The long-rumoured Metroid Prime Remastered is here, and it might just be everything we hoped it would be.
Well, this was a pleasant shock. During last week’s Nintendo Direct showcase, just as one might have started to glaze over amid a gaggle of JRPGs, came two welcome jolts. The first was the news that Game Boy and Game Boy Advance collections were being added to Nintendo’s monthly subscription service. Among these was Tetris, in one of its most beautiful incarnations, available in colourised form and in the original grey-green that God intended – as though the shapes were drifting through a square of creamed spinach. The second was the reveal of Metroid Prime Remastered, and both promptly released at the end of the show. So it was that droves of contented players went to their beds in the company of a masterwork of music and puzzle design, one that bridged the thinking of East and West, ready to wipe away the building blocks of an entire genre. Still others planned on playing Tetris.
The remastering of Metroid Prime, which first released on the GameCube in 2002, was done by Iron Galaxy Studios and Retro Studios – the latter of which developed the game, in partnership with Nintendo, all those years ago. Thus, the soft blur that blanketed the adventure back then has been scoured away. Scalpel in hand, the teams behind this new version have ventured into Tallon IV, the doom-racked planet at the heart of the plot, the better to nip and tuck its alluring darkness to suit modern tastes. We have a 900p resolution while the Switch is docked, and a 612p resolution in handheld mode. This may not sound like much, but it’s lacquered and locked into a glassy 60 frames per second, and the result, especially viewed through the visor-like pane of the Switch, is a marvel.
Then again, how much of this lies in the hands of the remasterers, and how much is simply the fault of the masters? The truth is, Metroid Prime always ran at 60 frames per second, even when its rich and teeming vistas were gathered up and smelt onto one of those GameCube discslets. (That the steamy acreage of Tallon IV was ever contained within 1.46 GB of data defies logical thought.) Early on in the new game, as our heroine, Samus Aran, descends to the surface in her ship, the place is daylit and drizzled in rain; and I had to stop and stare as the droplets streamed across her armour. I couldn’t remember if that texture was always there, or if fresh precipitation had been patched in, but it felt true to the vision of the original, as if the past had soaked through to the present.
The irony is that this same feeling held sway in 2002. You played Metroid Prime in a state of baffled disbelief, unsure at how the designers had pulled it off but transfixed by the mood that had been imported, wholesale, from the older games. Unless you count her rumpled cameo in Super Smash Bros., Samus had failed to appear on the Nintendo 64. Shigeru Miyamoto said, of her absence, “We couldn’t come up with any concrete ideas or vehicle at that time.” The last we had seen of her was in Super Metroid, in 1994. She flickered through its caverns along a flat plane, and the 16-bit graphics of the day gave her a grace that you would presume impossible in three dimensions – let alone in first person. It was unthinkable that we could experience a Metroid game while clamped into the diving bell of Samus’s Power Suit, ogling the world through its porthole and coasting along with a string of largo leaps.
And yet, it worked. It was one of those games, like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where the pleasure of playing was bundled up in wondering just how the hell it was happening. How were you being freshly fooled? The coup of the Texas-based Retro Studios was not in dreaming up something new that had eluded Miyamoto and his people; it was in looking at their work from a distance – the privilege of the outsider – and realising that what they had searched for was already in place: that ideas don’t come any more concrete than Samus Aran. She is, as it were, the star vehicle of Metroid Prime. The game is there to facilitate the pure kick of being Samus; but so, too, is she the frame through which everything else is filtered, and it’s her weaponised instincts that drive you through it.
I mean no disrespect to Samus, of course, but it should be pointed out that, with her heavy tread and her arm encased in a cannon, the vehicle she most invokes is a tank. This was doubly the case on the GameCube, where, lacking a dual-stick layout, you had to swivel her head like a turret and stop in order to tilt her gaze up and down. I was touched to see this control scheme included in the remaster, for those who relish the idea that – like Michael Keaton in Batman, who also strived to complete his mission without the aid of a neck – Samus should be banked down into her suit, burdened as much empowered by it.
But here’s the twist: Metroid Prime is not centred on combat. Though Samus could, if she liked, anchor her bug-like ship just off the shore of Tallon IV and unleash a payload of blinding plasma, that isn’t what she’s about, and nor is the game. It’s about exploration. It was Miyamoto, acting as producer here, who insisted on the first-person viewpoint, and you can, in hindsight, see why; what better way to strike the authentic pitch of strangeness and awe that held sway in the early titles? When the first Metroid landed, on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, it beckoned you in with the promise of platforming, but what stayed with you was the atmosphere – airlocked and eerie, stanching the flow of adventure with a sense of sticky fear. You were divided off from Samus, who seemed undaunted, and it was tough to get a read on her; she leapt and you looked. In Metroid Prime, Miyamoto combines the two, and teases out a deeper sense of her curiosity – her hesitance toward violence, despite her aptitude for it. It’s like sending a Sherman on safari.
Your primary means of poking about Tallon IV are your legs and your scanner. Samus’s jumps are airy and cushioned – like Neil Armstrong springing around the lunar craters – and she gains the power to boost herself upward, courtesy of the nozzles on her back. This still feels good, and you realise, playing now, that time hasn’t provided Metroid Prime with many peers. If modern players will be won over, it will partly be down to the glimpses of other games that they catch in the sheen of play. Nothing seriously took up the cause of first-person platforming until Mirror’s Edge, in 2007, which wrapped the spectacle in the rubbery gear of parkour. Its heroine, Faith, was more elastic than Samus; she seemed to bend around the adventure, bouncing off its obstacles rather than planting herself firmly in their path. Unlike Samus, she was far from physically redoubtable – lacking, in fairness, a suit of funky terracotta space armour.
The two games scarcely compare, but what is clear is that, while one is the legatee of the other, it doesn’t make its predecessor look dated. Metroid Prime still stands as its own, nuanced riff on a modern trend. Likewise, those weaned on the work of FromSoftware will recognise a kindred narrative technique in the scanner. This nifty device, embedded in Samus’s helmet, allows her to focus on objects in the environment and dig up details of context – just as those who have lost countless hours in Lordran, the setting of Dark Souls, scrutinising the labels of inventory items and gleaning the lore in lieu of a solid story. But again, a twist on the technique: Samus has to take aim at each object as though it were an enemy, and thus knowledge becomes a target, to be hunted down and used, if necessary, against her opponents. Lock and learn!
Not that there isn’t a story in Metroid Prime. It’s just that the game is far more interested in slipping the bonds of a straightforward tale and graduating into myth. The reason for Samus’s arrival on this watery shell is as it always was. She is after the Space Pirates, and has tracked the spoor of their latest, nastiest experiments here. They have been toying around with Phazon, a kind of radiation that likes to bleed into living things (and even some dead things) and blow them up to ghastly new proportions, bestowing on them more venomous claws, teeth, and tempers. The Phazon has also bitten into the bedrock of Tallon IV and fouled it to the very core. At one point, Samus joins battle with Thardus, a golem-like creature – shawled in an icy fog, with innards of magma – that resembles a murderous asteroid belt.
Note the similarities to The Legend of Zelda here. One, the combat has you fastening the camera to your foe and circling them, hopping to and fro and trying to expose a weak spot. (Before the game came out, people gazed at screenshots and feared that it would turn out to be a first-person shooter, a suspicion not quite prompted, but certainly not helped, by the presence of a Western studio.) And two, the clash is fuelled by a blend of the astronomical, the elemental and the mythological: a heady Triforce of ideas, hinting that Samus’ struggle will stretch way beyond the here and now into the infinite. Hence the presence – throughout the series, but especially potent here – of the Chozo. This bird-like race of prehistoric thinkers long ago fell to the Phazon, but their hobbies, when in good health, included pecking at the wriggling threads of prophecy.
The Chozo foretold your arrival on Tallon IV, and throughout Metroid Prime you read their musings, recorded in pools of water that ripple across the walls. “We peer forward,” one such entry begins, “hearing rumors of coming days on the breath of the wind.” There is a distinct tenor of sadness and foreboding that gusts around Samus, a tone that Nintendo wouldn’t again reach until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Like Link in that game, she is stuck between a fallen empire and a threatened future, and you feel at once out of joint with time and rooted in the present tense, staring into the tears of that kingdom but getting lost in the minute-to-minute.
The puzzles also get by on a compound of the ancient and the technological. Like the shrines that Link tinkered his way through, the temples here are high-tech and crumbling, and they hum with magnetic rails. Samus retains her ability to curl into a plated ball, like a woodlouse, and roll through tunnels and mechanisms. All of which means that, two decades on, Metroid Prime Remastered feels oddly prescient. Iron Galaxy and Retro have done a fine job in burnishing an old classic. But, beyond the work, they have been blessed by the years. They are like a luckier version of the Chozo, presenting a glittering prophecy for the purpose of our enjoyment and our reflection. If Metroid Prime has much to say about our time, it’s that some things are destined to recur. Some things, like some heroes, resist the temporal flow and remain present. Some things are worth looking back on, even as we peer forward.
Game: Metroid Prime Remastered
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Retro Games
Release Date: February 8, 2023