Franchise Festival #121: Metroid Prime

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll be seeing the history of Metroid Prime from a new perspective. All cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Where two dates or years are listed, the first is North America and the second is Japan. For more details on the history of Metroid, please read Franchise Festival #120: Metroid.

Background

Jeff Spangenberger founded Iguana Entertainment in San Francisco in 1991, but soon relocated to Austin in an effort to reduce expenses. The studio’s first hit, mascot platformer Aero the Acrobat (1993), paved the way for its 1995 acquisition by Acclaim and a string of visually-impressive 3D titles in the mid-’90s, including Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997) and Iggy’s Wrecking Balls (1998). When Spangenberger was laid off by Acclaim in 1998, he immediately founded Retro Studios and began poaching competitors’ best programmers and artists for his new venture.

Iguana cut its teeth on the first-person shooter genre with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1998). Source: MobyGames

Unfortunately, Retro’s early years were characterized by mismanagement. Spangenberger rarely appeared in person and leadership teams comprised of people with limited experience in video games failed to produce demos for any of the four titles it was developing for the GameCube’s 2001 launch. Nintendo had been supporting the company financially with the assumption that it would bolster their upcoming console’s library, but provided only a single development kit and little oversight or direction. 

Concept art of a heroine in Retro’s MetaForce prototype. Source: Unseen64

A disastrous visit from Nintendo executives in late 2000 began to change this culture, as they discovered that Retro had nothing substantial to show after two years of investment. The studio was forced to scale back its ambitions to a single project, leading to two rounds of layoffs that dramatically cut Retro’s staff between 2000 and 2001. Following the discovery that Spangenberger was running a lewd website called Sinful Summers on Retro’s servers, Nintendo also bought out Spangenberger’s stake and became its primary shareholder in 2002; the studio’s founder was replaced by then-vice president of product and development Steve Barcia.

Metroid Prime (2002/2003)

Though Nintendo’s visit to Retro in 2000 alarmed its executives, an action-adventure prototype tentatively titled MetaForce demonstrated enough promise that it formed the basis for the studio’s evolution into a direct subsidiary of Nintendo. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto was so impressed with this project, which would have seen a team of three women battling a South African eugenicist and a Luddite terrorist group based in India, that he demanded it be modified into a spinoff to Nintendo’s more or less dormant Metroid property. Kensuke Tanabe, who had led Nintendo’s development partnerships with external studios since the mid-1990s, was tasked with supervising the project alongside associate producer Risa Tabata in 2001.

Metroid Prime‘s SpaceWorld 2001 pre-rendered demo video was surprisingly close to its final form. Source: adonfjv

Working conditions on the game were bleak, however. The first six months were dedicated to designing an engine and a first level to secure Nintendo’s approval. Once that was over, Barcia mandated 12-hour shifts for much of the team over the next nine months. The product of this brutal crunch period was released in North America on November 18, 2002 and in Japan on February 23, 2003.

The in-game story begins when Samus receives a distress call between the events of Metroid and Metroid II. She directs her ship to a research facility in orbit around the planet Tallon IV, where she encounters a mechanized version of Metroid villain Ridley and loses the special abilities she had accumulated in her previous adventure. As the facility self-destructs, Samus pursues Meta-Ridley to the planet below and discovers an extensive Space Pirate operation spread across the overworld and three major sub-areas: the Phazon Mines, Magmoor Caverns, and Phendrana Drifts. The planet is also home to ruins that shed light on the Chozo, a race of bird-like creatures who went extinct after raising an orphaned Samus decades earlier.

Enemies are often best-tackled by targeting and then circling them. Source: MobyGames

At the insistence of Miyamoto himself, Metroid Prime is presented from a first-person perspective rather than its parent series’ traditional side-scrolling point of view. This was believed to make inspecting the environment more intuitive in a 3D space and facilitates the inclusion of a scanner, which offers important background details and tips when the player scans objects and enemies. Much of the world’s background lore is presented through textual logs written by Space Pirates.

Enemies can be scanned for lore details and strategies. Source: MobyGames

Other visors, including x-ray and thermal filters, are among the tools that Samus acquires as she explores Tallon IV. Platforming from a first-person perspective rarely works as smoothly as intended, but Samus’ double-jump technique (referred to as a Space Jump) makes this challenge engaging rather than frustrating. The idiosyncratic control scheme, on the other hand, can be jarring to players familiar with contemporary first-person shooter controls. Since the second joystick is used to swap between equipment in real-time, the player is expected to lock onto enemies and circle them in the style of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) instead of freely aiming while strafing. 

Samus’ Morph Ball form represents one of Metroid Prime’s boldest creative decisions. When this ability is activated, the perspective shifts to a third-person view of Samus transforming into a ball. She can then roll around the world faster than her normal walking speed, build momentum in half-pipe tubes, and lay up to three bombs after they’re acquired; the bombs can even be used to hop in confined tubes only accessible by Morph Ball Samus. A further augmentation, Metroid II’s Spider Ball, lets Samus cling onto and ascend designated surfaces.

Exploring via Morph Ball in the overworld is fully 3D, but tight corridors shift to a side-scrolling perspective. Source: MobyGames

Though fans initially expressed skepticism about the series’ transition to first-person, Metroid Prime was soon celebrated as one of the GameCube’s best titles. Controversial features, like a late-game scavenger hunt typical of Nintendo first-party titles in this era, were overlooked due to its overwhelmingly strong audio-visual presentation and tactile gameplay. A February 2009 port to the Wii in Japan polished it further by adding a handful of minor quality-of-life enhancements and integrating motion controls inspired by sequel Metroid Prime 3. This was bundled alongside both sequels in the West as Metroid Prime Trilogy in late 2009 and then re-released on the Wii U eShop in 2015.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (2004/2005)

Metroid Prime had been a success, but Retro’s approach to development was increasingly untenable; some employees had been working 100 hour weeks during the final months of production and burnout was common. Nintendo seems to have been hedging its bets during this period, planning for the release of a Metroid project by subsidiary Intelligent Systems, but ultimately cancelled that title in favor of a sophomore effort by Retro. Following allegations of mismanagement, Nintendo replaced Retro president Steve Barcia with Michael Kelbaugh in April 2003.

Metroid Prime 2 retains its predecessor’s 3D wireframe map. Source: MobyGames

According to designer Mike Wikan, the change in leadership revitalized Retro overnight. The team likewise reused Metroid Prime’s game engine and settled on a Dark World/Light World mechanic influenced by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992/1991) to double up on the use of areas without needing to develop twice as many environmental assets. Production still ran into major delays and fell short of Nintendo’s expectations, however, forcing Kensuke Tanabe to travel from Kyoto to Austin to supervise the last three months of development in-person. In spite of these challenges, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was released for the GameCube in North America and Europe in November 2004 and in Japan on May 26, 2005.

One new filter lets Samus see invisible platforms and enemies. Source: MobyGames

Retro opted for a cinematic presentation with more cutscenes than were present in their previous game to convey its story. Samus finds herself stranded on the planet Aether after her ship is damaged by atmospheric lightning. As she explores the planet, she discovers that its former denizens – the Luminoth – have been almost fully eradicated by parasitic entities that emerged from the shadow world of Dark Aether following a meteorite striking the planet decades earlier. Samus’ efforts to aid the Luminoth are complicated by the presence of Space Pirates and Dark Samus, a sinister doppelganger that first appeared in Metroid Prime’s secret ending.

Dark Samus is a reliably tough opponent. Source: MobyGames

Samus’ movement and shooting mechanics are unchanged from the preceding game. Her new tools include Light and Dark Beams, which are used to inflict higher damage on enemies weak to either element, and a visor that can be tuned to see objects stuck in limbo between Aether’s parallel dimensions. The core series’ Screw Attack also makes its debut here as a means for Samus to damage airborne enemies. Boss encounters are tough, as players are expected to have already familiarized themselves with the controls in Samus’ last first-person outing, and exploring Dark Aether constantly reduces Samus’ health.

Multiplayer represents Metroid Prime 2’s most significant departure from its predecessor. Across six unlockable arenas, up to four players can challenge one another on a single screen in two modes: deathmatch and bounty. The former features straightforward combat, while the latter sees players competing to collect as many coins as possible from the environment and by damaging each other. A Morph Ball Racing Mode and multiplayer-only homing attack, which resembled Sonic the Hedgehog’s homing attack in that franchise’s 3D entries, were programmed but ultimately cut before release.

While its high difficulty level and another late-game scavenger hunt were criticized, Metroid Prime 2 was broadly celebrated as a worthy successor to Metroid Prime. The game would later be ported to the Wii as part of the Metroid Prime Trilogy in 2009. This version features motion controls and, perhaps even more importantly, reduces the difficulty of boss battles.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (2007/2008)

After completing Metroid Prime 2, Retro requested the opportunity to produce either a new entry in the formerly Rare-developed Donkey Kong Country franchise or a Legend of Zelda spinoff in which the player would have controlled Hyrule’s last surviving Sheikah. Satoru Iwata, however, suggested that the studio instead conclude the Metroid Prime saga with a third adventure designed from the ground up for Nintendo’s next-generation console. Pre-production included plans for an open world in which Samus could carry out bounty hunt sidequests to upgrade her arsenal and a pilotable version of her ship, but these ideas were scrapped in favor of a more traditional series entry at Nintendo’s request. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption launched for the Wii in North America on August 27, 2007, then in Europe on October 26, 2007 and in Japan on March 6, 2008.

Metroid Prime 3, and later the whole Metroid Prime Trilogy, is presented in widescreen. Source: MobyGames

Building on the increased narrative ambitions of its direct predecessor, Metroid Prime 3 is presented in a cinematic fashion through the inclusion of voiced dialogue and the presence of non-player characters (NPCs). Samus and three other bounty hunters begin the game defending a base from longtime nemesis Meta-Ridley at the request of the Galactic Federation, but are ambushed by Dark Samus. Samus awakens from a coma one month later to find herself infected with Phazon, a substance that will transform and kill her if her condition isn’t treated, and tasked with tracking down her three erstwhile allies; all have gone missing and are eventually revealed to have been fully corrupted by Phazon.

Hypermode highlights enemies and allows Samus to destroy them quickly at the expense of her health. Source: MobyGames

Through the addition of interstitial sequences in which she sets her coordinates on-board her ship, Samus’ mission takes her to multiple planets for the first time. The explorable lands of Bryyo, Elysia, and the Space Pirate Homeworld are more geographically varied than previous environments but also more linear. Samus’ arsenal is likewise simplified, with alternate beams largely replaced by direct upgrades, in a nod to Nintendo’s goal of attracting new players during the Wii era. Finally, Samus can activate a Hypermode that enhances her strength at the expense of her health. Remaining in this mode too long will cause Samus to fully succumb to Phazon corruption. 

Samus can move between planets in her ship. Source: MobyGames

Metroid Prime 3’s greatest departure from the preceding titles is its inclusion of motion controls, which upend the peculiar aiming and lock-on systems of Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2 in favor of more traditional first-person shooter mechanics. The nunchuk controller’s joystick moves Samus in 360 degrees while pointing the motion-sensing WiiMote directs Samus’ view in the corresponding direction. Tools like the Grapple Beam make use of WiiMote motion controls to more viscerally impact in-game actions than was possible using standard input mechanisms.

The Grapple Beam is more tactile than it had been in earlier Metroid Prime games. Source: MobyGames

Metroid Prime 3 was a critical and commercial success, regarded by IGN as the best series entry so far and selling over 1,000,000 copies by the end of 2007. Its controls proved its most divisive element, with some seeing them as an elegant refinement on the genre and others finding them difficult to grasp, while its comparative linearity was a similar flashpoint; direct guidance by Galactic Federation NPCs prevents the aimless wandering of previous titles, but also reduces the pervasive loneliness that had defined the Metroid property for two decades. A re-release in 2009 as part of the Metroid Prime Trilogy cemented the game’s swan song status and freed Retro from its obligations to Metroid, at least for the next ten years.

Spinoffs

Curiously, Metroid Prime has spawned more spinoffs than its parent series! The first of these, Metroid Prime Pinball (2005), was developed by the United Kingdom’s Fuse Games at the request of series producer Kensuke Tanabe. Tanabe had been impressed at Fuse’s Super Mario Pinball (2004) on the Game Boy Advance and believed that Samus’ Morph Ball ability made Metroid a natural fit for something similar on the Nintendo DS. Retro provided some visual assets, but the game was otherwise developed independently by Fuse and released for the DS in North America on October 24, 2005; a European localization followed in June 2007.

Multi-ball puts three Samus’ on-screen at once. Source: MobyGames

Metroid Prime Pinball follows traditional pinball mechanics, as the player uses two flippers at the bottom of a virtual table to launch Morph Ball Samus up at various targets and ducts in pursuit of a high score. Enemies that spawn on the table can knock Samus back or be defeated for additional points. Though the game includes only a couple of tables influenced by locations in Metroid Prime, other references to the source material include Samus’ ability to drop bombs and engage in a brief wall-jump minigame when certain conditions are met.

In the wall-jump minigame, the player taps a shoulder button to hurl Samus across the screen in an attempt to hit flying enemies. Source: World of Longplays

The series’ next portable spinoff, Metroid Prime Hunters (2006), would be a more traditional first-person outing for Nintendo’s famous bounty hunter. Tanabe saw an opportunity to produce a multiplayer-focused entry in the Metroid franchise following initial experiments in Metroid Prime 2, and instructed Washington-based Nintendo Software Technology (NST) to begin development for the DS. The team of 30 was led by Pikmin (2006) co-director Masamichi Abe. While an initial build focused exclusively on local wireless play, a single-player campaign was planned from the start and feedback at E3 2005 led NST to integrate online multiplayer. After a demo version featuring training missions was included alongside launch DS consoles, the full game respectively launched in North America, Europe, and Japan in March, May, and June 2006.

Metroid Prime: Hunters is light on exploration, but it features some of the DS’ most impressive graphics. Source: MobyGames

Metroid Prime: Hunters’ single-player story sees Samus racing to collect mysterious alien artifacts in four locations – planets Alinos and Arcterra, the Celestial Archives space stations, and the Vesper Defense Outpost – before they can be claimed by six rival bounty hunters. The absence of a joystick on the DS means that the player controls Samus in full 3D by using a combination of directional input and touch-screen swipes; the former moves Samus, the latter directs her view, and the left shoulder button fires her weapon. Jumping is alternately controlled by double-tapping the touch-screen or using the A button. Though the hardware’s online functionality was discontinued in 2014, local wireless still allows up to four people go head-to-head as Samus or one of the other six bounty hunters in multiplayer deathmatches. This feature was sadly absent when the game was re-released on the Wii U eShop in 2016.

Galactic Federation troops assembled in front of their chibi mechs. Source: MobyGames

At the time of writing in April 2022, the series’ last spinoff was Metroid Prime: Federation Force (2016). Developed for the 3DS by Canada’s Next Level Games under the supervision of Tanabe, following that second-party studio’s success at releasing well-received entries in the Punch-Out! and Luigi’s Mansion franchise’s, Federation Force is the first Metroid title to eschew Samus as the protagonist. Players instead take on the role of a customizable Galactic Federation soldier as they team up with up to three other people or AI bots to carry out short missions throughout the galaxy by piloting oversized mechs.

The player teams up with two others to take on enemies in Federation Force. Source: MobyGames

Though much of the game is played from a first-person perspective that allows the player to direct their avatar’s perspective using either gyroscopic movement or the c-stick on New 3DS models, Federation Force shifts to a third-person perspective when the player character exits their mech to move around on foot. In the style of Sunsoft’s Blaster Master (1988), this offers access to hard-to-reach spaces while exposing the player character to significantly greater damage. Mechs are otherwise equipped with assorted weapons drawn from core Metroid Prime entries that the player selects when starting a given mission. To encourage teamwork, each mech has a limited amount of weight that restricts their loadout.

Conclusion

It’s a minor miracle that Retro Studios survived its disastrous early years. Thanks to a high level of confidence and support by Nintendo, however, Retro was assigned the Metroid property and quickly became one of Nintendo’s most reliable partners. Retro successfully guided Metroid from its origins as a 2D sidescroller to the 3D first-person format across two GameCube titles and a seemingly final entry on Wii.

Unfortunately, a handful of spinoffs failed to evolve the series further and backlash to Federation Force threatened to push Metroid even further out of the spotlight than it had been when Retro picked up the torch back in 2001. The announcement of Metroid Prime 4 at Nintendo’s E3 event in 2017 was a total surprise to those who had believed the franchise was finished. Under the leadership of Kensuke Tanabe, the game moved from an unknown studio (likely Bandai Namco Singapore, according to a Eurogamer report) back to Retro in 2019 following over a year of silence. Retro’s superlative work on two excellent Donkey Kong Country titles in the intervening years suggests that the forthcoming adventure may be the sub-series’ most polished entry yet. Between the recent release of Metroid Dread and the forthcoming Metroid Prime 4, the 2020s are primed to be an exciting time for Metroid fans.


What do you think about Metroid Prime? Which entry is your favorite? How does the series translate its source material to 3D? Do you prefer the original controls or the motion inputs of the Metroid Prime Trilogy? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons like Celeste, Jarathen, Cheatachu, and Quinley Thorne make it possible to keep producing great content!

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #122: Snowboard Kids – May 6
  • #123: Drakengard / Nier – May 20
  • #124: Valkyria Chronicles – June 3
  • #125: Half-Life / Portal – June 17