Today’s video game is Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. The first Metroid Prime game was my favorite Gamecube game, and was a real eye-opener for me. It was my introduction to the Metroid series, so I’d never seen its particular brand of exploration before. Games in the series take place in one big world; it’s divided up into different regions with various themes (hot, water, etc.), but there’s no other distinction between areas (no buildings, dungeons, etc.). And you can always go back to areas you’ve seen before, and in fact frequently do. The reason for this is the way they open up areas: you can’t go everywhere from the beginning. Instead, you periodically (usually after (mini-)boss battles) earn upgrades allowing you to move in different ways, or giving you weapons that let you destroy barriers that you couldn’t destroy before.

So every time you get an upgrade, new areas open up for you. Usually there’s one primary largish area that opens up to you, giving some direction in the game. (This was much more the case in Metroid Prime 2 than in earlier Metroid games.) But there are always lots of things that you can do in old areas, too, typically allowing you to get hidden items (ammo/health expansions) that you couldn’t get before.

There’s a lot of shooting in games in the series, but it’s handled exceptionally well. Your primary weapon has an unlimited supply of ammo, so while getting ammo expansions is important, you almost never are seriously lacking in ammo as long as you’ve done at least a cursory job of finding the expansions. (The one exception is boss battles: these are where having a lot of ammo can really help.) And ammo refills are plentiful. Similarly, your health gets refilled every time you save, and health refills are plentiful, so outside of boss battles, health isn’t a serious issue. Ammo and health aren’t irrelevant by any means: typically, the enemies in the most-recently-opened area are tough enough to keep you on your toes, preventing you from spending all your time looking around. But if you return to an area after initially opening it up, you’ve usually progressed to a point where the enemies aren’t much of a challenge, allowing you to spend your time exploring and figuring out what new things you can do that you couldn’t do the last time you were in the area. (For that matter, if you’re just travelling through an area that you’ve been to before in order to get somewhere, you can usually ignore the enemies, because they won’t do enough damage to really matter.)

That’s the way all the Metroid games work; I’ve now played the 2D ones on the GBA (though I’ve still yet to play the apparently-excellent Super Metroid), and the 3D ones on the Gamecube, and they all have the same excellent balance of exploration and fighting. In particular, the series made the transition to 3D extremely well, and I like some of the features that they’ve added (like the scan visor, which allows you to get information about your environment and bring more of a story into the game). The boss fights are, in general, quite well designed, challenging but not tedious. (Most of the time, even if you die, you can figure out more about the enemy’s vulnerabilities, letting you do better the next time.)

So: what about the latest game in the series? It’s great, it really is. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it, I found myself happily going back through areas trying to find all the secrets, I liked almost all of the boss battles (and rarely looked up help for them online). The one exception to the latter is the final boss: it really annoys me when games not only give a final boss that’s quite difficult (which, by itself, can be reasonable enough: you get better at fighting bosses as the game goes on), but then follow it up with a second final boss without giving you a chance to save in between, so you have to spend twenty minutes beating the first boss again each time you need another crack at the second boss. As a result, I haven’t actually finished the game: I’m sure I could, but I also suspect it would take me maybe three hours, much of which would be rehashing the same battles over and over again, and frankly I have much better uses of my time. (Like, say, playing the latest GBA Zelda game or playing Jak 3.)

On the other hand, it didn’t bring anything new to the series. This particular game’s “feature” is that there’s a dark world and the light world (and no surprises as to which one the bad guys are from), so you get to travel through (most of) the map in two versions. It’s not a particularly original idea (we saw this in Zelda a decade ago), and the execution is pretty unexceptional. They wanted to make the dark world bad, so it hurts your health to be there, except that then it would be impossible to explore in the dark world, so they gave you light bubbles in the dark world that restore your health, with the end result that the dark world is actually easier on the health than the light world! (So, when fighting most dark world bosses, your first tack is to figure out how to avoid enough damage so that the light bubbles balance out the damage; once you’ve done that, you know you can fight the boss for as long as it takes for you to figure out how to beat it.)

All in all, I feel about this game the same way as I felt about Banjo-Kazooie: it’s a great game that does everything its excellent genre predecessor did well (where the genre predecessor in the latter case was Super Mario 64). But if I see another game like this, I will lose patience fairly quickly (as happened with Banjo Tooie). Unfortunately, in the case of the Metroid series, I don’t have any constructive criticism here: I can’t quite figure out a way that the series should progress that wouldn’t turn it into something significantly different. We can imagine, say, taking its putative “bounty hunter” theme and turning it into a multi-planet adventure game, or something, but that would be a completely different game with the same name. I guess I can imagine setting Metroid in a city instead of a cave: that could let them preserve the same “go anywhere you’ve been while opening up more and more of the game” feel, while opening up more room for interaction. And who knows: the fine people at Nintendo have successfully reinvented their various series often enough that they may well come up with a surprising, amazingly successful way to invigorate this one. On the other hand, recently they’ve been rehashing their series more often than not; I can’t say that I’m too hopeful for the future of the series. We’ll see; it’s got a solid enough foundation that I’ll put up with a few more rehashes, I suppose. And those of you who have never played any games in the series should run to your local video game emporium: it’s a great series and, unlike most other great series, it hasn’t spawned a flock of other games where you would have seen the same ideas.

Update: when skimming an earlier post, I see that I forgot to mention Metroid Prime 2‘s amazingly bad menu system. Menus are presented as a 3D shape with a dot in the center with lines coming out of it, with labeled balls attached to the lines: the ball that is closest to the “front” is the currently selected item. The thing is, when I first saw this, my brain didn’t have enough information to parse it as a 3D object: it just saw it as a collection of longer and shorter lines, whose length and position would change in a fairly random fashion in response to joystick movements. I got used to it after a little while, but game designers should know better: this menu has absolutely no benefit over a traditional 2D system, it’s not “cool”, it’s just gratuitously confusing to newcomers.

Post Revisions: