Metroid Prime — Dreadful Anticipation
It is what you play that defines you
Unlike Fusion, my memories with Metroid Prime are much fuzzier. I remember galivanting through an orbital frigate at demo kiosks when we’d go shopping, and I clearly remember beating it when my brothers and I had a babysitter over (they were a cool babysitter and let me stay up a bit longer to beat it). But I don’t remember buying or receiving it.
Knowing what very little we did about the Metroid story, courtesy of Fusion, my younger, less-experienced brain tried to shoehorn the events of Prime at a strange time, somehow following Fusion but ignoring many of the plot elements that Fusion had set up. In time, I would get the timeline straightened out in my head, but for that time, major plot contradictions aside, it was still a fun game.
I would get lost in Prime’s worlds, even with objective readings coming up every so often. Prime excelled in the other direction as Fusion: exploration, experimentation. The worlds, no matter how detailed the maps, were massive, and begged to be explored. The flip-side, of course, was the end-game collection objective, which sent me pinballing all across the maps to find obscure references and asides. I highly doubt that I accomplished that objective on my own; the internet and its various walkthroughs had to play a major role in that.
I remember the music being an absolute standout. I remember getting the Player’s Guide at some point…knowing me, it could’ve been after I’d beaten the game. I remember how I progressively grew to understand and appreciate the Scan Visor function. I remember how epic the boss battles felt, how earned those victories were. Prime occupies my memory in a strange fashion: formative in the same way that Fusion was, but more focused. With Fusion, I remember the experience as a whole. With Prime, it’s more bits and pieces: specific music tracks, specific visuals, specific encounters. Pieces of the larger whole.
But almost more than that, I remember Metroid Prime setting the standard for first-person perspective games. I was much more a Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, and Star Fox 64 player before that; first-person games, let alone shooters, were a new realm for me. Before Prime, I’d mastered the five levels in Chex Quest on the PC, I stumbled my way through a level or two in 007 Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64, and fumbled my way through cooperative campaign levels in Halo: Combat Evolved on the Xbox with my friend (she kept setting it to Legendary, what other choice did I have but to die?). When all I had done in first-person games before was die, when Prime gave me the opportunity to both survive and explore, it changed the game for me. This was what a first-person game could be like, and this was my standard. Recharging shields and ammunition clips were foreign concepts: I had beam types and energy tanks.
Familiar Sights for Nostalgic Eyes
Setting Prime in the Gamecube reminded me that this was not my first rodeo; my memory card still held the data from older runs of the game, at intimidatingly high completion rates. Plus, it still had the data from our Prime-to-Fusion GBA link…but more on that another time. Onward!
The beginning of the game, whether due to my time playing demos or otherwise, was still a standout part of Prime. Firstly, lavishing in the newfangled 3D model of Samus as she launches herself onto a orbital station’s docking platform. Developers wanted players to see it and recognize how much of a shift this was from the norm. And honestly, nineteen years later, Samus, the world of Tallon IV…it still looks really good. But, where Prime shines in this first area was as a tutorial, steadily teaching players what they need to know. For first-time players (as I was), it was great. Even though everything was still muscle memory for me, it didn’t just result in a speedrun; there were plenty of story elements scattered throughout that would keep returning players or the narratively hardcore engaged all the same.
Everything comes to a head against the big boss, the Parasite Queen, where players get to demonstrate how to use all their tools to both fight the massive creature and escape the station. And then, Prime starts the tradition of “canon reasons why you’re underpowered out of the gate,” taking all of the tools players got used to away from them. They’ve gotten a taste of what could be, and are that much more eager to get it back. It’s a phenomenal design choice, playing into the balancing act of starting at nothing to grow stronger and the inherent design of Metroid games (no matter how powerful Samus was at the end of the last game, she’s back to square one for this game). To have some narrative reason behind Samus’s fall from power is appreciated, instead of just being waved off as “new game, what upgrades?”
I was amused at the little things that I had vivid recollection of while playing. The Morph Ball Bomb-Jump trick to maximize height was all about rhythm, and within a second of realizing I needed it, I remembered and executed it perfectly. I’ve failed every foreign language class I’ve ever taken, but I can make the video game ball go higher!
On the other end was how absorbed I would get in a late-game boss battle. The boss would reel back to charge, and as big as they were, it didn’t leave a lot of room for Samus to skirt out of the way. I would find myself leaning in whatever direction I wanted her to zip, hoping that would help her get out of the way. As much as people might give kids and newer players flak for leaning, for jumping, for moving with their characters, I think that’s a solid testament to the game. A testament in both how engrossed players get, even when we don’t realize it, and how fundamentally engrossing those games are.
Drawing parallel to Fusion, a point of contention, especially amongst Metroid fans, is the Hint System. Like the objective markers in Fusion, Prime would point the way to nearby Save Stations or areas of strange activity, generally the next upgrade players need to progress. Even as far back as 2002, the Hint System can be turned off for the more hardcore explorers. But for newer players, or even old codgers who don’t have Tallon IV mapped out in their head like they used to (ahem), it is still nice to be pointed in a direction. Prime doesn’t tell you how to get there, or what lies in wait between you and this weird room, or even what’s in the weird room, so it’s not a Super Guide or anything. For some players, it really beats stumbling around trying to find or remember places they can use their new upgrade.
In terms of the subjective “bad” in Prime, I don’t think I noted that many. High among them was needing to crisscross the whole map to get to one specific area. In my other treks through Metroid worlds, things felt more interconnected, like they had a sense of flow: players would grab upgrades and “complete” an area before moving on somewhere different. That sense of “new” carried in Prime for a while, but it didn’t last. In time, enough of the map stuck into my mental recall that I knew it would be a trek to get to somewhere I could use my fancy new toy. Prime touts itself on being a first-person adventure, where exploration is the core of the experience, but it felt less like adventuring and exploring and more like busywork and “are we there yet?” after a certain point.
To keep things fresh, after making some progress, Prime would throw new enemies into the areas players trek in and out of, signaling the world reacting to Samus’s involvement in things. Unfortunately, it feels needless 98% of the time. The lights dim, creepy screams, music changes, but I’m already making a beeline for the door to the next area. Guttural roars are loosed and jetpacks flare, but unless they can keep up with me, I’m already gone elsewhere. The only time I turn around is when the new bad guys mess up a jump I’m trying to make, but at that point, it doesn’t feel challenging or fun, it feels vindictive. I see what the developers were trying to do, but in a game so centered on exploration, repeat instances of combat don’t have the greatest impact.
Lastly, I will gush about my love for the Scan Visor later, BUT they did me dirty in the endgame. To hide an item, necessary to complete the game, behind a destructible wall (or column, or what have you), but NOT indicate from the Scan Visor that the structure is destructible, after setting up the rest of the game to identify such destructible structures with Scanning, is in poor design. Riddles and hints about where to get these endgame items do not warrant the waving aside of a crucial game element for some endgame “gotcha” moments.
Great. Enough of that. Metroid Prime did so many things well that, even in my most frustrated, I was brought back to the good.
To compliment my crisscrossing lamentations, Prime is designed to react to Samus’s growth and continued arsenal. Lower ledges can be space-jumped over, instead of having to complete a morph ball puzzle. Grapple points let players zip past (or over) a platforming challenge in less time and (usually) less damage. No matter how annoyed I was having to schlep myself to the other side of the world, I did appreciate that how I got to the other side was changing and becoming more streamlined.
For all that Prime’s atmosphere is top-notch, what really sold everything was the immersive element, of truly playing inside Samus’s helmet. Watching as condensation built up, as static rocked players’ perspectives, as goo would explode onto and drip down the visor, and of seeing Samus’s reflection…a small thing, but such a brilliant thing all the same, and still one of my favorite things about Prime. It was that, not the controls, not the console it was on, not the character that set it apart from other first-person games of the time. That level of immersion, of being Samus and seeing all that she did, that set it apart. I believe that’s a reason I loved it then, and why I still love it now.
One of my strangest memories is not a specific moment, but a desperate search up and down the internet for some copy of the Metroid Prime soundtrack. The boss themes? Timeless. The regional tracks? Eternal. The use of score-based composition when appropriate? Space Chef’s Kiss.
Metroid Prime was the soundtrack that kicked off my need for music in my life. Prime’s location-based tracks are still some of my favorite tracks to date, and when I need to set the stage for some atmosphere in a tabletop game, they’re among my first choices. The percussion and winds of the Overworld and the Ruins, the deep choir of the underground caverns, and the serene piano and strings of the frozen tundras…they are just as much specific to Tallon IV as they are general to an environment or vibe. They are, in both senses, timeless to me.
Fusion nailed the score and narratively-paced soundtrack throughout, but Prime hit it on the head in the game’s first area. The soundtrack jumped from the silence of space, to the eerie foreboding of a research station in distress, to the WHAM-BANG-BOOM of a big monster bearing down, to clanging alarms screaming at players to get out now, all within the first thirty minutes. For all that Metroid runs on a free-reign exploration model, when they do decide to put players on a railroad, the soundtrack can do beautiful things.
The soundtrack changes with progress, too, growing alongside Samus (and the player!). A triumphant, but understated, melody in the Tallon Overworld gives way to its more percussive and upbeat soundscape as Samus begins to revisit the space. The Chozo Ruins begin very mysterious and ominous, and open up into a lighter, more adventurous backdrop as players can more readily explore it!
As much as I love the soundtrack, I found I appreciated it more when it fell to the background as I hunted for expansion tanks scattered around the world. Unlike other Metroid titles, where a dot or a circle would denote an upgrade that needed to be found, Prime didn’t have any visual cues like that. Instead, the expansion tanks would emit a deep, rhythmic hum to let players know they were nearby. A clever workaround that neither detracts from the soundtrack, nor the atmospheric immersion throughout the game.
Last bit on the soundtrack: can we all agree that when a series main theme becomes a boss theme, that we all just internally lose our minds a little bit? It’s like when movie characters say the title of the movie. Because that happened to me, even though I remembered the soundtrack did that.
The thing that, in my old age and even in my youth, was the Scan Visor. As a youngin, I loved scanning things and adding data to Samus’s log book; it was a thing to complete and add to, and who doesn’t like numbers and percentages getting bigger? As an old man who doesn’t read as much as he probably should, I appreciate how much more story is tucked away in the various entries Samus can scan on her adventure. It didn’t matter if I was in combat or not, I wanted to learn things!
I enjoy what Dead Space did back in the day, making the entire game experience diegetic (existing in the game world): ammo counters, reticles, lore entries, all in-game as though a character could reference it. But Prime is old school, old lore, and once players scan something, the world freezes. The soundtrack keeps going, but players are given time to read and absorb whatever they’d like from the entry. Players are given the chance to reflect on an enemy’s newfound weakness, or absorb the lives of past inhabitants of Tallon IV, or learn how absolutely terrible Space Pirates are in their own words from their own logs!
The Scan function begets what I’ve been calling “optional narrative”: the story is not as direct as a game like The Last of Us, nor is it as hidden and tucked away as the mythos of Dark Souls, but it is entirely optional for players to seek out. Some may be content to upgrade, explore, and overcome Tallon IV’s myriad challenges. Others (heyo) enjoy digging deeper into the lore and goings-on of the world, and consciously make that choice with every scanned item. Seriously, all the best story elements are hidden behind scanning. Witnessing the tragedy of the planet’s inhabitants from old accounts, or how the Space Pirates viewed Samus in the wake of her first adventure on Planet Zebes, all of it is there. The story is there in bright orange and red icons. Players need only choose to pursue and peruse it. Or, as I put in my outline notes from playing: “scan if you want, but more shooty-exploring is just ahead!” No matter how you play, Prime will permit it.
It’s a lot of rambling, a lot of praising, and a lot of good times. Metroid Prime was a leap into the unknown, and landed with grace and poise that I’m sure many people were not expecting. Graphics may grow more and more uncanny and realistic with time, but the core elements of gaming will remain the same. Metroid Prime nailed it then, and will nail it for a long time to come.