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Metroid Prime: A timeless masterpiece

Thanks to the Switch release of Metroid Prime Remastered, I've finally played Metroid Prime. I remember watching my college roommate playing it (and Super Mario Sunshine), back when I was skeptical of 3D games. It takes everything great about Metroid games and translates that flawlessly into the 3D space. It feels almost like a modern game, depite being 20 years old.

In Metroid Prime, you once again assume control of the power-suit-clad, Mandalorian-esque "Hunter," Samus Aran. Set after the events of Metroid (prior to the Game Boy game Metroid II), she boards a Space Pirate ship, where she encounters a cybernetically-enhanced clone of Ridley called Meta Ridley. As the ship is destroyed, Samus's suit is damaged, and Meta Ridley flees to the planet Tallon IV. There, across seven regions connected by elevators, Samus must re-acquire her abilities, uncover secret paths, solve puzzles, unlock doors, and vaporize alien creatures while searching for twelve ancient artifacts. She is aided by her ability to transform into a Morph Ball. When she does, the game switches to a third-person perspective. In a few tight spaces, the game also changes to 2D. There's a humorous bit of text where you learn that the Space Pirates have suffered serious bodily harm trying to replicate the Morph Ball!

The Hunter, Samus Aran

Metroid Prime perfectly translates the exploration-adventure fun of the series into three dimensions. Nothing is lost, and much is gained. This game's main gimmick is that Samus obtains four different visors. Especially important is the Scan Visor, which lets Samus lock onto and scan both enemies and objects. Things that can be scanned are marked by a yellew square. Scanning an enemy displays information about it, which can later be accessed through a log book. Scanned objects often disclose story elements or clues. For example, large stalactites indicate that they are unstable, hinting that a missile blast will cause them to fall, creating a platform for Samus. Most of the game's puzzles and secrets are based on scanning things to get hints about where to shoot or what to do. There's also an infrared visor, used to track invisible enemies as well as hidden panels that must be charged to open locked doors. Finally, the x-ray scanner lets you sees invisible platforms and hidden items.

As in other 3D games, enemies can be locked onto (this is the purpose of the Combat Visor). The Space Pirates are quick and dangerous, so even with the advantage of target locking, you have to move quickly. You can strafe jump while locked onto an enemy. There's a considerable delay whenever Samus switches to or from missiles or between different types of beams, so you don't want to fumble around too much. Some enemies can only be destroyed by certain beams. In addition to the default Power Beam, Samus will gain the Wave Beam, Ice Beam, and Plasma Beam. The Plasma Beam is the most powerful, but you don't get it until near the end. The Ice Beam freezes enemies, but fires slowly.

The atmosphere of the original Metroid was meant to evoke the movie "Alien," and did so with surprising effectiveness for an 8-bit game. The beautiful 3D graphics and fantastic music of Metroid Prime, unsurprisingly, enable this effect more fully. This game's atmosphere is one of its high points. A tense and difficult sequence, in which Samus finds herself in the dark and must rely on the Infrared Visor, literally sped up my pulse!

Metroid Prime tells a story about the past of the Chozo (the bird-people that made Samus's technology) and the planet Tallon IV through text carved on walls all over the planet. These texts have a glowing aura around them to get the player's attention. (At first I thought this was a force field or something because I didn't understand how to use the Scan Visor!) The story is basic: the planet was infected by a poisonous substance called Phazon, and the Chozo nobly sacrificed themselves to try to stop it. They had vague visions of a future hero (Samus), who would complete their work by gathering twelve artifacts. I don't understand how the artifacts make sense, but collecting all twelve is the game's main quest. You receive hints that tell you exactly which room each one is in. This is fortunate, as most are well hidden.

Once you return all twelve artifacts to their shrine, Meta Ridley shows up. Like all the game's boss fights, it's fun and strikes the right balance: not too easy, not too hard. Super Metroid was known for its excellent boss fights, and Metroid Prime continues this legacy. The final fight against the eponymous Metroid Prime is great. It's hard, but I never got frustrated by dying, because each time I improved enough that I felt good about my chances the next time. Defeating the final form of the Metroid Prime requires frequent switching between visors to see it. This is a nice tie-in to the game's main gimmick. Instead of using your normal beams, you kill it with the Phazon energy that was poisoning the planet.

Few things are more thrilling in a Metroid game than finding an energy tank.

Metorid Prime, like all Metroid games, contains many secrets (including 49 missile upgrades). Most can be found by scanning everything to reveal weak spots to bomb or other things you need to do. For example, scanning a computer may unlock a door. Sometimes you have to find and scan symbols hidden in a room. Or you have to use infrared to detect hidden panels that must be activated with the Wave Beam. I had no trouble finding all the weapons and power suits, including the optional super weapons like the wavebuster and flamethrower. A few of the missile upgrades, however, can't be found through scanning. For example, there's a Morph Ball tunnel hidden behind thicket that looks like a wall; the only way to find it is to go into the Morph Ball and pass through the foliage. I'm not sure I could ever have found that without a guide. You'd have to thoroughly check every room of the game. Fortunately, the game contains a 3D map that you can zoom in and out and rotate at will.

Metroid Prime feels completely modern except for two things: it has neither autosaving nor fast travel. Metroid Dread doesn't use autosaving, either, so I guess Nintendo has decided that the lack of autosaving is a feature of the series. Metroid Prime is harder than your average Nintendo game, and there are a couple of "gauntlet" segments that can be difficult to clear on your first try. It took me three tries to get through the Metroid research facility in Phendrana Drifts, and the second time I died I may (gently) have thrown a controller. It can be frustrating in 2023 to have to replay a segment that you just spent twenty or thirty minutes carefully navigating. While I understand the problem with autosaving, in terms of making it too easy to thoughtlessly clear any area, I wish a couple areas of the game had an extra save station.

Backtracking is so important to the Metroidvania genre that I understand why fast travel may take some of the fun out of it. However, the limited time I have available to play video games and the relatively large map meant I would sometimes consult a guide before heading to a distant location, to make sure I wasn't confused about the objective. Some may say this takes away the fun of exploring, but I spent so much time on the game as it was (almost 30 hours), that by the end I was tired of racing through Magmoor Cavern for the fifth time. I'm sure that, with optimal play, you can navigate the entire game very efficiently, but in actual practice I often went in the wrong direction or missed something and had to double back. It wouldn't be so bad, but enemies respawn every time you re-enter a room. I have lost count of how many times I had to fight (or just ignore) the Flying Pirates at the Magmoor Workstation! Most annoying in this regard are the Shadow Pirates, because they take a while to defeat. I just wish Space Pirates didn't respawn at all, as it would make more thematic sense and make backtracking and searching for secrets easier.

One of my favorite parts of the game is the hint system. If you don't make it to your next destination in a timely fashion, Samus receives incoming data showing where exactly she needs to go. There may be some large gaps in areas you haven't been yet, but if you move in the direction of the target room, you will get there eventually. This prevents you from getting hung up on something in the wrong area that maybe you can't access yet.

Another fantastic part of Metroid Prime is the alien environments! They are full of little details, like mirrors, plants, wall decorations, and rain drops. They feel like real places and look incredible. The background music is equally incredible. I turned down the sound effects volume so I could hear the music better, it complements the visuals and gameplay so well. My favorite track was probably the main theme of Phendrana Drifts. During sequences with Space Pirates, it switches to a heart-pounding, tense battle theme. I became truly immersed in Tallon IV.

With beautiful graphics, outstanding music, challenging puzzles, high speed, tense combat, and a large map with varied environments and tons of secrets, Metroid Prime has everything. Probably it's only flaw besides the high difficulty is that the joystick is used for both moving and looking around, the latter while holding R. (Metroid Prime Remastered defaults to a dual-stick setup.)

The game has been so hyped for two decades that I expected the game to disappoint me slightly, but it didn't at all. It's as good as everyone says. With modern graphics, it feels like a brand new game! Amazing. Now when do we get Metorid Prime 2: Echos Remastered?

Grade: A+
Linked Review
"Its organic sense of progression, brilliant art design, extraordinarily dense and explorable world and innovative gameplay mechanics are all still impressive."
— Jacob Crites, Nintendo Life, 10/10

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