• Metroid Prime Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    Tallon IV. Once, a peaceful retreat for the benign Chozo Empire, now a world infected with a dangerous organic compound called Phazon. Though uninhabitable, Tallon IV was abandoned by the Chozo with only the relics of their society left as echoes of their achievements. Many years later, and the planet has new inhabitants: the vicious, nomadic Space Pirates – breeders of the nigh-unstoppable Metroid creatures – determined to harvest the dangerous Phazon to fuel their war machine.

    An orphan from one of the Space Pirates' conquered worlds and now their most feared opponent, 'The Hunter' Samus Aran was raised by the Chozo and now battles them using the Chozo's own technology. Previous victor over the Pirates (as chronicled in the original NES Metroid), Samus must fight once more to protect the empire against the maniacal Pirates and their Phazon-warped army...
    And so we once again enter the universe of Samus Aran – one of video game's forgotten heroes. The creation of Gumpei Yokoi - Nintendo luminary who first departed the company then tragically departed this Earth (Yokoi died in a car crash) – the Metroid games enjoyed enormous critical plaudits yet were only partially successful with consumers.

    Many years have passed since the last instalment in the series (Super Metroid – the third instalment – appeared on the Super Famicom), and the decision to carry on the franchise with a second-party development team was greeted with many a raised eyebrow. The creator of the series dead, the IP (intellectual Property) handed to an outside team, a move into 3D... the game had 'doomed to ignominy' all but printed on the box. Years after the project began, and after rumours of arguments and huge in-game flaws, Metroid Prime has entered the public arena. Nintendo must fight yet another battle to capture the public's imagination and prove they offer more than just simple, childish fun.

    Prime begins with Samus arriving in orbit around Tallon IV at a derelict space station, seemingly abandoned by its Space Pirate occupants. Your first objective is to explore the environment, garnering all the information you can as to what events have transpired. This serves a dual purpose: it allows the player the opportunity to become accustomed to the controls, and to learn more about the situations you will face. The left analogue stick controls your forward, backward and turning movements. The 'L' trigger locks your perspective to allow strafing (and performs a lock-on to enemies and info cells – more on this later), the 'R' trigger allows a free look when depressed, 'A' fires your selected weapon and 'B' performs a jump. In addition to rudimentary movement, there are further functions available; some accessible from the start, and some which are gathered later in the game.

    Initially, you are equipped with your scan visor, which is essential for checking the game world for clues and secrets. Not only does this information help the player with her/his progress, it also enriches the overall experience by providing snippets from both the Pirates' logs and the Chozo's historical archives. These entries give data on all aspects of Tallon IV, such as geography and lifeforms, architecture and society. Scan visor is activated by pressing left on the D-Pad, and futher visors are mapped to the other buttons when acquired later in the game. Such information is invisible to the default combat visor.

    The 'Y' button changes Samus from her bipedal form into the Morph Ball – a compressed version of herself, viewed in the third-person - that can traverse areas inaccessible to humanoid forms. 'X' fires missiles in the first-person perspective and 'A' lays bombs in Morph ball mode. The C-stick is used to switch weapons. At the beginning of the game, only the Power Beam is available, which fires rapidly with button presses, or can charge to fire a powerful energy ball by holding 'A'. A great deal of debate has emerged about the control method in Prime, and can only be judged in the overall context of the game design. More on this later.

    Samus heads for the planet's surface, and the adventure begins in earnest. What is patently obvious right from the start is that Prime is one of the most stunning game worlds ever created. The Gamecube's graphics chips, bedded securely in their sockets, already have deserved reputation for creating solid environments; Prime takes this to the next level, with a singular design that feels almost palpably concrete. On top of the stable 60fps maintained by the console, the detail within is simply breathtaking. Navigating the Chozo ruins is a glorious exploration: crumbling temples, tree roots breaking through the sand and brickwork, all bathed in the orange glow of an alien Sun. There are no bland textures, no repeated motifs except those deliberately included by the developers, and not an inch of game space superfluous or wasted. Many parts of the game make the jaw drop and the eyes widen in wonder, but whatever your favourite – the cold drifts of Phendrana, the humid and rocky climes of the Overworld, the cloying heat of the Magmoor Caverns – each is both significantly different from the other, yet each is part of a consistent design pattern.

    This consistency is reciprocated by the design of both Samus and the enemies she faces. Your character operates within her bio-suit, and this fact is visually enforced by the HUD (Head-Up Display). The view from within your suit's helmet contains the usual energy bar, but also relays other vital information to the player: which visor is in operation, which weapon, and whether there is significant danger nearby (shown by a rising gauge with a distinct exclamation mark next to it). Such a comparatively minor inclusion to the design actually has the effect of making you bond with the character – a further element that adds to the realism of the Prime universe.

    All of this cool and beautiful design would be for nought if the level design and mapping was bland or ill thought-out. For an adventure game (which Metroid Prime is, despite its First-Person perspective), map layout is paramount – possibly the single most vital part of the game. Prime, again, excels in this key area. Phendrana Drifts, for example, is a gorgeous yet bleak winterland of falling snow and craggy peaks. Icy waters often stand at ground level, and ice caves abound. Each part of the world contains elements of this kind of map layout, but it is never the case of a couple of bitmap or skin changes dividing and diversifying the environments. For example, if an area is technologically rich, such as the Phazon mines, there are fewer jumps and an increase of man-made barriers to disarm, such as force fields and fences. In Magmoor, the heat not only requires the safe negotiation of pools of lava, but also demands a suit upgrade.

    The game world is viewable as a map comprised of simple polygons (accessible by pressing the 'Z’ button) and is as integral to the game as your visors or weapons. Fully three dimensional and viewable from every angle, each section is rendered in simple broadstrokes, but with the overall layout plain to see. As discovery and exploration is the most exciting part of the game, the efficacy of the map is a joy to behold, and never less than totally welcome.

    Style and content go hand-in-hand in Metroid Prime, both feeding off and growing from one another symbiotically. Fire a charged blast from your cannon, and the air warps in its wake. Your visor's display will break up near strong electrical fields. A strenuously used cannon will have heat rising from its barrel after discharging. In a dark area, an explosion will reflect the startled (and startling) image of Samus' face onto the inside of her helmet. All graphical effects serve a purpose – the light bugs in the Ruins light a darkened room, but also attack. Do you keep them alive for their light, or avoid damage by killing them, thus navigating a treacherous environment in the dark? Weapon, visor and Morph Ball upgrades are similarly vital to progress, and not just in a 'bigger-better-faster-more' style, either. Certain enemies can only be seen using a different spectrum of vision (four are available), and certain weapons can only harm certain enemies. On numerous occasions, you will be required to switch during battle between both visors and weapons swiftly, to counter the abilities of your adversaries.

    Just as you reach the apogee of what can be achieved with an acquired ability – and it seems as if it can be of no further use – a new ability is gained which not only adds another layer, another dimension to the game, but re-validates and re-invigorates the ones you have. All upgrades work in unison, enabling you to become exponentially more powerful.

    Which brings us to the wider debate on controls. Prime has been criticised for not having a 'freelook' control (possibly mapped to the C-stick) as in FPS (First-Person Shooter) games such as Halo and the Quake series. Control in the FPS genre is centered around movement, with weapon functions and other abilities set to individual keys on a PC keyboard, for games where swift weapon selection is vital. Due to the nature of Prime, cycling through weapons would make the game impossible, as instant access is paramount –an absolute must in the game. Having the correct weapon to hand and the ability to rapidly change to another could not be done by cycling through your selection using a button. Bonding with the controls occurs thoroughly after the player has battled against numerous opponents in tight spaces and challenging environments. There is a deliberate learning curve in their usage – the curve gently nudges you to improve the basics, then subtly rewards you with a new upgrade. This process is seamless, and never feels manipulative or intrusive. It may take a while to adapt, but the latter stages of the game demonstrate that Retro have successfully created a 2D adventure in full 3D, whilst also remaining true to the Metroid franchise.

    Prime is a huge game, and demanding. However, it keeps you occupied with well-timed Boss battles and riveting logic puzzles; some innocuous (in fact, almost subconscious), some in-your-face. Exploration is seldom a chore, although a minor criticism would be that there is inevitably some back tracking to be done in order to discover new sections. With it being an adventure game, though, it must be argued that this is part of the genre's nature, and the reason why the arenas are so diverse and visually appealing is to continually excite and intrigue the player. Revisiting sections with a more powerful arsenal to hand is a joy all gamers are familiar with.

    The heavy platform element of Prime is well handled, as most platforms are designed to be navigable without too much difficulty (once the controls have been learnt, at least), and the rooms in which they appear can be cleared of enemies that may precipitate a fall. Later in the game, a greater degree of skill is required but, by this time, successful negotiation of such hazards is second-nature. On the rare occasion you are knocked from your perch or a set of perfectly timed jumps by an enemy, you chalk it up to experience and carry on without a second thought. Latter acquisitions such as the grapple hook often provide multiple methods of navigation, smoothing the process even further.

    General combat functions most impressively with the application of the 'lock-on' button. It allows for sharp and instant targeting of foes (although spritely ones will dodge your attacks until you reposition). Such battles are frequent and varied: some enemies will attempt to overcome you with brute force, their weak point concealed, whilst others will move at lightning fast speeds to protect themselves.

    Enemy movement is good, although if a foe ends up behind an obstacle for defensive purposes, this tends to be accidental, and more due to the nature of the level design. That does not detract from the combat overall, however, as the patterns and design of the enemies (who are tough opponents and appear frequently) and their attacks are skilfully wrought and individualistic.

    Encounters with 'Boss' enemies are uniformly impressive – never has the player been so pushed into the application of diverse skills and constant observation. For example, the first 'proper' boss you encounter requires some lateral thought to overcome, and other enemies you discover have mere moments when they are vulnerable, and using this to your advantage requires speed of thought as well as limbs. If you had begun to think that 'Boss' characters were incapable of surprising you in this day and age, a quick round against the latter opponents will soon have you revising your opinion...

    Audio is a mixed bag: some tunes are superbly atmospheric and eerie (such as the main score in Phendrana) whilst others are a tad flat and pale. What is continuously superb, though, is the use of audio. Seldom have their been so diverse and so spot-on audio effects in a game. Noisome creatures squeal in realistic and terrifying rage or pain, servos whine as your bio-suit operates and explosions rock the very foundations of Tallon IV.

    As a bonus inclusion, should you own a copy of Metroid Fusion for the GameBoy Advance the Fusion suit is available for use in Prime (dependant on completion of Metroid Prime and the ownership of a link cable).

    It is important to note that some gamers have had the game crash at certain sections - principally, where Samus uses an elevator. This does not occur with every copy, but a common cause appears to be movement by the player once the elevator is engaged. NTSC-Uk would suggest that the control stick is left neutral until the platform comes to a halt, as a stop-gap solution to the flaw.

    Metroid Prime is the game every Metroid lover could have wished for: just as Mario64 updated and transposed the 2D platform game perfectly into 3D, Prime now does for the Action Adventure. There is not a single Gamecube resource poorly managed or wasted, and the technology has an intrinsic, organic consistency, hermetically linked to the game world. Because of this, you view the game in terms of its synchronicity throughout – the elemental effect of your weaponry, the multi-spectrum abilities of your visor, the use of sound to place objects and opponents, and such general physics principles as inertia and recoil. They are all fragments that, with the skill of Retro Studios and the guiding hand of NCL have coalesced into a game both historically true to the Metroid history and progressive at the same time.

    The controls may initially appear flawed, but this is only when compared to a separate genre (an erroneous assumption to make) and before the player has had a chance to 'bed them in'. Once mastered, they are as good a representation of the 2D version of the games as could ever be wished for... and the 2D controls themselves were pin-sharp.

    Metroid Prime has defied a troubled development to become an instant classic on an increasingly more impressive machine. From the very beginning of your adventure, to the final confrontation against Metroid Prime itself, you will be enthralled and enraptured. The best adventure since Link weaved magic with an Ocarina and the singular best 3D, First-Person Adventure ever, Metroid Prime is a landmark in game design, and shall stand as a bulwark against Nintendo's recent doubters and critics for years to come. It is a universe flawlessly designed, packed full of adventure and excitement and a Pandora's box of unique surprises. It’s time for all 'gamers, everywhere, to descend on Tallon IV...

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