Pushing Buttons: Metroid Prime was astonishingly ahead of its time. I can’t put it down

Unlike a lot of throwbacks, a new remastered version of the 3D space adventure plays even better than it did two decades ago. Plus, your gaming questions answered

Welcome back to Pushing Buttons! First up – last week’s newsletter had a few errors in it. Most obviously, I referred to the Meta Quest 2 headset as the now-discontinued Oculus Go (even though I’d just been playing with the Quest 2, to compare it with PSVR2 – nice job, brain). I also gave some incorrect pricing info. A corrected version is on the Guardian site. Apologies for the mistakes.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how bringing games back from the 1990s can be a difficult exercise, given how technologically hamstrung developers were in the early 3D era. Replaying games from that period today requires a kind eye and a willingness to accept compromising quirks. But sometimes, you play a game from a decades ago and think, this might actually hit better now. Metroid Prime Remastered is one of those games. I’ve been unable to play anything else for weeks, since I downloaded it on a whim after February’s Nintendo Direct. This game was astonishingly ahead of its time. In fact, I didn’t appreciate it in 2003, when I was a teenager, as much as I do now.

For the uninitiated, Metroid Prime is a Nintendo game made by an American developer, Retro Studios, and has a totally different atmosphere to the 2D Metroids you might more readily associate with the name. After encountering some genetically manipulated horrors on an abandoned spaceship, which then explodes in a memorable escape-against-the-clock prelude, bounty hunter Samus Aran lands on Tallon IV, a beautiful but forsaken planet infected and poisoned by a meteor-borne contaminant.

The experience that ensues defies easy categorisation, but I would call it a first-person adventure game. We slowly map this planet, figuring out how it fits together, collecting power-ups for Samus’ suit that let us probe it further. We can scan what’s around us to familiarise ourselves with its ecology, and search for clues about what precipitated its ruin. You shoot things with her arm cannon, sure, but you’re spending most of your time using your brain and her slowly reinstated abilities to navigate this planet and figure out what happened here. Samus is more an archaeologist than a warrior, though she faces down some extremely creepy places and creatures without fear. It’s a game about exploring more than shooting; discovering, rather than conquering.

I definitely do not face Tallon IV down without fear – Metroid Prime scares the bejesus out of me. Because enemies don’t come thick and fast, and most of them aren’t very dangerous, when something aggressive does start attacking me I emit a quiet but sustained scream until it’s defeated. There is an extraordinarily atmospheric section where Samus investigates a space-pirate research lab, full of questionable things floating in glass tanks, only for the power to cut out in its innermost chambers, leaving you in total darkness. You have to fight your way back out using infrared vision, as all those things in all those tanks make a bid for freedom. My heart rate spiked, I’m telling you. The moment where you see sunlight again is such a relief.

Metroid Prime is enthralling because it’s so minimal. There’s nobody chattering away in your headset, giving you instructions. Samus herself is silent. There are no objective markers cluttering up your display; cutscenes are rare, but impactful. What you hear is the restrained but eerily gorgeous soundtrack, creatures and environmental ambiance. This is partly because it was 2003, and there wasn’t infinite space on a dinky li’l GameCube disc for dialogue and cinematics, but in 2023 it’s so unusual that it feels like a refreshing design choice. There’s so little set-dressing or direction; I’ve spent a good few hours lost and wandering, examining and rotating the map in search of somewhere I might not have explored yet. And I enjoyed those hours. Too many modern games see even five minutes of interruption to a player’s progress as an unacceptable failure, prodding you along rather than letting you figure things out yourself.

The 2000s was an amazing decade for single-player first-person shooters. It gave us Halo, Portal, Half-Life 2, Far Cry 2, BioShock and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. These are all games that had something to say, that used their perspective – aiming down the barrel of a gun – to immerse you in a place and tell you a story in a way you hadn’t seen before. But shooters have since become dominated by competitive multiplayer games, and the single-player campaigns – if they’re even extant – often come across as an afterthought (shout-out to notable exception Titanfall 2, easily the best single-player FPS campaign of the 2010s). This is why Metroid Prime retains so much magic: people just are not making games like this any more. Perversely, it has so much impact today because it wasn’t influential. Nobody really picked up this baton and ran with it.

I see Metroid Prime’s influence more in Dark Souls and Returnal than anywhere else – games with a similar respect for a player’s ability and curiosity, and similar talent for presenting an irresistibly intriguing world that reveals its secrets to you slowly. There’s a little of it in Bethesda’s first-person RPGs, Skyrim and Fallout 3. But really, this is a one-of-a-kind science-fiction classic that could be released today to similar acclaim.

What to play

I am an enormous fan of the works of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who makes weird and beautiful synaesthesic artworks about music and wonder. (Rez, Space Channel 5, Child of Eden and Tetris Effect are all by him.) A demo of a newly announced puzzle game bearing his name, Humanity, arrived on PC and PlayStation last week. Playing as a luminescent shiba inu, you place commands to guide streams of people ambling around strange, abstract levels, leading them towards pillars of light. It’s like a cross between Lemmings and the brain-bending robot puzzle interludes in Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. The demo levels show the breadth and flexibility of the concept; you can make your humans feather-light and send them soaring over gaps, get them to push blocks around to create paths for themselves, leap into their bodies and zip between them, and you aren’t punished if they tumble over the edge into nothingness.

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