If I had to pinpoint a single, unmoving constant from my life, it would likely be my love and adoration for the works of Nintendo. As a kid, I moved around from state to state and even across continents a few times, constantly faced with new and strange challenges. But at least I had Pokemon, Kirby, and Mario forever at my side, and in my greatest moments of fear and solitude, those worlds came alive and swallowed me whole, letting me inhabit the fantasies that I could have only dreamed of otherwise.
And then I tried to get into Metroid. I still remember the day, long ago, that I purchased Metroid Prime at a Hastings while on a trip through Texas (cool store, but unfortunately nowhere to be seen in Northern California). I was familiar with the series in name and character design only, thanks to Super Smash Bros, and thought I’d give the more mature black sheep in Nintendo’s lineup a chance. What I remember from that impressionable period in my life was that I was often profoundly affected by atmosphere, in both a positive, inspirational sense and, unfortunately, the reverse.
I got scared easily, as a kid, and Metroid Prime‘s pulsating, grotesque, lonely world disturbed me. By the time I made it to Flaahgra, my interest was largely cut short by what I perceived to be a piece of media too far above my own psychological capacity. After a frustrating series of failures against that boss, I put the game back on my shelf, never to touch it again. There it sat, watching me grow and change, and today, I return to it once again, for both a historical analysis but also a personal awakening.
The Metroid series is considered by some to be one of the best things Nintendo’s ever done. I’ve read some pretty interesting analyses of the genius level design and musical implementation in Super Metroid, and many consider the series’ transition from 2D ro 3D to be one of the most successful in all of gaming (save for Mario, maybe).
Samus Aran, the games’ protagonist, is beloved for her silent strength and voiceless courage, and her design expertly represents the Eastern understanding of the gun in culture and media. Whereas Western games feature projectile weaponry as tools, used by their wielders to attain power, the Japanese counterparts, games like Metroid, Mega Man, and Vanquish, always feature weapons that come from the characters themselves. Samus Aran’s power beam is a piece of her, and it builds and grows just as we would expect her character to, in turn, build and grow.
Crossing platforms and changing perspectives, the Metroid series has given its players free reign to explore its ruined, infested worlds in a far more loose, free-form format than most FPS’s. In general, the series deserves quite a bit of praise for its longrunning status as an atmospheric, enthralling set of experiences. At least until Metroid: Other M put the series on an unfortunate hiatus thanks to soiling Samus’ hard-earned reputation as a badass. What a shame.
Playing Metroid Prime again made me realize a number of things. First off, despite the darkened tone, the game still has a stylized charm that I completely missed when I was younger. While it’s certainly no Mario game, it still inhabits a level of stylization that shifts more towards the Warcraft spectrum of design, as opposed to the grittier StarCraft one. Even Flaahgra seemed a bit cartoony, a substantial change from the gargantuan beast that had been in my memory for so long.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how well the game controlled, despite not utilizing the two analog sticks, opting for a more Resident Evil 4 method of play. That being said, it was still often difficult to accurately rotate my view around up and down, and I was often left vulnerable to higher enemies.
Most importantly, though, is the matter of atmosphere, a word I’ve thrown around a few time already. Most games these days use their locations and worlds as merely a backdrop to the action. It’s as if most developers know they need an environment for their players to reside, but don’t really know why. Boring environmental choices really do a lot to deteriorate my own appreciation for games, and I’m happy to say that what disturbed me as a child intrigued me now as an adult. The catacombs and ruins felt alive and pulsated with an underlying vibe that pulled me in from the onset. What’s more, the game actively encouraged me to take my time and explore the ruins at my own pace. I’m one of those codex-loving game enthusiasts who loves nothing more that reading up on all the suplemental information I’m given, and Metroid Prime used this to give me a fantastic incentive to explore. There were little bits of information everywhere, and I almost always felt rewarded for going out of my way to scan just one more little object or enemy.
At the end of the day, I can only say that what Metroid Prime left me with was a more solid understanding of what I personally find enjoyable about games. Active, beautiful, and meaningful game worlds are needed to breath life into what would otherwise be, in my perspective, bland and uninteresting. All of the games that inhabit my top 5 games list have compelling worlds that they use to draw player intrigue, a desire to explore, and an active growth throughout the experience. From the Capitol Wasteland in Fallout 3, to the sweeping, evolving landscapes in Journey, the games that I value the most have extensive worlds that have the capacity to affect me deeply. And truthfully, I feel a burning desire to now sink into the Metroid series head on. These games seem so in tune with the emotions they wish to convey.
Even in today’s context, Metroid Prime succeeds on so many levels. From the graphical style to the incredibly well-done character power progression, this is a game that deserves to be played and enjoyed. And you know what? It feels damn good to put my longtime secret fear of Flaahgra to bed. That punk went down in flames and I couldn’t be happier. Now to just try my best to play Dead Space again…