Developer: Retro Studios & Nintendo
The recent release of Metroid Dread on the Nintendo Switch has given me cause to replay (most of) the games in the Metroid series, a series that Nintendo hasn't known what to do with at times. Super Metroid was one of The Great Video Games of Our Time, but it didn't sell particularly well and the series was blessed with no more children. That was, of course, until Samus Aran, the series' lead character, was featured in Super Smash Bros., which did sell well and led to a resurgence in the public's curiosity with the series; this would lead to Metroid Prime, another one of The Great Games of Our Time and the first iteration of the Metroid Prime trilogy (quadrology, if one includes Metroid Prime: Hunters, which I don't) (quintology, if one includes Metroid Prime Pinball, which I do). This trilogy (including the featured game in this retrospective piece) was very well-received, but there were dark times on the horizon. Cue a disastrous Team Ninja Project that completely missed the point of the series and a worthless handheld game that didn't even feature the lead character and it appeared as though the series had been abandoned in an oubliette. It took a passionate fan remake of the third-worst game in the series to get Nintendo to realize that people actually care about these games and that revisiting the series would be the worth the company's time (whereupon The Plumber promptly slapped the hands of the fan programmer away and pushed out a far less-interesting version to middling reviews).
My journey through the series has led to occasionally surprising conclusions: I have newfound respect for the original Metroid, I no longer have the patience for Metroid II: Samus Returns, and I've found it to be worth owning a Nintendo Wii even if its only function is as a dedicated Metroid Prime 3: Corruption machine. I've also found Metroid Prime 2: Echoes to be something of the middle child of the Metroid Prime trilogy; specifically, it's the Wakko Warner of the trilogy, often providing some of the best moments but never quite living up to the impact of its siblings.
|Well, something like that anyhow.
First, the story and setting. Upon eliminating Metroid Prime and the Space Pirate occupation of Tallon IV, space bounty hunter Samus Aran receives a distress beacon from the Galactic Federation; a space marine patrol ship located a Space Pirate vessel leaving a rogue space planet named Aether. The Space Pirates were carrying Phazon, a space mutagenic substance that led to the space disaster depicted in the first game. The federation has lost contact with the space marines and elects to dispatch Samus to Aether for a space investigation. Here, she discovers the space planet was originally inhabited by space creatures known as the Luminoth, who adored the light (TOO SUBTLE), yet were threatened by a space meteor that brought Phazon and a new set of space monsters called the Ing, which preferred the dark. Of space.
If your eyes sorta glazed over while reading the preceding paragraph, I'd like to thank you for having the courtesy to power on through to this paragraph and provide my deepest sympathies; I got bored just by writing that thing. The previous game featured a deep story that not only directly dealt with the Space Pirates tampering with biological species beyond their control and the consequences attended thereto, but also with Samus' past and raison d'être. The implication was if she failed on Tallon IV, the Space Pirates would likely take control of the galaxy and bring genocide with them. If she fails on Aether, it'll be dark outside.
That seems a bit pithy, but it's not far off. Sure, the Luminoth will perish, but it's not as easy to care about them as it was to care about the Chozo in Metroid Prime - and the Chozo were already dead. This is partially because the Chozo and their stewardship of Tallon IV was richly characterized in both the flavor text, available in scan data, and in the architecture of the various environments Samus encountered. Tallon IV felt lived in, it felt precisely the way the designers intended it to feel - as though it was once, long ago, a place where a technologically advanced yet peaceful race lived in harmony with the indigenous flora and fauna - until something happened. That something is largely responsible for driving the player's investigation and exploration (alongside the Space Pirate invasion, masterfully woven into the narrative). On Aether, we're explicitly told before the game even begins what happened to the Luminoth, and their dedication to this planet isn't really examined. The environments aren't bad, and the art design is leaps and bounds better than most contemporary games, but I never pictured anyone doing anything on this planet other than looking for energy tanks like I was. There just didn't seem to be a personal connection to the Luminoth, and they're the ones asking for my help.
Speaking of a lack of personal connection, Samus' backstory was revealed in Metroid Prime as a baby-in-the-basket raised by the Chozo. Their lore reveals her progression and destiny, and the hope they have for her. It's not much, but it's something that makes the player feel somewhat important. That isn't here in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes; the only mention she gets is by the Space Pirates going "oh Christ, not her again" and one deceased space marine who compares her to Bigfoot. Thanks a lot, Corporal Pile-o'-Bones.
|She's out there. I know it.
The introduction of Dark Samus is part of the light world/dark world element that Metroid Prime 2: Echoes uses as its central motif, which was done to simplify Retro Studios' development process (parallel worlds = fewer rooms to build). Nintendo enjoys powerwalking down the avenue of light vs. dark; they've done it in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Super Paper Mario (it feels unfair to count Ikaruga here as well, despite it also being one of The Great Games of Our Time). Don't be mistaken: just like in Star Wars this is an allegory for absolutely nothing beyond good vs. evil. There is no twist depicting the balance that nature and the universe requires, where perhaps the Ing and Luminoth have misunderstood one another's aggressions and can respect each others' boundaries and live in harmony. This is about shooting the black goopy monsters because they're gross. That's perfectly fine, it just seems a bit incongruous when compared to what the game is trying to present itself as.
It's not all bad, though. One of my favorite moments of the game comes in a section where you can read Space Pirate logs to discover they've not just been breeding Metroids as bioweapons, but also as pets. There are implications that the Space Pirates are teasing, misfeeding, and otherwise abusing the creatures, which adds a welcome sense of pathos to what was original considered perhaps the deadliest bioform in the galaxy. Additionally, it expands upon the cruelty of the Space Pirates; interplanetary genocide is bad enough, but going after your own pets hits closer to home. As excellent as the Space Pirate logs were in Metroid Prime, they're even better here for this small moment of world building and characterization. There's even this bit where you can read departed Luminoth logs that was so subtle most players missed it: you know how they look like illuminated bits of interconnected lines and dots? They're actually based on the hand shapes of the Luminoth claws, with the bulbous knuckles and elongated digits, since they're nonverbal (and Nintendo wasn't ready to pay for voice acting until Metroid Prime 3: Corruption).
|Translation: don't play Metroid Prime: Federation Force.
One of the other things Metroid Prime 2: Echoes excels at is the gameplay, which should come as no surprise. It's the same engine as the previous entry and the same basic idea as most games in the series: proceeding from room to room, occasionally acquiring power-ups that allows further progress, defeating bosses, etc. The jumping still feels smooth, the combat is as enjoyable as ever, and the puzzles are never so challenging as to be frustrating or not worth your time. Keeping that foundation was critical, as it allowed modifications to the formula that don't interfere with the core model. There are new weapons that work based on the light/dark mechanic, and they require ammunition - but it's never really difficult to acquire. Your health steadily drains while in the dark side of Aether, but despite the series trademark emphasis on careful exploration you never feel rushed while exploring the dark world. There are these helpful pockets of light that slowly refill your health, which also help to make combat more forgiving (although it can lead to thumbsuckery if your health is particularly low). Samus also has new visors, including a sound vibrations visor and an improvement to the x-ray visor. While the latter was barely used in Metroid Prime, it's used far more often this time around, which makes it feel like less of an afterthought. The Sky Temple keys, which take the place of the Chozo Artifacts in the previous game, are much easier to find, no longer relying on clueless exploration for a third of them. There's a real sense that the designers listened to the producers' criticisms of the previous game (what little there were) and took note for the sequel.
Unfortunately, listening to advice from the higher-ups leads to perhaps the biggest problem with the game.
Metroid Prime's bosses were just a tad on the easy side, save for the titular final boss. They often seemed like tests of how well one could perform a specific action and/or pattern (time missile blasts, dodge rhythmic attack waves, etc.) for which the player would be rewarded with a power-up. That's not a bad idea, it's just uncomplicated. That same concept was brought over to Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, but some Nintendo executive in a suit who we'll call Kensuke Tanabe (because that's his name) took a look at the boss battles three days before the game went gold and said "eh, make 'em harder" (no, seriously, he did). The result was simple yet disastrous: multiple bosses had their hitboxes shrunk and the damage they dealt increased by twenty points.
Let me give you a fr'instance: the Boost Guardian, perhaps the most infamous boss in the game, proceeds as follows. You enter the boss' arena, knowing you need to get the Boost Ball to access new areas and complete various objectives. This boss uses the Boost Ball, so you've got a fair idea of what it'll do during the battle. It's almost like you need to prove you can survive without the power-up in order to attain it. Not a bad idea. Five problems:
- Low health: This is one of the earliest boss battles in the game, so even if you're diligent enough to seek out all available energy tanks to this point, you're only going to have four reserves.
- Lack of cover: The arena is dreadfully small, and the only places to hide are four small pillars that the boss can destroy when it uses the Boost Ball. Meanwhile, the Boost Guardian's puddle form takes up a lot of space and it creates minions that come along to annoy you as well.
- Moments of invulnerability: The Boost Guardian is invulnerable while in the Boost Ball. It rolls around the arena rapidly and is extremely difficult to avoid due to both its speed and the random patterns it chooses. The only way to force it out of this mode is with a well-timed and well-placed bomb, which is so difficult that it's best not to try.
- Heavy damage: When it goes to Boost Ball mode it deals heavy damage, but it deals even heavier damage while in its puddle form. It's frankly ludicrous, and it's all the more frustrating that you almost have to get hit by the puddle in order to deal damage (you have to roll near to where you think the nucleus is heading, quickly lay three bombs, then roll away, effectively grazing it every time if you're lucky and splashing in it with both feet if you're not).
- Constantly draining health: Remember what I said about your health draining in the darkness? Remember what I said about there being pockets of light that acted as safe zones where you could slowly regain health? There are none of those in this fight. You lose health quickly, in addition to the heavy damage the boss deals on contact. Your only hope for survival is hoping the Boost Ball shots destroy the pillars (you know, the ones you were using for cover) to reveal energy pick-ups. Remember what I said about the patterns being random? There is a very real possibility the Boost Ball shots will never hit any of the pillars. If that happens, you're brown bread.
Remember the final stage of Metroid Prime? It was a nightmarish hellscape, deep in the bowels of Tallon IV, a cordoned off research cavern that housed mutated Metroids and toxic Phazon. The entire time you travel through here you think "my god, what have they done?" The final boss was built up big time, a bioweapon that had grown beyond the control of the Space Pirate researchers, a testament to what happens when we tamper in God's domain. It tests all of the player's developed skills and reflexes, acting as a capstone to what the player should have been learning about combat along the way. Upon Prime's defeat, Samus rushes back to the collapsing Chozo Temple, looking back at the world her adoptive race tended to with such care reduced to so much rubble - and knowing who was responsible for its collapse.
There's none of that in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Maybe I missed a couple scans or something, but I don't remember the Emperor Ing being built up at all. I didn't even understand how the Ing could have an emperor; they don't exactly seem to have an ordered society - they're just goop monsters. His arena is a place you've visited a couple times, so it's neither unfamiliar nor threatening. The fight itself isn't quite as challenging as it is tedious; there's a small timing window for some of the shots you have to make, it's very time-consuming, and there doesn't feel like there's as much strategy required as there could've been. Then when you win the Luminoth come out of hibernation and wave you goodbye. Thanks for playing, no refunds.
|Also this happened. Didn't seem important, wasn't really paying attention
I might sound a bit too harsh here; this is a game where an impressive amount of work went into it, and when I can see that hard work is done, I want to be kinder to it. It's certainly conceivable that I'll revisit this game in the coming years and I'll appreciate it more. The core gameplay is as good as ever, the music evokes the dark atmosphere of the game world, and the flavor text is still far better than the writing in 99% of games. I probably haven't given enough credit to the art design; e.g., Dark Samus looks less mechanical and more organic, and there's a very good reason for that. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes doesn't feel rushed, and one of the senior game designers confirmed they were fortunate enough to avoid crunch while making it. It just feels stifled by the last second decisions of some gray man wearing an even grayer suit, whose influence feels disconnected from the design team. I have zero experience whatsoever in game development, but it doesn't feel like this is the way it ought to work, even if it's the natural state of affairs in game studios across the globe. All feeling of antipathy, however, are washed away when one recalls that Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is responsible for the greatest .gif in gaming history:
* - I actually liked the Spider Guardian. It's led to more resets among players than any other boss in the series, but it tests a specific skill that players ought to have developed by this point: agility and precision with the Morph Ball and Morph Ball Bombs. It feels more like a puzzle than the other bosses, which appeals more to me than I suppose it would to most fans of the series, but it's a refreshing divergence from the well-trodden path of "Shoot At Its Weak Point Until It Dies" that so many Metroid bosses use.