Longtime listeners of the old podcast might remember that Metroid Prime is my number one game of all time. While it isn’t a title I’ve had a lot of occasion to talk about publicly, Prime was actually what made me start to approach videogames as something more than toys, and it ultimately led to me finding GameCritics.
I first played Metroid Prime in 2003 at the age of 19, and while I used to replay with some regularity (I’ve beaten it probably four or five times) it’s been ages since I gave it a full playthrough. My Gamecube is still alive and kicking and I’m certainly not getting any younger, so while waiting for Metroid Prime 4 I decided to go back and see if my memories did it justice.
The first thing I noticed was how different the Gamecube controller is from the standard controller design of the past decade or so. Nintendo was the last major console maker to adopt the PlayStation standard setup — not truly giving in until the launch of the WiiU — and the Gamecube’s quirkiness has taken some getting used to. Most notable is the use of a single stick for movement, as opposed to the twin-stick setup of most 3D combat games. Having to lock on to do a strafing motion is something I definitely do not miss. On top of that, a surprising amount of force is required to press the shoulder buttons, giving my index fingers quite a workout. While I most certainly still adore this game, I’d love to see any re-release implement a contemporary twin stick control scheme.
In another ‘first’, Prime was the first adventure that made me appreciate a layered and intricate environmental space. While I had been a fan of Zelda-style level design since Ocarina of Time in 1998, I hadn’t played Super Metroid, so its concepts were unfamiliar to me. Prime allowed for much more freedom of movement compared to Ocarina. So, while there are definite similarities between the two, Prime stood out as a more fluid experience.
The moment that won me over for good was acquiring the space jump ability — essentially a double jump that allows Samus to reach higher and farther-away places. It’s located near the beginning of the game at the landing site, but it’s not accessible until acquiring the boost ball. Once I got it and realized that such a powerful item was within sight but just out of reach, all kinds of possibilities started to open up. What else have I walked past? What else am I going to discover?
What initially drew me to Prime was how aesthetically unique it was compared to many games at the time. It sits comfortably at the midpoint of the attempted realism of something like Resident Evil and the outright cartoony style of Ratchet and Clank. Even just looking at the box art, Samus’ iconic suit is colorful and smooth, but she still has a sharpness to her design that would make her fit right in with a corps of space marines. This extends to the environments as well — Tallon IV is quite vivid, but still conveys the appropriate sense of alien foreboding.
Time has been particularly unkind to a lot of 3D games from the PS1 and early PS2 eras, with blocky character models and low-res environments that look garish compared to today’s games. More stylized projects that didn’t try for realism have fared much better, and Prime stands out, even among this select group. While the polygon counts and resolutions are still low, Prime remains pleasing to the eye.
With all this said, the experience of actually playing Prime in a modern context is what surprised me the most — once I got past the unusual controls, it felt like something that could have been released yesterday. The gameplay has aged extremely well, and it’s easy to see how it influenced later games like Dark Souls or Arkham Asylum. The visor/detective vision system in particular is critical to what makes Arkham work, and it owes that to Prime.
I had expected to be disappointed with at least some aspects of Metroid Prime after so long, but to my pleasant surprise, I really wasn’t. It looks great, feels great, and outside of the controller weirdness, it hasn’t lost a step in the slightest. It explains itself well and pushes the challenge when appropriate. It’s rare that any piece of media suffers no damage from time, but Metroid Prime comes through largely unscathed.
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