I recently finished playing Metroid Prime. It's probably one of the most perfect games I've played in a long time. It's hard for me to think of how to describe what makes it so good.
Metroid Prime may well be the most immersive game made to date. Almost every little detail fits inside the game. There are no long boring cutscenes, in fact the longest scene is the opening scene at about 60 seconds, the second longest is after the first boss, maybe 40 seconds. The point is this is a game you experience by playing, not by watching. You are the action. You are the story.
I'm not sure it would work for every game in fact I'm sure it wouldn't but the design of Metroid, not just Metroid Prime but all of Metroid, the story a lone person exploring a distant world, makes it all fit together in ways that other games can't because their settings are so far impossible to simulate. Metroid's world is possible to simulate and so it is possible to get immersed into the game.
And yet, at the same time it's still a game. I can't put my finger on why it works. Why it's excusable or believable. The most obvious issues are some of the morph ball sequences. Many of them come right out of like pinball games or pachinko but for some reason they are still fun, at least for me.
Metroid sets a new standard in all kinds of areas. Very few if any shooting games have had intersting bosses. You go play Quake or Doom or Half Life. Sure, the first time I saw the brain boss in DOOM I screamed but as far as game play it might as well just been any other monster in the game just with stronger firepower and more hitpoints. Metroid on the other hand sets a new standard for bosses in 3D, or maybe it's on the same level as Zelda. Bosses that are in 3D and yet each manage to play differently. To be honest, the first boss although visually cool, had me a little worried. There's actually not much to it and with the auto targeting I was worried, if all bosses were as simple I was going to feel pretty let down but suffice it to say I was not, each boss gets more and more interesting and more and more varied. The auto targeting is not a problem, in fact for the most part I think if they didn't have the auto targeting the game would be impossible to play. People that complain about it probably have not played the game that far yet. Sure it works in Quake or Unreal, the reason being the bosses and other monsters are just not that complex. Another being that in those kinds of shooters it's acceptable to die at any time since you can save my pressing one key at any time. I've always argued that a game that pretty much requires you to be able to save at anytime is a poorly designed game. Metroid with it's limited saves and auto−targeting I believe makes for a much better experience than saving after 5 seconds like people do on say Max Payne.
Another issues that many people bring up is the control. I'll admit, they are complex. At first I was a little worried but at about the time I made it through the first area I had pretty much gotten used to it. The controls are complex because Samus has so much equipment. 4 visors, 4 weapons, 4 combo weapons, plus the morph ball, it's various powerups and the grapple beam all on one controller, all instantly or nearly instantly accessable. No going to some inventory screen to switch weapons. That's probably another one of this issues that makes the game more immersive.
Like I mentioned before, there are little to no cutscenes. There are very shoot intro scenes, 10−15 seconds before some major events and that's about it. You are the movie, you through your actions. There is also a story imbedded in the game which you can chose to read or not. As you go through the game you can scan various ruins, computer terminals and other things that give you pieces of the story as you go. There are two main narratives. The narrative of the Chozo, the ancient race that used to be on the planet you are exploring and also the narrative of the Space Pirates whom you are trying to rid the universe of. Personally I found reading it made the game even more interesting since it puts your character into perspective into a larger story than just kill the bad guys.
One thing about the game, especially for a first person shooter style game. The graphics are some of the best if not the best yet. I know that next year several new titles come out that may have better graphics technically. Metroid Prime has a couple of things going for it. One is just some of the best art design in a long time. The place is just often eye popping gorgeous. The other though, and as a programmer I noticed this even on SNES Metroid, the world is, for lack of a better description, divided into rooms or areas. Each area is relatively small. What makes Metroid work is that that style of world fits the story. You can't turn a level based on Chicago into a series of rooms or at least I don't think you can. But it works within the world of Metroid. The technical advanatage is that each room can use a ton more details than any game that needs to have large levels. On top of that the game can appear to have no loading since only the room you are in and the room you are about to enter need to be in memory. That makes for some of the most detailed environments yet in a 3D game.
The music and sound effects are superb too. For the first half of the game I played with headphones in a dark room. It actually got too scary for me and I had to turn on the lights as I was getting too tense. It's fine to be tense for 40 minutes of a 90 minute scary movie but being tense for 4 to 6 hours is too much.
It took me about 28 hours to play the game. I think it maybe took 22 to get to the final boss and when he kicked my ass I decided I'd better go find some more powerups before I take him on. I want to point out here that unlike an RPG, finding more powerups is still playing the game. It guess it's just a pet peeve of mine but in many RPGs you are just expected to waste time powering up your character though experience. It's so bad that some of my friends will run an RPG in the Picture−In−Picture window on their TV while they are watching some other program. They go attack random monsters for a few hours while they power up their character. Why people find that fun I don't know. In Metroid, powering up requires actively searching for power upgrades. That is arguably still playing the game.
I'd have to put down Metroid Prime as one of the few pretty much perfect games I've ever played. I don't think there is anything I can think of that I would really change. I can think of one very minor issue, it was never clear to me from the map where one elevator connected to another. The elevators are labeled by where they go, example "To Chozo Ruins North" but there is no mark on the map for North so except to either study the heck out of the maps or write it down or memorize it there is no good way to know where an elevator will take you. I'm curious if that was by design or just an oversite from a team that probably new from building the maps which way is North.
The other sad issue is that it appears the game is somewhat buggy. I had it crash on me once at the first elevator I rode. It crashed in the same place on another friend of mine. I also heard from another friend that it stopped loading his saved game after he was 23% complete and that later he got stuck somewhere in morph ball mode. I was a little worried after my one crash. Metroid is not the type of game where crashes are acceptable. You might be able to get away with a crash in Mario Sunshine. Since it saves after each star the worst you could lose is one level. Metroid though, you could lose hours of game play which would be enough for a lot of people to just stop playing not wanting to have to redo a section.
You can tell the guys at Retro clearly did their homework. I've made it a point of studying what I feel makes a good game and what I feel makes many games bad. The guys at Nintendo, particularly Miyamoto, seem to set the standard and if you really study their games you can see what makes them different from the rest. One simple example is the purposeful inclusion of expectation / taunting. In Zelda and Metroid you see places you know you should be able to go but you don't yet have the right equipment. That kind of thing makes you want to keep playing and also gives you a clear path where to go. You see a place with a hole too small to go through, you keep playing trying to get find the morph ball upgrade. As soon as you find it you have 3 to 6 places you immediately want to go check out and as you are checking them out you discover 4 or 5 more places that you need a little more for.
Another is transportation. At first the world seems pretty large and it is, but after you've explored a little they start providing other ways to travel whether it's faster ways to go, stronger weapons so you don't need to worry about certain enemies anymore or even providing new connections that were not accessable previously because you lacked the powers to use them. So, as you progress in the game even though the world gets bigger it never really gets tedious to travel in.
The other major one is having the variety of enemies, weapons and obstacles, each of which have their own solutions. In many less well designed games, all enenmies can be taken down by all weapons for example. The only differece between weapons is strength. That may or may not be more real world like but it arguably less fun in my opinion than the have the variety that some weapons have no effect on certain kinds of monsters and obstacles where as other weapons are extremely well suited to certain things. It issue here is to make it very clear which ones have an effect and which ones don't. Metroid does this well.
This isn't any kind of mis−trust of Retro Studios but I'd really like to know how much of the design is their's and how much is Nintendo's. There's the obvious design that they are making Metroid so they used or carried over every idea from the original. According to an interview on Gamespot.com it sounds like Nintendo, not Retro designed the maps and left Retro to fill in the details. I suppose that is never stated clearly so I'm probably inferring it.
I'm hoping Retro will write up a post mortem for Game Developer Magazine with more details about what went right, what when wrong, what they learned, what Nintendo taught them. Did they originally make a more traditional first person shooter?
There are various rumors. In the summer of 2000 I was actually contacted by Retro for a job just after I quit Naughty Dog. They mentioned they were working for Nintendo but they did not mention they were working on Metroid. Had they maybe I would have considered moving to Texas 😊 But, at the time they had 3 titles they were working on and I suspect they wanted me for one of the other 2. The thing is, those other 2 titles were cancelled. I'd be very curious to know why. Did they bite off more than they could chew? Were they over optimistic about what they could get done? Was it a matter of not being able to find talented people? There were also rumors in summer of 2001 that Nintendo was very unhappy with them. Is that just a rumor or was it true but somehow they pulled it together and came through. Maybe we will never know. Regardless of how it happened though they did it. They made the perfect Gamecube Metroid.
I'm sure it's not for everybody, it probably to some degree depends on what expectations you bring to the game. If you are expecting a first person shooter like Quake, Unreal or Halo you might be disappointed. Hopefully you'll get past that though and give Metroid Prime a try on it's own terms, Put on some headphones, turn the lights down and immerse yourself in the world of Metroid and I think you'll have quite an experience.