The leap into 3D was a big one for many franchises from gaming’s early days, the much-romanticized days of the Super Nintendo and its ilk. Old platforming games, built with the intent to keep players occupied with their game for as long as possible, were suddenly afforded not just vastly increased space on the cartridge (which would soon be replaced by discs!), but also an entire new dimension. We’ve already noted how Super Mario 64 was a revolution. The transition from the top-down adventure that marked The Legend of Zelda and its highly successful prequel A Link to the Past (but not overlooked black sheep Zelda II: The Adventure of Link) to the new 3D paradigm of Ocarina of Time proved to be defining for 3D adventure games.
But the Metroid series always was different. From the original game, Metroid, on the NES, the series had always been a bit different than its contemporaries. It was oft overlooked in Japan, despite its popularity here in the States. It was a platforming adventure game with shooting and collecting mechanics, combining a lot of the genres popular at the time into an odd fusion. It also starred a female lead. For some reason or another, it took a long time for this series to make the inevitable jump into 3D. But when it did, we were treated to something completely different.
Retro Studios delivered a game that, despite being in the first-person and heavily involving shooting, cannot be accurately described by the moniker of first-person shooter. This was a game that managed to fully embrace all of the Metroid series’ wonderful hallmarks: sci-fi gunplay, alien exploration and platforming, and collection of upgrades. And it did so in one of the most gorgeously rendered 3D environments in gaming history.
I don’t feel like I need to sing the praises of this game’s mechanics or controls; it’s a complete given that they are stellar and among the best of the generation. The use of multiple visors, beams, and Morph Ball attachments provided a tremendous wealth of gameplay options, created a fitfully deep combat system, and most importantly conveyed the sense that you were playing as an unstoppable bounty hunter, bent on exploring this mysterious planet. No, instead I want to talk about the reason this game has landed a spot on this list, and the reason this game frequently finds its way into my GameCube disc tray.
The original Metroid game, along with its more wildly successful Super Nintendo iteration (unimaginably titled Super Metroid), were wonderful games whose strength, despite having perfectly adequate controls and gameplay, was in the atmosphere. Both games instilled a powerful sense of isolation within the player. From the very moment the menu screen for Metroid appeared, the player was assaulted by aesthetics that drove home that critical feeling: you are alone. Space is vast and frightening, and you, the lone bounty hunter Samus Aran, must face it on your own. It was a chilling feeling, and it gave the games a more nerve-wracking temperament than other games of its type.
Metroid Prime, however, took that feeling to a brand new level. The opening raid on a Space Pirate Frigate is one of the most tonally rich segments I think I’ve ever played. It establishes that feeling of isolation immediately, as Samus wanders through claustrophobic corridors filled with steam, broken machinery, and dying pirates. The music is hollow and echoing, with a grim sense of foreboding. It’s not scary – certainly not in the way that games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent are scary – but it is tense. There’s a palpable feeling of loneliness in the frigate, despite the presence of enemies like the Parasite Queen.
As the segment reaches its end and the frigate crashes to the planet below, the tone shifts slightly. Gone is the foreboding, replaced now by a fascination. The music picks up and the game world opens up, with claustrophobic corridors replaced with wide open green expanses as Tallon IV comes into full view. This is a beautiful moment, but it is one tempered by the persistent feeling of loneliness that pervades the entire game. No longer are you alone and vulnerable; now, you are alone and curious, and the world – in the absence of any semblance of intelligent life – invites you to explore.
And the exploration is satisfying. From the initial overworld, Samus travels to ancient Chozo Ruins, a magma-filled cavern underground, and a frigid wintry wasteland that houses imposing research facilities. The game handles these transitions wonderfully, with the tone never feeling jarring. There is a free flow from exploring the natural environments to wandering Space Pirate and Metroid laden corridors, and it amplifies the freedom of the former and the tension of the latter in contrast. I’m sure anybody who has played this game can intimately recall the siren sound that marks the music in Space Pirate facilities, and the breakneck pace at which they bolted out of them, having acquired the upgrade they sought in the depths of the facility.
This is the true strength of the game: it is so effective at manipulating the player’s feeling at any given time. It can really drive home the freedom to explore and the sheer beauty of the alien world Samus wanders, with that undercurrent of isolation adding a somberness to the affair. It can tighten every muscle in your body as you travel enemy-filled environs, hoping against hope that you can make it out before they catch up to you, knowing that you’re the only thing in the facility that opposes them.
In Metroid Prime, you are so hopelessly alone. And that makes the freedom to explore all the more enticing and intriguing, and the tension that marks enemy territory all the more frightening.