In celebration of their 20th Anniversaries, we’re looking back at the dual release of Metroid Prime for the Nintendo Gamecube and Metroid Fusion for the GameBoy Advance in 2002.
Read our Retrospective on Metroid Fusion here.
Twenty years later and here Metroid Prime stands as one of the best games of its generation, and of Nintendo’s cult favorite console, the GameCube. However, its golden stature today would not have been easily predicted during development. Its production was tumultuous for Nintendo following a game as iconic as Super Metroid. According to the Prime Trilogy’s Technical Lead Engineer, Metroid was far and away much more popular in the West than in Japan. So much so that Shigeru Miyamoto “every time [he] came to the west in the Nintendo 64 era, people in North America were constantly barraging him with questions about when a Metroid was going to come out… so they wanted to put that short of western sensibility on it.” via KiwiTalks
Enter Retro Studios, who was commissioned by Nintendo previously to make several games that ultimately were never finished. However, one of these four, previously known as “Action Adventure,” but recently revealed to be called “MetaForce.” Impressed with this work in progress game, Nintendo offered the studio to scrap it completely and start over to adapt Metroid into a 3D action game. It was a chance for the studio that needed to be rescheduled from a corrupt CEO to cut their teeth on something big, and a lot of their talented designers gave it everything they had. Via Didyouknowgaming
At the time, Prime was the more controversial of the two Metroid titles before E3 2002. It took a lot of effort to get the fanbase to that level of excitement after years of trepidation, and getting Metroid Prime to the finish line afterwards was seemingly impossible. Despite the famous first demos being in a third person perspective, the stories confirm that Nintendo insisted on a first person perspective for it from the very beginning and the call was absolutely correct, as audiences began responding to the game much more following the FPS demos.
Consequently, there were a myriad of language barriers and conflicting design philosophies between the Austin, Texas staff and the prolific heads from Nintendo of Japan. The team, wanting to be taken seriously, were presented with both a childish purple lunch box console called a GameCube as their new console, as well as a weird controller design compared to the competition.
A Haunting Sound
Nothing about Metroid Prime should have worked, and yet here it stands as a monolith of fourth gen console games and one of the most critically lauded of all time even to this day. Any game that ships is a miracle, but this is especially true for the work that Retro Studios put in to deliver one of Nintendo’s all time greats, and a lot of it is thanks to the innovations from the development team working at Retro through its production. Starting from the title screen, the soundtrack simmers, chirps and breaks through the speakers as Kenji Yamamoto’s new score for the series crashes through with a new tone. The upgrade in composition is more mature, more terrifying, more organic yet also more industrial, and that is also an apt way to describe the feeling of the game as a whole.
Retro Studios developed the Frigate Orpheon sequence as a vertical slice as well as a tutorial for the game, and to show to the Nintendo of Japan leads on the project in Kenski Tanabe and Shigeru Miyamoto.
The music, assembled by audio director Clark Wen, hums and buzzes and whistles an establishing shot of the intimidating vessel of the space pirates before Samus’ new ship triumphantly enters. In a Kiwi Talks interview, Wen recalls one explicit note from Miyamoto on how he liked the audio atmosphere of the sequence, which chartered the direction of the games sound design alongside series composer Kenji Tanagke, who used electronic synthesizers to establish a new wave sound for Prime‘s soundtrack.
Also introduced in the tutorial sequence is the “gunship” as the fandom colloquially calls it was designed by James H Dargie, who deliberately tried to upgrade the vessel in Super Metroid to feel more like the Millenium Falcon by adding lived-in details, textures and insinuated functionality within every inch of the model. The same goes for just about all the environment design in Prime. The tutorial level feels like a mess of junk floating through space, it all looks and feels like it has purpose, not just in world design, but in teaching the gameplay as well.
For Samus’ Eyes Only
Once Samus herself enters the game, players take control. Metroid Prime immeditately sets itself apart from Super by being first person. While Retro Studios was hesitant to change the game so drastically from the third-person perspective they spent so long designing, this recommendation for a Point of View from inside Samus’ helmet remains the right way to have done this title. For twenty years, we’ve read countless comparisons to its first person shooter contemporaries like Halo, Half-Life and Quake, however the way this game pushes presentation to the forefront makes it feel equally at home with games in the Immersive Sim genre alongside the likes of Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock.
The reality is that Metroid Prime comfortably exists on a spectrum between the two as a “First Person Adventure ” where weapons and abilities both have combat functionality as well as purpose in solving puzzles. Even simple effects convey this like the way a bright beam blast shows Samus’ eyes reflecting in the visor, how water and steam fog and drip over the glass, drops of rainfall when looking above, the hazy vision of walking underwater. Putting players in the shoes of Samus Aran with cumulative details that fill out the world is essential to making this game work, and it wasn’t even the originally intended UI design.
The game’s UI presents information for players that is pivotal to its complex systems: a lifebar, a missile counter, visor and beam options, but all presented in a stylized manner that insinuates they are presented the same way Samus Aran would see them in her own helmet, almost a precursor to the famous UI designs in Robert Downey Jr.s Iron Man helmet. The team doubled down after a famous suggestion from Miyamoto for the unorthodox metaphor that took time to decipher in which he suggested Samus were able to swap viewpoints “… like a bug’s head.” The resulting visors add further depth for the world’s texture.
A Bug’s Head
For the Thermal Visor, now everything needed to emit a heat signature for living creatures and sources of heat throughout the map, creating electrical outlet puzzles and an ability to see inside dark interiors. For the X-ray visor, Samus can fight ghosts, see through hidden structural surfaces to find new items and routes and players can even see skeletal or translucent structures, including Samus’ performing beam switching through hand signs inside her arm cannon.
Most essentially, the Scan Visor, which unlocks doors amongst the game’s simpler puzzles, but also uncovers enemy details in a detailed bestiary, disables enemy weapons systems and uncover the lost diaries of the Chozo before they died, or active lab notes from the Space Pirates experiment logs. A precursor to its use in endless modern games, perhaps Dark Souls most famously, Metroid Prime’s scan visor pioneered this means of environmental storytelling through discoverable and entirely optional text that told something that built out the world and sequence of events without forcefully halting the momentum of gameplay.
That pacing is tantamount in a Metroid experience. A lot of care was made to adjust to the first person perspective, as much of the platforming and relative scale of the world needed to be adjusted so players could find their footing in Samus’ new perspective. Additionally, the items that players were used to like the Speedboost and the Screw Attack would not find their way into this entry, but the alternative is so effective in the way the game allows a flexibility in the way the player engages with the world.
An underpowered Samus makes the Chozo Ruins and Magmoore Caverns feel dangerous and claustrophobic, but as the players gain abilities like the Boost Ball, the Space Jump, the Grapple Beam and increasing ammunition and weapon variety, Samus can trek back through these areas with deft control. The crescendo of freedom as players acclimate and trounce on each portion of the map, accompanied by revamped and remixed renditions of these regions themes in the game’s back half.
A lot of that momentum throughout the game comes from careful consideration transitioning from first person to a third person control of Samus in Morph Ball form. This was designed by both the late Mark Haigh-Hitchinson, the Camera Control Programmer, but also a veteran developer: Zoid Kirsch. Famous for making the capture the flag mode in the seminal PC release from ID Software, Quake, Kirsch ended up at Retro Studios early on as a Senior Gameplay Engineer, mainly focusing on innovating how the GameCube’s RAM was used to most effectively run the game in real time. The first way he did this was licensing a program that allowed texture uncaching to rewrite over itself to reserve active RAM space, and the other by using the series signature doors and elevators as strategic loading placements throughout the otherwise pretty seamless open map that was Tallon IV.
Kirsch had a lot of direct involvement in the game’s world design as well. Players on the GameCube may recall the doors separating the rooms and tunnels from each other throughout the game, and oftentimes a door would be hung up between being shot at and promptly opening into the next room. This, along with small doors placed in the Morph Ball tunnels throughout the world map were strategically placed so the game’s disk and RAM had time to offload the information for the next area and load it before the player could enter, creating and illusion of seamless navigation, and preventing Samus from falling through the map. The result of these simple navigational designs allows the games overworld to feel more detailed, more polished and much less segmented than even a lot of contemporary titles released on Nintendo platforms.
Falling Through the Floor
The map of the planet, while familiar for players of Super Metroid, is deeply interwoven with new routes, upgrades and secrets to find in every loop around it, each region presenting a strong tone and unique architecture, despite all containing similar contents. The Chozo Ruins shows a crumbled civilization adorned in dust, rubble and infestation and remaining structures of the Chozo civilization hiding secrets and unique puzzle designs with a sunbaked aesthetic. Magmoor Caverns and the Phazon Mines present more combative challenges as the Space Pirates excavate and squad together like pack rats in their subterranean bases and labs. The icy Phendrana Drifts contain structures of both species with a trek through the Space Pirates pitch dark lab shortly following the games Metroid hatchlings. The only efficient means of escape is with the intense Thermal Visor and a swift retreat.
The only ways in which the game shows its age are few. The game’s boss battles are relatively simple when compared to the unique ones presented in its sequel: Echos, and especially so compared to the encounters in 2021’s Metroid Dread by Mercury Steam, which upgraded the series’ long need for a checkpoint feature. The controls were obtuse even in 2002, as Retro didn’t expect the half step to dual analog with the Nintendo GameCube controller’s famously small C Stick, which was then delegated to swapping beams in real time. Instead, Samus moved with Tank Controls, not unlike early Resident Evil entries but with a first person perspective, and 360 aim by holding down the R trigger button.
There are two much better ways to play Metroid Prime today: firstly on the Wii and Wii U in the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection where aim is made much more feasible with the Wii remote pointer controls inherited and reworked backwards from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. There are even better ways to play that we would like to allude to here but would prefer not to incur the legal wrath of Nintendo, but rest assured, the very passionate fan base for this franchise is out there doing cool stuff.
Combine that with custom macro inputs for seamless beam and visor swapping, or even traditional mapping to numbers and Function keys like an old school Doom run, and you have a seamlessly upgraded experience for modern day. The only other aged feature is in Prime’s endgame, not dissimilar to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. In order to enter the Impact Crater and trigger the final few sequences, players need to scour the map for thirteen Chozo Artifacts, and while the clues to find them are easily placed in the surface overworld, a lot of them are gated by endgame abilities and creates a lot of needless backtracking through areas that players will have already done plenty of. While backtracking to areas you already know for extra secrets and upgrades is tradition for Metroid, in 2002 this addition felt like padding, and it feels like that especially so now.
The Chosen One
While few and far between, the game’s few detractors for modern audiences are the main points the fandom comes back to when asking why we have yet to get a remaster of the trilogy on Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately the writing on the wall counts against this. A commonly forgotten fact is that Retro Studio had an unusually lucky pitch in 2009 being given development time to take three games, fully remastering and giving complete control overhaul on two of them, and releasing as a single package for a mere $60.
Comparatively, two Zelda games were only remastered for the Nintendo Wii U and two for the Nintendo 3DS, each by a third party with Zelda Team oversight, but all sold for full price, and modern Nintendo is even less to publish them all together than even 2016. The other issue is the departure and retirement of a lot of key leads in Retro Studios, their business working on Metroid Prime 4 as Nintendo reassigned it to them to start over from the beginning in 2019, and former staff have gone on record stating just how complex the controls were to design for Wii, insinuating it would not be simply cut and dry to remap for the Switch’s available control schemes.
Will we ever see a new remaster of this game? Fans have certainly been asking for it for years, and even if they don’t make it for Metroid Prime’s twentieth anniversary, the studio has pulled off miracles before.
Featured image photo credit: Evan Griffin