Wednesday, December 23, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #3: Metroid Prime

Reinventing a game is never an easy task to accomplish. This can be especially difficult if a game series hasn’t had a release in nearly ten years. Despite the huge challenge that lay before them, Nintendo and Retro Studios took up the task to revive the Metroid series in 3D. The road was paved with many bumps, but ultimately led to the one of the greatest adventure games on the Gamecube, and for that matter, one of the greatest games of the last generation of consoles.

As vast as the ocean was in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and as creative and diverse as all of the levels in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles proved to be, neither of them quite measured up to the experience that Metroid Prime delivered. Samus Aran is back in action, dealing a whole lot of pain to the space pirates while exploring more of the history behind her adoptive mentors, the Chozo. The game is set between the original Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus. The space pirates have divided their forces since their defeat at Samus’ hands, sending three major forces out across the galaxy. One such group is performing experiments on the wildlife of Tallon IV, attempting to mutate them with a substance known as Phazon. Samus infiltrates their frigate, but shortly after all hell breaks loose as the subjects of experiment begin wreaking havoc on the frigate. As Samus fights her way back to her gunship, she runs across Ridley, whom she presumed dead on Zebes. As the frigate falls out of orbit and begins a collision course with Tallon IV, Samus follows in her gunship, determined to figure out what exactly is going on.

The first area on the surface of Tallon IV that players will find themselves in is the Tallon overworld. It is a lush jungle setting, with green plants growing out of the rock walls and a constant rainfall that will stream droplets down Samus’ visor. This first step onto the planet’s surface is so surreal and captivating, and gives players a taste of what is to come from later areas. The different areas of Metroid Prime are beautifully detailed and throw various environmental challenges at players, as well as unique wildlife. The narrow lava-filled Magmoor Caverns will be incredibly unforgiving to players who fall off the rocky platforms, and is infested with Triclops beetles and Magmoor Dragons. As serene as the snow-laden temples might be, Phendrana Drifts pits Samus up against packs of hungry baby Sheegoth, and is host to one of the games most challenging boss fights. The Phazon Mines, which are accessible much later in the game, delve deeper into the history of the space pirates and their exploitation of the planet.

The scan visor serves two purposes to the player. The first is to learn more about the different creatures in order to understand how to counterattack and defend oneself. The secondary focus is to unlock bonus material in the art gallery upon completion of the game. The more scans a player makes, the more bonus material is unlocked for them. Later visors include the thermal visor and x-ray visor, practical for detecting enemies in dark areas and locating cloaked platforms respectively.

As with any Metroid title, the weapon variety is impressive. The four major beam types – Energy, Wave, Ice, and Plasma - make good use of their individual uses for both combat and puzzle solving. These can be used in conjunction with missiles, though players will be required to seek out these upgrades of their own accord, as only one is central to the gameplay. The morph ball has small bombs that can be used to break through barriers, larger bombs to take down thicker material and debris, a boost ability for launching Samus up half-pipes to greater heights, and a spider-ball ability that magnetizes the morph ball to tracks in order to traverse difficult terrain.

The game is deep and fairly long, but players will be required to perform a significant amount of backtracking during the second half. This is nowhere near as tedious and annoying as in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes as most of the time spent revisiting areas in Metroid Prime opens new rooms and grants players weapon and suit upgrades. Such is the case with the Gravity suit, which once acquired allows Samus to move freely through the water without any constraints due to the weight of her suit.

While the space pirates are Samus’s main foes in the game, they do improve their skills as the game improves. While the beginning of the game has Samus up against mostly grunt soldiers with little armor or weapons, she will encounter airborne Jet troopers who send a barrage of missiles at her, as well as underwater forces that launch torpedoes and evade Samus’ beams. Much later in the game, Samus will encounter pirates who have reversed the Chozo technology and created energy-specific armors, as well as massive space pirates who were victims of Phazon experimentation.

The bosses in Metroid Prime never dish out the same fight. Battling Flagraah requires players to be swift as they attempt to cut off the plant’s energy source with the use of both Samus’ beam weaponry and morph ball attacks. Thardus’ battle forces players to constantly refer to their various visors, but never feels like it is moving along at a sluggish rate. Fighting Meta-Ridley challenges players to dodge his bombardment of the Chozo temple while firing everything they’ve got at the space pirate leader.

While Retro Studios and Nintendo didn't have to add any more to the game, they went ahead and did it anyways. Included on the disc is the complete game of the original Metroid, exactly as it was in its 1987 release, Justin Bailey codes and all. Players can also connect to Metroid Fusion via the GBA-Gamecube cable to unlock the Metroid Fusion suit for play in Metroid Prime.

The game has beautiful graphics that really push the limits of the Gamecube. Even when compared with many of the system’s later releases, Metroid Prime looks as great as ever. There are no load-ins for areas or textures. Everything flows seamlessly from one area to the next. However, as great as the art style and graphics are, the aspect of the game’s design that I found to be the most captivating was the soundtrack. The sounds of the original three Metroid titles are present, but improved on tenfold. From the drum-heavy sounds of Magmoor Caverns to the calming piano that plays over Samus’ exploration of Phendrana Drifts, the music conveys the mood of the game perfectly. Though many thought the series impossible to revive, Retro Studios executed Samus' return perfectly. The story is deep and sets up wonderfully for the other Prime titles. Metroid Prime is easily the best game available on the Gamecube, and one of Nintendo’s most impressive releases ever.

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