I’ve stopped starting discussions on what the best FPS’ of all time are, largely because I don’t feel the need to have the same discussion 100 times in a row. Seriously, bring it up with your friends, or some strangers. You’ll hear Half-Life and Half-Life 2 get praised for an hour and a half, followed by Halo and COD 4. Maybe Counter-Strike, Quake, and Doom if someone really decides to get cheeky, or Goldeneye, for the nostalgia.
But I’ve never, ever, heard someone mention Metroid Prime in that list, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why that is. After all, Metroid Prime was a game that was destined, nay, expected to fail, a game that threatened to take on an entire lore of Japanese gaming history with a company consisting of a handful of programmers and artists from Texas. Moreover, they were going to remake one of the finest platformers of all time into a first-person shooter. Nobody thought this was going to go well.
And yet…it did. It earned a Platinum award from EGM, something only 9 other games at the time could say they’d done, including Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time. It also earned numerous game of the year awards, including ones from GameSpot and Nintendo Power. In short, Metroid Prime didn’t just surpass expectations, it freaking blew them to pieces.
So, again, we come to the same question…why wasn’t it remembered as well as its peers? Why isn’t Metroid Prime in that list? I have a few ideas.
About a year before Metroid Prime was released, another key title made FPS history: Halo. The original Halo was praised almost as much as Metroid Prime, if not more, and brought about quite a few changes to the FPS formula that went on to define the genre. These are things like regenerating health, a rigid checkpoint system, and dual stick controls…all of which are nowhere to be found in Metroid Prime. Unfortunately, Halo came on the scene right when gamers were starting to trade challenge for accessibility, and having regenerating health and numerous checkpoints fit neatly into that attitude of play. Because of this, and because Halo became absurdly popular in the year before Metroid Prime was released, Metroid was passed over by a lot of people for being “awkward” and “difficult”. It lost the Darwinian battle, so to speak, and we saw Halo’s then-groundbreaking features encoded into the genes of FPS games for upwards of a decade afterwards, leaving Metroid Prime’s seemingly antiquated features in the past.
In my opinion, that sucks. As revolutionary as those features were, they completely neutered the genre. Games gained accessibility, sure, but they did so at the cost of something very important: atmosphere. As cool as Halo’s universe is, and as tense as Half-Life’s cramped tunnels and flickering lights can be, they both completely lose their punch when you’re just warped back a few feet when you die. Worse if you can just idly hit F7 and quickload your save file every time you get in a sticky situation.
Metroid has none of those crutches, and it’s a better game for it. The map in Metroid Prime is meticulously designed so its save points are just close enough to be fair, but far enough to where you’ll really feel the pressure if you’re low on health. The pinnacle of this brilliance is in a section in the Phendrana Drifts where you get the thermal visor. (Spoilers if you haven’t played this game, people). It’s likely you’ll make it to this particular tunnel with not much health to spare, and at first this won’t be a problem. There’s a few space pirates to deal with, sure, but you’ve dealt with them before. But as you descend, you start to notice tanks holding the eponymous metroids…and even if you haven’t played the series enough to know how dangerous those can be, the game still gives you a sense by providing scannable data logs nearby detailing just how much havoc they can cause. And they don’t break out. They just watch you. Then you get the thermal visor, and the lights go out. You turn on the visor, letting you just see the heat signatures of the metroids, and you realize…they’re breaking out of their tanks. And they’re coming for you. And you still have low health.
Panic. That’s what you feel. Terror and panic. That terror and panic absolutely makes this game, and it’s something the other games I mentioned before cannot possibly achieve at the same level as Metroid. What gives you that sense of pure panic is the fact that you’re so close to death, and the save point that will restore your health and your sense of security isn’t close at all. How can you feel scared when that security blanket is an F7 away? How can you be freaked out by the flood from Halo if dying only puts you five minutes in the past? You can’t.
The same can be said for the regenerating health system, a hallmark of the Halo series in particular. Though some of the Halo games have a more traditional health system that also includes a regenerating shield, all of them share some form of regenerating health, and that concept became a staple of the FPS genre. It also took a lot of fear and atmosphere out of those games, just as the checkpoint and quicksave system did. In Halo, being able to hide behind a wall and simply recover health makes it so making a mistake becomes far less inconsequential. It allows you to more or less charge into a firefight, take out a few aliens, and run back to safety. Wash, rinse, repeat and before long you’ve cleared out a room.
Metroid, on the other hand, actually punishes you in a meaningful way for making mistakes in battle. Go back to the thermal visor example from earlier…that tunnel would be a good deal less frightening if you could just sit in a chair and be at full health in a few moments. It’s not even a matter of challenge; it’s simply knowing that making a mistake costs you something. It’s a matter of actually feeling the bullets you take, knowing that the key to getting that all-important chunk of health back could be miles away, rather than just around the nearest corner. With a regenerating health system, you don’t have that feeling. You get shot a few dozen times, die, and just think “oh, I guess I shouldn’t have gotten shot in the face so much.”
I could go on and on about Metroid Prime (well, more than I already have), but it all comes down to one thing. Metroid Prime is just different than any other FPS ever made, and that’s why it deserves to be on the list along with the other greats. It conveys mood, atmosphere, and most important of all, fear, in a way that few other games in the genre can touch. It successfully resurrected a neglected franchise and brought it into the modern age to an outstanding amount of praise. And most of all, it did something legions of brown and grey military blast-em-ups and faceless space marine simulators fail to do…it made you feel like you were in the game. Put Metroid Prime on the list. It deserves it.