An immersive experience...
It goes without saying that Metroid is probably my favourite of Nintendo's classic franchises. The blend of platforming, shooting, exploration and strong science fiction aesthetic already make a compelling package, and the introduction of new mechanics over the course of the game keeps things interesting throughout. They also cater for two completely different playing styles: completionists have plenty to deal with and the games are an obvious favourite for the speedrunning community.
Anyway, I had been sitting on my copy of this for quite some time, so naturally I'm a little late to the party. However, fresh out completing a game that had been something of a large and horribly time-consuming disappointment, I felt like turning to something that I was almost certain I would like. Sound strategy, right?
Unfortunately, Metroid Prime really doesn't leave a good first impression. This is chiefly down to the controls. Because the action takes place in a first-person perspective, naturally you'd expect it to control like a FPS. Sadly that isn't the case, with the right stick (ironically known as “camera”) responsible for selecting weapons. The movement stick doesn't let you strafe by default, and looking up/down is done by holding the “R” trigger while using the left stick. It takes a lot of getting used to. Typical defences to this control method I've come across point to the notion that the game isn't really a FPS and therefore doesn't need to control like one, but I spent the first hour or so thinking how awesome it would be if it was.
Thankfully, the controls are something you eventually get used to, even if you're still hindered by them from time to time. The game uses a lock-on system in combat, which generally focuses on the enemy closest to the centre of the screen when you hold the “L” trigger and enables you to circle around an opponent as necessary. This ends up being fairly cumbersome when facing multiple enemies, since there isn't really a fluid method of switching targets whenever you need to focus on a specific enemy, and some creatures are able to disrupt your lock-on requiring you to centre them in the screen and depress and repress the trigger again. It's fair to say that combat isn't a strong point of this game, and I found it best to carefully clear out a room of any enemies in it before figuring out what I needed to do in there.
As with other Metroid games, the game has a heavy element of exploration to it, and you frequently retread areas with new abilities in order to find sections you couldn't access previously. The game offers a hint system telling you where to go on the map: I played most of the game with this switched off but found it useful in situations where my new abilities were supposed to be used in places that weren't immediately obvious or memorable, or in the very particular case where I went on vacation for a week and had completely forgotten what I was supposed to be doing. The exploration probably makes up the most compelling part of the experience, and unlocking new abilities feels gratifying when you remember specific locations where those skills need to be used without the game telling you so.
Another area where the game really hits its stride is in its presentation, particularly the HUD. Metroid Prime is to my knowledge one of the first games to demonstrate the “helmet” look in first-person games, and I don't think any game to date has handled it this intricately. The outside edges of the helmet move around as your character moves, and the onscreen readouts have a concave shape to them, like they're projected onto the inside of a visor. Light sources occasionally project a reflection Samus's face onto the screen, adding to the impression that you're really looking through someone's eyes. The screen mists up when you walk through jets of steam of water, and various video interference effects sell the concept further. Alternate vision modes (referred to in-game as “Visors”) are also handled well, and a neat touch is that the onscreen HUD is differently styled depending on which Visor you have active. The art direction in this respect is superb, and really makes this an immersive experience.
The game requires you to do a fair bit of platforming, and this is handled as well as a first-person game generally does. The control scheme doesn't make this as easy as it could be, and it's not always fun trying to do this stuff when you can't reliably look at your surroundings. But you're not usually in situations where you'll live or die by your ability to get it right everytime and so there's nothing overly difficult here.
As always, a number of Samus's signature moves are in this version, and you probably couldn't have a Metroid game without the Morph Ball. Activating it is one of the rare moments in which you'll see the game move out of its first-person perspective. It works fine in a 3D game, although because you don't really have control over the camera it's best used in areas specifically designed for it rather than cruising all over that way. The double-jump, another favourite amongst platformers in general, is also as gratifying as ever.
Graphically, Metroid Prime has a stylised look that holds up just fine. Numerous visual effects on display here are in some areas still ahead of more contemporary games, and the game performs at a steady frame rate with no obvious slowdown. The sound design and music are as solid as ever, with the music in particular serving the player an atmospheric score while exploring the games environments and ramps up to a faster pace to match the action on screen.
The game's use of dedicating saving rooms rather than the recent trend of autosaving checkpoints harkens back to not only the previous Metroid games, but is something of a staple of how games were designed back in 2002. It's not exactly a broken system, but a few areas put the save points unusually far apart, or in some cases a substantial gauntlet away from the event you're saving in anticipation for. This led to a few instances where forced replaying through several rooms leading up to a boss fight made me have to put the controller down for awhile. The worst example was probably towards the end of the game, where after the save room I had to navigate a difficult platforming section amidst a slew of respawning enemies, then fight two consecutive bosses knowing I'd be booted back to the last save point if I failed. However, the game isn't overly difficult and you should be looking to complete it in less than 20 hours.
In summary, Metroid Prime is certainly one of the highlights of the Gamecube's back catalogue, but you won't know it right away. The game falters from some curious choices in design that aren't entirely excused by the period it was released in, but once you get past the issues of both the control scheme and the general backtracking nature of the game you're in for a unique experience.