Game of the year? Metroid Prime reviewed

The release of Metroid Prime for the Nintendo GameCube was a source of much consternation for video game nerds everywhere. The Metroid franchise has produced some of Nintendo’s most popular and successful games, all of which were two-dimensional, platform-jumping type games that emphasized exploration of vast digital alien worlds. When Nintendo announced that production on Metroid Prime had been entrusted to first-time developer Retro Studios and that the upcoming release would be a three-dimensional first person shooter/adventure game, the aforementioned nerds littered Internet chat rooms with words such as “blasphemy,” and “disappointment.”

But their assessments were all wrong. For despite the change in perspective, Metroid Prime, like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time before it, remains true to the original formula that made its predecessors so popular, and is itself an amazing game.

In Metroid Prime you assume the role of Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter heroine of all past games in the series. Your mission is to descend to the alien world of Tallon IV in pursuit of the evil Space Pirates, who have begun breeding powerful creatures called Metroids in order to use them for no good. It is your job to stop them. That is the story, and that is all you need to know. Metroid games have never had complicated story lines, plot twists or surprise endings; rather, they focus on exploration and adventure, emphasizing the fact that you are completely alone on an alien world that is filled with traps, secret passageways and legions of evil creatures and indigenous fauna that will not hesitate to attack without provocation. Stirring up trouble, of course, brings challenges of a different, if not more dangerous sort.

In order to survive on Tallon IV, Samus must acquire a variety of upgrades for her armored suit, and it is this aspect of the game (and all the other Metroid titles) that makes it so distinctive and fun. Throughout the course of the game, you will have to retrace your steps and revisit specific areas of this world, which is divided into a number of different regions, such as an underground volcanic cavern, a snow-covered valley and a crumbling ruins site.

However, as you acquire the upgrades and gain new abilities, paths that were once inaccessible become available and the area you must explore gradually increases, requiring you to either roll up into a ball to explore tunnels, seek out crumbling walls that need to be blown open or search around with a variety of different visors that feature thermal and X-ray imaging. Whereas in other games the retreading of steps can quickly become an exercise in tedium – Donkey Kong 64 or Dungeon Siege come to mind – Metroid Prime manages to buck the backtracking curse.

Perhaps this is best attributed to the in-game clues which flash up periodically and direct you to your next destination on your visor’s internal mapping system. This aspect of the game is particularly well done; Samus’s visor map is fully three-dimensional, fully rotational and fully zoom-in-able, all of which makes for an ease of navigation that no game before it has ever perfected to such an extent, and all of which keeps the player from becoming overly frustrated as he makes his way across Tallon IV.

Simply put, the graphics in Metroid Prime are the best the GameCube has to offer. The various environments and creatures of Tallon IV are rendered with amazing detail, with no sacrifice of game speed. The ruins are cracked, broken and overgrown with vegetation, while the underground cavern has magma bursting all over the place. But even more impressive are the little graphic touches thrown into the game. For example, if a bright flash occurs close enough to Samus, you can see her face clearly reflected off the inside of her helmet visor.

Also, aspects of the environment can impair her field of vision. Steam will fog the visor, and the various excreta of certain aliens will splash onto her face. Such graphic additions are completely unnecessary, but they make the game so much cooler. Perhaps most impressive is that for all its visual splendor and complexity, the game features almost no loading time.

Indeed, the only load time a player will encounter is a brief elevator sequence between the several overworlds, but these sequences are so rare and surprising that the player almost comes to appreciate the break that the loading time offers.

Gameplay is superb throughout. The control scheme is a little confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it you will come to love it. One aspect of play that is extremely inventive is the ability to scan the environment and creatures using your visor’s scan feature. You do this in order to gain information on how to kill specific enemies, or which parts of the environment can be accessed or destroyed. It also adds an element of danger to the game, as scanning usually requires a number of seconds, and you are completely incapable of attacking while doing so.

Metroid Prime is an amazing game that makes full use of the GameCube’s capabilities, and remains true to the themes of past Metroid titles. It is the best title available for the GameCube right now and is quite possibly the best game of 2002, so if you are looking for a game to become completely engrossed in, run out and pick this one up. Unless you are a cynical video game nerd or really have something against female superheroines, you won’t be disappointed.