Matthew Cole leaps and morph-balls through the GameCube classic.
The eleven-year-old me knew nothing about Metroid when he plucked a second-hand copy of the series’ first 3D outing, Metroid Prime, from the Gamecube shelf. All he saw on the cover of the box was a robot staring resolutely into the mid-distance of a space-ship, with its broad metal shoulders puffed out and its hefty arm cannon held defiantly by its side, as if to say, “I could make you look like Anne Robinson.” Unsurprisingly, eleven-year-old me slapped his pocket money down on the counter and urged his Dad to drive him home so he could become the robot, explore the planets, and shoot the aliens in the face.
Without wanting to lay it on thick, and without wanting to keep up this third-person nonsense for too much longer, that boy had no idea what he was in for. He had stumbled upon a masterpiece.
I’ll now return to the first person mode which, incidentally, is the same perspective that Metroid Prime employs (smooth transition, eh?). Through the visor of Samus Aran, a female intergalactic bounty hunter, you traverse the planet Tallon IV after pursuing a mechanised pterodactyl-like creature from a detonating space-station. Intentionally, the game does little to keep you in the loop with regards to story or purpose; mission details are always sparse and uncontextualised. Compounding this absence of context is that fact that Samus remains a silent protagonist throughout the game (discounting her oddly sexualised pained gasps when taking damage) and crucially she receives no human contact, so unlike the traditionally mute RPG hero who is given encouragement and who has their identity affirmed by other characters, our bounty-hunter journeys alone and is forced to think independently. This is exploration at its purest, and it’s exploration on a planet bursting with secrets.
Facilitating the excavation of the planet is Samus’ scan visor which, when focused over certain objects, allows the player to interact with the world or uncover key geological information about it. Scan a nondescript wall, for instance, and the visor will reveal the age of the wall, how it was made, what it likes to eat for breakfast, and the name of the person who last used it as a glory hole. The detail gleaned is largely surplus to requirements, and that’s exactly what makes it such an ingenious mechanic. Be it the architecture, a species of grass, or a piece of laboratory equipment, everything is given a history and a sense of place in the world. There are reams upon reams of these environmental descriptions to be found in the game and the thoroughness of your investigation is entirely up to you; impertinent back-story can be ignored altogether if you wish. Compare this method of narrative delivery with that of the modern military shooter, in which supplementary details comprise of bland intelligence documents that have been inexplicably strewn among plant pots and biscuit tins, and it’s easy to see why Prime’s inventive approach to storytelling holds up well today.
Tallon IV itself is broken up into several distinct regions covering a comprehensive range of extreme climates, from the icy mountains of the Phendrana Drifts to the bubbling lava core of the Magmoor Caverns. Evident in every location is a haunting but beautiful clash between nature and technology, two forces that in some areas coexist in harmony and yet seem to wrestle for domination in others. The score triumphantly undergirds this battle in the Chozo Ruins, where crumbling alien artefacts and thick, twisting vines converge and tangle in sinister arrangements. When roaming these parts it is hard to distinguish birdsong from the croaking and humming of machinery, or from what could be foreign predators. It’s as if there’s a hidden energy sustaining the ancient civilisation, one that surges off-stage in response to your presence. The irregular percussion produced by falling debris is ever present to remind you of the fragility of the surrounding structures that loom at every turn, and these noises become subtly more foreboding as you progress into the depths.
A couple of snags mar the game for returning players. The lock-on system used for targeting hostile creatures, a staple of Nintendo games since its revolutionary introduction in Ocarina of Time, now feels archaic and results in comical confrontations that resemble a game of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, only with a climactic incident of extreme animal cruelty. Throw in a dodgy spawning system that revives enemies as soon as you leave and re-enter a room, and it becomes clear the masterpiece is mechanically flawed. These offences should be downplayed however, because what really matters here is the extraordinary way in which the game plunges you into the unknown time and time again, the way it makes you feel like a transient bystander, an insignificant assemblage of tissue and bone on the cusp of a discovery that is much greater than anything you could ever stand for. You are a being remote in time and place, propelled by an infinite reserve of curiosity. It is for these reasons that Metroid Prime stands alone as the defining example of its genre.