I couldn’t stop shooting into the sky the first time I played Metroid Prime.
It was after I’d escaped from the Space Pirate frigate Orpheon after the game’s opening. Samus gets a distress call leading her to a Space Pirate lab floating in orbit above the planet Tallon IV, where she discovers that the ruthless fools have been using a new radioactive substance called Phazon to experiment on different lifeforms. One of said creatures was a Parasite Queen that turned into a monstrous killing machine as a result, and after defeating the beast, the entire facility begins to self-destruct and goes crashing down to the surface of the planet.
When Samus arrives on Tallon IV, just barely surviving the encounter after her armor takes some serious damage, the game once again plants the player back firmly behind her visor, where the bounty hunter finds herself in the middle of a large, forested meadow. The first thing that I noticed, beyond how stunningly realistic everything looked, was that as I leaned Samus’s head back to stare up into the sky, the light rainfall coming from above was leaving actual drops on her visor. As I stared up at the clouds, I fired off a shot from her arm cannon, just fooling around. The orb of energy kept going. And going. And still going. Then it faded away.
I was stunned. I’d never seen anything like it before in a game. Not only did Tallon IV look like a bonafide alien forest, and not only was the rain leaving droplets on Samus’s visor, but beams fired into the sky traveled into the distance as though they were real. As though there was an actual atmosphere for her shots to try and reach and escape. Like I said above… I couldn’t stop shooting. For me, the first video game that made me feel like I’d been plopped into a living, breathing world was Ocarina of Time. Kokiri Forest was of course impressive, but when leaving it for the first time and stepping out onto Hyrule Field, I was amazed at how vast it felt. Metroid Prime was that feeling multiplied by a hundred.
GameCube was right up there with PlayStation 2 in terms of graphical power, and it felt like an evolutionary leap compared to Nintendo 64. It wasn’t HD, but it was crisp and clear in ways that no one had ever experienced on a home console, and to say that Metroid Prime looked unreal would be an understatement. Retro Studios, the game’s developer, pulled out all the stops when crafting Tallon IV. The design work was cutting edge at the time, but given how contemporary and fresh Metroid Prime still feels when played today, other than lacking a high definition sheen, it’s clear that it’s still at the forefront of what can be done in the industry.
Before Metroid Prime, I’d never had any experience with the series. No Super Metroid or Metroid until I started college; this was my first exposure to Samus and her world. As a result, I didn’t have the trepidations that longtime fans did about seeing Metroid transition to first-person, and I couldn’t have cared less that it was breaking with tradition. All I knew from the months of Nintendo Power teases was that this game reminded me of Ocarina of Time before it came out, in that I couldn’t stop poring over its screenshots. No video game was supposed to look this good. As it turned out, though, not only did Metroid Prime have incredible production values, but it was also impossible to put down.
I’d never felt so isolated when playing a video game as I did with Metroid Prime. The sense of being alone was unsettling; Tallon IV is a hostile place, and Samus’s ship is never portrayed as a means of escape. It was just me versus hordes of freaky monsters and aliens, and at the start of the game Samus’s armor feels woefully underpowered after it’s stripped of so much functionality following the intro on Orpheon. Yet, I always felt compelled to push ahead, to ignore the doubt creeping in around the edges of my mind and explore every inch of the planet’s surface. Part of it was ingenious game design; every new discovery is rewarding, either providing a helpful powerup that makes it possible to reach previously impassable locations, or unveiling some new chunk of the game’s plot to keep the player invested in forging ahead.
The other part was anticipation. Ridley, or Meta Ridley, as the mechanically-modified monster is known in Metroid Prime, can be seen throughout the adventure. He first rears his head on Orpheon as the facility is crumbling to pieces, but then can be seen here and there throughout the rest of the adventure, soaring overhead and casting his enormous shadow on the ground, a constant threat shrouded in mystery. There’s never a hint of when Ridley will appear, but when I finally did encounter him, I felt a mix of relief (I can stop worrying!) and dread (oh shoot, he’s right in front of me!). It was pitch-perfect direction. Ridley is never shown any more than he has to be, with just enough glimpses to build him up perfectly in the player’s mind, and when he eventually does make his grand entrance, it’s epic and powerful, and doesn’t disappoint.
Frankly, nothing about Metroid Prime disappoints, other than the fact that it ends. Scanning everything that my visor would let me, finding every energy tank and missile expansion that I could, and soaking in the sights of the snowy peaks of Phendrana Drifts, the oppressive corridors of the Phazon Mines, and the wonder of seeing Orpheon transformed into an underwater graveyard all had me glued to my chair. In those days when the game was new, I could only play games at my grandma’s house, where my aunt had a GameCube for my sister and cousins to play. I looked forward to every visit for months, slowly chipping through the game until I eventually came across the enormous, nominal Metroid Prime lurking beneath the surface of the planet. There are few games that felt so rewarding to beat, but then, there are few games like Metroid Prime. A true classic in every sense of the word.