By Isaac Espinosa
On September 14th, 2001, Nintendo introduced the world to the GameCube. It was Nintendo’s newest 3D console, and the company’s way of competing with the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox. During the GameCube’s lifespan, one game stood above the rest to me, and to this day it is revered as one of the great games to bless Nintendo’s library. Metroid Prime, unlike the rest of the series at the time which included games like Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, was a first person adventure game that would introduce the Metroid series into the 3D world of gaming. Does it still hold up, even if it’s been almost two decades since its initial release date? I’m here to tell you that it does, and to explain to you why its world building and constantly evolving tension make Metroid Prime one of the greatest games, period.
As with the prior versions of Metroid, you take control of Samus Aran. The quiet but determined woman who is the protagonist of the Metroid series, Samus is always ready to take on a mission, and this one is no different. The lone bounty hunter receives a distress signal from a Space Pirate spaceship that’s orbiting the nearby planet Tallon IV. She enters the vessel, hoping to investigate what the Space Pirates have been plotting since their defeat in the original Metroid. It becomes very clear, very quickly, that something is amiss. The corpses of Pirates scattered everywhere, and the logs about the experiments on the lifeforms of Tallon IV, paint a dark and mysterious tone right off the bat. Upon going deeper into the frigate, you stumble upon the Parasite Queen at the core of the ship and easily take her down. Destroying the queen causes her to fall into the ship’s core, activating its self destruct sequence and prompting an immediate escape from Samus. An encounter with the monstrous Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates, prompts Samus to give chase and follow the beast toward Tallon IV, where the game’s true adventure begins.
The intro to Metroid Prime is fantastic, a perfect set up to the rest of the game. The atmospheric tension and world building are factors that carry over to the main journey and eloquently convey the feeling of Samus wandering an unknown planet. Each main area in the game has its own unique feeling and vibe, from the jungle-like Tallon Overworld to the empty and mysterious Chozo Ruins, the fiery and lava-filled Magmoor Caverns, the vast icy blanket of the Phendrana Drifts, and the finishing touch: the cold, industrial Phazon Mines.
And the best part is that each of these areas is meant to evoke particular feelings in the player. The Phendrana Drifts area, for example, begins with a calming music track to show how beautiful the place looks, with all of its ice and snow. But that feeling of serenity soon evaporates as you realize the Pirates are stationed here, working on the parasitic face huggers called Metroids, slowly eroding your sense of safety and replacing it with dread. And in the level called the Phazon Mines, the game beautifully conveys the sensation that you just entered the lion’s den. You never feel at ease traversing this base, with its dark and foreboding music and muted color scheme of black, dark gray and navy blue. It doesn’t help that there are Space Pirates EVERYWHERE, just to drive the point home that you are in enemy territory. This multilayered atmosphere is what makes Metroid Prime so amazing. As you continue your adventure, the way you see every bit of every area continues to change, which is something I feel modern games rarely achieve.
Others have said that Metroid Prime’s main flaw is that the backtracking gets repetitive, which can kill the tension that builds up throughout the game. I disagree. Sure, you’re going through some of the same areas again, but you always return seeing something different. Since new upgrades and weapons are plentiful in Prime, something unexpected is always revealed upon revisiting an area: new doors to unlock, new regions to travel through. And the game rewards you for returning to these areas. It wants you to backtrack and find new things – because exploration has been one of Metroid’s core aspects ever since the beginning. In a world as amazingly built as Tallon IV, exploration is elevated to investigation-filled traversal.
In these trying times, I’ve found myself playing older games either out of boredom, nostalgia, solace, or to try to find a new way of looking at them. This perspective has made me appreciate both how impressive Metroid Prime was for its time, and how well the game has aged despite having come out nearly two decades ago. Being able to lose myself in a thoughtfully built world like this really helps me cope with what’s going on in the world nowadays. And Metroid Prime gives me that escapism, when most other games cannot.
Bronx native Isaac Espinosa is a senior intern at the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Recently, Isaac was named the Circle’s first assistant mentor.