Every one of us has our own fond childhood experiences that ultimately shaped our tastes and outlooks on life, particularly with the media we are exposed to; from television to video games. Many of us have very sentimental memories for the games we played as a child, holding them to much higher regard than games played more recently as an adult. As time has gone by though, I’ve found myself in the opposite field, having formed a stronger connection to the games I’ve played as an adult with a more matured outlook on what does and doesn’t make a game good. One such game that has been seen favourably in that light is Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, which I see as one of the best games in the series, despite my doubts when it first came out.
Nostalgia goggles on! Metroid Prime is the best 3D Metroid game! Retro Studios masterfully created an atmospheric and immersive experience and proved that Metroid could work in first person despite the negativity surrounding the project. The world is amazingly detailed and seeping with hidden lore, waiting to be discovered by intrepid players. It is so much fun and mesmerising, how could you not see it as the best in the Prime trilogy? Nostalgia goggles off. Ah, hold on a minute. Maybe Prime isn’t quite as amazing as my teenage self once thought…
The original Metroid Prime was no doubt a massive leap in innovation for the series, having been dormant for eight years at the time, and really proved that so long as you can maintain the spirit of a series then you can easily change the genre and reap the benefits of doing so. But it was also Retro’s first attempt at doing so, and some rather noticeable cracks show themselves upon further scrutiny. The game isn’t quite as intuitively designed as it would first appear, and backtracking ends up being a pain; something the series was made known for with Super Metroid. Travel between areas can take too long, even with shortcut elevators that present themselves as you progress. They certainly help mitigate the problem, but they’re still strung about less than carefully with plenty of awkward stretches between them and the place you actually need to go to. For example, the only routes to Phendrana Drifts, which need to be visited multiple times throughout the game, lie in Magmoor Caverns. Every other area can be accessed to some degree through Tallon Overworld, but not Phendrana.
Retro took note of this and put what they learned to good use when designing the sequel. The first step was to tone down the backtracking, as travelling all the way across the entire map was often the course of action in Prime 1; particularly every instance you had to visit Phendrana Drifts. The game’s world, Planet Aether, has been segmented into three distinct areas (well, technically five, but I digress), Agon Wastes, Torvus Bog and Sanctuary Fortress. Each area is accessed in succession only after the core objective of restoring energy stolen from the parallel Dark Aether. Backtracking is handled almost solely within these areas, with only a handful of times you dip outside again, and even then it’s usually only to the Great Temple hub area, which again presents you with a shortcut right back to where you need to return to. So design-wise, Prime 2 is a significant leap forward from the first. It’s not entirely perfect, of course, one thing Retro seemed unable to let go of from the first game was the endgame fetch-quest to get keys to the final area. They’d even done so well as to have keys to unlock the boss arena within each of the three major biomes, seemingly having solved the conundrum of having to fetch keys by splitting them up into manageable chunks, and yet they still brought the endgame padding back. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption would finally provide a more optimal solution to this idea they were unwilling to let go of, only making a handful of the keys (or Energy Cells this time) mandatory, with the rest being purely optional for completionists to obtain extra pickups. Of course, game design is only one half of the reason I grew to appreciate Prime 2 over its predecessor, the other half is how creative and unique it is as a Metroid title.
Echoes is without a doubt the most unique game in the series. By and large, Metroid doesn’t really stray too far from the tree, often sticking to tried and tested motifs. Retro decided to go against the grain and try something different, starting with Echoes and its light/dark setting. While fairly common in the fantasy realm, it’s not really something typically handled in science fiction, but they took advantage of the split worlds concept from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (and even sought guidance from the developers of it, as well as Kensuke Tanabe being involved in both games) to create a parallel universe approach to the idea. Not only that, but it’s rather grim, even for Metroid. Retro took this to heart and created a truly oppressive tone that not only covers the game’s setting, but even the gameplay. Dark Aether is truly a threatening planet right the way down to its literal atmosphere; the air is so toxic to Samus and any other light world denizen that it practically chokes you by the second towards a swift death, something noted in many logbooks from Light Aether natives attempting travel to the abyss of Dark Aether. The power growth mechanic truly works wonders with this theme, as you gradually become more and more resistant to the crippling air of Dark Aether as you progress.
Of course, this macabre theme was also something I had to grow to appreciate, very literally. I was actually frightened by the game as a youngster, physically unable to progress due to the unsettling nature Retro took the direction in. If anything, being able to muster up the courage to keep on playing was a challenge in and of itself, not even mentioning the already increased difficulty from the first game. There were still parts of the original that spooked me plenty as a young adolescent, the depths of the Phazon Mines in particular, but none of that really prepared me for the horrors of Dark Aether. But as I grew older I also grew in confidence, and with that confidence I eventually triumphed.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes reminds me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Both are radical departures from what was a landmark achievement in the gaming space, yet strive to be the best they can possibly be with more creative approaches to both game design and the narrative. Both games are also in my favourites of each respective series for that reason alone, I greatly appreciate unique experiences over safer, already tested approaches. The latter may lead to more mainstream success, both Metroid Prime and Ocarina of Time hold absolute critical acclaim amongst each series, but the former give us more bespoke experiences that simply can’t be experienced anywhere else.
Written by KomodoZero