The Greatest Games: Metroid Prime (2002)

Metroid Prime (2002)
Developed by Retro Studios

Nintendo sometimes insists on certain terminology for their games. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an ‘open-air’ game, whatever that means. Metroid Prime, meanwhile, is not a first-person shooter, despite being in the first person and involving shooting. No, no, Metroid Prime is a first-person adventure.

Genres themselves are nebulous – when I began this project, I tried to classify each of my top 100 games by their main genre. “Action-Adventure” is a real doozy – what is The Legend of Zelda series doing in the same general category as both Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus? Several others pull from so many genres that any term becomes virtually useless. Metroid Prime is one such game, featuring elements from first-person shooters, platformers, action-adventures, and, perhaps most importantly, the Metroidvania.

The hesitance to call this a first-person shooter stems from an obvious source. The grand majority of games in the genre are about taking proper aim and attempting to outshoot the enemy. Here, Samus can use lock-on, so combat revolves more around strafing while having a continuous shot. Anyone coming for traditional FPS gameplay would have been disappointed. In many ways, this feels more like a variant on something like Zelda than an FPS. At the same time, it would have been nice for Nintendo to embrace the term – Metroid Prime perfectly showcased how the first-person shooter genre could explore different ideas, and it’s clearly in line with later works like BioShock. The emphasis does not always have to be on the shooting itself.

But the core experience of Metroid Prime really is exploration in the Metroidvania fashion – without the Prime trilogy, the Metroidvania might as well have remained a term exclusive to 2D platformers. It’s actually surprising. Indie developers churn out a dozen 2D Metroidvania games a year, and Metroid Prime was one of the most critically acclaimed games ever upon release – why has no one else made a successful attempt? The fact Metroid Prime still stands as the best 3D Metroidvania simply because it has no real competition after 18 years is mind-boggling – the closest things are the Soulsborne games and Arkham Asylum, but neither of those games have this specific brand of exploration as the core focus.

What makes the Metroidvania genre so special is a feeling of interconnectedness. Even while something like Half-Life features one clear journey from point A to point B and thus remains connected, the idea of trekking through earlier territory remains rather unique. Open World games obviously allow revisiting locations, but they also lack the signature level design which makes going to the right place at the right time so key. The best Metroidvania games balance a line between partial openness and subtle guidance.

Metroid Prime would probably be a classic simply for existing in a space few other games have even attempted. But, clearly, it goes beyond that. Tallon IV is a beautiful world. Even the ice section is a classic, with a gently ambient theme that’s hard to forget. Like the best Zelda games, every inch of the game world feels like it has purpose. Adding to the exploration is Samus’s ability to scan for more information. The older Metroid games rarely gave direct exposition, and this is a nice way to include more without being as intrusive as a cutscene. The game maintains a heightened sense of isolation throughout, and there are moments which might even be described as scary. This game isn’t afraid to drop the lights completely at certain points. Space is a big and empty place, and the Metroid series has always captured that atmosphere well.

Nintendo led the pack when it came to transitioning their classic series into 3D. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time established several concepts which have become essential for the medium at large. With Metroid, Nintendo took an extra generation to figure things out, and they went in a surprising direction – was anyone asking for the Metroid series to be converted into first-person? The insistent terminology seemed like something to worry over, suggesting Nintendo was desperately trying to appease the established fan base. Yet when the final product hit, it was clear they captured the magic of Super Metroid in a new form. Metroid Prime may not have redefined the industry like Mario and Zelda, but this was a top-notch take at what might be Nintendo’s most remarkable formula.

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