Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Metroid Fusion - When Time Alters Perspective
How I came to see the value in a sequel whose embracing of structural change I once viewed as an objectionable act.

So here I was, on an emotional high coming off of my experience with Metroid Prime, which had defiantly pushed back against a tidal wave of pessimism and proved itself to be not only a phenomenal Metroid games but also one of the grandest, most sublime video games ever made. This was a significant divergence from the events as I'd envisioned them prior to playing the newly released Metroid titles, whence I'd established a narrative for how my overarching experience with the two games would play out. As I stated in my Metroid Prime piece:

"Prime was essentially going to be the Metroid series' Castlevania 64. I'd endure it as best I could--all the while lamenting the fact that Nintendo had passed up the opportunity to blow us away with an expansive, revolutionary Metroid title in favor of tossing out a shallow, imitative assembly-line shooter that was of loose relation--and then quickly discard it. And then there would be Metroid Fusion waiting for me with open arms, ready to save me--ready to supply me the true Metroid experience for which I was now starved."

But now the narrative had been shattered, and what remained was a world of possibilities.

Really, I couldn't have been happier with how things were turning out: One of my gaming desires had been fulfilled--Nintendo had delivered a lovingly crafted, revolutionary next-generation Metroid game--and now so, too, would another; soon I'd find myself immersed in the traditional, Super Metroid-style 2D action-adventure game I'd been waiting to play since the mid-90s! Talk about the sweetest of bonuses! Come the next day, I was raring to go; I snapped that Metroid Fusion cart into my Game Boy Advance, parked myself under our den's wall-mounted light fixture, and readied myself for some labyrinth-exploring, surface-tunneling adventure!

However, as soon as the intro's purple-hued space motif came into view and its grainy musical accompaniment began to emit from the GBA's speakers, I was suddenly overcome with the sense that something was off here. I wasn't bothered by the music's unsurprisingly muffled quality, no, but rather its vibe, which, for whatever reason, spoke of some type of incongruity, though I couldn't articulate what, exactly, it was or why it was making me feel that way. Even now I struggle to give solid form to the wordless questions with which my mind was wrestling during those opening moments. Maybe my sense was that Fusion wasn't going to be tonally on point or that perhaps it wasn't going to be as ambitious as I expected? I don't know! I can't express how I was feeling with any amount of coherence.

"How ridiculous," you'd say, "to get all that from a single sustained bass note!" And I'd agree with you had there not been other worrying signs early on. For one, the backstory-establishing intro was dragging on absolutely forever, where in the previous games you'd get a minute-long scene, tops, and then jump right into action. Fusion was apparently incapable of delivering a succinct message; it was going way overboard, its setup too involved--to unnecessarily elaborate--for a series that had always done well to derive characterization and emotional complexity strictly from its gameplay.

I understood that the sprite-work had to scale smaller to compensate for the system's lower resolution, but it was still disappointing to see a compressed-looking Samus moving about an equally cramped cavern. The game hadn't started yet, and I was already missing Super Metroid's large, amazingly detailed sprites and spacious environments. It all felt so regressive.

Also, I was kind of annoyed by the described nature of the game's antagonistic force, the shape-shifting X Parasites, which were positioned to be such an unfathomable menace that they, like the Phazon in Prime, served to make the Metroid threat seem trivial in comparison. Again--weren't the Metroids supposed to be the galaxy's most feared species? Wasn't that the point of the series?! Metroid's creators seemed to be losing focus of what was most important.

Ultimately none of this would matter if it turned out that Fusion was a great Metroid game, which I still suspected it would be. That's how I felt, at least, until about ten minutes later, when I had to stop and wonder in puzzlement about what the hell was going on here. "Why is everything in this game blocked off?!" I angrily questioned as I uselessly fired upon and bumped against one securely locked door after another. "And why am I standing in front of yet another computer terminal listening to an AI talk for two minutes at a time?! Why am I being forced to stand here while this thing drones on and on about colored hatches and air-pressure systems?! What is this?! Where's the 'Metroid' action, man?!"

There was hardly any. Rather, I found myself stuck in an endlessly repeating cycle wherein I'd listen to the AI's instructions, immediately proceed to the next terminal room to confirm the objective, promptly complete the objective, and then report back to a navigation room for further instruction. That was it. There were no branching corridors to discover. No series of interconnected caverns to become lost within. And no sense of exploration whatsoever. There was only sickening linearity, and I was pretty pissed about it.

This wasn't what I wanted. This wasn't the game I'd waited 7-plus years to play! Following what was an inexplicable drought, I was expecting them to make up for lost time by hitting me with nothing less than the ultimate 2D Metroid! I was expecting a Metroid game that was cognizant enough of the series' strengths to throw me into a wonderfully labyrinthine world and leave me to my own devices--to if necessary let the surrounding environment by my guide, like it was in Super Metroid. Instead I wasn't allowed to go anywhere but the place the game required me to be at the time.

Fusion's world was neither sprawling nor perceivably deep; it did nothing to evoke the sense of wonderment that was so critical to the Metroid experience. Rather, Samus found herself confined to a stereotypical space station whose banal, aesthetically generic main hub spilled into six neatly arranged, brightly numbered sectors. And the way the sectors' maps were set up told the whole story, theirs a microcosm for the game's chief design flaw; they were overly structured to where every sector's entrance was comprised of the same trio of rooms: a navigation room, a save room, and a recharge station. The result was total predictability where traditionally the best thing about playing a Metroid game was not knowing where you might arrive next.

Though I understood why the controls had to be condensed to work on the GBA, which had two fewer buttons than an SNES gamepad, I wasn't particularly enamored with the results. I mean, you couldn't run automatically. You had to hold down the R trigger to fire missiles. And you had to compensate for the halving of shoulder-button input by holding down down plus L to point Samus' arm cannon diagonally downward. It felt like more regression, and I was worried that the compromised scheme might limit the number of available upgrades and restrict what they could do with those existing.

And then there was the transgression that made me throw my hands in the air and really start to question the creators' intentions: By defeating the first boss, Arachnus, I'd obtained both the High Jump and Spring Ball abilities at the same time. "Since when do you earn two major abilities via the obtention of a single item?!" I scornfully objected. No other event did as well to illustrate Fusion's condensed-feeling nature.

Considering what I'd seen to this point, I could only conclude that Fusion's creators lacked the will and the desire to craft a stunningly expansive Metroid game whose areas were home to multiple upgrades and the intricately designed environments built around their procurement and utilization, so instead they sought to use an intrusive narrative structure as the means to sell us on the idea that strangling linearity and compactness were necessary "advancements." "The truth has to be that they just couldn't think of interesting places to hide all of these upgrades!" I figured.

And that, right there, encapsulated my entire Metroid Fusion experience. I kept hoping that it would eventually blossom into the evocative, wondrously labyrinthine Metroid game I'd long been waiting for, but it never did. And by the time it was over, I was completely divested. I felt nothing but detachment as I watched Samus board her ship after destroying the Omega Metroid. "What happened here?" I questioned in defeat. "They had seven years to come up with an idea for a Metroid sequel, and this is what they settled on? This is the limit of their imagination?!"

I didn't think I was being unfair. I couldn't have been if I was willing to admit, upon reflection, that Fusion did have its moments--that it did feature some exciting sequences, like the SA-X chases and the emergency sprint to Sector 3's control room as the station neared meltdown following the activation of yellow hatches. It knew how to create tension in the buildup to major clashes and occurrences via its use of ominous musical cues, stress-inducing changes in lighting, and disquieting foreshadowing--the best example of such being the enormous, shadowy silhouette that could be seen menacingly darting across Sector 5's backdrop, whose protective glass barrier provided little sense of comfort.

And there were those desirable instances when the game would actually leave me alone, without direction, following an unexpected twist--when it would allow me to blindly blast and tunnel my way about environments that were suddenly mysterious, complexly designed, and highly destructible. That's when Fusion was at its best. And that's why I'd quickly grow disappointed whenever I'd resolve the issue at hand and find myself back in one of those navigation rooms, at which point it was a certainty that we'd resume the normal routine. I'd wait for the game to fully open up--to evolve into something that resembled a traditional Metroid game--but it just wouldn't; it continued to reject the idea of a freely explored open world.

"If only they'd done more with this gimmick," I thought while reflecting upon my encounters with the SA-X. I very much liked the idea of Samus being hunted by a cold-blooded doppelganger, so I was disappointed that theirs were limited to scripted encounters. I thought that it would have added a large does of nervous excitement and persistent anxiety had the SA-X's programming allowed for it to randomly wander about the station, its free-roaming opening up the possibility that the two characters could cross paths at any time! I realized later that (a) the GBA lacked the memory and processing power needed to render such a mechanic, and (b) implementing it would have been a logistical nightmare for the level designers, who would have had to account for every possible encounter point and craft hundreds of escape routes and potential hiding places.

At the time, though, it was fun to consider the possibilities.

For as much as I downplayed its visual presentation, I couldn't deny that Fusion was a good-looking game. It wasn't in the league of the aesthetically brilliant Super Metroid--whose every sharp, purposefully-rendered texture was brimming with character and vivacity--no, but it featured attractive sprite-work, a fair amount of interesting environments, and finely detailed backgrounds. In particular, I liked that you could see all types of creatures hopping around in the background layers; their thought-provoking activity worked to create a sense that the Biologic Space Laboratories had real depth to it--that its was a functioning ecosystem. Sometimes the smallest touches go a long way in helping to produce a memorable atmosphere.

I wasn't sure how to react to the appearance of the Etecoons and Dachoras, though. My first instinct was to cheer their appearance, but then my skeptical mind took over and told me to resist such a temptation; it told me that their inclusion was only but a means to create a cheap link to the much-superior Super Metroid, from which Fusion was hoping to get a rub.

Fusion's music was largely muted--its quality hampered by the GBA's crummy sound hardware--and it couldn't match Super Metroid's in terms of emotional conveyance and reverberance, but still the soundtrack featured a number of impressive pieces. Honestly, during that first play-through, I was too filled with feelings of displeasure to pay the music much attention. I'd come to appreciate it more in time--come to value how Fusion's distinct tones could arouse feelings of tension and unease. My favorites included the inspiriting, goosebumps-inducing The Final Command, which played whenever the mood turned hopeful (though, its replacing all other sector themes following Ridley-X's defeat was a bit much), and Sector 4's aquatic theme, whose depressive vibe so effectively communicated the feeling of what it must have been like to be all alone in the galaxy's deepest, darkest and most isolated recesses.

Oh, and man this game was tough--at least early on, when I was short on energy tanks. I couldn't remember dying more than a handful of times during the entirety of any Metroid game, but there I was, no more than thirty minutes into Fusion, and I'd already been forced to restart from save rooms about a dozen times. I mean, the creatures in this game hit hard; projectiles and physical attacks were taking off thirty points of health each time they connected. Truthfully, I was concerned that Fusion was going to be a grind--that its difficulty was such that I'd spend the majority of the play-through cautiously inching my way forward and worrying about getting beaten down for any hasty, impulsive movements.

Indeed Samus' heightened susceptibility did remain a constant for the greater part of the adventure, yet Fusion's difficulty never approached extreme levels, as I feared it would; rather, its generous doling of energy tanks (a record amount) and increasingly potent weaponry would slowly even the playing field and inevitably alleviate the problem of an area's foes completely outmatching her.

Eventually I caught on that Fusion's style of play was meant to be tactical: You couldn't rush in, guns blazing, and expect to endure; rather, it was designed so that you arrive puny and weak and survive by adopting a strategy of cleverly working around the problem until you locate the upgrade that neutralizes the current threat. Given the context, it made sense that the genetically altered, defensively compromised Samus would struggle to keep pace with an enemy force that was continuously growing smarter and more proliferate. I grew to appreciate this approach; after all--I felt that a well-developed survivablity factor was critical to the Metroid experience, and Fusion's was one of the best takes.

Fusion had aspects that were worthy of praise, sure, but the reality was that it had fallen short in almost all of the most important categories. For certain it failed to meet the standard set by Super Metroid, which I was expecting Fusion to at least match.

I didn't believe Fusion to be a bad game, no; it just wasn't what it needed to be. It was a solid action-adventure game but nothing more--surely not a top-tier Metroid game. To compare it to Super Metroid at even a base level seemed laughable.

That's how I felt about Metroid Fusion upon completing that first play-through. I saw it as a tightly structured, strictly linear action-adventure game that borrowed Super Metroid's mechanics and general aesthetic but otherwise bore little resemblance to the 2D Metroid games I so adored. I wasn't blissfully exploring a wondrous, perceivably vast labyrinthine world; rather, I was simply moving from points A to point B, as instructed, any excitement contained therein limited to those brief periods when the game would get out of my way.

In the end, Fusion was a letdown on two levels: It didn't deliver the type of 2D Metroid action I was looking for, and it failed to sustain Metroid Prime's momentum. Amazingly, the narrative worked out in reverse: Prime was the game that so excellently captured the spirit of the 2D games while Fusion was the pretender falsely carrying the series' name.

From then on, Fusion struggled to remain on my radar; I played it two additional times over the next eighteen months, and still, though I made an earnest effort to try, I just couldn't see the value in its unorthodox approach. And once Zero Mission had arrived and succeeded wildly in providing me the 2D Metroid experience I'd been craving, that was it--I no longer had any use for Fusion. My "true" 2D Metroid was here, and so it was an easy decision for me to cast Fusion away to my game cabinet, where it would likely forever remain.

But you know how it goes: Time can alter one's perspective. Perceptions can change. And a game's message can take on a new meaning when viewed in contrast to the history that unfolded in the years following its release. In time, Metroid Fusion began to take on a certain appeal; suddenly its was an attractively distinctive radiance. This was true for a variety of reasons, the most relevant of which was the series' move toward homogeneity: The Prime sequels had refrained from evolving the first-person formula in a meaningful way and instead chose the path of iteration. And for however much I loved Zero Mission, I had to admit that it simply wasn't offering anything new or original when compared to Super Metroid (outside of its post-Mother Brain stealth sequence, which was treated as something separate); really, it was the original Metroid in Super Metroid's skin--hardly a creature of its own design.

Frankly, as we entered the new decade, I started to desire something new and different, though, unfortunately, there didn't appear to be any more Metroid games on the horizon. Luckily, the answer was right there in front of me: Its name was Metroid Fusion, which now seemed worthy of a second look.

So after shunning it for as many years, I popped it into my DS (which has GBA compatibility) and began playing it. Suddenly I found myself enjoying the game; when I was able to look upon it without the constraint of bias, I could see that there was more to it than I realized--that I hadn't given it enough credit. I mean, yeah--it was overly chatty and linear, but it had soul, a fact to which I was originally blind because (a) I was angry about its perceived abandonment of the series' core values and (b) I was too busy complaining that it wasn't a carbon copy of Super Metroid.

There was a well-conceived, finely crafted game here: Fusion featured satisfying shooting action; intense boss fights; an emotive soundtrack; a whole host of cleverly constructed environments that would change from minute to minute, each alteration producing new forms of improvisational, tensely imbued platforming scenarios; a great many instances in which you could tunnel and carve your way through the BSL station's seemingly boundless environments; and a lot of cruelly-designed-but-interesting puzzles, most of which required skillful use of the Speed Booster.

And though not conventionally, Fusion did eventually open up its world to free exploration. Such was the case after you defeated the Omega Metroid, the final boss, and then reloaded your save file, at which point all of the hatches would unlock and the game would provide you a handy item checklist. It was then you'd realize that there was a ton of stuff hidden within the station's walls (including an excessive number of Power Bombs, which were basically a messy substitute for the X-Ray Visor) plus a large number of secret rooms to discover and explore.

And since we were now smack dab in the middle of the DS era, years removed from the GBA's reign, Fusion had also taken on a nostalgic quality. It now stood as a painful reminder of what we'd lost--a reminder that we'd probably never again see a sprite-based, 16-bit-style Metroid game. I would cherish the time I spent with Fusion, which, in contrast to what it conveyed eight years prior, now felt close in spirit to the older games.

Indeed Fusion wasn't the fraudulent Metroid game I'd made it out to be; it was just a little different. It didn't abandon the series' core values as much as it sought to blast its way through the walls of convention and discover new avenues for expansion. Besides--we already had Super Metroid; we didn't need a string of sequels that simply replicated its formula. No--endlessly repeating a formula is a recipe for diminishing the value of the original work; I learned this lesson well by witnessing what happened to the Castlevania series following the release of Symphony of the Night, whose multiple of iterative sequels functioned to strip it of its individuality and render it merely one from a growing pack.

Fusion didn't work toward that end. It wanted to be its own animal. It didn't care to be tied down by the past. 

And that, it turned out, was a good thing.

Given time and some new context, Fusion could now show itself to be a fun, challenging action-adventure game, its unique style a strong complement to the existing Metroid games and not in any way an affront to them. And it's for that reason that I've returned to it a whole bunch of times since the late-00s (in recent years on the 3DS, where it's available as an Ambassador title). In fact, I've played through it more times than I have Zero Mission! That information, alone, has to tell you something.

While I'll never be a fan of its pace-killing chattiness or its overemphasis on story and character-building, I'll continue to regard Metroid Fusion as a game that bravely challenged the status quo and through resiliency earned itself an eventual victory. It really is a fantastic game. Hell--I'd even say that it's an outstanding Metroid.

"Do not worry," director Yoshio Sakamoto likely told his staff as they nervously wrapped up production on their boldly unconventional Metroid game. "Someday they will come to understand. Someday they'll see."

Fifteen years later, I finally see the wisdom in that sentiment.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Metroid Prime - The Unforeseen Legend
How Samus Aran defiantly emerged from the dark, murky depths of development hell and earned herself the title of conqueror.

It just didn't make any sense to me. Since the very beginning, it had always been that a Nintendo system hadn't lived a fully productive life until it had played host to at least one entry from each of the company's trio of pillar franchises: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Metroid--the "Big 3," as we referred to them. Yet here we were nearing the end of the N64's life-cycle, and the Metroid series was nowhere to be found! "How is such a thing possible?!" I vehemently questioned, bothered by the fact that my favorite video-game series was continuing to be inexplicably absent.

And the problem was that no one could give me a straight answer as to why the issue was being ignored: Nintendo Power was content to remain silent on the matter. Nintendo's executives were loath to acknowledge the series' existence. And game journalists, who should have been asking all of these same questions, were otherwise too busy parading around in leather jackets and talking about how cool it was to play nothing but M-rated games.

Routinely scouring the Internet in pursuit of news about an N64 Metroid sequel proved to be pointless; I could find nothing--not the faintest allusion to a next-generation Metroid game. And soon it would become apparent to me that the writing was on the wall--that I'd have to resign myself to the fact that the Metroid sequel I'd long been craving just wasn't in the cards; rather, it would remain true that if I was hungry for some Metroid action, I'd have no choice but to keep returning to the classics, all of which were several years old by now. If I wanted to visit the Metroid universe via one of my modern systems, I'd have to settle for playing the shooter mini-game in Galactic Pinball or controlling Samus in Super Smash Bros.

That Nintendo had consciously passed up the opportunity to harness the N64's power and bring the Metroid series roaring into the 3D era seemed crazy to me. "Hasn't Metroid always been one of their biggest sellers?" I wondered as I looked over the roughly tallied figures, the data suggesting that the three games had on an average sold about two million apiece. "Isn't it true that Metroid is just as important to them as Mario and Zelda?!"

Apparently it wasn't.

As we moved into the 2000s, it had been so long since the release of Super Metroid that I began to consider the possibility that the Metroid series was finished, though I couldn't imagine how such a thing could happen. "That's no way to treat one of your grandest, most-influential game franchises!" I protested.

That's why I wasn't so quick to abandon cynicism when gaming sites started reporting that Nintendo was working on not one but two new Metroid titles--six years too late, I was tempted to say. The company was promising to deliver two distinct products: The first would be a Super Metroid-style 2D Metroid for the Game Boy Advance; though I wasn't a big fan of the platform, I was willing to overlook its technical shortcomings and troublesome lack of backlighting if it meant that I'd finally get the chance to experience a brand-new 2D Metroid. In following the company would release a large-scale 3D title for its newly arriving GameCube console.

Frankly, I couldn't find reason to be excited about the 3D title, whose ambitions weren't as clearly articulated ("There will be a change in perspective!" was hardly revolutionary on its own). In fact, none of what I was reading about the game's development was encouraging: R&D1, the creative force behind the trio of Metroid games I so adored, would not be involved in its production; instead, it'd placed in the hands of a newly founded Texas-based group called "Retro Studios," which had absolutely no track record--not a single game to its credit. And, most bafflingly, it was going to be a first-person shooter, the game condemned to inhabit one of my least-favorite genres. "What could they be thinking?!" I wondered, my thoughts centered on what this shift in genre meant for the future of the series on console.

As the months dropped off, the news never got any better; all I'd read about was how the game's development was plagued with setbacks--missed deadlines, continual staff turnover, and even frequent resignations by studio higher-ups. And all we could do as a community was watch on from afar and wonder, "What the hell is going on with this game?"

I could come to only one conclusion: If Metroid was going to be farmed out like this--dismissively shoveled off to some no-name developer--then Nintendo really didn't care all that much about the series' future on consoles. The real Metroid series would instead be relegated to portable devices, slotted as secondary. Meanwhile, it seemed, the 3D game (whose finalized title was "Metroid Prime") would be used not to expand upon the Metroid universe or open up new venues in which the series could further blossom but instead to lure in the Halo crowd and those who were enthusiastic about first-person shooter genre, which was currently producing a large portion of the hottest games on the market. Apparently Nintendo desired to expand its reach--court the "hardcore" types who normally rejected the company's "kiddie" systems--and Metroid, its most "mature" series, was the key to accomplishing this.

Oh, Miyamoto and crew assured us that Prime was actually going to be a "first-person adventure game," but it came off like lip service; all of the evidence pointed in a different direction. It seemed certain that Prime was going to be a derivative shooter. And if that was the way it was going to be, then there would be no reason for me to have any interest in the game.

From then on, Metroid Prime was all but absent from my radar. I no longer cared to know about how its development was progressing. I was happy to avoid reading about it. If I was learning new things about the game, it was only because I was gleaning bits of information while skimming through headlines. I was just fine with focusing all of my attention the GBA game (Metroid Fusion, titled as such at E3, 2001), which was being made by the actual Metroid people--by those who clearly understood what it was.

Of course, my defensive shields were riddled with all of the usual gaping holes and integrity issues, so much so that I wasn't even going to attempt to lie to myself: I knew that no amount of skepticism or pessimism was going to stand in the way of my gullibly heading over to an online store and pre-ordering Prime as soon as it became available. The reality was that I'd already committed to buying a GameCube, a console for which I had little enthusiasm beyond Super Smash Bros. Melee, and I needed to justify my purchase by keeping a list of potentials. Luigi's Mansion, the console's showpiece title, just wasn't doing anything for me; it was clearly no substitute for a true next-generation Mario game--in no way worthy of being the follow-up to one of the most transformational video games ever made. And I wasn't much interested in Super Monkey Ball, Wave Race: Blue Storm, or any of the other launch games. So as a consequence of my apathy, Metroid Prime somehow found itself atop the list.

To its credit, Nintendo's marketing had done an excellent job of creating the sense that the dual release of Prime and Fusion constituted a landmark event--that I'd be missing out on the chance to celebrate the the glorious, momentous return of the Metroid series if I chose to ignore either game. So yeah--I'd been roped in. I was going buy Metroid Prime regardless of what it was--regardless of my low level of interest. At worst, I rationalized, Prime would be a neat little consolation prize--a game with which I could mess around for a few hours on a boring Sunday.

So when the two games went up for pre-order during the middle months of 2002, I clicked my way over to Amazon.com and reserved myself copies of both. Mine were mixed emotions, yes, but it didn't matter; I was still at a point in life where loyalty trumped reason.

By the time the games had arrived in my mailbox, I'd already made the decision that I was going to play Prime before Fusion, as I'd formed a detailed narrative of how this experience was going to play out: Prime was essentially going to be the Metroid series' Castlevania 64. I'd endure it as best I could--all the while lamenting the fact that Nintendo had passed up the opportunity to blow us away with an expansive, revolutionary Metroid title in favor of tossing out a shallow, imitative assembly-line shooter that was of loose relation--and then quickly discard it. And then there would be Metroid Fusion waiting for me with open arms, ready to save me--ready to supply me the true Metroid experience for which I was now starved. "Pain before pleasure," I'd say.

Credit to: http://metroid.retropixel.net

So with little enthusiasm, I popped the Metroid Prime CD into my GameCube and readied myself for some watered-down "Metroid" action. Not even the title's screen's cool visual--a zoomed-in view of a Metroid's innards, pulsating tendrils and all--or its remindful musical theme could convince me that I was about to experience something authentic. Mine was proving to be solid intuition: The opening moments aboard the Space Pirate's derelict frigate were wholly underwhelming. Everything seemed off: The controls were a worrying combination of complicated and somewhat unwieldy, which had never been the case in a Metroid game. For however technically impressive the game was, its environments were bland and sterile. And the ambiance was such that Prime felt more like a space-based horror game what with all of those gravely injured, near-zombified Space Pirates stalking about--basically Doom without any of the fun, frantic shooting action. Truly, nothing about the game's atmosphere screamed "Metroid" to me.

Credit to: http://metroid.retropixel.net

I mean, I could admit that using a special visor to gain access and gather information was a cool feature and that the contents of the pirate logs were actually quite intriguing, but for now they were mere dressing on an unsavory dish. The battle against the Parasite Queen, whose defeat was a matter of strafing around in a circle and pounding buttons, did little to dispel the notion that Prime was a shooter and not an "adventure," as Miyamoto had promised. This was Metroid in name only. The escape sequence in following, though it had its moments (not among them the three-minute period when I found myself stuck in one of the larger rooms because it was too dark to spot an exit point), felt like a token addition--a desperate attempt to make the most reductive of links to the 2D games. "So this is what the whole game is going to be like," I concluded, "an exercise in the most basic forms of derivation."

As I watched Samus' ship chase Meta Ridley down to the neighboring planet, I felt nothing; my level of investment had dropped to near zero.

But then something strange started to happen. Suddenly the game's tone started to change significantly as did my way of observing it. As Tallon IV came into view, my senses started to tingle. Suddenly there were encouraging signs: Samus' ship was cutting its way through an ominous gray sky, its rainy, thunderous conditions highly reminiscent of those that greeted her back on Zebes. As her ship gravitated toward the chosen landing point, the camera began to circle slowly and dramatically, its every angle revealing a tantalizing snapshot of a surface whose rainfall-besieged foliage and undisturbed nooks and passageways spoke of an ostensibly desolate planet that was no doubt hiding endless mystery and unseen danger. This was something else entirely; the world that lay before me, now, was conveying with confidence that Metroid Prime's were going to be far from a series of dull, mundanely rendered metallic corridors. Its atmosphere was reminiscent of Crateria's surface, yes, but coated with a sense of wonder; I could feel it all around me as I surveyed the landscape from atop the ship.

And when that invigorating, goosebumps-inducing music kicked in, I nodded and said to myself, "Yeah--this game is for real."

As if history were repeating itself, here I was locked in place, helpless against the power of a Metroid game's aural conveyance. All I could do was put the controller down and listen. That's when I realized, to my great astonishment, that I was caught under the influence of a slower-tempoed, more-enchanted recreation of the NES original's Brinstar theme! I let it pour over me for the next several minutes, which I spent wandering about the opening area and exploring all of its watery crevices; excitedly testing out and experimenting with the game's vaunted technology, which reviewers had rightly raved about, and marveling over every little effect, like how individual raindrops would splash against Samus' visor whenever I looked up; acclimating myself to the game's control scheme, which made a lot more sense when given this whole new context; and generally taking in the sights.

I remember the visceral jolt I felt when those clawed Beetles emerged from the cavern's depths and began stalking me--how the dispersing-mist effect and the camera's violently shaking reminded me that we were in the next-generation, baby, and that Metroid Prime was going to be about experiencing breathtaking action sequences action scenarios and technological feats that were never before possible!

I vividly recall the moment when my 180-degree turnaround was complete: In the following cove, I put to use the free-aiming mechanic and pointed the camera at the top of the cave wall, at which point I found myself staring in awe at the sight of two waterfalls cascading down a series of cliffs as patrolled by honest-to-goodness Geemers, which were circling their assigned spaces as they always had. It was right then that all of my remaining doubt was cleared away and I said to myself, "This is it. This is Metroid."

I count these among the most memorable opening moments I've ever experienced in a video game.

By the time I hit that elevator room, whose familiar-sounding alien ambiance generated that unmistakable air of suspense, I was wholly invested in Metroid Prime. I knew that I wanted to fully immerse myself in its world. I knew that it was going to be a special game.

The game's sense of enormity was palpable. I could feel it even as I navigated my way through the Chozo Ruins' cramped connecting halls and insect-infected corridors, many of which were purely functional, yes, but invariably imbued with such anticipatory energy that I couldn't help but use the time I was spending within them to wonder about where they were taking me--to wonder about the nature of the alluringly exotic locations that surely lay ahead. This was something only a true Metroid game could do.

And there was Metroid Prime, true to its lineage, using ingenuity and new technology to blaze a trail, just as its progenitor did way back in 1986. To start, Retro absolutely nailed jumping in the first-person perspective; never before had a game of its type made me feel so in control as I effortlessly leapt my way across series of platforms without ever having to look down and check my positioning or worry about slipping of an edge in the run-up. It was almost miraculous how Prime's jumping mechanics felt as natural as any precision-based 2D game's. Also, there was almost no interruption in the action, as Retro had come up with an ingenious scheme for hiding loading times: upcoming areas would load as you traveled through tactically lengthened corridors, which were normally devoid of obstacles, yes, but never truly "empty," their residents the mysterious, thought-provoking ambiances that would never fail to generate anticipation and suspense.

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Then there was the immersion factor. Prime had a way of making you feel as though you were in a constant state of interaction with the surrounding environment. There were, for instance, the many visor effects, the most memorable of which included the aforementioned raindrop-splashes, the condensation that would form on Samus' visor whenever she would navigate her way through steamy passages, the unsettling electrical interference that would obscure her view following any explosive attack, and the reflecting visage that would appear whenever she took damage. Switching between Morph Ball mode and the first-person view was seamless, with no break in the action. And the newly procured Thermal and X-Ray Visors allowed for Samus to interact with and track otherwise-invisible enemies and objects by reading heat signatures and detecting electromagnetic waves.

Everything Prime did was big and impactful. You just knew that every first-person game in following was going to use it as a source of inspiration.

Credit to: http://metroid.retropixel.net

Also, Prime's creators were proving themselves to be proficient at telling a story using environmental conveyance, which I recalled Super Metroid using to great effect. There were no flashbacks or patronizing cut-scenes here; rather, Tallon IV communicated its predicament via environmental conditions, its dilapidated temples, roughly hewn caverns, implicative ruins, and test-subject-filled laboratories providing explanation for who or what had been active within them. Scanning, which was turning out to be an invaluable aspect of the experience, also played a big role in how you extracted information about Samus' surroundings. I'd learn more about the Space Pirates and other Tallon IV inhabitants not via dialogue exchanges but through the decoding of encrypted data, which spoke of their histories, their ecologies, their struggles, and their machinations.

Most memorable to me were the Frigate Orphean and Control Tower computer logs in which the pirates spoke about their defeat on Planet Zebes and their failing attempts to replicate Chozo technology, their experiments often producing mangled and mortally wounded "volunteers." Theirs were only a few lines of text, sure, yet still they did so well to provide me context for Prime's placement in the series' timeline while informing me of the stakes.

Credit to: http://metroid.retropixel.net

As I continued to Morph-Ball my way around secret tunnels and discover all manner of alternate routes, it became apparent to me that Retro had succeeded wildly in creating an interconnected, organically branching 3D world. Before I'd even reached the game's halfway point, I felt comfortable in saying that Prime was basically Super Metroid in 3D--or the closest thing to it.

It had done amazingly well to capture the spirit of "Metroid"--to showcase a clear understanding of what it was that made the series so great. I didn't think it could be done, really. At most, I thought that a "great" 3D Metroid would earn such rank only if it were to follow the template set by Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time--only if it were to achieve such high quality that it didn't need to be aesthetically or spiritually compatible with its 2D predecessors to win over series fans. Instead, as it worked out, Prime came far closer than I could have ever imagined. In fact, I'd say that it stomped both Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time in terms of capturing the essence of 8- and 16-bit forebearers.

From then on, my experience was about excitedly progressing through Prime's world and marveling over each new discovery--over every newly introduced area, mechanic and musical theme. It was about finding appreciation for the game on two levels: I was eager to see just how closely Prime would adhere to established Metroid principles and how its ambitious creators would use their new technologies to expand upon them in a 3D space. It was about entering a new area and letting its environmental attributes and musical augmentation (a) inform me of its state and (b) suggest to me how I was supposed to feel about being there.

Credit to: http://metroid.retropixel.net

Prime's topnotch audio and visual design always did the job. I'd enter, say, Magmoor Cavern and immediately know where I was and the level of danger entailed: This was clearly Prime's version of Norfair. The atmosphere's reddish tint and steamy corridors spoke of its toxicity while the music's urgent strains and deep percussion compounded the sense of danger. It helped that I was being guided along by an utterly familiar tune: It was Super Metroid's Lower Norfair theme! I was elated to hear it. I thought that the composer made a great move in bringing it back--in creating a nostalgic link to the beloved Super Metroid, which Prime had now earned the right to do.

Indeed the music played a vital role in helping Prime to convey its message. A great example of such was when I arrived at the snowy Phendrana Drifts and found myself under the spell of its melancholic, emotionally subjugating accompaniment, which did well to inform me of its quietly desperate state; also, whether intended or not, its remindful tone worked to evoke images of my experiences with Metroids past--of the now-long-gone simpler times when my friends and I would spend countless hours of our summer vacation exploring the worlds of those ol' 8- and 16-bit adventure games. For that reason I considered it to be the game's best track.

The Crashed Frigate (which at first I didn't recognize as the sunken remains of the Frigate Orpheon from the game's opening), Prime's underwater area, did much the same, its despairing tune functioning to describe the sense of hopelessness that pervaded this place--this planet that was struggling to survive the invasion of the poisonous Phazon menace.

For years in following I'd listen to these evocative works via downloaded MP3s and Youtube videos--let them provide shading to my thoughts and daydreams.

Metroid Prime's atmosphere was such that it had a way of making me believe that unseen forces were lurking within every visible space, even when the current location was observably vacant. That's how I felt about the Phazon Mines--the pirate's base of operations, which, while home to game's most intense action sequences, was sparsely occupied. Still, the disconcerting influence of its quietly sinister music had me convinced that evil was hiding around every corner, waiting to ambush me. That's what made it all the more intense when an actual surprise attack did occur; the result would be "stress piled atop tension," was an apt description of my trek through the area's exterior sections. Also, the music's understated tone added an eerie feel to the observing phase of the Phazon-subsisting Metroids, whose ostensible docility was all the more disquieting when witnessed from afar. Truthfully the Metroids were hardly a serious menace, yet the music's imbuing force belied such a notion, its enveloping influence working to magnify their threat.

Sure--I wasn't thrilled that Retro deviated from the canon and adjusted it to where frozen Metroids could be destroyed with a single missile blast, but by then the company had earned a ton of leeway.

Quite simply, the game was too phenomenal for me to waste time trying to find flaws. So what that the Chozo Ghost encounters were obnoxiously designed, the boss battles tended to drag on forever, and the doors sometimes took too long to open? These were minor offenses in a game that was wowing me with its awesome visuals, terrific music, impressive technical achievements, ingenious puzzles--many of which used the Morph- and Spider Ball mechanics to amazing effect--cool weapons, and grand adventure.

And long before I was ready for it to do as much, Prime was signaling to me that it was time for the game to draw to a close. I didn't want that to be the case. I wanted it to stretch on for as long as possible. That's why I didn't mind the Chozo Artifact hunt, which many in the gaming community dismissed as a "fetch quest." I wanted to spend as much time as I could in this world--travel across it again and again and admire its every environmental touch. Explore its every nook in search of secrets. That's what you were supposed to do in an adventure game!

Soon all that was left were the conclusive encounters with Meta Ridley and Metroid Prime (which either was or wasn't a real Metroid depending upon who you asked). Their battles were long and frustrating, yes, but tense and epic in their progression. The final clash, in particular, was a heart-racing affair, its proceedings marked by such chaos that I frequently fell victim to bouts of that ol' "gamer spazout," wherein you frantically pound away at the buttons and wind up executing every conceivable action except for the one you intended. I mean, all I wanted to do was run over to the pool of Phazon, equip the required visor, orient myself, identify the target, and fire. Instead I'd change beams, roll into a ball, activate the map, lay Power Bombs, nervously spin in circles, and put myself in a position where I'd have to spend minutes trying to shake off the endlessly spawning Fission Metroids.

I didn't want Metroid Prime to end. I was sad when it was over.

It had left me wanting more, so much so that all I could think about was what Retro could do in a sequel. I played through Prime multiple times over the next few months, and each time I'd extract immense enjoyment from the game, but it would never be enough. My appetite had grown near-insatiable, and the only nourishment I desired was a serving of more--more of what Prime was offering. Really, I couldn't wait for the announcement of the next Metroid Prime game.

That was Metroid Prime--a game that blasted its way through my shield of skepticism and pessimism and absolutely blew me away. Its mission was never to overcome doubt; no--rather, it sought to create its own grand expectations and then smash even those to pieces. Somehow those crazy cats at Retro had done it: They made Metroid work in 3D. They showed us that there really was such a thing as a "first-person adventure." Metroid Prime proved it.

Above all Prime was a "true" Metroid and an instant favorite. For a time I had Prime locked in a virtual tie with Super Metroid for "best series title," which was a remarkable feat considering my intense adoration for the latter. It had done everything those beloved 2D games did: It made me feel like an occupant of its world. It invited me to wonder about what was going on beyond its visible surfaces. It filled me with the sense that there a whole lot more to find if only I'd look.

And all I could think about was "Where are they going to take it from here?"

Unfortunately, Retro's much-anticipated follow-up didn't come close to meeting my expectations. I couldn't have been more disappointed with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, which was merely a "solid" game when it needed to be so much more; its main issue was that it was bogged down by a heavily obstructive light world-dark world mechanic, whose presence wrecked the game's pacing (so many load times) and hampered the level designers' ability to create an expansive world; I was hoping to explore a continuous, wonderfully labyrinthine Metroid world, but instead they gave me two bland, largely disjointed settings.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, while superior, started to lose focus of what Metroid was. It scaled way too large, its emphasis on planet-hopping and the Galactic Federation working to minimize the sense of isolation and relegate the Metroids, which at one time were described to be the universe's greatest threat (I mean, the series is supposed to be chiefly about them), to minor annoyances--mere background players that would show up in a featureless room and just kinda float around near the corner. I mean, come on--are we really going to pretend that Metroids are a bigger threat than Phazon, Dark Samus, the Ing, and this particular incarnation of the Space Pirates?

Metroid Prime, I thought, would be a driving force behind console gaming's next glory period, but instead it signaled the end--at least for me. It was too grand a creation. It had created too high a bar. In gauging what its sequel had offered, my sense was that Prime's creators had neither the time nor the motivation to top it---to meaningfully evolve its formula (though, to be fair, Retro was likely short on both time and budget, which I should have taken into account). I felt the same about the sequels to all of the gen-6 games that so enraptured me, my list of favorites including but not limited to Metroid Prime, Ratchet & Clank and Grand Theft Auto III. None of their sequels were able to meet my expectations; they were solid and nothing more, theirs merely an increase in complication. So I could only conclude that console games weren't going to get any better; rather, they would simply iterate forever.

It was this long series of disappointing follow-ups that accelerated my falling out of love with consoles. I would continue to extract enjoyment from consoles in the future, sure, but I'd never truly love them again.

But if that was to be the end, then I could say that I went out having seen what stood atop the pinnacle. Metroid Prime, which our communities had once showered with derision, could now be hailed as one of gaming's greatest success stories. It had gone above and beyond in its endeavor to prove its value. It had done brilliantly to honor the name of its predecessors. And in the end, it was able to cement itself as not just one of the best Metroid games but one of the best video games ever created.

For that moment in November of 2002, though, all was right in the world. Metroid Prime was amazing, and it was a certainty that I would play through it many times in the future. And the best news was that there was more Metroid waiting for me! Now I could turn my attention to Metroid Fusion, which was surely going to prove itself to be the shining new 2D Metroid game for which I'd been yearning for more than half a decade!