Posted by: seanmalstrom | February 12, 2010

Email: Why do you think Metroid Prime was successful?


I noticed you pointed out that Metroid Prime is the highest selling title in the series, and that you believe there will be a lot of interest Metroid Prime Trilogy in the future to come. But to my mind, Metroid Prime is a very sophisticated title. It seems to emphasise full immersion in the virtual world, what with the heavy emphasis on scanning to express the game’s narrative, as well as the focus on exploration that is in many respects time-consuming for the player.

What is your take on the success of Metroid Prime, and why do you think its sequels haven’t sold so much? I’m particularly interested in Metroid Prime 3, because from my personal experience, it seemed to reject the immersive nature of its predecessor in favour of a stronger roleplay-orientation.

Thanks very much for a response.

I think this is the wrong question. The right question was why was Metroid, for the NES, originally successful? Who bought this game? The game wasn’t exactly kid friendly and wasn’t a family type of game. The guy in charge of RPGs in the old PC Gamer magazines used to say that he bought a NES for Metroid, a Gameboy for Metroid II, and a Super Nintendo for Super Metriod. The audience for Metroid is clearly older than Super Mario Brothers and even Zelda.

As gaming is teetering on the abyss of becoming irrelevant, I see it as the job for the elder gamers to attempt to articulate how and why the original classics sold. What was the original consumer experience to these games?

Let us look at the original Metroid. I reject the premise that has been popularized by lollipop “game journalists” in San Francisco that the consumer experience of Metroid is defined only to the buzzwords of ‘exploration’ and ‘aloneness’. Hell, Super Mario Brothers had exploration and aloneness as did Zelda. People will likely disagree with the below. But I will tell you what I believe was the original consumer experience of Metroid.

Note that it says ‘adventure series’ and that it is a ‘password pak’. Passwords were pretty new in games and were greatly increasing the size. These password games had far more content in them than your non-password games understandably.

In order to understand the consumer experience of original Metroid, you need to look at the environment at the time (of the games that came out before it as well as what was going on with the NES).

Super Mario Brothers had stunned everyone. Mario Mania was in full gear. There are many reasons why Super Mario Brothers was successful, but one of the most curious experiences the game did was to create a trippy feeling.

The Warp Zones were all the rage with Super Mario Brothers. Everyone was trying to find more warp zones. People were convinced that Minus World led somewhere. But if you look at the video, imagine how trippy and bizarre this had to have been in 1986.

The first warp zone in 1-2 has Mario run ON THE CEILING. The problem is that Mario is UNDERGROUND. How can you run on the ceiling while being underground? You can’t. But in the world of video games, you can. And this is why video games are magical. The beanstalk in 4-2 had a similar trippy feeling where a beanstalk comes from nowhere in the underground that leads to giant mushrooms in the clouds. WTF? hahaha. Minus World was, also, extremely trippy in that Mario literally WENT THROUGH A WALL and went BACKWARDS in the level count. And Minus World never ended. It made no sense! Yet, it was all part of the masterful trippy experience that was Super Mario Brothers.

The Warp Zone was understood to be part of the consumer experience. So the Warp Zones appeared in Super Mario Brothers 2 (both Japan and Western). Super Mario Brothers 2 USA was very trippy experience too with the magical doors, Birdo (WTF was with Birdo? hahaha), throwing turnips (!!!), and so on. Super Mario Brothers 3 warp zones were becoming meh with the exception of the one in 1-3 where you go BEHIND the white block and run in the background. WTF! hahahaha. The Warp Zone experience in Super Mario World was considered fairly lame. And I think Mario 5 disappoints with the Warp Zones. Giant cannons that are nothing more than special exits? This is stupid. I prefer the more ‘trippy’ warp zones of the past. It was completely mindblowing to run on a ceiling when underground or climbing a beanstalk from nowhere or running through a wall.

Many of the NES games succeeded because of this trippy feeling. The game was a huge “WTF!” magical experience. They were not ‘logical’ yet they were so much fun. Much of the charm in the original Legend of Zelda had many of those moments such as bombing a wall and a hole would appear! Or burning a bush and there was the dungeon! Or going up and up and up again in the mountains to get to the next screen but only go down once to get to the next screen. The game was bizarro world.

The NES game developers appeared to understand this trippyness and would constantly toy with the NES consumer. Games that came out later in the NES would toy with the consumer by having the player run on the ceiling (Battle of Olympus), constantly going through a wall somewhere (I believe Ninja Gaiden had this element in it). The earlier Mega Man games were very trippy experiences (thanks in major part of their music). In Bubble Man’s stage, you are fighting mechanical shrimp. WTF? You have to go across invisible holes in Wily’s castle. A giant mechanical dragon appears from nowhere in one stage. Wily turns into an alien but then it is a holographic simulation. The NES games constantly kept toying with the player’s context.

Zelda II is probably one of the most trippy Zeldas ever made. Link walks on water (!). Link has to defeat one boss just by standing there and bouncing the boss’s attacks with his shield (!) (This was not normally done then!). Link could turn into a fairy and fly around (!). In Palace 5, Link has to walk through walls. Palace 6 is literally invisible and must be ‘summoned’ into existence. And the Final Palace is trippiness on steroids. Nothing makes much sense in that place. It was really an out of this world experience which is what made the classics so… classic. Falling into holes would kill you in Zelda 2. But you HAVE to fall into a hole in order to proceed. The weakest creature in the game, a bit, becomes gigantic at the end (a huge WTF moment). The final boss of the game is Link battling his own shadow. Now does that make any sense? How do you battle your own shadow? When I first battled Shadow Link, I was just stunned. WTF is happening!? Hahahaha.

Now we can begin looking at Metroid, the trippyiest of all NES games.

Metroid games have always been a triumph in sound and symphony. The games are very strong on the aural experience. The ‘intro’ is pretty trippy. Flashing lights, WTF is with those pyramids, and the ‘story’ is to defeat “Mother Brain”. What the hell?

Now let’s play!

The practical choir like music when Samus appears is totally trippy as is the surrounding environment. Are you in a temple of something? What in the world!?

Most games could only scroll one way. So most people likely went to the right. And they would get stuck at the wall with the small hole in the bottom (with a critter clearly crawling in it). And so the player would have to go back and eventually find the morph ball powerup that is on the left side of the starting screen. The player adjusting his game style to move LEFT as well as right was somewhat trippy. You have not really seen this in a game before!

But the morph ball… The morph ball made no sense. WTF is your space marine turning into a ball!? That made no sense!!! But it is what it was. And then the player is able to go through the hole. What happens next? The player begins to climb.

The long vertical shafts and the player climbing constantly upward or falling downward was pretty mindblowing. Games just didn’t do this type of thing.

The environments you went into made no sense. Why were those bugs constantly flying out of pipes? And the sounds the enemies made when you shot them. *twoo* *twoo* *twoo* Why did the bat things explode? Why did the crawler guys have spiky hair?

Zelda made sense in that you clearly knew you were in a graveyard or a forest or a dungeon. But Metroid made no sense as the environments defied description. And there was no logical way to go. You could go up. You could go down. You could go left. You could go right.

The new powerups only added more to the trippiness. Suddenly, you had bombs. What the hell? Why can you only bomb when you are a ball? You quickly learned you can bomb yourself up using bomb blasts. Crazy stuff. The missiles were pretty standard fare in games already. The screw attack was pretty warped. But what really stood out beyond everything was the ice beam.

The idea of freezing your enemies and using them as platform had not really been done before. At least, it was never done to become essential to the game. It was freakishly cool to freeze your enemies in mid-air and then use them to help get over the lava.

The idea that you could bomb areas that you passed over in the beginning of the game to reach new places blew away players’ minds. There were many places where a power up was hidden in a block that made no sense. Why was an energy tank hidden in a ceiling near the entrance? The game constantly warped the mind.

One thing that younger gamers cannot appreciate was just how terrifying and scary Kraid and Ridley were in the original Metroid. No one understood who or exactly what these guys were. But they would kill you pretty fast (as most people didn’t know where to find all the power-ups). Kraid had a FAKE boss! How crazy is that? I can’t think of any game prior that had FAKE BOSSES. The game kept the player moving in circles. Metroid was like walking through a room of mirrors. Nothing made much sense.

You know how a good book would keep a reader glued by having plot twist after plot twist? Metroid kept gamers glued because it kept having mind warp after mind warp. THAT was the purpose of the power-ups and non-linear design. I don’t buy any of this ‘exploration’ and ‘grocery list of powerups to make through the obstacle course’. No. Each and every step in Metroid confused the mind even further and kept challenging the player’s context. When you got the ice beam, for example, the entire game phase shifted on you. When you got bombs and could blow up the blocks, the game phase shifted on you.The context of the game literally warped before your eyes. So when the gamer was done playing Metroid, the fireworks were still exploding in the mind.

And talk about a mind warp when, at the end of Metroid, you discover the space marine was a girl! This ‘Samus as chick’ thing is a good illustration as to why the original Metroid was a series of trippy explosions.

When you look at the ending of Metroid, again, the game makes no sense. The final battle and the force fields, attacking a giant brain in a tank, and the twist at the end with the ’emergency evacuation’ completely warped the mind. And Samus becoming a girl at the end was a fitting end to this trippy adventure!

Now, let us look at the Metroid games that came afterward.

Metroid II was quite a feat when you consider the Gameboy games at the time. The game was extremely scary. However, it wasn’t as trippy. The trippiest moments in Metroid II would be when you got the Spider Ball (and were running around on the ceilings. WTF!?) or when you watched Metroids evolve before your eyes to something bigger and nastier. The queen Metroid was pretty cool. There is much silence in the game which would punctuate when your headphones screamed the Metroid attack song when you accidentally wandered to where a Metroid was hiding. Metroid II is the scariest Metroid game ever made. And while people complain about how it wasn’t as non-linear, remember that it was on hardware inferior to the NES. Cut it some slack. It was warmly received at the time. We had no expectation then that a Gameboy game was going to surpass the NES one. At that time, we were excited that we could play Metroid wherever we wanted because it was now on a portable!

Super Metroid was very different from the original Metroid and, when it came out, was somewhat disappointing. Super Metroid was a triumph in production features especially the aural experience. But Super Metroid was extremely easy. And Super Metroid was never a trippy experience. There were a few moments such as when you powerbomb the pipe in Maridia that shattered the glass or using the grappling beam to kill the Maridia boss. I recall the grappling beam being extremely well liked. The idea of swinging around in those massive Maridia environments was very cool. Super Metroid screwed up on other levels such as the Wall Jumping which was horribly implemented. The enemies in Metroid were deadly. In Super Metroid, they act little more than just obstacles as you run from Point A to Point B.

The emphasis on the production features (e.g. the sublime music) and the game being so extremely easy is why the game somewhat disappointed back in 1994 but is the same reason why Super Metroid has aged like wine. Today, people want their games to be easier. And Super Metroid has production features that are far and above other 16-bit games at the time which makes Super Metroid stand out.

The most successful thing Super Metroid did was the diversity of environments to create unique atmospheres. Blizzard revealed in a podcast that Diablo 2 sold so well due to the diversity of environments. This cuts down on repetition. Super Metroid ingeniously had very, very different environments which eliminated much of the repetition. The rain and open area around your spaceship to the gentler underground of Brinstar to the hell like areas of Norfair to the creepy and sparking technological Wrecked Ship to the watery and cavernous areas of Maridia all really resonated well.

Now we get to Metroid Prime.

Metroid Prime successfully combined the strengths of both NES Metroid and SNES Super Metroid.

I have always been confused as to why Super Metroid lovers do not like Metroid Prime. The game is practically Super Metroid in 3d. Metroid Prime is a triumph of production values especially of sound. The game sounds wonderful.

Metroid Prime successfully incorporates the full diversity of environments. For the most part, the player isn’t in ‘awe’ as all the environments he has seen in previous Metroid games. And then, he gets to Phenandra Drifts.

So while Metroid Prime carried the strengths of Super Metroid, what about NES Metroid? The entire move into 3d allowed a series of trippy experiences. For example, think of the morph ball. It is very different in 3d! It is like Marble Madness in a way. Moving on a Z axis was also pretty trippy. A good example of this trippiness would be shooting a missile and the explosion would be close to you where you could see the reflection of Samus’s pretty face in the face plate. Or the different visior views that ‘phase shifted’ the environment you were in. Who knew there was an invisible monster there!

I’ve noticed all series seem to get a bump in sales when they first make the switch to 3d. Metroid is no exception. So that has to be factored in.

Metroid Prime does appeal to those who go into Metroid with NES Metroid as well as those who appreciate Super Metroid. Where Metroid Prime seems to be having problems with are the kids who grew up with Super Metroid and did not play Metroid NES or Metroid II on Gameboy. I believe this is because Metroid Prime is closer to the difficulty of NES Metroid than SNES Super Metroid. The game is not very accessible either. But neither was NES Metroid.

Metroid Prime 2 was very samey. The awe of Metroid in 3d cannot be replicated in a sequel. So it lacked the awe. And Metroid Prime 2 was extremely challenging. People found the first Prime to be hard. But Prime 2 was VERY hard. Spider ball boss anyone? Boost Guardian anyone? The alternate dimension really made the game more confusing.

I actually like Metroid Prime 2 very much. I can’t wait to replay it.

As for Metroid Prime 3, I have only begun playing it as I recently bought the Trilogy. I will let you know later what I think of it. So far, I am not impressed with the ‘intro’ of the game and I find it incredibly stale and lame. Get this Halo garbage out of Metroid, please.

I am a fan of Metroid Hunters as well. Phenomenal DS game whose problem is that hand cramps prevent me from playing. I really love Metroid Prime Pinball as well.

The only Metroids I thought were really bad were Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission. The only saving grace to those games is the 2d gameplay. However, much of it is grounded in the Super Metroid shadow, i.e. the ‘exploration’ and ‘powerup to open up new area’. I don’t agree this often quoted mantra by game journalists IS the Metroid experience. Just because that was the experience of Super Metroid doesn’t mean it is the Metroid experience. I look very lowly on those who refuse to enter NES Metroid or Gameboy Metroid into their Metroid analysis. NES Metroid is the most important as that is the game that started it all. It must be the focal point of analysis.

Metroid Fusion had a really crappy story. I mean, the story was so awful that not even Sakamoto has dared to make a ‘Metroid 5’ continuing with the horrible Fusion suit. Sakamoto really destroyed any sort of ‘timeline’ with Metroid Fusion. After Fusion, every Metroid game that comes out is now a ‘prequel’ because he screwed it up so bad.

Zero Mission was a remake of NES Metroid and I consider it a massive failure. What Zero Mission did was apply the Super Metroid template to the original Metroid, i.e. exploration and ‘powerup to open next level’. But this completely misses the trippy nature of NES Metroid. This is why the GBA NES Metroid completely floored Zero Mission. NES Metroid was surreal. Zero Mission was just lame.

The only saving grace of Zero Mission was Samus being abducted at the end and running around in her Zero suit. THAT was interesting. THAT was surprising. It was far more interesting than anything else in that game. The anime cut scenes in Zero Mission were horrendous.

It is surprising that no one talks about the trippiness and surreal nature that defined the original Metroid. However, considering that those who belong to the cult of “Super Metroid is the best game ever made and you are not allowed to disagree” tend to shout down anyone who has a differing view (which would include pretty much older people who played NES Metroid in the late 80s), it is not surprising that the definition of Metroid has remained ‘exploration’ and ‘power-ups-to-open-new areas’.

In order for Metroid to remain relevant, it is going to have to embrace its trippy like nature and revel in the game not being explained. This is why I believe Sakamoto trying to ‘explain everything in Metroid through bad manga’ is going to present an Anti-Metroid experience. Imagine if Miyamoto explained the ‘Warp Zones’ in Super Mario Brothers via cutscenes in a future Mario game. It would be taking AWAY from the experience and ruining the magic.



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