Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Tobias Wilson’s World – #28: Metroid Prime

In Gamecube, Wii on March 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm
Today’s entry is by Tobias Wilson:

Format: Gamecube, Wii

Released: 21st March, 2003

It was a game that no one wanted. Except me. But then, I wasn’t a life-long Metroid fan. Life-long Metroid fans did not want this game. Oh, they wanted a Metroid game but not like this.

It had been eight years, a generation ago, since the adored Super Metroid on the SNES. The N64 had come and gone without an iteration of what was ostensibly one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises. But there were rumblings. The long touted “Metroid 64” was only hinted at in interviews. Poor Samus’ only outing on that console was as the connoisseurs’ choice in Super Smash Bros.

In this time, Mario had introduced a whole new style of gaming to the world, and Zelda had returned in arguably the greatest game ever made. What of Samus? Suddenly, in 1999 Nintendo announced that a new Metroid game was being developed for a home Nintendo console, and the following year a promotional clip surfaced showing Samus running down a hall and blasting bugs. Fans were elated. Briefly.

Then it was announced that Retro Studios had been hired to make the game: a new studio with almost no track record. An American studio, no less; a first when it came to a Nintendo’s big hitters. Then it was annouced that Metroid would be joining the fray in the biggest game-genre of the era: the First-Person Shooter. Fans were furious, presumably saying things like “Samus sold-out, man” and “It used to be about the space-bugs, brah.” Nintendo spluttered in protest that it was going to be a “first-person adventure”, which everyone ignored because obviously that doesn’t mean anything. The outraged ire of nerds was only inflamed when first plays were reported to be awful, and an incredibly ugly screen-shot was released.
This turned out to be one of the times that has come to define Nintendo: when they give the fans something they didn’t even know they wanted. Because Metroid Prime is a masterpiece. But that’s not why I wanted it. I wanted it because it looked cool. Not interesting, not well-made. Cool. I had a Gamecube, and even amongst the nerds that wasn’t cool; It was purple. Everyone else had Halo, or Metal Gear Solid. I had Mario and I had a cartoon Zelda. I wanted something to show that my console wasn’t just for kids. Prime was that game.

To me, it was the first-person shooter and space-epic that would make Nintendo gritty again and validate my Christmas request of Nintendo’s newest console over the cooler Xbox or PS2 of my peers. Of course it wasn’t. It has no multi-player, no elaborate story; this wasn’t a game that friends come over and watch you play. This is a game about solitude and loneliness. A game where most of your time is spent exploring unknown terrain and examining the wildlife. You don’t meet another human (Samus is human underneath that suit, and a female at that) for the entire game. The only people who talk to you, do so from beyond the grave. This game didn’t change any of my peers’ minds about the Gamecube. But I didn’t care. Because it was unlike anything I’d played before.

It turns out Nintendo hadn’t been spewing out jargon. It really was a first-person adventure. It wasn’t about the guns, especially. Samus already came armed with several of the coolest weapons and gadgets in games. Her plasma-gun arm, complete with charge shot and missles, her grapling hook and, most iconically, her morph-ball. But the gadget that defined Metroid Prime, was one that was added specifically for this game: the scanner. When you see an icon indicating a scannable object, and almost everything is, you scan it. This is where the game lives and breathes.

Technically Samus Aran is a bounty-hunter, but this game portrays her as part historian, part biologist and part archaeologist. Everything you scan expands your knowledge of Tallon IV, the world you’ve crash-landed on. And it is a world. Not a level, not a stage. A world. A world that doesn’t care if you are there. The enemy in the game isn’t the eponymous Metroid – a parasitic and deadly alien. It isn’t even the wonderfully named Space Pirates, a race who have landed on Tallon IV – the home of the recently extinct Chozo – and are draining it of resources. The true enemy of the game is Tallon IV itself, a planet full of strange creatures that are all trying to kill you. Or, more accurately, trying to survive. This is their space and you have invaded it. They aren’t enemies, they really are just wildlife. Still, this is no time for conservationism. Blast the fuckers.
Even more than an adventure, it is an exploration game. I’ve always thought the very best games are the games that are fun simply to be in. Half-Life 2, Super Mario Galaxy, Grand Theft Auto 3, these are games that are fun to turn on and exist in, even if you don’t tackle the levels themselves. Playing in the sandbox of Metroid Prime is joyous, whether you’re jumping off platforms, rolling around in the morph-ball or shooting at various forms of wildlife to test their reactions.

You want to explore the world of Metroid Prime and the game rewards you for doing so. The story is drip-fed to you as you learn of the Space Pirates, the Chozo and how the former led to the latter’s extinction. But this isn’t done in cut-scenes or with hours of dialogue (I’m looking at you, Kojima) but with data logs, diary entries and the abandoned world of Tallon IV itself. The story is there, and is all the more rewarding for the player that has hunted it down itself.

The core of the game is the antithesis of the big hitters of today. Gears of War, Halo, Call of Duty. You never feel like their principle characters are anything other than an unstoppable weapon. Metroid Prime is the inverse of this. It is about one character’s loneliness and vulnerability. At the beginning of the game you are fully equipped with each of Samus’ gadgets which are ripped from you as you crash-land on Tallon IV. Your weapons are gone, as is your shielded suit and your morph-ball. You suddenly feel exposed, and human.

When you walk through an alien grass it slows you down, when you go near hot water, the screen fogs up. You even get bugs stuck on your visor. When something large explodes, you see a reflection of Samus’ face, and the fear in her eyes. Despite focusing on the extinction of the Chozo, this isn’t a game about death. It’s a game about life and living creatures. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s because Metroid Prime really isn’t like any other game. Still, could’ve been cooler.


Tobias is a writer/performer for cracking sketch group Sad Faces. He also writes for Cartoon Network. He is not cool.


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