Review by Mike Finkelstein
There have been a few times where fans of the Metroid series has declared the franchise as "dead", and it's always because Nintendo leaves the series fallow for a few years, supposedly ignoring the series while they work on other franchises. And then, naturally enough, Nintendo comes back once more with a burst of games to keep their fans happy.
Such was the situation in the early 2000s when, after the release of Super Metroid, Nintendo effectively left the series without any major entries for 8 years. Sure, Samus had show up as cameos in games like and Galactic Pinball, as well as a playable character in Super Smash Bros., but fans desired a new adventure with their favorite bounty-hunting heroine. And then, all at once, Nintendo released Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime essentially on the same day.
While Metroid Fusion was an expected game in the series, a continuation of Samus's story and direct sequel to Super Metroid, Metroid Prime was a different beast. Instead of the usual 2D exploration-platformer fans were used to, Prime was a fully 3D shooter. Fans viewed this new entry with trepidation wondering what Nintendo (and 2nd party studio, Retro) were doing "ruining" their favorite franchise by making it into a cruddy "Doom clone". But then they played it and realized the brilliance of the game.
Yes, Metroid Prime is a shooter. Yes, you do play the role of Samus from a 3D perspective, and the emphasis is more on run-and-gun gameplay than on platforming. And, sure, it takes a little getting used to the gameplay if you're expecting a traditional metroid game. But, at it's core, Prime is still a Metroid game. The emphasis is still on exploring, finding hidden paths and powerups, andeventually being powerful enough to take on the end boss and flee the planet. It's still Metroid no matter how it might play.
Picking up soon after the events of the first Metroid, Prime serves as the first in a series of interquels between the first game and its original sequel, Metroid II: Return of Samus. Called to a remote sector of space, Samus's ship is forced to crash on Tallon IV, once a homeworld for the Chozo. There she finds the Space Pirates, ever her eternal scourge, digging into the planet to mine a rare mineral, Phazon, to power some new superweapon. In the process of exploring the planet, Samus discovers more about the Chozo, an ancient evil on the planet, and the power of Phazon itself.
Despite taking place between Metroid and Metroid II, the game definately takes inspiration from later games in the series, equipping Samus with a number of special beams, powerful missile upgrades, power bombs, and additional abilities to aid her quest. Samus in this game is has, perhaps, more abilities than in just about any other entry in the series (save for Super Metroid and all it's secret easter egg abilities you could use if you knew what you were doing). The story of the game, though, is more akin to Metroid Fusion -- although there isn't an ever-present watchdog keeping an eye on your progress, there is still a guidance system telling you where to go and helpfully hinting at things to do. Exploration is still up to you, but the game is much more linear than some games in the series.
The more linear, focused path is a plus in my book, though. Prime is a big game with sprawling, 3D areas to explore and if there wasn't some direction to the game, you could easily get lost trying to figure out where to go and what to do. There may be a bit more back-and-forth tracking across the map than needed (the third time you have to cross the main hub to get back to where you need to go again does wear on you), but overall the experience is focused and well directed. There's enough secrets and hidden plaths in the game to keep you exploring (and taking notes on where to come back for items) so fans of the open nature of the series should be happy with this title. As a first entry in a 3D version of the series, I think Prime finds the right balance.
And dang if that exploration isn't a delight. Especially for its generation, and the system it's on, Metroid Prime is silky-smooth in its gameplay. Despite it being a 3D shooter, Retro did include platforming sections. Despite how hard doing platforming in a 3D game normally is, it works well here -- it had to since platforming is a big part of the Metroid formula. For the most part Retro never makes you over do the platforming, and the jump and move sections of the game are well designed, well plotted, and fairly easy to navigate. Platforming in 3D shooters is often frustrating, but Retro clearly learned from other games that tried it and came up with a platforming engine that worked.
Even better were the morph ball sections of the game. The transition from inside Samus's helmet to the morph ball (and then back) work so well and feel natural, and the morph ball physics in this game are absolutely awesome. Rolling around in ball form is one of the highlights of the game, never getting old or tired.
Really, in just about every way Retro Studios put together about as good of a 3D Metroid game as anyone could have expected (and so much better than a later game in the series, Other M). The game does have its flaws, sure, but as a first attempt and making the impossible, Retro knocked this one clear out of the park.