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The Many Firsts of Metroid Prime

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Metroid Prime 2002

Games That Changed Our Lives: Metroid Prime

“Spellbinding” –Eurogamer

“Stunningly-stupendous” –Game Over Online

A game “to measure forthcoming software by” –IGN

This is just a fraction of the overwhelming praise Metroid Prime received when it was released on November 17, 2002. After skipping the Nintendo 64 console entirely, fans were apprehensive about the franchise’s transition to first-person 3D, to say the least. However, those apprehensions were blown away upon the game’s release as they witnessed the title revolutionize the Metroid formula in such a way that still remained true to the series’ roots.

We already have an article on the site that discusses, ad nauseam, why Metroid Prime was, and still is, a masterpiece. Adding to the series’s anniversary celebration is this piece that is on a more personal level. Specifically, how those masterful elements impacted me in tremendous ways as the budding young gamer I was at the time.

Metroid Prime 2002

Walking a Mile in Her Shoes

Metroid Prime provided a number of video game “firsts” for me, the central of which was that it was actually my first Metroid game. I got on the video game bandwagon relatively late with my first console being the Sega Dreamcast of all things (which was a fine console, mind you, but that’s neither here nor there). This combined with a distinct lack of internet knowledge meant I was completely unaware of all the hate surrounding Metroid Prime leading up to its launch.

My sole source of information was the articles that came from my monthly Nintendo Power issues. It looked “cool” so I asked my parents for it for Christmas. That simple impression led to one of the most meaningful experiences in all my time as a gamer.

This wasn’t just my first exposure to Metroid, it was also my introduction to games played from a first-person perspective. For the first time ever I viewed a game world through the eyes of one of its inhabitants. For the first time ever I was subjected to creatures aggressively leaping at my face. For the first time ever I truly felt immersed in the world of a game.

After a heart-pounding opening tutorial sequence on the abandoned space station, I felt a mix of emotions with my first steps onto the Talon IV planet. I felt vulnerable and scared, having been stripped clean of all the abilities I was using moments before, but I was also mesmerized. I observed my surroundings as if I were using my own eyes, possibly as a result of sitting far too close to the TV than was healthy. To borrow Eurogamer’s descriptor, I was positively spellbound by the world I had stepped foot in. However, this feeling of shock and awe made scanning the environment all the more puzzling to me.

Metroid Prime 2002

More Than Meets the Eye

Why should I go out of my way to take the time and scan anything that wasn’t necessary to progress the game for just a few lines of meaningless text? I only wanted to play the game, not get bogged down in words I was already getting plenty of in middle school. That was how I so vehemently viewed the scanning mechanic while playing… at first.

I don’t remember when or why I started to scan miscellaneous items and actually read their descriptions. It was a gradual progression, and eventually, I started putting pieces together in my mind about the world around me. “Oh, this statue is related to that other statue I saw over in Phendrana Drifts” or “Oh, the Chozo did that in the past? No wonder the landscape looks like this now.”

For the first time ever I started to care about the optional lore of a game. The fact that I had to go out my way to obtain these nuggets of information and then put them together myself made them all the more satisfying as opposed to just being spoon-fed a main story.

Talon IV, which originally seemed oppressively bleak and isolated, gradually evolved into this strangely comforting environment. It wasn’t a character in the traditional sense, but the planet had its own tales to tell, its own history to pass down. By being on it I wasn’t just receiving those stories, but also contributing to their continuation. Fundamentally, I felt a sense of scale in a video game not just spatially, but temporally as well. This revelation was and still is, mind-blowing to me.

Metroid

Primed and Ready

Metroid Prime was an eye-opening experience. There is not a single character present besides Samus herself yet the game still manages to create this incredibly fleshed out and enthralling world that is Talon IV. The title was a realization in engrossing game-play, immersion, and storytelling that permanently changed how I viewed video games as a form of entertainment.

Years and countless games later, those feelings I felt while playing Metroid Prime still stick with me. I would be lying if I said I never felt such emotions again for a game since then; The Witcher 3 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild are excellent examples. When it all comes down to it Metroid Prime was my first, though, and you know what they always say, “First impressions are the most important.” It just so happens that this first impression went a step further than most and left its mark not just in my memories, but my heart as well.

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Kena: Bridge of Spirits Marks A Beautiful New Beginning For Ember Lab

Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue the interactive medium.

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Kena: Bridge of Spirits Ember Lab Review PlayStation 5

Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review

Developer: Ember Lab | Publisher: Ember Lab | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: PlayStation 5


Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culmination of everything Ember Lab has created thus far. After years of presenting masterful shorts, it is only natural that the post-production company’s first video game project would flourish in the same charm its commercials and fan films have boasted since their inception. Despite being their first leap into a different medium of entertainment, Kena: Bridge of Spirits shows that Ember Lab is still on top of its game. The company has intertwined its best efforts into a seamless world of light and darkness that may occasionally appear dated but is absolutely worth visiting.

A Long-Awaited Awakening

Taking place in a world shaped by the presence of forces beyond the living, Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ narrative absorbs its style and grace from what Ember Lab already succeeded with. While the story may not always explore its loveable protagonist to a deep extent, saying that the storytelling lacks depth would be a disservice to its emotional moments. To keep the premise as simple as possible without going into detail, the titular Kena is a spirit guide who must help lost souls find their way to what lies beyond the land of the living by repelling their darknesses. Her world’s story initially may playoff as generic, yet it grows to be both moving and surprising. Where the game’s focus really lies is in its gameplay and visuals.

As the player explores a lush open world, they will solve puzzles, fight humanoid spirits, upgrade weapons, and go on a collectathon for a handful of rewarding items. For an independent game that lacks the budget of a triple-A experience, Kena: Bridge of Spirits puts its smaller and larger competitions to shame. From its action to its artistic composition, the title knocks it out of the park with so many of its core design aspects. There may be a handful of problems with the gameplay, but its stylization and animated wonderland make it a nearly perfect adventure. Everything intertwines in a fashionable matter that feels effective and never loses focus, but there is certainly a warranted coat of polish behind its many highs.

Image: Ember Lab

There is a lot to love about Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ gameplay, but it is unquestionably where all of its shortcomings come from — many of these issues actually tend to go hand-in-hand for the most part as they tie into the player’s growth. While platforming and puzzle-solving are always a blast no matter what point in the narrative the player is at there are some noticeably annoying flaws that could have been easily fixed with connected solutions. Fighting enemies is always exciting and the controls are buttery smooth, but early odd difficulty curves and shallow progression often seep through the grander aspects.

During the first third of the game, the combat can oftentimes feel as if the player has an overwhelming upper hand on their enemies. Most of the hostile forces can be mowed down in less than two or three hits with players’ beginner attacks. These generic enemies may lack any thoughtful weaknesses, but thankfully the later foes require much more attention to overcome. However, getting smarter does not necessarily mean that the player will get to employ more skills. Kena: Bridge of Spirits can quite literally be beaten with the unaltered moves and weapons the player receives at the start of the adventure.

Disappointingly, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a promising arsenal of abilities that provides no real progression — not because they aren’t hard to earn but due to their lasting worth. With only one melee weapon, a long-ranged bow, bombs, and the ability to dash, the game leaves itself with a small number of upgrades for the player to unlock that do not contribute much. The vast majority of these moves feel rewarding to use, yet they come off as features that could have easily been implemented into the player’s base moveset. They never provide any true variety to the combat or even necessarily skills that are required to finish the game.

It’s not just the weapons that suffer from this problem. They may be fun to collect and utilize, but the Rot creatures present a large growing number that represents little progression in terms of combat and somehow puzzle-solving. Apart from droplets that allow the Rot to take a larger serpent-like form as the player recruits more of them, the number of these spirits to collect can feel a tad insignificant in the long term. Customizing their costumes and seeing how they interact with the world will always put a smile on the player’s face, but nonetheless, it is a shame how the gameplay underutilizes their long-term presence.

Forging Large Hearts and Lovely Souls

During Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ hands-on previews, a lot of users compared the game to titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Pikmin, and God Of War. However, the clear inspiration for the game comes from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and its iconic fan film that Ember Lab helmed. Majora’s Mask — Terrible Fate was a spectacle that further skyrocketed the company to fame. Everything that short succeeded on in terms of both visuals and narrative — along with Ember Lab’s other projects for that matter — was carried over magnificently to Kena: Bridge of Spirits artistic direction.

Image: Ember Lab

While the gameplay has its faults, it’s no shocker that Ember Lab’s title would thrive most from its breathtaking visuals, cinematic direction, and audio design. Kena: Bridge of Spirits stands as not only one of the best-looking and sounding PlayStation 4 and 5 titles ever released, but one of the finest in the gaming industry overall. The gameplay may be refined, but the lush world Kena: Bridge of Spirits holds is one of the digital realm’s most beautiful landscapes to ever release on any platform.

On top of gorgeous environments, clean character models, and atmospheric effects, Kena: Bridge of Spirits truthfully thrives in visuals because of its animations. Whether you are watching cutscenes or walking around the world, there are always movements to sit back and admire. The game’s cast and environments never remain still–everything is highly expressive and constantly moving. Not a single spec of Kena’s palpable land feels as if it were forgotten or designed to simply act as something for the player to pass by. This sentiment especially shows itself with the Rot species.

Whereas the Rot may be criticized for their overarching gameplay purpose, it is impossible to deny the fact that they are beautifully animated. The spirits never feel as if they are glued on to Kena or their surrounding environments. They are constantly expressive and characterized by their movements and interactions with the world itself. The Rot are regularly interacting with their surroundings as they jump between locations and engage with structures in unique ways. Kena’s world already feels organic and lively thanks to its therapeutic atmosphere, but the Rot adds another layer of spirit to the game.

Of course, having a visual spectacle in an Ember Lab project means that the audio design was bound to be a knockout too. Kena’s score composed by Jason Gallaty and Dewa Putu Berata is remedial to the soul. It is bursting through the seams with heart and proper articulation as it helps further enhance the player’s immersion with environments and cinematics. On top of fantastical orchestrations and well-pieced sound design, the game boasts an excellent voice cast breathing into its many characters. Berata’s daughter, Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti, ended up voicing Kena herself, and you would think she is a veteran of the industry, but this is her first gig. Larassanti does a spectacular job, as does the rest of her fellow actors. All the performances together are just another factor that helps keep players invested.

The only disappointing aspects coming from the look of the game comes from the transitions between gameplay and cinematics. The cutscenes were clearly designed with a moviemaking mindset and sadly do not accommodate for performance mode on PlayStation 5. Rather than adjusting to the smoother sixty-frames look, the pre-rendered cinematics stick to half that rate. They still look unbelievable, but it can feel weird instantly jumping between the two — however, this problem is only for those using performance mode. The brief loading screens that equate to literal seconds do not ruin the fluidity of the presentation either, but hopefully in the future Ember Labs will be able to iron out this nitpick in whatever they choose to pursue next.

A Bridge Between Works

Kena: Bridge of Spirits Ember Lab Review PlayStation 5
Image: Ember Lab

In the coming days, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is going to be compared to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks for its visuals. Its gameplay will be explained by critics and the public by corresponding it with numerous popular franchises. Ultimately, though, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culminated work of Ember Lab’s extraordinary history in the entertainment industry. With ten years in the visual effects department, hours of experience filming at real sets, and a whole lot of inspiration from video games at the core of their spirit, the success of Ember Lab’s first independent title was inevitable. Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue its latest shining endeavors in gaming. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a beautiful work of art, and Ember Lab has just gotten started.

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A Descent into Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack

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Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack Review

The Music of Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is something else.

First released in 2002 by Konami (developed by Team Silent) for PlayStation 2 as a follow-up, not sequel, to the original Silent Hill (released in 1999 for PS1), it has since remained a crucial cornerstone in gaming history.

For those who embrace it, connect with it, it becomes an emotional endeavor, accomplishing a level of involvement and investment with the player that I have hardly, if ever, seen in the form of a video game.

You play as James, a troubled man drawn to the mysterious town of Silent Hill at the bequest of his, apparently, dead spouse. What follows is a downward spiral into the inner demons of the body, mind and soul, as Silent Hill comes alive as an amalgamated reflection of the torment James and the townsfolk that he meets have to live with.

In Silent Hill 2, the audio is as integral a part of the whole setup as anything else that contributes to its existence. Composer Akira Yamaoka is often credited as one of the three to four key people behind the creation and formation of the game, holding a status within the development team that is often not granted to a music composer.

The entirety of the soundtrack for Silent Hill 2 can be described as an intentional cacophony of bittersweet melodies, with hip hop beats laid over the darkest, most intimate, yearnings, and harrowing human-like-yet-synthetic sounds staggering out slowly from within the mostly silent environments of the game’s world.

The dark ambient aspects of the score are so simplistic but full of unnerving raw emotions.

While it would be expected for an atmospheric horror game of the time to perhaps include ambient sounds of howling winds and rustling trees, zombies or similar creatures going “uhhgghhh”, and other such things, Yamaoka’s compositions instead sputter radio noise, distorted electric strings and heavy drums that contain themselves within their own reverberations.

Yamaoka himself talks about this in the “making of” documentary, stating that he didn’t want to create the typical, scary sounds done in games like Resident Evil.

Keeping to its ambient nature, aspects of the score blend in with the environments of the game itself, merging the music played for you, the player, with the Otherworld screaming around James. But, in between these instances is often silence, scored with just the sounds of footsteps and faint environmental noises. Without these moments, the score would most likely lose all of its punch.

Considering the personal nature of James’s struggle within the context of the story, and his role in the creation of his own individual Otherworld, this ambiguity of the score plays directly into the narrative.

Also, it all sounds downright scary. That’s important.

Slower moments in the soundtrack, usually those that play in “safe” areas where enemies can’t reach you or in reflective cutscenes that divulge upon James’s thoughts, are pensive, which is in deep contrast with the balls-to-the-wall insanity that happens in the Otherworld. Here, we have somewhat relaxing, downtempo beats that resemble something more out of DJ Shadow’s catalog, or a song on a lo-fi chill playlist, which are popular these days.

Yamaoka counts Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Angelo Badalamenti (most popular for his work on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) as two of his influences, and the chaotic rush of violent sounds that are then followed by melancholic and reflective plateaus seem to, perhaps, combine the best of those influences.

I’m not sure if Yamaoka heard or was in any way inspired by Maurice Jarre’s score for Jacob’s Ladder (the 1990 movie directed by Adrian Lyne served as perhaps the main inspiration behind the visuals and general ideas behind Silent Hill), as it too has the same qualities Yamaoka brings forth.

Unfortunately, Silent Hill 2’s full soundtrack has never been officially released, with the CD releases only containing thirty tracks, most of which are the more traditionally structured pieces.

While these tracks are crucial in bringing together the overall feeling of certain aspects of the game, on their own they simply cannot convey the complete mindset of the game’s experience.

A release that includes every single ambient or other soundtrack-related tracks is not common or even heard of; in the case of Silent Hill 2, however, these oft-disregarded pieces of “mood setting” music are perhaps more crucial to the identity of the game than they are for most other games.

Instead, to listen to the entire score of Silent Hill 2, one has to depend on dedicated fans such as “firebrandx”, who compiled the entire true score into an ultimate edition (tracks from which I featured within this article), and “TokyoBrando“, who has painstakingly compiled 108 or so tracks that amount to 3 hours and 40 minutes or so worth of material to YouTube.

Given that the series lost its identity after Silent Hill 2, meandering in mediocre scares and unimaginative canonical mishaps (not to mention things like the god-awful PS3 “remaster” of this very game), it’s fitting that it’s the fans who would work to preserve what once was.

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Great Moments in Gaming: Silent Hill 2, Angela Orosco and the Stairs of Fire

This final meeting in Silent Hill 2 is about giving in to our worst impulses, and the tragic inability to save someone from themselves.

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Silent Hill 2 retrospective

Looking Back at the Most Devastating Moment of Silent Hill 2

Great Moments in Gaming is a column wherein we look back at some of the great gaming moments that have made a significant impact on our view of this medium and how we have come to understand it. Today, we’re looking back at a tense, troubling stand-off between James and Angela in Silent Hill 2

The Silent Hill series has long been known for its disturbing imagery and psychological knack for terrorizing us with our own worst imaginings. However, it is also known for the many tortured souls which are drawn to the titular town, and how it forces them to pay for their sins.

This is the impetus behind Silent Hill 2. James Sunderland murdered his sick wife. Angela Orosco murdered her abusive father. Both escaped justice, and it is for this reason that the town of Silent Hill calls to them. As James, you meet the troubled Angela several times over the course of your journey, and each time she seems to have descended further into her own personal abyss.

After James finds out the truth about the town, and why he was forced to return there, he meets the suicidal Angela one final time. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, James opens a door in the Lakeview Hotel and goes from a dusty, dilapidated haze to a sudden roar of flames and smoke.

Silent Hill 2 Angela touches James

Image: Konami

There he sees Angela again. She seems to have resigned herself at last to carry out her suicide, and while James tries to talk her out of it, he soon grows resigned to let her go as well. Broken and disillusioned by the revelations he has been forced to accept about himself, and his own selfish nature, he lacks the strength to talk her down this time.

“It’s hot as hell in here,” he says at last, having nothing left to offer. To this Angela drops the most troubling line in all of Silent Hill 2. “You see it too? For me, it’s always like this.” The revelation that this is how Silent Hill has looked to Angela all this time, as opposed to the empty, foggy town you’ve been seeing, is a jaw dropper in its own right, but the connotations beneath the line are what really dig their fingernails into your psyche.

As a survivor of years of sexual abuse from her father, Angela has suffered for so long that she’s barely able to hold on to her sanity. With the murder of her father still weighing on her, the blame of her mother still tormenting her and the town of Silent Hill forcing her to face her trauma and her sins head on, Angela’s version of hell is truly a horrific place. The above line refers to how she, as a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma, is forced to live in her devastating reality all the time. Even as those around her walk in and out of her private hell, she is unable to leave it.

This is the moment in Silent Hill 2 when she is finally giving up, giving in and letting go of this horrible life. As she walks off into the flames, James is forced to watch, knowing he lacks the courage and compassion to save her. James isn’t even sure he can save himself anymore. And so he watches, as Angela climbs the stairs to her demise, disappearing forever into the flames that have threatened to consume her for so long.

It’s a devastating scene, and maybe the most emotionally evocative moment of the whole franchise. Set to the heart-wrenching “Theme of Laura“, James and Angela’s final meeting is about giving in to our worst impulses, and the tragic inability to save someone from themselves.

Silent Hill 2

Image: Konami

Silent Hill has always been about this sort of thing. Tormented fathers, grieving mothers, impetuous daughters, and sinful sons. However, no creature in the series storied past has been as damned or as tortured as Angela Orosco of Silent Hill 2, and as James watches her walk into those flames, we are left with a feeling so raw and empty that the smoke begins to fill our hearts as well.

All these years later, I can still see those flames and smell that smoke. I’ve never forgotten Silent Hill 2’s Angela, and like Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII and Sarah Miller in The Last of Us, she lives on even in her death, filling players with horrible regret and transcendent sorrow for the girl we just couldn’t save, no matter how hard we tried.

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