In this review I'm going to be telling you what you've probably already heard, that Metroid Prime is a great game. The one question I hope to answer then is whether Metroid Prime is the 'killer app' for the GameCube. Is it a game that, on its own, warrants buying the hardware just to be able to play it? Is it a Golden Eye? Is it a Halo? Is it a GTA3? It is not. Believe the hype though, it is still a remarkably good game.
The game takes place on a planet called Talon IV. Centuries before a great meteor crashed on Tallon IV and spread a mysterious form of energy called Phazon that has poisoned and mutated the indigenous life forms. An advanced bird like race, called the Chozo, who inhabited the planet attempted at the time to control this energy but were unsuccessful. In the end all they could do was to build a temple on top of the crater to seal off the Phazon core. Only carved accounts remain of the Chozo's time there, waiting to be found by a prophesied saviour. You take the role of Samus Aran, a female warrior who was raised as an orphan by the Chozo. Samus has been infused with Chozo blood and equipped with a powerful suit to aid her in her fight against the nomadic space pirates who destroyed her home world and killed her parents. This fight has led her to Tallon IV. By the time she arrives the space pirates have already set up research facilities on the planer and are in orbit to exploit the phazon energy for their own deeds. You initially land on the orbital research station which also acts as a brief and exciting training level. On this station you will be introduced to some of the skills that Samus has at her disposal. She has a trusty laser cannon that can also fire missiles. A grapple hook that can latch on to certain fixtures allowing her to swing across large distances. If she needs to squeeze through smaller openings she can morph into a ball and roll around. She also has various vision modes that let her scan the surrounding area to activate switches, read computer terminals, find hidden power sources and decode alien artifacts.
As you wander around the space station these skills will be introduced to you and before long they will become second nature. You will soon get used to switching to your scan mode as you enter new areas to check for any important information. To move around you use the thumb stick, as you might expect, but you can't sidestep. Before you panic about not being able to strafe when you encounter an enemy you lock onto them by squeezing the left trigger at which point left and right movement changes to sidestepping in a circular motion, letting you orbit any enemy as you shoot them as dead as a European common foreign policy. Should you need to aim up and down you simply hold in the right trigger which roots you in place and the thumb stick now changes your view. All of this can take a little while to get used to, but the system is an excellent compromise for the Nintendo controller and I much preferred it to using a dual analogue controller. By the time you have picked up the controls you'll have already defeated the first boss and destroyed the space station causing you to land on the planet below, this is where the real portion of the game is.
Metroid Prime is a hard game to categorize. It is part platformer, part first person shooter, part adventure game and at times partly puzzling. The skills that you will have just practiced are lost when you land and you must now explore this world to regain your abilities and learn its hidden secrets. As you start venturing out you will soon start uncovering blocked paths that require certain skills to traverse. You'll explore further and perhaps enter a new room to pick up the powerball skill which will let you access narrow tunnels. These tunnels might lead to a new weapon that will let you unlock certain doors. These doors open up to a new suit that shields you from intense heat which in turn will grant you access to more new rooms, and so on and so forth. The games structure is one of constant exploration. More and more areas beg to be explored as you move around. This could quickly get daunting were it not for the excellent map system. At the touch of a button you can view a detailed 3D map which you can zoom, pan, and rotate to examine every nook and cranny of every room. Each room is also given a name, which I found strangely reminiscent of Jet Set Willy (look under the Banyan Tree), and these names tie in with clues that aid your search for the whereabouts of important Chozo artifacts. You may also find maps for entire sections that will let you see unexplored areas you may have missed, as well as tempting you with what you have yet to investigate.
The pacing of the game is remarkably good. Each new area and skill is introduced a bit at a time so you never feel overwhelmed or completely lost. There are rooms which you can save your progress in, and while they're not plentiful, they are frequent enough and intelligently placed so that you'll generally come across one before engaging in a boss battle. The boss battles themselves are hard and often demand you master any new item or skill you may have just picked in that section. You'll be traveling back and forth a lot but the skills you attain help speed up this process. For instance at the outset you'll only be able to jump short distances, but later on you pick up a double jump letting you move further and faster. Enemies will re-spawn in each area and also get progressively harder. To counter this you will pick up more powerful weaponry and extra energy. The different weapons are not only more potent but have their own individual characteristics, such as the ice beam which will freeze some enemies giving you a few seconds to deal that killer blow, marveling as they shatter like glass. The visuals in the game are very strong indeed. They don't quite match the quality of something like Halo, but each room is wonderfully distinctive and it never seems like things have just been copied and pasted in. The enemies, and in particular the bosses, are also very varied and have beautiful fluid motion. None of this ever impacts the frame rate and things stay as smooth as silk throughout.
The sound effects are also very strong alongside a soundtrack that changes to suit the mood of the action. The soundtrack is slow and melodic during quiet moments, heavy and urgent for fighting. As impressive as the soundtrack is it's synthesized using the GameCube hardware and after a while I couldn't help but find it sounding a bit tinny and harsh. When you consider that the next Tomb Raider game has enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra for its score, the soundtrack for Metroid Prime seems all the more weak compared with other titles. The only time you hear any speech in the game is at the very end. When it occurs it almost seems like it was lacking throughout the game because you must pick up the story by reading numerous computer logs that you've scanned. Log entries are a common and useful tool used in games and are great for layering-in sub plots but they do not carry a main narrative very well. The log book entries are so fragmented here that it makes the job all the more difficult. The story that I regaled to you earlier I learned from the manual, which of course I only looked at after playing through the game. I picked up practically none of it from the game itself except for a few names and terms.
One aspect that's particularly impressive is the manner in which the interface is presented. Samus wears a helmet which has a visor with you viewing the world through her eyes and through a heads-up display projected onto this visor. Different elements in the environments can affect the visor: if it's raining and you look up you'll see drops appear on the surface; cold areas will cause it to display frost; electrical signals cause it to become fuzzy; you'll even see a brief reflection of your face when a bright blast occurs near you. As gimmicky as it might sound it is a well used device throughout the game and makes the interface fit seamlessly into the adventure. In fact it's touches like these that are evidence of the polish and refinement shown throughout the game. It's this consistent high quality that makes the game stand so tall amongst the crowd.
If that is the case then why do I say it's not a killer app? I believe a killer app should be a game that you will revisit time and time again throughout the life of a console. That is not the case here. Once you've played through Metroid Prime, which will take you around twenty hours, it is unlikely you'll want to traipse through it all again. This is because by the time you've finished it you will have passed back and forth through most of the sections at least half a dozen times. There is no multiplayer component to keep you coming back. There are a few galleries that you can unlock as well as a difficulty setting but nothing major. The original Metroid is also on the disc but you need to shell out for a GameBoy Advance, a link cable and Metroid Fusion to access it. Not exactly an endearing move by Nintendo. You'll play it, enjoy it, finish it, but only ardent fans will want to do it all again.
This is still another great title for a great little console and GameCube owners could do a lot worse than pick this one up. Other console owners should feel left out, but I wouldn't lose much sleep over it if I were you. It was a few months late arriving on these shores and, though it's been worth the wait, perhaps expectations were riding unreasonably high as a result. Ultimately though Metroid Prime is a great game but it just lacks that killer instinct.