Back when Super Mario Bros. 2 came out in Japan — the real Super Mario Bros. 2, known here overseas as The Lost Levels — there was a little label on the box that said “For Super Players.” It meant it, too: Super Mario Bros. 2 is a ridiculously difficult game, often using your knowledge of the first game against you while at the same expanding upon everything that made it such a success. It wasn't a sequel created to introduce new players to the series; it was a game for the hardcore fans of the first looking for new twists and challenges to the Super Mario Bros. structure.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes could have been released with a similar little label on its box because, aside from the fact that it's a first-person adventure game as opposed to an 8-bit platformer, the two are in the same boat. Echoes wasn't a game created to expand the Metroid audience; the changes it makes don't so much improve the game as make it significantly more challenging and complicated. If you're a newcomer to the franchise looking for an entry point, this ain't it. This is one for the hardcore fans, and if you happen to fall into that group, it really doesn't get much better than this.
Echoes makes a lot of additions to the mechanics that Metroid Prime put in place, but once again they're not necessarily improvements, and in many cases they make an already pretty complex structure even more complicated. The main addition here is the ability to travel between the regular game world and its “dark world,” counterpart, which is a gameplay mechanic/story device that has been popular in Nintendo games since Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Much like in A Link to the Past, Echoes' dark world is typically a more twisted and visually morose doppelgänger of the standard overworld (or “Light World”) that presents its fare share of gameplay differences, complications and restrictions. The biggest kicker is that in the dark world, your health will constantly drain if you're not in one of its globular “safe zones,” which are scattered around at pretty reasonable intervals. Retro Studios wanted this dark world to be a moody, evil and constantly oppressive contrast to the light world, and from a gameplay standpoint it definitely succeeded; with your health constantly draining when in its confines, being in the dark world always feels like a genuine inconvenience, and even as you gain power-ups and advanced weaponry, you never feel like you have the upper hand as these upgrades are typically combated with tougher enemies and more challenging level design. Not to mention a lot of the best weapons you acquire will be restricted by the use of ammo, which isn't given out very liberally.
From an artistic standpoint though, the dark world isn't as overwhelming a success. Yes, it uses a lot of shades of black and purple, which for some reason has been decided by art designers as the go-to colours for portraying “evil,” but the light world is not the jarring visual contrast you see in say, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess' two realms. Most of the light world locations found here are still more haunting than beautiful, with large, sweeping cobwebs that litter the caves of Agon Waste or the dense fog and twisted branches of the Torvus Bog. While the art direction may not always work when attempting dark world/light world contrasts, it's still brilliantly atypical in its own right. As incredible as the world of Tallon IV was, Metroid Prime still followed the forest, fire, water and ice environmental clichés pretty closely. Prime 2's alien world of Aether, however, truly feels unlike any sci-fi universe you've seen, and it's especially unique amongst the other Metroid titles.
Navigating through two challenging and intertwining worlds makes for some of the most challenging puzzles the series has seen, the use of ammo for most weapons makes combat more strategic and not only are there a lot more enemies this time around, but they're a lot more challenging as well.
The problem with the game, the original GameCube version at least, is that the increased difficulty highlights some of the issues with the game's lock-on combat system; problems which for the most part slipped under the radar in the first Metroid Prime. The main issue is that the lock-on system sometimes just doesn't register during fast-paced encounters, but this in turn reveals just how clumsy the strafing can be as well. It's not game-breaking, but it can definitely be frustrating, especially during some of the game's more unforgiving boss-fights. Of the two Prime games, this is definitely the one that benefits most from the new play control that the Wii's Metroid Prime Trilogy offered.
Oh and there's multiplayer but uh... well there's really not much that needs to be said about it, other than it's bad and you might as well just forget it exists. Nothing about the Metroid experience lends itself towards a compelling competitive multiplayer experience, and this is proof.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is, at its heart, a tribute to Metroid fans, and if for some reason you're a series vet who missed out on or skipped this title the first time around, then you've yet to play one of the most relentlessly challenging and addicting experiences the franchise has to offer. Believe it or not, before Other M came out and divided gamers like the Berlin Wall there were a lot of people who considered Echoes to the series' weakest entry. A lot of people still do. Either way, when this game is considered to be a weak-point in a franchise, you know it's doing something right.