Metroid Prime 3 — Pretty Good When It’s Not Trying to Be HALO

I’m hesitant to approach any Nintendo games these days, even those that belong to the few remaining core franchises I still cherish. In particular, I’ve found that Retro’s 3D take on the Metroid series, Prime, has always had trouble figuring out just where in the spectrum it fits. Maybe this is uniquely due to the choice of making turning it into a First Person Shooter, or just the general troubles of pulling the labyrinthine level designs into the third dimension. There’s little doubt that Retro employees have spent many sleepless nights fretting over the finest details of their endeavor, but I’ve never felt that they quite reached their goal.

 Corruption

What still works in Prime 3 is what worked in the original Metroid: exploration, isolation, and a powerful reward system.  The series embodies everything that is good about the “treasure hunt” formula and Retro clearly understands that. It’s still a pleasure to tumble through a morph ball maze, swing from hook to hook over a bottomless chasm, or finally discover that evasive upgrade you’ve been searching for the past half-hour.

But then they went and made it 3D. I think I’m in the same boat as gaming journalist and industry commentator N’Gai Croal:

The introduction of 3-D brought with it the need for a camera. Cameras generally depict 3-D objects on a 2-D plane. The odds of being disoriented when you introduce a camera, particularly a moving camera, rise astronomically. The whole Y-axis debate (to-invert-or-not-to-invert) comes from this. So does first-person vs. third-person, and within the latter, the creative decision among fixed cameras (”Devil May Cry“), player-controlled cameras (”Gears of War“) and A.I.-controlled cameras (”God of War“).

As I said before, it’s much easier to maintain a mental map of a game world in 2-D. If all you’re doing in a game is moving from left to right, as in” Super Mario Bros,” or continuously moving forward on a clearly defined path, as in the classic “Medal of Honor” games, you don’t need much of a mental map. But if a game asks you to backtrack or to scour its environment in clues, you most certainly need a mental map, and that’s especially true if the game is a first-person 3-D game, where you are the camera. “Metroid Prime” games involve all three. It’s a sure-fire recipe for potential disorientation.

Getting around in Metroid Prime has confounded me like in no other game. Only being able to perceive the environment from inside Samus’ cramped helmet inhibits my ability to plot it out in my brain and the in-game “map” does little to assuage my confusion. Your typical Metroid area is just too complex to portray properly in three dimensions. Don’t get me wrong, Retro’s done a fantastic job detailing every little bit of the world and it looks beautiful, but they’re as lush as they are cluttered. It’s sometimes tough to figure out exactly what path you can take or what bit of flora might reveal a hidden passageway. I’ve found myself halfway across the map, only to realize that I missed some random morph ball socket five minutes ago. They’ve done much to maintain atmosphere, but little in terms of function.

Few will agree with me. I know that because Prime’s setup is thoroughly competent and I think that keeps them from receiving too much criticism. Retro’s done about as much as they can with the formula, so the question is not their technical ability, but whether or not Metroid really needed to be so “spacial” in the first place. It destroys a lot of gameplay possibilities in the first place and you need look no further than the very need to switch to third person just to utilize some of Samus’ classic abilities. Instead of getting a Metroid that’s pushes the boundaries, we get one that goes so far as to restrict its traditions. And to what end? To cater to long-held technological bias? To drag every two-dimesional franchise kicking and screaming into a third?

I know this argument seems archaic, but I feel that it still applies because, functionally, Prime 3 isn’t much different from Prime 1. You’ve still got the same frustrations, the distractingly compulsive nature of scanning every little thing in the environment, and a wonky 3D interface that feels like it should work better than it does. To be fair, the new Wii-centric controls work a lot better than those on the Gamecube. Awkwardly sized and shaped buttons, plus a dud of a digital pad never did much for Metroid Prime. I’m still not ready to concede dual-analog controls to the new setup, and to date, nothing touches the keyboard/mouse combo. It feels just a tad too sluggish, but that’s OK considering Samus has always moved at a slower pace. And because the Wiimote is not so precise and still has trouble recognizing various gesture motions (LAIR was slammed for this?), it’s hard to justify using it for anything more twitchy.

I think the greatest disappointment is the shallow attempt to shoehorn a “story” into the series. For me, Metroid has always been about that sense of waging a lonely war against malicious aliens. Instead, we’ve gotten some vague Phazon nonsense (that, even after three games I don’t understand), a thoroughly rote doppelganger villain, Hunters that look like they were lifted out of a Tek Jansen novel, and now pre-requisite space marines. I can think of no character less integral to a game’s plot than Admiral Dane. Why even bother when Samus has to pretty much do all the leg work herself? It’s a cheap attempt at “legitimizing” the archetypal Metroid gameplay that didn’t need legitimizing in the first place. The whole affair is groan-worthy. Metroid has been around far longer than HALO, so why the need to pull bits right out of it (the whole game up until Bryyo feels just like the Covenant assault on the Pillar of Autumn with a couple extra puzzles thrown in). The comparisons between Master Chief and Samus have been made before, why give further credence to them?

So, it sounds like I’ve had nothing good to say about Corruption, but I think it goes right back to the beginning of my argument: good old Metroid still shows through. It’s got a naturally compelling structure that’s hard to beat. Retro’s great at that kind of stuff and I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable to leave the future of the franchise in their hands, but they need to learn how to trim the fat. Now that the Prime trilogy has wrapped up, I’m not sure where they’re going to go from here. “Metroid Dread” has been hinted at for a long time and Retro even paid homage to the rumors with a reference to the project in-game, though it may have just been a cheeky joke on their part. But hey, I continue to love and play the series despite my reluctance (and I’ll likely be putting in some serious time as Samus in Smash Bros. Brawl). That has to count for something.

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~ by Cavin Smith on September 25, 2007.

One Response to “Metroid Prime 3 — Pretty Good When It’s Not Trying to Be HALO”

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