You know the story. By now, everyone does. In 2002, a new Metroid game was released after nearly a decade of silence, and it was done by a little studio in Texas that no one had ever heard of. Oh, and it was 3D. And first person. It shouldn't have worked, but it did, and the ensuing trilogy would secure that little studio as one of the most respected, reliable developers in the world: Retro Studios.
You know this story because you've heard it before. Gaming reviewers, critics, journalists; they love to talk about it. And why shouldn't they? It's a good little underdog story; it reminds us that sometimes the biggest successes come out of unexpected places, that sometimes change is for the better. But that story, as good as it is, does distract from the fact that Metroid Prime, the game they created, wasn't a shocking success because of the odds stacked against it; it was a shocking success because it was, and still very much is, an uncommonly brilliant game.
Like its predecessor Super Metroid, Metroid Prime was a pioneer in subtle, visual storytelling and dark ambience. The ruined alien world of Tallon IV is an astonishing achievement on every end of the spectrum; it's simultaneously beautiful and haunting, but it's more than just a pretty picture: it's an interactive playground with a story that's so deeply embedded within its core structure that it's hard to tell where the gameplay ends and the narrative begins. Notice that we said “narrative” and not “cutscenes,” by the way, because really, in Metroid Prime the cutscenes are few and far between. When they do pop up, they're brief breaks in gameplay used to set up an important scene, not long-winded excuses for wordy exposition.
Rather, the narrative in Prime is discovered, not told. You're stranded on this planet, so at first the only thing driving you forward is the desire to escape. But using a clever tool called the Scan Visor, Samus, the game's silent female protagonist, can scan and learn about virtually everything in the environment, which slowly reveals the planet to be much more than it initially seems. The system does have its distinct gameplay advantages — scanning an enemy will reveal its weak point, and scanning certain terminals will activate doors and elevators — but most of your scanning will probably just be done out of awe-struck curiosity, and since the game constantly encourages and rewards this curiosity, it really ends up driving the entire experience. Scanning an alien's dead body might give you a clue to its cause of death, which may in turn foreshadow an encounter with a future enemy, and various hidden “Chozo Lore” entries start to reveal a subtle, overarching narrative. What's more impressive though, is that even scanning small, technically insignificant environmental things like plants, pipes and foliage will give you in-depth summaries of their purpose on this planet. Knowing these little details about every piece of shrubbery that passes you by won't help you beat the game, necessarily, but it makes Tallon IV feel like an actual place, rather than just a setting.
Retro Studio's arresting, surrealist art direction is still a cut above most current first-person games (and its influence can clearly be seen in other atmospheric space games like Dead Space) though there's no denying that from a purely graphical standpoint the original GameCube version of the game is starting to ever-so-slightly show its age. What is timeless is the series' trademark sense of progression and empowerment, which is fully intact here in Metroid Prime; searching every twisted cave and corridor for new power-ups and upgrades is just as addicting and satisfying as it ever was, and since the game gives you very little in the way of direction, finding these items feels like a genuine discovery. This is a game where the sense of progression is completely organic; there's nowhere you can't go because you haven't reached the point in the story where it makes sense to go to that place yet. If you find a door you can't open or that's out of your reach, it's because you don't have the right item to get to it yet, and it's your job to go out and find it. The game world is certainly contrived (why would the Space Pirates build mazes that are the exact size of Samus' morph-ball? Follow up question: why would they build mazes?) but it never feels artificial, and that's the important illusion this game maintains. You walk onto this planet with nothing but a measly gun and a little morph-ball, but you'll walk off of it a human arsenal.
The soundtrack is more textural than melodic, so while you probably won't walk away from the game humming many of its tunes, every song fits its respective environment perfectly. Metroid: Other M would expand upon this sort of sketchy, ambient sound design with a human orchestra and real-world instruments, but Prime's soundtrack is serviceable considering the GameCube's limitations.
The game's unorthodox control scheme is often chalked up to limitations as well, but although the game isn't dual-analogue like most first-person games, after a few hours it becomes second nature, even if the lock-on system isn't quite as smooth and reliable as its slightly-superior Wii remake. Pointer controls are more immediately intuitive, but the game itself was designed around the GameCube controller, so it never feels like a dual-analogue game forced into a single-stick control scheme.
Metroid Prime is still one of the greatest games of all time, but its success doesn't lie in any one avenue; its organic sense of progression, brilliant art design, extraordinarily dense and explorable world and innovative gameplay mechanics are all still impressive on their own, but it's the way the game is able to tie all these elements into one “thing” that makes this game a must-play classic for anyone who considers themselves a gamer.