More of the same is fine when the first was so awesome
(written in February 2005)
I'd been anticipating Echoes for a long while by the time it was released, and it was everything I expected from Retro's follow-up to Prime. The game essentially starts like every other Metroid game: something has run afoul for the Galactic Federation, and they've contracted Samus to investigate the incident. This time, some of the Federation's soldiers have been lost on the rogue planet Aether. Samus discovers that this world is entwined in war between the Light and Dark forces, and must put a stop to it. The only thing that it's missing is the "wow factor" that Metroid Prime hit us with back in 2002, but Echoes does what it can to make up for that.
The controls haven't changed since 2002. Everything is how it was: move with the stick, shoot with A, jump with B, lock on with R, and so on. This is more of a blessing than a curse, because the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." It also becomes easier to delve right into the game without worrying too much about whether or not the control scheme will be hard to adjust to.
The dynamic of a Light and Dark world has been done before in Nintendo games, but not like this, for the Dark World actually harms you. Depending on the suit you're wearing, you'll take certain amounts of damage depending on how long you spend outside of "safe areas." It adds an entire strategy-like thinking component by forcing you to think of where you should go and how you should move about in advance, especially when confronting enemies.
One drawback is that beams can require ammunition. You can only use them a limited amount of times before needing to reload, which is slightly a step back from the original. But as I said before, it requires more of a strategy this time around. While in Prime, you could often get away with running into a room and bombarding enemies with fire, you need to conserve and ponder your moves this time. Such was the approach one took in Prime when an enemy was hurt by beams, but greatly damaged by missiles. This can get very tedious, but is forgivable in two ways. One, that is gives us a new way to play instead of rehashing the old system even more so. And two, most enemies can be destroyed with the Power Beam if you're stingy with ammo.
As previously stated, the "wow factor" that Prime hit us with is no longer present, so just because it's a sequel, it doesn't really have that originality working for it. How does a game make up for this? By just being a gem to look at, that's how. The environments range from cramped to majorly expansive, but the fine detail and textures are always present in everything, from the pesky enemies to the huge industrial buildings.
Framerates are constant, and there is no noticeable skipping or lagging, save for a door that may take a few seconds to actually open, but that's nothing new from Prime. Even though the game is slowly-but-well-paced and makes you want to get from point A to point B, sometimes you'll wanna just stop at a cliff and look out into the valley below, complete with a sunset out on the horizon.
Story has never been a strong point for the Metroid series, as I've come to learn, but Echoes sure does what it can to put a story to a game that is basically consists of shooting things that get in your way.
(**There are no major spoilers ahead.**) As Samus arrives on Aether, she learns from the Luminoth, the Light race, that a Phazon meteor struck Aether long ago and forced it to break into two worlds, each in separate dimensions. Without spoiling much, this other Dark Aether is essentially stealing Light Aether's energy and has produced the hostile horde race the Ing, who fight the Luminoth for control of Aether. Only one Aether can survive, and Samus is to take up arms to save the Luminoth from eradication, like the fallen Chozo. But to make things worse (even worse than a world teetering in an interdimentional vortex), the Space Pirates have discovered Aether's Phazon and are determined to harvest it for themselves, but they're nothing compared to the shadow known as Dark Samus. It's origin in unknown, and it's threat is extreme.
This isn't a game that you can finish in two days. Well, there are those out there who are devoid of enough life to do so, but it's best to spread this game out. This seems to be the longest game so far in the Metroid series, but never truly feels like it isn't going anywhere. And as is with every Metroid, it's life can be drawn out to months if you so wish to find everything in the game. Multiple playthroughs are recommended, even if you aren't looking for everything.
Of course, there is the highly publicized multiplayer mode. In terms of being Metroid multiplayer, it's something, but don't expect anything revolutionary. It probably would've worked better on the N64, to be honest. In some parts, you can get away with just shooting each other with powerful weapons and pile up the kills. It is also pretty easy to tell that this is Retro's first attempt at multiplayer. The missiles are homing and inflict serious damage. The Light Beam blinds you and disrupts your lock on opposing layers. Some power-ups, such as Death Ball, are way too overpowering, as you can guess by it's name. However, depending on the map and your skill level, these can be either good or bad things. This makes the game feel more like Goldeneye than Halo 2, but, depending on what you're looking for, that may not be a bad thing.
The music is very atmospheric and moody, and fits in with its surroundings; a slight techno in the factory of the Great Temple, a sleepy, sombre yet nervous melody within Dark Aether. All sound effects work greatly as well. You can tell where you are based on the sounds of Samus's footsteps, from soft dirt to solid rock to industrialized steel. All enemies have their own unique sounds as well, which works to your advantage; if you're about to turn a corner and don't know what you'll be facing, often you'll be able to listen for whatever is there.
However, a major complaint that comes with Echoes is it's lack of voices. All major games have voice work in this day and age, yet Nintendo still keeps Metroid without them. Yes, it's true this is a very solitary game, but even in the cutscene with dozens of Marines getting attacked, you can't hear any of them screaming as they fall, only their guns going off. There are some voices, such as your suit's computer when scanning something important (which is still pretty cool), and Samus when she gets hit, but there is such a sense of isolation that almost anything, even the A.I. from Metroid Fusion, would be welcome in some of the situations that come up in this game.
Echoes is more than worthy than being the sequel to one of the finest games ever made. The core fundamentals of the game remain very similar, but are different enough so that Metroid Prime 2 is just as engaging as Metroid Prime was, yet has a feel and fun level all it's own. The only thing wrong with Echoes, really, was its release date. Highly recommended to anyone of the Nintendo way of thought, and even those who aren't.