from side-scrolling platformer to three dimensional FPS. It loses points for its lack of multiplayer functionality, in addition to a few questionable choices in the control scheme, the horrendous let down after the final boss and that nasty, nasty bug involving the doorways. Still, make no mistake, this is an unbelievable title. It's worth every bit of the forty dollars the big "N" is still asking for it. Just don't go in expecting a big payoff for all your work, as I did.
I'm a little worried about the fact they're bringing out a sequel to this title so quickly, especially since the series has been virtually built upon both the quality of the games and the long waits associated therein. If Metroid Prime was ten years in the making, there's a reason for that. Let's keep our fingers crossed that Prime 2 isn't pushed out to market before it's had time to gestate properly.
Overall Score: 8.4