This review orignally appeared in E119, Christmas 2002.
Edge will admit it had its doubts. When news first broke that Nintendo had handed over the development duties of a new instalment for one of its most revered franchises to an out-house studio only a select few had heard of, eyebrows were raised. When news arrived that Austin-based Retro Studios would be working on an FPS, brows and hands made audible contact. And when, at E3 2001, Shigeru Miyamoto publicly stated that the expected playable demo had been withheld due to personal concerns relating to the control dynamic, alarm bells rang and our expectations were the subject of a dramatic re-evaluation.
Turns out we should have had a little more faith in Nintendo’s decision and been a little more confident in Retro’s ability.
You get an idea of Prime’s quality early on: the moment Samus steps off her craft and onto the docking platform of a space station from which a distress signal has been sent, inquisitive gamers will quickly realise the game of Asteroids that can be had by shooting the space rocks floating about in the atmosphere-deprived environment. It’s a promising start and a strong indication of kind of level of detail and distinction of the proceedings that you can expect the game to deliver.
In typical Nintendo fashion you’re led through the controls even before you’ve made it inside the station. For instance, the scan visor’s fundamental function becomes apparent – entering a new room and scrutinizing your environment before you do anything else soon becomes second nature (and it needs to as some elements, like bosses, you only get to meet once – see Analyse this). As does the control system, for that matter. Initially, the notion of holding down the left shoulder button in order to strafe, and having to manually engage your vertical view axis (by pressing the right shoulder button) feels awkward. In practice things settle down quicker than you expect and your first encounter with a space pirate reveals that, thankfully, the developer has included a lock-on option when it comes to opponents. This is typical Nintendo, borrowing an element from one of its other games – in this case a thirdperson action RPG – and successfully applying it to essentially fulfil a similar role under altogether different circumstances. If there is one criticism it would be that at times locating enemies at the higher end of the Y-axis can prove tricky but thankfully those are rare moments – for the most part it’s a system that works in wonderfully rewarding and fluid fashion.
In addition to the tutorial purpose it serves, this initial level also teases the player by offering a taste of the diversity of Samus’ arsenal only to cruelly take the toys away just as you make it out of the derelict station alive (Super Metroid players won’t miss the parallel with that game’s own opening few minutes – indeed, although not strictly the official sequel (Fusion, on p82, holds that honour) much in Prime references Samus’ 16bit adventure).
Touching down on a nearby planet, the game then really begins. Initial excursions are short, limited by Samus’ non-enhanced repertoire of actions. It doesn’t take long to come across an impassable obstacle which requires equipment you have yet to acquire. A couple of early power-ups are quickly found (their ‘timing’ as expertly calculated as that of Super Metroid’s) and you soon begin to stray farther from your craft’s landing zone. Before long an anal retentive’s nightmare scenario has developed with a bewildering number of unfinished sections branching off in all directions on the map. But then this is the very nuance of the Metroid titles:?the constant wandering; the detailed analysing of the environment; imagining the possibilities… Deconstructing the layout and deciphering clues left in the design by the developer to find possible routes to a new room or some secret area is an absolute joy and what makes games like, for instance, the original Tomb Raider, so rewarding (although Samus’ versatility together with technical advancements in console technology ensure that by comparison Lara’s world now feels restrictive and predictable but in essence the principle remains much the same). The excitement of acquiring a power-up that finally unlocks progress to new areas of the map never diminishes – and it’s what ensures that although you’re guided as to what your next move should be, you rarely pay immediate attention to this, choosing instead to embark on exploratory missions to see how far your new gadget will take you, what new locales you’ll discover. Only when you have exhausted the possibilities do you continue as instructed.
Metroid virgins might think this constant toing and froing dull, though that has never been a problem for a game series that traditionally has never failed to be anything other than exquisitely paced – just as you’re getting familiar with your role within the environment, a new toy unlocks and you’re off on another exhilarating ride.
In Prime, the developer essentially delivers an FPP, not an FPS. Regardless of how much input Nintendo may have had during the development, Retro clearly understands the Metroid games: this offers an experience that remains uncommonly pure and true to the series’ platforming ethos despite also dramatically reworking the perspective from which the action is viewed. And with no sign of suffering the repercussions it would be reasonable to expect such a move would introduce. Maintaining the essence of the franchise after this substantial transition is in itself highly impressive, but to also ensure the game dynamic remains intact is a staggering achievement. After Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, this is possibly the most accomplished three dimensional update of a 2D title Edge has witnessed. It is seamless. The sensation of familiarity, the kind that you only really get from Nintendo sequels, is sensational – you’d expect the change of perspective to completely alter the way you feel within Prime’s world yet this isn’t the case. The Metroid environment has been so faithfully recreated that within minutes of starting the game everything feels exactly the way you’d expect it to.
And that’s because as with all Metroid instalments this is essentially the same game, albeit this time it happens to also be masterfully updated for a new generation. The same atmosphere, the same pace, the same delicate balance. The same utterly astonishing experience.