Developer: Retro Studios
Submitted by: Retro Gamer
Nintendo failed to get a Metroid game off the ground on N64, finding neither the right ideas nor developer to take Samus into 3D. Meanwhile, Texas-based Nintendo affiliate developer Retro Studios, partly composed of former Turok team members from Iguana, was set up in 1998 and began work on a number of titles for the GameCube. After a visit from Shigeru Miyamoto in which Retro demonstrated the projects it had, the Mario creator wasn’t impressed. However, based on the strength of one team’s action-adventure prototype with a female lead, Retro was handed the Metroid licence and set to work, Miyamoto suggesting that Prime was switched from a third-person to a first-person viewpoint.
In 2002, Nintendo purchased the majority shares of Retro Studios, with founder Jeff Spangenberg ousted and management changing hands. Around this time, the other projects at Retro (a football title and promising-looking RPG Raven Blade, among others) were scrapped, with much of the studio staff laid off. The remaining team crunched to complete Metroid Prime – the first finished title to come out of this turbulent development culture – which would ultimately establish the studio’s reputation.
Metroid Prime represents the perfect transition of a videogame from 2D to 3D, essentially recreating Super Metroid in a 3D space. Even though the game did passionately carry over the puzzle/adventure complexity of its SNES iteration, putting Samus Aran into first-person was a fascinating new way to play, and the focus on learning the intricacies of each level from this perspective would be vital to success. It wouldn’t have been enough to only put a SNES game in a modern videogame template – Retro experimented with environmental design in a way that revolutionised what Metroid represented in the games industry.
The gargantuan, complex world of Tallon IV can only be conquered by understanding Samus’s strengths and limitations. That’s always transforming from hour to hour, as the player unlocks different armour sets, visors and beams, none of which are inconsequential. Each power is designed to help in some small fashion, with that gradual process of discovering items provoking lateral thinking when you backtrack to areas and see what extra potential lies within them. It’s a rewarding, open structure that again harks back to Super Metroid.
Every environment tells its own story, too, from the icy landscapes of Phendrana Drifts to the vaguely scary Phazon Mines. Metroid Prime largely takes place in enclosed spaces and labyrinthine tunnel layouts, but the stunning fidelity of the art direction makes for a unique feeling of exploration on Tallon IV, as these vastly different locations overlap with each other in a harmonious way. This is another reason why the decision to make the game in first-person paid off – there really are so few videogames that populate 3D spaces as compellingly as this.
The planet is the story in Metroid Prime. The scanning mechanic, enabling the player to examine almost every object and enemy, gives background minutiae about Tallon IV that creates a more interactive approach to the narrative. At a time when voice-acted, expositional cut-scenes were becoming prominent, making the bulk of the story something that you have to uncover was a forward-thinking decision. Graphically, it also helped that Samus’s character model was the most impressive visual people had seen on the GameCube to date.
Whatever players discover about the planet, Tallon IV remains enigmatic, and you’re always exploring it with a sense of trepidation. Nothing is quite as it seems, and it’s that combination of eerie audio design – which nicely recalls past Metroid games, too – and visual imagination that really made Metroid Prime a critical darling.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Metroid Prime is the kind of game that we doubt today’s casual-aware Nintendo would make – it’s complex without pandering to the player, requiring patience before the true intelligence of its design becomes clear. Metroid’s move into 3D was as creatively significant as Zelda’s had been five years earlier, and stood as a demonstration that the mechanics laid out in the NES and SNES-era Metroid titles were built to last on future platforms.
What Retro brought to the series, though, was the understanding of how the smallest details of a 3D environment should affect the player’s experience, and that lending each facet of a world some kind of hidden meaning would heighten our fascination with the game.
Nintendo’s touting of Prime as a ‘first-person adventure’ rather than an FPS may have smacked of corporate nonsense at the time, but the description was absolutely spot-on. Shooting is simply a means to an end; just a single mechanic along the way in figuring out how to move forward in an immense, unsettling world. Metroid Prime was never imitated, and it ranks alongside Half-Life 2 in its scope of what a first-person videogame can portray.