As the 20th anniversary of Metroid Prime’s release approached, I watched and re-watched playthroughs on Youtube. My controllers have been scattered, my discs are in the attic, and it’s as close as it gets to this snappy, powerful, unsettling classic. Every video, there is always a shock right at the beginning: the GameCube logo. It’s strange. I know this shouldn’t surprise me – I know I’m watching these videos in part because this game is 20 years old. But when I see the GameCube logo, I always think, really? Back then?
Is Metroid Prime timeless? I would say it a little differently – it has an enduring sheen of modernity. Is it the same thing? Anyway: I watch the Morph Ball hurtle through a crumbling space station, the golden light on its equator lingering on the screen like a burn-in, and I think: horn, those graphics are a bit special. I see the start screen, with its seething microscopic horrors, and wonder if new games will steal this unsettling intro method and build on it.
And that’s the thing with Metroid Prime: I don’t have a single memory of it, but dozens, maybe hundreds of little memories. The way the screen pauses when scanning part of the landscape. The brilliant – never beaten – 3D map, which wiggles at the top right of the screen as you walk and makes the environment look alive. Specific enemies, bosses, parts: it’s a game of details, of parts. It’s no wonder the best way to celebrate this anniversary is to read the tweeted recollections of one of its designers, explaining why Morph Ball tunnels exist, or where the game’s static comes from. also to remember, of course, that the game is the result of some pretty awful crunch.)
But the more I watched over the past few nights – Metroid Prime walkthroughs are made for the dark hours – I started to think of something central to the game that I had never thought of before. And to get there, we have to go back a bit, back to the incredibly stylish and atmospheric game that always felt like such a hard act to follow: Super Metroid.
Super Metroid, like Metroid Prime, is a pretty scary game. Disturbing, claustrophobic, definitely. But one thing I realize now that I always brought to Super Metroid was a lively, and perhaps misplaced, confidence. I went deep underground, into abandoned spaces where nameless horrors lurked. But look who I was taking with me! This giant space hero in yellow and red armor. Samus, so tall, so capable, so fearless, always felt like the perfect travel companion. I may be a cowardly idiot, but look at her up there on the screen. She wore such bright colors at that horror show! She could turn into a ball! If I stayed with her, it would be fine.
And that’s how I felt, I think: I know I was controlling Samus in Super Metroid, but I also felt like I was wandering through those haunted tunnels with his. We never felt quite the same person. And his obvious heroism and panoramic sense of ability, I think just made me feel better.
Maybe that’s why Metroid Prime is not just my favorite Metroid, but the game that gripped me the most and scared me the most. Down on Tallon IV I feel singularly nervous, oppressed even when I am close enough to the surface and with a view of the sky. Part of it is the horrors, and that throbbing soundtrack, those flickering enemy animations. But that’s partly because I’m not with Samus anymore – I’m in costume. I really am Samus. And we feel a little more alone.
In fact, what I feel is vulnerable. This shift from third person to first person does the things that such a shift always does, but it kind of amplifies them. Your view is much more limited – of course, you can no longer see a cross-section of the whole world. Things can come from anywhere. And the costume’s emboldening colors — the bright golds and reds — aren’t as noticeable. We softened the impact of Samus by playing her more directly.
This in turn makes the gradual recovery of powers more triumphant, I think. Watching the walkthroughs, I feel a real relief when we get the ball back, the grappling hook. Metroid always makes you feel glowing when you get a new gadget to play with, but in Prime those moments of recovery become a weirdly emotional experience.
Thinking about this first-person incarnation also made me notice more of all the clever things the game does to remind you of who you are. There’s the famous glimpse of Samus’ face reflected in the visor, of course, but there’s also the way she grips her gun arm with her free hand – just a glimpse of the costume, the gloves. Metroid Prime also uses cutscenes less for storytelling and more for occasional reminders of what you look like. You’ll see Samus enter a new room, where you’ll get a glimpse of her back as she ducks under a ledge. It reminds me of the classic first-person Riddick game, which lost no opportunity to put your eyes on the character when you climbed or interacted with an object – just a little wink to remind you that your inner experience had too an exterior.
Why have I never thought of such things before? I think it’s because the Metroid formula is so strong, the mechanical signatures and the rituals of the game are so powerful. When I first played Metroid Prime, I mainly thought about all the ways the classic elements of the series had survived the transition from third to first person. As stupid as it sounds, I never thought about what was gained by this transition. I never thought about what was new.
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