What’s Missing in Metroid Prime?

A metroid

A metroid

I’m a big fan of the Metroid series. I like the idea of the metroid creatures, of Samus’ character, of the whole interaction of the games and their stories. I don’t have a lot of criticism for the series in general.

Just last week, across three spare evenings, I played through one of my favorites of the series, Super Metroid. Didn’t take me long to finish, and I always enjoy going back to Zebes and blowing it up one more time. I’ve probably cleared the title a dozen times. Following that, I was trying to decide on something else to play. I have a few games I haven’t finished and realized that Metroid Prime 3 was among them. It’s a little surprising, since when I picked it up, I couldn’t stop playing… and then I did.

Now, part of that was moving, and then not having a TV for a while. Now that I’m playing it again, I’m enjoying it. But to juxtaposition it against Super Metroid has clarified some of the Prime series’ biggest problems to me.

Now, first, let me say that Metroid Prime 3 probably has some of the best controls in any game I’ve ever played. It’s beautiful, and the world is immersive. It’s a fun and clever FPS. But it pales in comparison to the 15 year old Super Metroid.

The biggest part of it is the design ethic. As games have become more graphically capable, and more complex, they’ve had to evolve old concepts. When evolving old designs, you have to change some elements and discard others. Super Mario 64 was a great example of a smart evolution — Mario’s world was no longer made up of bricks, but was still colorful and playful. The kind of play between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64 feel the same, even if they most certainly aren’t.

And yet, between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, things feel different. Not always bad — the addition of visors, and the scan visor specifically, was great. It really gave the player a sense of being on Talon IV, that it was strange, uncharted territory. But across the 3 Prime games, the readings of the scan visor became increasingly trivial. There’s more stuff to scan, but what you learn from what you scan is less important.

One of the biggest offending issues is the way that Samus interacts with mundane elements of her world. Shooting is less consistent — in Super Metroid, there were places where the terrain would be ripped apart by normal weapons fire. The bricks would regenerate sometimes, too, oddly enough, but it worked. In Metroid Prime, there’s very little terrain that interacts with weapons, unless it reacts to a specific weapon. We’re made aware of how destructive Samus’ weapons are, and yet they only scratch clearly intended targets. Even allies are unharmed by friendly fire.

Moreover, in Metroid Prime 3 specifically, there are more friendly NPCs around, and it becomes clearer how absurd it is that doors and switches are activated by weapons fire, or major machines that just happen to fit Samus’s morphball and are activated by it’s abilities. They tried to rectify this by adding motion controls for some doors and machines, but they’re inconsistent and serve mostly to emphasize this problem.

Perhaps the most damning thing was while playing through one of the early areas in Metroid Prime 3, you reach a ‘Grab Ledge’. A ledge that automatically lets you pull yourself up on top of it — it’s ridiculous. This probably is also seen over and over in the series with special walls and tracks for particular abilities. In Metroid 2, the Spider Ball let you climb up virtually any surface. In Metroid: Zero Mission, the Power Grip let you climb up any ledge. But in the Prime games, you need to find specific points where these abilities are allowed in order to use them.

The reason why is obvious — the game is in 3D and it’s more difficult for players to observe the space around them; it’s more difficult to code the mechanisms in to the game to make these things work properly. And each of the Metroid Prime games have dealt primarily with the surfaces of alien worlds, where all of the 2D Metroid games have been primarily indoors or in caverns.

Contrasting Metroid against Mario, we see why it’s weird. Mario earned abilities and became more maneuverable. In Super Mario World, he could walk, run, Jump, duck, slide, fly and shoot fireballs. In Mario 64, he could still do all of that (sans fireballs), but he could also sneak, back flip, slide kick, punch, spin jump, wall jump, triple jump, and ground-pound. Samus on the other hand hasn’t gained any new abilities that don’t have stipulations to their use, she’s lost a few older ones, and the majority of her abilities are now bound by arbitrary rules.

And that’s what’s missing in Metroid Prime; the freedom from arbitrary rules. We think of more advanced technology as being freeing, but we haven’t been keeping up in terms of free-design. We may have more capability, but we’ve been trying to work outside of even that ability and it shows. The tragedy is that design is favoring more and more that we cover up these limits rather that work inside (or around) them, and it’s not making games better.


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2 Responses to “What’s Missing in Metroid Prime?”

  1. D. I. Harris Says:

    I think that this has become a huge problem in most games. Zelda, I think, is most guilty of it—more than Metroid Prime, even. In the most recent Zeldas, most items are useful in the dungeon in which you find them, and then useless almost everywhere else.

    My most damning moment was with the spinner in Zelda: TP. It was absolutely awesome in the dungeon. I was so excited to use it… and then I found it it was essentially useless outside of the dungeon. I stopped playing the game for a month right there.

    • Greg Says:

      It’s part of a greater problem that’s swept up a lot of development groups, where presentation overtakes function. I still blame Square/Enix for making people WANT that — that’s what I’ll always remember Final Fantasy 7 for; the game that made pretty-but-mediocre mainstream.

      I’m not sure what the proper solution is, either. Infiniminer brings an interesting idea to the table, of building worlds out of cubes like they were tiles. Ideally we’d make those tiles smaller and more detailed, perhaps not literal cubes all the time (in the same manner that sprites were not always literal squares; omission of imagery and transparency made them more ‘shapely’); but at the same time, newer technology is producing some interesting new work — the newest entry in the Red Faction series seems to have some legitimate physics governing their environment, which could be the solution we need.

      Ultimately, we need to get back to more universal interactions between character and environment, and the problem is with the environment more primarily.

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