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  • Adam Tye

Metroid Prime Remastered (Review) - The Great Retread



For me, the gaming classics of the early 2000s were nothing but magazine adverts glanced at once and then passed on by. They exist now as a treasure trove of childhood potential that was instead subsumed in a sea of movie tie-in games; probably ones rented and re-rented over and over, to the point where I have given more of my money to the Madagascar PS2 developers than I would have done had I just bought the game outright.

Excavating this period of history today feels like a course correction, where the path once taken is retread in the hope of discovering something special. These are games that have since been well-and-truly incorporated into the nostalgic writing of modern-day video game journalists, and discovering them for the first time now feels like glimpsing an alternate reality of a childhood that could have been. There’s magic to be found, but often the experience is a hollow one, as ancient design and stiff controls blunder in to rip the rose-tinted glasses clean off your face. Most times, I am reminded of how these classics would be refined in later games: probably ones that I have already played. History - even the best of it -tends to be a step behind.

Metroid Prime feels different - a first person, 3D take on a series that had been steadfastly 2D ever since its inception. We are now sixteen years away from the last entry in this beloved trilogy (Metroid Prime 3, released in 2007) than we are from the very first Metroid game back in 1986. In those years, the series and it’s many, many descendants have retreated back to the two dimension plane from whence it came, making the prospect of a 3D first person shooter twist on the formula as alien to newcomers today as it was to players at the birth of the millennium. For people like me who were too busy trying to grow Gromit’s marrow in the PS2 ‘Curse of the WereRabbit’ game, there’s something genuinely new and revolutionary to be found in Metroid Prime - something that makes Retro Studios' fantastic remaster more than just a bone thrown to the older fans.

 

For a newcomer, a lot of the joy of finally visiting Metroid Prime is in seeing how Retro adapted the Metroidvania formula for a new style of gameplay. These are games whose gameplay loop can be iterated on in many ways, but at their most basic come down to the traversal of a world that is built upon a system of ‘locks’ and ‘keys’. A ‘lock’ in this instance refers to an obstacle - a ledge just a smidge too high, or a door frozen in ice - and the ‘key’ is the power-up needed to clear it (in these instances, a double jump and a heat beam might be the solution of choice). The world itself is a maze that often presents you with the lock first, frustrating your progress in a way that cements the obstacle in your brain. When you later find the relevant power-up, that blocked path flares up in your memory, and you feel compelled to loop back around and clear the way forward.


It’s a formula that I’ve always found unconvincing in theory, with the locks and keys sounding like arbitrary barriers, but what the best games in the genre have shown me is how easily a canny developer can make these plotted paths feel like ones that the player is uncovering for themselves. When the designers are able to hide their guiding hand behind visual and environmental tricks, the artifice of the game melts away, and the player is tricked into a sensation of mastering the world and its obstructions. It sounds manipulative and cheap, but then what art isn’t on some fundamental level? A book at its most basic is an attempt to keep the reader marching through each sentence, and Metroidvanias have really locked into a form of player-engagement that generations of audiences find hard to resist. It’s no surprise that so many indie games released in the last decade are built upon its foundation.


None of this sounds untranslatable to three-dimensions, but having never experienced Prime myself until this re-release, I have an appreciation for why the leap seems so unnatural. I think a lot of it comes down to the spatial restrictions that side-scrolling games have traditionally placed upon the player, and how keenly developers are able to use the rigid axis to lock the player onto the right path. Metroidvania games are built like a labyrinth, and there’s something so intuitive about watching the map click together like a jigsaw puzzle, until you reach the endgame and that puzzle has transformed into a jagged, elaborate mural. Nothing quite visualises your progress like a world which looks insurmountable, but that you know you were able to chart one room at a time.


Metroid Prime is at its most impressive when it is able to carry the mechanics and spirit of exploration into those three dimensions. In terms of raw items to interact with, the levels and rooms in Prime are pretty stark - usually limiting your options to a couple of colourful doors that pop out of the environment - but it offsets this with a deceptively nuanced sense of atmosphere. The rain in the overworld drips down your hand cannon; steam from nearby vents briefly mist up your visor, and the cracks and vines that crawl across the walls feel hand-picked enough to instil a uniqueness in where they are placed. There’s life and character to the layout of these rooms, and it’s a testament to the strength of the art direction (and the quality of the visual remaster) that I can recall so many of these areas even now, from the faux-skateboard ramps underneath tree roots in the ruins, to the sunken shipwreck littered with platforms and lashing tentacles. That this all runs at a consistent 60fps on the Switch’s now-ancient hardware is laudable and welcomed, with ‘performance' being absolutely the correct priority for the devs to pursue in a game based on combat and investigation.


And make no mistake: it’s the latter of these which is the backbone of Prime. Metroidvanias have often relied upon combat for minute-to-minute gameplay in-between the next upgrade, and the world of Tallon IV is no exception, but where other games required pinpoint accuracy and reaction times to survive, here the combat is noticeably de-emphasised. Modern dual-stick aiming controls have been added to this remaster, but their flexibility is practically obliterated by the games lock-on function that snaps your reticule to enemies they are out of range. There’s a strafe button added to dodge incoming attacks, but the tracking on these projectiles is so over-cranked that you’d be only slightly worse standing still. It’s all sizzle and style, and in short bursts this works just fine. A lot of the early enemies are built around basic weak spots, and it feels satisfying to puzzle out these achilles heels and pump out the ammo, but it also feels noticeably basic - a sign that this game has other priorities on its mind.


Instead, the most exciting facet of Prime comes from its scan visor. It goes without saying that 99% of all video games revolve around violence as their primary gameplay loop, but what I find interesting is how many of those titles only use violence as a way for the player to interact with the world. Even more narratively ambitious titles like the new God of War series will restrict your ability to interface with the environment to axe swings and shield bashes. In contrast, the scan visor is a non-lethal component that serves to highlight information about your surroundings. You’re quickly taught to use it as a means to learn enemy weaknesses or activate terminals, but what’s surprising about Prime is how these make up just a sliver of your interactions. Most of the time, scanning an object is of no tactical advantage - just a delivery system for flavour text. This isn’t always deep-lore, and often the logs you receive are brief, textural snippets that sit humming at the back of your mind - portraits of an ecosystem that make the world feel more natural and give a semblance of narrative to a game that really doesn’t have one. It’s been a trend in recent triple-A games to flood the world with logbooks and data-dumps, presumably to give the team’s intern something to do before lunch, but these are so dry and buried behind menu screens that they rarely feel vital. There are very few blockbuster titles that achieves what Prime does, where the data is presented upfront as an inarguable part of the core gameplay. And despite a few rooms that grind proceedings to a halt with packed clusters of terminals to read, it’s a gambit that succeeds largely without obstruction.



For two-thirds of Metroid Prime, the game luxuriates in this combo-pack of exploration, brief combat, and atmosphere, all to disarming success. It’s a measured experience, but one that can be surprisingly addictive thanks to a tangible sense of progress, and gameplay that feels both personal and tactile, as the first-person perspective and precise sound design conjure up the feeling that each weapon swap and every leap is being decided from inside your own armour. For a game built upon gawkish sci-fi creatures and overtly gamey mechanics, Prime emanates an ineffable ‘cool’, with the dialogue-free levels and offbeat soundtrack bolstering a tremendous confidence on the part of the creative team. For this stretch, it feels like Retro studios has achieved the impossible, and resurrected a classic game that doesn’t just feel unique, but that can tango with the best in modern game design.


Then the game hits the final third, and things take a turn for the worse.

 

Whilst going for 100% completion in the recent God of War Ragnarok, I realised that it’s only in rinsing a game clean of content that its real integrity is exposed: when the weaknesses that a carefully controlled main story has papered over come bubbling to the surface, or when a combat system is pushed to its limits through sheer repetition. For the most part, this observation is not going to be a real problem to the vast majority of gamers who are only trying to complete the main story, or bow out before even then. But for those that want to see everything a game has to offer, it can make or break a previously wonderful experience.


Metroid Prime opts to make this gruelling completionism mandatory, with the final third dovetailing into an obtuse fetch quest punctuated by a miserable gauntlet of shooting that breaks the combat system for good. All of the worst parts of Metroid Prime show their face during this final trek, taking what was a previously glowing slice of history and rapidly ageing it in real-time.


All comparisons do nothing to flatter this trudge, but my mind wandered back to 2021’s Metroid Dread more than once. That was a very different take on the formula than this - a muscular action adventure that prioritised smooth controls and intense combat over environmental storytelling, but something I appreciated a lot about it is how developer Mercury Steam put a lot of effort into streamlining progression. The nearest route was often the correct one, and pointless backtracking was avoided by strategically locking off previous areas, ensuring that you wouldn’t waste time looking in places that led to dead-ends. In a game based on relentless action, you just want to go, go, go, and Dread did a mostly admirable job of keeping things moving (case in point: my swift 6 hour completion time, which I can assure you is not the result of me playing the game particularly well).


Prime isn’t as gung-ho with its pacing as Dread, but even in a game about immersive exploration, you want to prioritise a sense of flow and forward momentum. The opening acts do a fine job of this, but they lack the tricks that later entries would employ to streamline the world and your navigation of it. As the map expands, your options spiral beyond comprehension, and attempting to complete the game without a walkthrough will grind your teeth into powder as you backtrack through the same room a dozen times in a desperate search for the singular clue that sits between you and the credits.


When you aren’t retreading steps, you are blasting through the Phazon Mines - a late game area that tries in vain to put the ‘shooter’ in Prime’s ‘First Person Shooter’ label. It’s here that the flash and style of earlier combat encounters is buried underneath endless chambers of enemies - all of which respawn once you move two rooms away, so don’t worry about forgetting their grating combat music anytime soon. The pointlessness of the strafing system is exposed for good, and I was forced to tank endless streams of attacks whilst enemies barely reacted to my own. Take the time to swap weapon mid-combat (a cumbersome combo of the x button and a directional input) and you risk a bevy of gunfire to the face - the result of a system that is not designed for speed and precision. Die once in the mines and it’s back to the last save point to do it all again, with the Remaster’s lack of checkpoints finally becoming the handicap I feared they might be. Combined with the endless backtracking, it all suggests a game that has suddenly stopped respecting your time.



 

I feel contorted by how much Prime’s ending sours the overall experience. In many ways, the game remains fresh and surprising, but the early excitement of discovering a classic that still feels vital cannot sustain in the face of a final act that wants to push the game to breaking point. Eventually, all I wanted was to get the ordeal over with so I could move on to something else.


It’s strange to see a game present such a startlingly fresh vision and then dismantle it within a single entry, but the positives of the package remain striking. It’s good to remind myself that the game is as old as it feels, and that the potential for refinement has long since turned into actuality. Two games now exist, with a fourth finally on the way, and I’m excited to see how each one can take what worked about this entry, whilst leaving behind (or refining) what didn’t. At £35, it’s a deal that is easy to recommend, with the caveat that a lot of frustration is waiting in the wings. Here we have a respectful remaster that makes history feel new again…even if it does get old real fast.

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