Metroid has always distinguished itself from other Nintendo franchises through immersion. More so than Super Mario or The Legend of Zelda, Metroid as a franchise values immersive gameplay as one of its core tenets. Even the most visually simplistic entries in the series — Metroid I and Return of Samus — foster immersion through a potent atmosphere and intelligent game design. A two-dimensional plane cannot be as inherently immersive as a three-dimensional one, but Metroid compensates with meaningful environmental storytelling, carefully composed music, and intuitive level design that naturally guides you. A game as mechanically and aesthetically well designed as Super Metroid makes Samus’ adventure feel just as much yours.
The advent of the Nintendo 64 coupled with Super Mario 64 laying the foundation for 3D gaming as we know it pushed Nintendo to give their other intellectual properties the same treatment. The Legend of Zelda redefined gaming with Ocarina of Time, both F-Zero X & Star Fox 64 polished their SNES frameworks to near perfection, and even Donkey Kong 64 feels like a natural 3D evolution of the Country trilogy in spite of its flaws. Nintendo curiously skipped Metroid’s 3D evolution during the 5th generation of consoles (leading to a near decade-long hiatus), but this proved to be a blessing in disguise. By skipping out on 3D’s formative years, Metroid’s three-dimensional transition was arguably Nintendo’s most polished.
For what it’s worth, Metroid’s absence on the N64 was not due to a lack of trying. In a roundtable discussion hosted by Nintendo of America prior to Metroid Prime’s release, producer Shigeru Miyamoto clarified,
“Even through the entire Nintendo 64 period we were thinking of ways to produce a new Metroid title. We couldn’t come up with any concrete ideas or vehicle at that time. When I met [Retro Studios] and saw the work they were doing, I thought that this was the kind of team that could work on a Metroid game.”
Although Retro Studios never so much as released a game before, Miyamoto saw enough potential in the team’s in-development projects to offer them work on Metroid Prime — the franchise’s 3D debut. Beyond the advent of a new dimension and Retro Studios’ intimate involvement, Metroid’s biggest change comes down to a matter of perspective.
Classic Metroid games are not just 2D, they are framed from a third-person perspective. You take on Samus’ role, but you do not see things from her literal point of view. You see everything around, ahead, and behind Samus — all necessary visual details for a series with so much platforming. Metroid’s design philosophies just suit the simplicity of 2D, from the secrets littering every screen to skill-based gameplay that tests your reflexes. Logic would dictate that Prime keep the franchise’s established perspective the way series like Mario and Zelda did, but ambition flows through Metroid’s DNA.
Metroid Prime opting for a first-person camera is certainly jarring following a trilogy of adventure-platformers, but the shift makes a reasonable amount of sense when taking the series’ setting and Samus Aran’s characterization into consideration. Through Planet Zebes and SR388, the first three games establish Metroid’s galaxy as lonely and oppressive. Super’s environments are lush to the point where you can see the minutiae in the background and on Samus’ armor, grounding the aesthetic in some semblance of reality. Samus is a hardened bounty hunter who willingly isolates herself in dangerous environments, her stoicism coded as both confidence and competence. Prime’s first-person perspective is a fundamental change, but one that enhances Metroid’s core values.
For starters, Prime’s immersion is on a completely different level compared to its predecessors. Some of the best-looking graphics on the GameCube and arguably Kenji Yamamoto’s best score turn Metroid Prime into an atmospheric feast. There is an attention to detail present that legitimately rivals contemporary games. Putting the audience face to face with the level design allows for richer environmental details to observe and interact with. Metroid Prime’s HUD is fully diegetic and framed as your literal visor. You are Samus and you see what she sees. Droplets splash your screen if you look up while it’s raining. Walking through puffs of smoke makes your visor dusty. Electromagnetic interference can turn the screen to static, depriving you of valuable information. First-person gameplay does wonders to heighten immersion, but Prime’s HUD flawlessly blurs the line between player and avatar.
Health is not some nebulous concept, but your Power Suit’s actual energy reserves. Samus’ visor keeps track of how many Energy Tanks you have on hand, along with any damage they may have sustained. An active ammo counter makes note of how many Missiles you have. The mini-map in the top right shows you a fully 3D recreation of your current area while the top-left sports a radar compass that identifies nearby enemies. A danger meter to the left points out if there are any hazards above, ahead, or behind you; and all your equippable beams & visors are displayed on the bottom right and left of the screen respectively. Prime offers a lot of visual information to digest at any given time, but everything is implemented so naturally that it never feels overwhelming.
Besides introducing a deeper layer of immersion, Prime successfully translates Metroid’s gameplay from 2D to 3D down to a control level. Metroid Prime is a First-Person Adventure, not a First Person Shooter. There is a greater amount of action than in previous entries, but not enough to take focus away from the franchise’s staple exploration. Retro Studios maintained Metroid’s core philosophies in the face of radical innovation.
“We didn’t want to make just another first person shooter . . . We wanted to bring the morph ball into 3D. We wanted to bring the screw attack into 3D. Making a first person shooter would have been a cheap and easy way to go. But making sure the themes and concepts in Metroid were kept was something that we wanted to do.”
– Michael Kelbaugh, current President & CEO of Retro Studios and former Nintendo of America Testing Director.
Platforming is downplayed to an extent, but still a core part of the gameplay loop. Samus has her classic mobility even if she moves slower. Her stiffer pace leads to more deliberate gameplay while her jump has a comfortable floatiness. Environmental hazards to traverse over remain a staple of the level design with skilled platforming required to reach some of the toughest secrets. You need to make your jumps precise. Platforming set pieces are never as elaborate as in 2D Metroid, but Prime’s platforming demands an equal mix of mechanics mastery and strong observational skills. You are rewarded for understanding Samus’ new physics and how to maneuver her mid-air. Prime does not end up including the Screw Attack, but its functionality is replaced with a double jump that only encourages more sophisticated platforming challenges.
Prime’s tank controls are out of fashion nowadays, but they are by no stretch poorly implemented. Tank controls mean Samus cannot turn while moving forward or turn around on a dime. In many respects, they play into Metroid’s penchant for claustrophobia. The Power Suit is flexible, but it’s still a full suit of armor with logical limitations. In terms of gameplay, tank controls keep navigation and combat deliberate. Prime’s control scheme lacks the fluidity allowed by modern first-person shooters, but the game design never calls for lightning-fast reflexes or complex aiming when it comes to combat. At the same time, there are no shortages of high-quality action set pieces. Space Pirates consistently put up a challenge, often making use of the terrain to their advantage.
Every battle feels like a war of attrition that demands your focus, but most environmental enemies can simply be ignored to save on time or energy. Tank controls make it clear you are not meant to fight everything or be mindlessly aggressive, so pick your battles carefully. Samus’ Arm Cannon rests naturally center-screen. Holding down R locks her movement, but allows you to freely aim and shoot in any direction. To keep combat snappy, pressing and holding down L locks onto enemies much in the vein of The Legend of Zelda’s Z-Targeting. Prime’s lock-on feature quickly hones in on targets in your general vicinity, perfectly calibrating your aim on the fly. Holding down L also lets Samus strafe left or right regardless if she’s locked onto anything.
Metroid Prime still looks amazing despite being an early 2000s GameCube game. In fact, Prime looks better than Twilight Princess — the very last first-party title Nintendo released for the system. Metroid has always excelled at giving areas clear ecosystems with unique flora and fauna, but Prime takes this priority to its logical extreme. Every single area has a staggering amount of minutiae to immerse you into the environments. Tallon IV is the series’ most geographically diverse planet yet, blending incredible atmosphere and labyrinthine layouts into an in-game world full of life and secrets to uncover. Each region has a clearly defined aesthetic, distinct gameplay challenges, and the same stellar level design that came to define 2D Metroid.
The Tallon Overworld serves as the planet’s main hub, connected to every region except the Phendrana Drifts. Rain constantly showers the overworld, creating waterfalls and bodies of water all over. Bright red flowers contrast beautifully against Tallon Overworld’s natural greenery. Sap Sacs, Venom Weed, Reaper Vines, and Bloodflowers are deceptively dangerous plant life that might trick you into a false sense of security the first time you see them. Tallon Overworld is the safest area on the planet overall, but there are a deceptive amount of secrets to find. While the region feels restrictive at first, it opens up gradually as you unlock more abilities and explore more of Tallon IV.
Reminiscent of a more realistic Norfair, the Magmoor Caverns are flooded with lava and burn Samus unless she has the Varia Suit equipped. Magmoor Caverns’ intense heat and deadly level design call for careful, focused platforming. Dead ends can be bypassed by shooting down stalagmites in the ceiling and creating a path forward. Serpentine Magmoors jump out from under the lava to spray you with fire and killing Puffers unleashes a dangerous, lingering gas that deals damage. Bizarrely, the Magmoor Caverns actually serve as a secondary hub. Not only does the region connect to almost every major area, passing through Magmoor is the only way to access Phendrana Drifts.
Metroid’s first snow-themed level, the Phendrana Drifts are isolated from the rest of Tallon IV. Snowfall lends a serene tone to the region, frozen lakes, and icicles adding to the gorgeous aesthetic. The Chapel of the Elders, an abandoned Chozo Temple, looms over the Drifts. Cliffside platforming takes you up into the mountains and leads to airborne platforms you need to carefully jump to & from. Crystallites circle around tight pathways, piercing Samus with their tough skin on contact. Underwater portions take you below the tundra where Jelzap fish fire out electrical impulses which can disable your vision. The Phendrana Drifts almost feel like three areas in one.
The Chozo Ruins are lonely remnants of a lost city and Metroid’s first real in-game dive into the Chozo as a culture. Chozo raised Samus on Zebes after Ridley killed her parents, but the Chozo of Tallon IV have been long gone for half a century. The former city is an inherently spiritual location adorned in holy relics and scripture. An abundance of sand and overgrown tree roots lend the ruins an appropriately apocalyptic feel. Monsters freely roam where Chozo once stood while virtually every piece of architecture shows significant wear. Much of the area has even been flooded in poisonous waste, putting into perspective just how tainted the Chozo Ruins are.
Along with serving as the tutorial level, the Frigate Orpheon is a Space Pirate vessel that crashes into Tallon IV. Most of the frigate ends up submerged underwater, calling back to Super Metroid’s Wrecked Ship. A lack of natural light makes it hard to see underwater, but not to the point where you can’t make progress. Just exploring through Orpheon is tense, especially as you descend deeper. Broken parts of the frigate float in the water and serve as platforms while aquatic life infests most rooms. Samus destroying the ship at the start of the story also has gameplay consequences since you need to actively repair depowered rooms while exploring.
The Phazon Mines round out Tallon IV’s world map, an extremely hostile mining operation overrun with Space Pirates who shoot on sight. Phazon is a radioactive and highly infectious lifeform that rapidly affects any life it’s exposed to. In the same way Mother Brain’s Space Pirates tried to weaponize Metroids on Zebes, Prime’s pirates are actively mining Phazon as a resource to suppress the galaxy. Unlike the rest of the planet, the mines are a heavily mechanical setting where even the sky looks noticeably polluted. Simply getting through Phazon Mines is a gauntlet that tests everything you could possibly learn playing through Prime.
One key way Metroid Prime eases you into its immersive world is through the Scan mechanic. By equipping the Scan Visor, Samus can lock onto just about every single enemy, item, or piece of scenery in order to learn more about them. Virtually everything of note can be scanned. If something looks interesting, chances are there are a few boxes of text offering context. Space Pirate computers offer Pirate Data that help fill in important narrative blanks — like how Ridley could possibly be alive after Samus seemingly killed him in the first game or explaining what Phazon is. Chozo Logs (depicted as glowing hieroglyphics) shine a spotlight on Tallon IV’s tragic backstory, detailing the rise and extinction of their Chozo.
Scanning enemies offers insight on their relationship to the planet and how to properly defeat them, something that comes in handy during every boss fight. Jelzaps are one of Tallon IV’s apex predators, a fact only learned through scanning. Certain terminals need to be tracked down and scanned to unlock locked doors, peppering exploration with the occasional navigational puzzle. Everything has an in-universe purpose even if just decorative. There is no real incentive to scan everything other than unlocking a few art galleries, but that’s the fun of the mechanic. Scanning is something you can largely ignore if you prefer your Metroid without text, but it otherwise offers valuable insight into the franchise’s lore.
Pressing Z brings up the map, which sees a massive overhaul coming from Super Metroid. A larger world map keeps track of how every region connects while breaking rooms down into clickable nodes. Individual level maps display your current region through a three-dimensional hologram you can rotate and angle. This makes it very easy to plan a route, especially since doors are color-coded with a handy Legend on-screen so you always know which beam to use. Every room has a name, making it easier to identify small chunks of the level design. A built-in Hint System (which can be disabled in the Options while first setting up your file) offers a sense of direction by showing you where to go next without being too obtrusive.
Metroid Prime brings back almost every classic upgrade while retooling Samus’ abilities for a 3D space. The Morph Ball actually pans out to a third-person perspective to allow you better control during tight spaces. The Morph Bomb can only drop three bombs at a time now, but this raises the skill ceiling for Bomb Jumping while inferring some of Prime’s tougher secrets. The Spider Ball lets you cling to railings by holding down R and Power Bombs return to eviscerate everything in sight when planted. Prime adds in the Boost Ball upgrade, an ability which lets Samus dash as a Morph Ball by pressing B. You can even use the Boost Ball to build momentum up and down slopes or ramps.
Visors are an entirely new set of upgrades for Metroid, but they only make sense given the first-person camera. Samus defaults to her Combat Visor, which is actually what displays most of the standard HUD. The Scan Visor limits your vision and prevents combat, but allows you to scan anything in focus. The Thermal Visor tracks onto the heat signatures of enemies and power conduits while helping you see in the dark or during blizzards. Finally, the X-Ray Visor lets you see invisible enemies, platforms, and through breakable walls. Not just that, the X-Ray Visor has the added novelty of showing off skeletons where applicable, including the bones in Samus’ arm.
While the D-Pad swaps between visors, the C-Stick swaps between beams. Beams no longer stack, each one unique in effect and versatility. The Power Beam is your standard peashooter, but it can be charged into a stronger shot that’s deceptively powerful depending on the enemy. The Wave Beam fires three purple beams at once while its charge attack stuns enemies in place. The Ice Beam freezes smaller enemies with its charge attack dealing extra damage and freezing larger foes. The red hot Plasma Beam deals lethal damage that burns enemies. Aside from the Phazon Beam (which is locked until the final battle), the Plasma Beam is the strongest beam in Prime. Despite this, no beam becomes redundant over the course of a playthrough.
Since beam effects do not stack and enemies have specific beam weaknesses, you need to be mindful of which beam you have equipped at all times. C-Stick swapping is intuitive, but not so quick where you can break combat by rapidly swapping between beams. Equipping a new beam is a commitment that very briefly puts you out of commission. If you want to swap beams during combat, you need to do so strategically and safely. Action is carefully balanced to punish careless or mindless play, to the point where there’s even a delay after firing a Missile — no spamming for you.
The second coming of Special Beam Charge Attacks from Super Metroid, Prime introduces unlockable Charge Combos for all four main beams. Pressing Y usually fires a Missile, but fully charging your beam and then pressing Y triggers a Charge Combo. Unlike standard beam shots, Charge Combos require ammo to fire. Super Missiles are tied to the Power Beam and deal massive damage at the cost of 5 Missiles. The Wavebuster turns the Wave Beam into a stream of electricity that rapidly drains enemy health, needing 10 Missiles to trigger while draining 5 every second after the fact. The Ice Spreader has a huge range that freezes or outright kills anything the shot touches for 10 Missiles. The Flamebuster follows the Wavebuster when it comes to Missile depletion, but the sheer power of the Plasma Beam makes the combo especially deadly.
Prime offers enough variety in combat where your options never feel limited. Charge Combos offer you a distinct edge at the cost of draining your ammo while individual beams never make each other redundant. Battles are frantic and intimate. It can be easy to get lost in the mania of firefights or swarmed by enemies up close, but that just adds to the tension. Pressing B while locked-on and strafing also allows you to pull off a quick dodge if your timing is right. Mastering Samus’ dodge is downright essential for getting through fights unscathed and ultimately makes combat more rewarding, which rings true for most of Prime’s core mechanics.
Metroid Prime is very relaxing and introspective at times, but it also has one of the hardest difficulty curves in the series. Peaceful exploration is regularly interspersed with chaotic action. Beam variety and weakness types mean most enemies never become braindead easy. Security cameras demand stealthy movement unless you want to be torpedoed from halfway across the room. Space Pirates hide behind terrain, camouflage themselves, and often work together if you leave them alive. Troopers mimic your beam abilities and reflect ineffective attacks. Metroids rush at you in first-person, latching their tendrils onto your visor and forcing you to see nothing but their red insides unless you use a Morph Bomb. Prime’s difficulty curve adds pressure the closer you get to the end and combat always leaves a lasting impression.
Bosses are as challenging as they are memorable and make consistent use of immersive & imposing set pieces. The fight against Meta Ridley is a spectacle that could only work in first-person. Ridley flies through the sky, zooming in and out as you try to keep track of him. Droplets splash the screen, knockback from his attacks reflects Samus’ eyes in her visor, and Ridley destroys the arena over the course of the fight. Clipping his wings forces Ridley to land, leading to a frantic ground battle where your eyes need to be on him at all times.
Tank controls and the first-person perspective add a layer of intensity to boss battles. Your focus needs to be on them and every move you make matters. Turning your back on a boss for too long can be deadly, but it’s sometimes necessary to reposition Samus. Prime’s boss design has a very classical quality where bosses fight with learnable patterns that last just long enough to build tension without feeling rote. Flaahgra requires you to bait them around the arena while firing solar panels into place. You need to stun Flaahgra, burn them, and then Morph Ball their body once their guard is down.
Thardus makes you keep your Thermal Visor equipped to spot weak points and see the arena during snowstorms. It’s tense having to swap and stay away from the familiarity of the Combat Visor for a long boss battle. Thardus’ arena keeps you on the defensive as they roll around and risk crushing Samus. Every boss is reasonably difficult in their own right, but none on the same level as the Omega Pirate. By far the hardest boss fight in Prime, the Omega Pirate is a battle to the death that forces you to master the mechanics or die trying. They have weak points that need to be shattered before you can deal damage; Space Pirate Troopers are spawned between every phase, and the Omega Pirate can outright drain beam attacks if you’re careless.
The Omega Pirate’s arena is covered in Phazon, the X-Ray Visor is regularly needed to keep track of their invisible exoskeleton, and you need to actively swap between beams to take out mooks. Juggling everything can get overwhelming fast, but not to the point where gameplay stops being fun. Bosses are just hard enough to push you to your limits without being unfair. Prime’s boss fights are a joy to outsmart and figure out, making use of clever design that always feels rewarding to overcome. The Omega Pirate recognizes this philosophy and rewards you with the endgame Phazon Suit upon their death.
There’s something poetic about beating the hardest boss in the game to become overpowered. The Phazon Suit is not only a great reward, it stands out as a great use of interconnectivity. The Phazon Suit is not just an upgrade you stumbled upon, but something you needed to fight tooth and nail for. Upgrading to the Phazon Suit reduces the amount of damage Samus takes while letting her bypass Phazon in the overworld. As a gameplay mechanic, Phazon’s danger is conveyed by draining Samus’ health and blocking you out of certain areas. Finally getting the Phazon Suit allows you to finish fully exploring Tallon IV, which directly leads into Prime’s penultimate set piece: the Artifact Hunt.
Upon defeating the Omega Pirate, the last thing Samus has left to do is descend into the planet’s Impact Crater. As the crater is a hotbed of Phazon, the Chozo sealed off the entrance with 12 Chozo Artifacts scattered across Tallon IV. Although intended as an endgame quest, nothing actually stood you from tracking down artifacts over the course of the story. If you have the right upgrades and figure out what to do, you can track down your final artifacts shortly after defeating the Omega Pirate. Artifacts are Prime’s best-kept secrets, but they play by the same rules. If you make an active effort to explore and backtrack, you can comfortably find each one at a steady pace.
Besides being available early, the Artifact Hunt can be done in just about any order. Each artifact has a puzzle or gameplay challenge attached to them, sometimes both. No artifact is needed to trigger another, allowing you to tackle all twelve at your leisure. For anyone who saves the hunt until the very end, this makes for a nice, player-driven way to cap off Prime’s main story. The Artifact Hunt is contextualized as a victory lap where you can finish cleaning up upgrades and fully exploring the map. The Phazon Suit and Plasma Beam make backtracking through regions a cathartic breeze. Subtle changes like the addition of new enemies also occur in a few areas to keep revisits fresh.
Where the Phazon Mines and Omega Pirate were your combat test, the Artifact Hunt is your adventure test. Artifact hunting will take you to every part of Tallon IV, often needing to rely on more than just the map to find hidden doors. Prime restrains itself from relying on Metroidisms like needing to bomb obscure walls until the hunt. Even then, nothing comes off obtuse thanks to artifact hints. Most artifact puzzles are so clever they rival the best Zelda games. All it takes is a little reading between the lines and common sense to parse Chozo riddles. How well do you really know Metroid Prime’s world after ostensibly seeing it all? More importantly, the Artifact Hunt is Prime leaning into what defines Metroid best: exploring an isolated world at your own behest.
Prime’s approach to storytelling is about the best-case scenario for a series like Metroid. Scan logs offer a considerable (and valuable) amount of text to read, but most are completely optional. There is an explicit narrative coursing through the background, but it does not steal focus. The plot is there for you to uncover, with visual storytelling offering enough context where you never need to. Both approaches lead to a rich experience — one where you come to understand the apocalyptic potential of Phazon and the other where you simply take in the breath of a dying world.
Cutscenes are a mix between first and third person, sticking to whatever camera best suits the moment. Perspective seamlessly jumps from Samus’ visor to a more cinematic point of view and back. This doesn’t counter immersion since cutscenes tend to be short and generally set up context. Ridley flies above Phendrana Drifts long before his boss battle. The camera shows Samus anytime she gets a new upgrade since audiences will obviously want to see her cosmetic changes. Cutscenes regularly depict Samus with confident body language. Little phases her. Prime handles Samus’ stoicism perfectly. Her characterization naturally lends itself to silence, which keeps the flow introspective. Samus’ behavior never contradicts your gameplay. The end result is a more immersive experience.
Beyond masterfully transitioning Metroid into 3D, Prime set a new standard for immersive gaming. Tallon IV’s weather is tangible, a shocking amount of gameplay concepts are purely diegetic, and an active effort is made to play with your perspective through level design. Simple things like raindrops, bug guts, and dust particles go a long way at carefully tearing down the fourth wall. Samus’ movement has real weight and her abilities are grounded through a noticeable center of gravity. Metroid Prime is an outstanding game where every little detail — whether it be mechanical or superfluous — adds immersion. Few video games take advantage of the medium as brilliantly as Metroid Prime.