Friday, November 27, 2015

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes of Division

Rarely do fans of this series have a middling view on Metroid Prime 2. It's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of affair.

Personally, just like its not spinoff counterpart, Metroid II, I can't seem to appreciate this game for what it is.

Interesting setting? It's got it. Dual world mechanic. Light/dark worlds.

Interesting powerups? It's got it. The light and dark suits are pretty intriguing and segue into the gameplay very well.

Story? Moreso than any other Metroid game prior. Ing lore, Aether lore, you name it - it's there.

But it feels so off. It's the black sheep of the Prime series. Something is missing that makes it a less enjoyable experience overall. Prime had a varied set of locations that still carried the Metroid feel, and all of its soundtrack was phenomenal. Retro had a mission, to prove that first person Metroid could work, and they completed said mission in style by blending nostalgia with new and innovative elements. Prime 3 used the Wiimote to its full potential, and took advantage of Samus' position as a bounty hunter working with The Federation to tell a unique story involving planet hopping. Prime 3 also tied together the subseries very well and had interesting bosses and environments that carried that "Metroid" feel.

Prime 2 is difficult, moreso than its prequel or sequel. Prime 2 has a unique atmosphere, almost as if Retro said that they were going to do what they wanted and went totally into their own comfort zone regarding storytelling and atmosphere, abandoning nostalgia entirely. Gravity Suit, Chozo, Metroid staples... gone. Replaced with Retro's own thing. Normally, I'd be behind this 100%, but I just can't click with Prime 2's storytelling and aesthetic.

I recognize it as an amazing game, but one that I don't appreciate.

Not everyone agrees with me. User _Alkaline_ meticulously lays out his appreciation for the game in his thread titled "Let's talk about the best Metroid Prime game..." He makes a very strong argument, and his affection for the game pours off the page, almost making me want to change my opinion of the game. It's a bit contagious.

"...Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

You can ignore the provocative, sensationalist thread title. If you think the original Prime, or even Corruption is the best in the trilogy, I harbour no resentment. They’re all fantastic games. They also differ considerably from each other, each offering unique experiences that allow them to feel like separate pieces of a puzzle, rather than one long-ass overdrawn puzzle itself. I’ll also point that until rather recently, I was in the “Echoes is great but I preferred Prime” band. Going through the entire series reminded me that I was mistaken.

For the most part, this thread will be about Echoes. For those who haven’t played the game, you can pick it up on the GameCube or (and I highly suggest you do) buy Metroid Prime Trilogy, which is the exact same package with 16:9 and pointer controls. Don’t underestimate the benefit of pointer controls for this game (and the original), particularly in the way it improves the speed and fluidity of exploration. It’s akin to the cherry on top of a delicious cake.

Echoes came out late in 2004 alongside some games called Halo 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Half-Life 2. Never heard of them either. Oh, and Killzone, which was kinda shit. Not to anyone’s surprise, Echoes was practically forgotten by the majority of gaming outlets as well as gamers themselves. The game sold pretty average numbers – in fact, it sold the worst of three Prime games. And no, I’m not counting Hunters. ‘Cause it’s Hunters.

There will be spoilers in this thread. If you’ve never played Echoes before (or even any Prime game) and were enticed by the thread title, be aware that you’re gonna get spoiled. If that bothers you, consider skipping to the end of the thread where I’ll sum it up in a concise, easy-to-digest package that should up your interest in trying out the game. For the rest of us – those who love Echoes and those who don’t (and there’s quite a lot of you) - let’s dive right in.

One could sum up Echoes as 'Prime on steroids.' You liked all those environmental puzzles in Prime? Now they’re even more complex. You liked those gigantic bosses in Prime? Now they’re even bigger. You liked those morph ball puzzles in Prime? Now they’re everywhere. Hell, one area in the game is practically a giant morph ball puzzle. And so is one of its bosses. Echoes feels like the result of a developer that had its chains released – for good and for worse, as I’ll explain throughout this discussion. I feel it's also important to keep in mind that Echoes, despite very much being a sequel, is a different animal to Prime.

Echoes starts off pretty similar to the first. After a minimal amount of cut scenes, you’re thrown into a little-known planet called Aether that has obviously endured recent distress. Shit is broken everywhere, things are on fire and the music is pretty creepy. Echoes takes it a step further though – instead of the dead bodies of Space Pirates and Queen Parasites that you saw in the Frigate Orpheon, you encounter the remains of GF soldiers. One particularly creepy room contains bodies hanging from the roof with small creatures crawling around them. Some of these soldiers will also, later on, rise up and attack you. And let's not forget the weird vegetation that wiggles when you're close. It’s a pretty creepy opening, though that’s certainly not foreign ground for the franchise.

The beginning of Echoes is short, sharp and creepy.
Echoes is structured quite similarly to the original. You find a new area, explore that area, find a new item while fighting a boss along the way, and finally go back to previous areas and use that item to find new areas. Also, like Prime, there are multiple varied environments that connect to both a hubworld (swap Tallon Overworld for Temple Grounds) and to each other. Echoes also introduces keys for unlocking certain doors, new for the franchise, but aside from the final stages of the game these keys are barely worth mentioning.

One of the main areas where Echoes differs from Prime is in Dark Aether. A parallel dimension and the home-world of the Ing, a race hell-bent on taking over Aether and its sentients the Luminoth, Dark Aether is a huge part of Echoes. Massive. Inter-dimensional puzzles, in which changing the environment in one dimension affects the other, are found everywhere. Major bosses are only fought in Dark Aether. And much of Dark Aether itself is one giant puzzle, thanks to the toxic atmosphere which depletes your health. Whenever you’re transported to Dark Aether, particularly early in the game, it’s critical that you are aware of the environment and where the safe zones are. Later in the game, once you acquire the Light and Anihilator beams, these safe zones can be not only for protection but for offense as well.

While we're at it, I'm not really going to discuss the addition of beam ammo. No, it's not a problem. And no, it's not an improvement. It's just there.

If you ever find someone who doesn’t like Echoes, chances are his or her reason will be Dark Aether. You either love it or hate it. It’s just one of those things. My opinion is that Retro had a vision for what they wanted Dark Aether to be and succeeded with flying colours. You don’t want to go to Dark Aether, but that’s exactly it. It’s drab. It’s hostile. It’s a genuinely awful place to be in. And it works. There are not many areas in video gaming that are as oppressive and claustrophobic as Dark Aether. Some will be quick to point out the loading cinematic used for travelling between dimensions, but it’s a small price to pay for such a brilliantly realized creation.

That said, Dark Aether is only a small part of what makes Echoes such a fantastic experience.

Let’s start at the environments. As good as Prime’s artistic design and architecture was – and it was damn good – most of the game’s environments could have belonged on Earth. Even Phendrana Drifts, the visual highlight of the original, appeared as if it would have been a rather nice place to stay in a log cabin (aside from, you know, deadly monsters and shit). I wouldn’t go so far as to label its environments ‘generic,’ as that wouldn’t do service to how brilliantly realised they still are. At the same time, it would be fair to say that they were too earthly in nature. Compare Magmoor Caverns to Super Metroid’s bubble-filled Norfair, for instance.

Echoes was a considerable improvement. Aether – both its dark and regular varieties – is an outstanding depiction of an alien world. Sanctuary Fortress, for instance, is an enormous castle containing hostile machinery that once served to protect. A neon city lives below while electric rain cascades from above. It’s jaw-dropping. Torvus Bog is similarly impressive. Dripping in atmosphere, half the swamp is drenched in rain while the other is completely submerged. Much of the original Prime can’t touch this kind of environmental design, and indeed, feels somewhat plain in comparison.

dat atmosphere.
Even Echoes’ less adventurous environments still impress. Agon Wastes, an area that some might even suggest is ‘uninspired,’ contains waterfalls of sand, lightning that strikes the very ground in front you, and trees that render the world around you in a bright blue hue. I feel it’s also worth mentioning that restoring light to each area in the game will alter its climate – a nice little detail.

As I’ve already alluded to, Echoes is a prime example of the kinds of atmosphere that video games can convey. This is no surprise given how outstanding the original Prime was in this regard, but I’m willing to argue that Echoes is even better. The combination of incredibly complex artistic creations, the Luminoth bodies which detail the events of their deaths, unsettling sound design and the aforementioned alien environments together create something truly remarkable.

I should also point out the exceptional foreshadowing contained with the game. Prime was already an excellent demonstration of how foreshadowing in games should be done, but once again Echoes takes it a step further. The statue of Amorbis in Agon Wastes. The roars of the Grapple Guardian in Torvus Bog. The pieces of Quadraxis scattered within Sanctuary Fortress. You even get to watch the caged Alpha Blogg swim around before you face him, which is completely unsettling since you know that you’ll have to face him sooner or later.

Which brings us to the boss fights. Once again something that Prime excelled at, and once again something that Echoes does even better. Initial bosses in the game are enjoyable without being outstanding, but it’s right around the time to you get to Torvus Bog that it starts to ramp up. The infamous Boost Guardian is a terrific battle of attrition, while Chykka is the first boss in the series to require the use of the grapple beam. It only gets better. The Spider Guardian is fought completely in morph ball, essentially taking the form of a 2D puzzle game. The Caretaker Drone and Power Bomb Guardian also rely on precise use of the spider and boost abilities, as does a certain boss named Quadraxis. This guy is not only an incredible visual feat but also a multi-layered boss that would impress even the harshest of cynics.

Do I even need to say anything?
Environmental puzzles and general complexity are also a huge part of Metroid, and yet another thing Echoes trumps Prime in. The game becomes pretty byzantine in the second half of the game, requiring you to remember small details of previous areas that may hold the key to progressing further. You’ll likely become lost and confused more times in Echoes than the other two Prime games put together. That’s a good thing, by the way, but it's not rare for some to be put off by it. Echoes can be a bitter pill to swallow at times. It requires players to use their heads more than most games, even other Metroid titles.

Environments are also more interactive, there are more secrets, and there’s a hell of a lot more morph ball. The latter is probably the most significant of the three. Morph ball puzzles are everywhere. Everywhere. You’ll see a lot of them right off the bat, but it’s when you get to Sanctuary Fortress that you really sit-up and take notice. Almost every wall of each room is lined with spider-ball tracks. And that’s barely exaggerating. It’s staggering how much effort Retro put into getting the most out of the morph ball and the game is all the better for it.

Oh, and it goes without saying - Sanctuary Fortress is one of the greatest areas in video gaming. Ever.

By now many of you probably have the same question – so if Echoes is better in so many ways, why do most people say the original is superior? Well, I’d be lying if I said Echoes was perfect. Perhaps I give it more leeway because of everything it does well. However, I’m certainly aware of the things it does wrong, and while this is indeed an appreciation thread for the game, there’s no harm in discussing some of the areas in which Echoes slips up.

First off – pacing. The original Prime, for everything it did right, was considerably slower than prior Metroid games. This didn’t really matter given the first-person viewpoint and how well-constructed the game was itself, but it was still a potential deterrent to those who enjoyed Samus’ previous speed and agility. Echoes does very little to improve this, and in some ways actually makes it slower. For instance, most enemies require more shots to take down than Prime. A minor issue in theory, but frustrating when trying to backtrack through the various environments. I mean, Dark Splinters (one of the game's initial enemies) takes two charged Light Beam shots to take down? The fuck? At times, the game will also lock doors until you’ve killed every enemy in the area - or at least fought them for long enough. Not great. Even the biggest critics of Other M would have to appreciate, in comparison, how quick and effortlessly you can traverse each area in the second half of the game.

Speaking of pacing, it’s probably worth bringing up the Sky Temple Key quest. Along with Dark Aether, this tends to be the other thing people bring up when they explain why they didn’t like the game. Personally, I’m indifferent towards it. It’s not nearly as long and convoluted as, say, the Triforce hunt in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. At the same time, did Echoes really need it? All it really offers is (1) a slightly longer game and (2) more use out of the Dark Visor. Neither of those were important, so why have it? Just chuck in some cool puzzles before the final boss and you’re golden. In the end it feels needless, but on the flipside, the uproar towards it can be defined as making a ‘mountain out of a molehill.’ If you have any competence whatsoever, it takes little time to complete and even offers a good opportunity to collect some extra expansions along the way.

Actually, there is something good about the fetch quest. This thing.
On a lesser note, I also lament the wasted opportunities of a few items. For a game that makes such comprehensive use of the morph ball, Retro seemed reluctant to give other items – namely the Screw Attack and Echo Visor – much attention at all. Both are acquired late in the game and, aside from reach far-off platforms and opening locked doors, respectively, they’re practically unused. The Screw Attack is particularly disappointing, as its unwieldy and difficult to use in most of the game’s environments. You can also count the number of times you need the wall-jump on one hand. It’s unfortunate, but can likely be put down to time restraints.

Speaking of time restraints, Ridley was once intended to make an appearance. He doesn’t, but the game didn’t need him anyway.

Prime was an incredible achievement. Almost unrealistic. For a rookie studio to turn one of Nintendo’s most complex franchises into 3D without a hitch – especially given its development troubles – was such an amazing turn of events. For it to be such a damn good game is even more impressive.

Echoes represents a team without restraints. Retro weren’t pressured by the need to convert such a revered franchise into 3D. They weren’t pressured in trying to match the excellence of Super Metroid. They certainly weren’t pressured into trying to demonstrate the credibility of motion and pointer controls for traditional gaming. Instead, Retro had the foundations laid out by Prime and proceeded to go bonkers with it.

Echoes feels like game created by the minds of scarily-talented people with no inhibition. At times this hinders the game, but with it, it would never reach the peaks that it does. It takes everything from Prime and twists them into new, eye-opening forms. It's as Retro said "sure, we did that in Prime, but did we do this?"

Keep in mind that Echoes is a different beast than Prime (and Corruption). It's more complex, it's more confusing, it's more hostile and it's more punishing. Essentially what it boils down to is that Echoes is the more satisfying game, but only if you're willing to work for it. It doesn't go as kind and easy on the player as Prime. It can also get a little stilted and convoulted at times and, understandably, that's going to put some people off.

This thread isn’t designed to change existing thoughts on the game. If you don’t like it, I certainly don’t expect my words to change anything. Perhaps, though, it’ll get you thinking about giving it another shot. And for those who have never played it, maybe you’ll see it in stores one day and think to yourself “you know, I reckon I might give it a go.” And you should, 'cause it's fucking awesome."

So there you have it. Metroid Prime 2 was a more creative detour for Retro after finding success with its much more "Metroidy" predecessor, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.

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