This past week I have been spending my time playing Metroid Prime, one of the many games that were In My Childhood but that I never actually played. I played it using the Dolphin emulator, because I have a copy of the game readily available but all known technology produced before the year 2010 has been systematically falling apart and rising in price for no reason. Unfortunately since I do not play Super Smash Brothers Melee I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars on a working Gamecube controller, console, and natively supported CRT for minimal input lag. So I didn't. Due to the law of equivalent exchange, my brand new Xbox One custom controller has an ugly grey smear over the left control stick, because over the course of playing Metroid Prime I mashed the stick hard enough to deposit skin, oil, and dust physically into the plastic.
Metroid Prime has a few problems. First and foremost are the controls. As somebody on mastodon was quick to point out, Metroid Prime's native Gamecube controller couldn't really handle the control scheme necessary to make a twin-stick shooter, and Halo hadn't standardized the console FPS control scheme yet. The C-stick was small, clicky, and not at all suited for fine aiming. There were only two triggers and a Z button instead of two bumpers and two triggers. The d-pad was quite small, and the button layout (while beloved) was anything but standard. So Prime opted to use the d-pad and C-stick for switching between Samus' visors and beams respectively, leaving the camera entirely bound to a single stick. They bound beam fire to A and missiles to Y, and jump to the B button. X was reserved for the morph ball. And the triggers were used to alter the way the camera was moved; L trigger for lock-on and strafe, R trigger for free aim.
The result is that Metroid Prime is in an uncomfortable position between a classy horizontal shooter like oldschool DOOM and a classy mouselook shooter like modern DOOM. Samus can generally function with her slightly clunky tank controls so long as enemies are in front of her and on her level, but Prime pulls no punches with making levels both open and vertical. Enemies can easily get behind you, or above you, or— as so commonly happened in my playthrough— physically stuck inside you with no real way to escape. Samus turns slowly, can't free-aim without staying still, and can't move to a 3rd-person perspective without going into the morph ball. In short, combat was an exercise in managing chaos. It was possible to dodge some shots while on the run, but other enemies (especially bosses) nearly required me to aim, move, strafe, change visor, shoot, change beam, launch missiles, and jump all at the same time. The control scheme as it was simply could not handle many of the encounters that the game was throwing at me.
Unfortunately, Samus herself wasn't prepared to handle the encounters either. The game's upgrades were mainly delegated to suit upgrades, ball upgrades, visors, and beams. The suits were fine, and had a sort of stylish Gamecube-era style that felt both modern and faithful, but the other upgrades were where the problems began. Things like bombs and power bombs were a standard addition, but unlike in the 2D games they didn't feel useful during combat. Entering the morph ball would leave Samus vulnerable for what felt like a full second or two, and the resulting power bomb explosion felt weaker and smaller than it did in past games. The risk simply wasn't worth the reward most the time. The visors, while clever, left a lot of holes in the gameplay and combat. The scan visor was a constant chore that did nothing to make first person exploration smoother, but it constantly needed to be used in combat scenarios in order to fit each enemy into the logbook. (I have absolutely no idea why Samus isn't allowed to shoot while she has it equipped.) The "upgrade" visors, Thermal and X-Ray, were useful in and out of combat and felt more natural to use... with the additional problem that they both covered the screen in a disorienting filter and cluttered the UI for seemingly no reason whenever they were in use. Platforming that required the X-ray visor was awful, because it went so far as to slightly shift the FOV of the game and make all of Samus' jumps seem shorter than they actually were!
Beams had some of the highest utility of the upgrades; they served as keys for doors, tools for puzzle solving, and three varieties of weapon each (shot, charge shot, and beam combo). The easy theming of electricity, ice, fire and purple, white, red made it easy to tell what each beam needed to be used for... but I ran into problems getting the beams to actually do what they were supposed to do in many cases. The biggest issue is that the beams weren't equally powerful. Newer beams had additional utility and higher damage numbers to boot. What this effectively meant is that for normal enemies, there was absolutely no reason to use anything besides the plasma beam and ice beam. Enemies either melted from high damage and fire rate or were able to be frozen and instantly killed with missles. The wave beam could temporarily stun some enemies (a far weaker ability than the ice beam's freezing) and the power beam could, at least, rapid fire both shots and missles. But neither felt really capable of handling most of the game's threats... that is, until the game introduced color-coded enemies that could only be defeated with certain beams! This was a major problem. Sure, with the power beam, a hearty super missle could usually take out the problem enemy. But the wave beam's Wavebuster could take several seconds at a time to kill a single enemy, all the while draining Samus' missle supply for future encounters. Eventually I settled into a rhythm. Save missiles for power beam enemies, use slow and steady charge shots on wave beam enemies, freeze ice beam enemies to shatter them, and burn down plasma beam enemies quickly. And yet, that process never felt particularly fun. Being in a room with six color-coded enemies of different types was enough to end several of my play sessions on a sour note.
But the sour, annoyed feeling never seemed to stick.
This was kind of the thing with Metroid Prime. I would play for an hour or so, get frustrated, put the game down, and then pick it right back up. I never got the sensation that I wanted to stop. I always had a vague idea of where I needed to go, and the hint system was there for when I got properly stuck. There's a sort of flow to Metroid Prime that I think is missing in a lot of the classic 2D titles like Super Metroid. Samus has weight, momentum, sturdiness. The movement feels good to pull off, especially with backtracking, where you can hop and dance through familiar rooms with ease. I can talk all I want about how the tank contols are clunky and unresponsive, but the actual gamefeel is quite pleasant most of the time. The developers clearly put a lot of thought about what it would be like to be Samus inside the Power Suit, and it shows throughout the game. Little details like Samus' eyes being reflected in the visor during bright flashes and the different areas showing different temperatures in the Thermal Visor make the setting and style of the game really pop. And, let's not beat around the bush any longer, the game is fun. Exploring as Samus is and has always been fun, and it's even more engaging in this open 3D environment. The real heart of the Metroid series, exploration and progression, is still beating strong in this game. So, in a very frustrating way, all of the problems with the controls don't actually matter all that much.
So the game is good, and the game is frustrating, and the game is awkwardly designed in a way that both adds to the game feel and makes it difficult to actually play. The environments are pretty and the world feels expansive. It all sort of works, and it all sort of doesn't. Metroid Prime is a very strange game. And I found myself coming back to it again and again, all the way up to the end.
I give Metroid Prime a 10/15 for a Marble Rook rating. Solidly above average, but rough around the edges. Charming, but flawed. A game that I thoroughly enjoyed, but not something I would return to over and over again— I'm far more interested in these Prime sequels that I keep hearing about.
Thanks for reading.