Changes in Perspective (Thoughts on Metroid in First Person)

For all of the love that Metroid Prime received upon its release and the status its held as one of the best games in the series, it suffers from a myraid of design choices and elements that make it a very good game, but one that ultimately leaves a glaring rift between the 2D iterations and the 3D. At the center of this was the decision to change the game's perspective from a side scrolling 2D platforming game to a first person adventure. The sheer number of things that had to be accounted for took their toll when it came to cohesiveness, where every single element plays a role in conjunction with all of the other elements to inform the player's game experience.


One of the really wonderful things about Metroid Prime is the game’s environment. To being with, the levels are very interesting visually. From lava pits filled with glowing magma to the hazy blue watery depths of the sunken frigate, Prime is a great example of what time and care can do for a game’s aesthetic design. Here is where the first person perspective really takes its toll on the player, however. Stuffed inside Samus’ helmet, so little of the world is viewable at one time. On a technical level, I don’t actually know whether the level of detail shown in Prime would be possible from a third person perspective or not on the GameCube, but the game is practically teasing you with its beauty while you play. The visor views make things even worse by complicating the screen at nearly every opportunity. At all times there are various alerts or cursors popping up in front of your face trying to get your attention. When a game has as much information to convey to the player as Metroid Prime does, screen real estate becomes extremely important, which is why it’s really a shame that the visors demand so much of the screen. The scanning visor, in particular, is distracting with its outlined focal screen within the overall screen of the visor. For ninety percent of the game, this surprisingly doesn’t turn into much of a problem, but every moment where the player must be focused in order to combat enemies or track down particular items to scan, ignoring the on screen graphical indicators becomes nearly impossible and the player has a good chance of taking damage or making platforming missteps because the screen is busy with things that block the player’s view.

Prime’s information overload makes it so that the player must do a lot to find the the specific piece they are looking for, a problem that just doesn’t exist in the 2D incarnations of Metroid. Aside from the in-game map, all of the information that’s needed to be accessed by the player is already on-screen. Your available weapons are all listed at the top of the screen out of the way with the selected one highlighted. The 2D Metroid games also give you a wealth of visual knowledge due to the relative size of the character’s sprite compared with the size of any individual screen. It does a great job of getting the player to feel very small in a very large game environment and encourages the player to strike out in a direction and explore. Metroid Prime, on the other hand, does its best to make the player feel as claustrophobic as possible. I think this was actually done purposefully by the developers and it actually recreates what it would probably feel like to be inside a mechanical suit. On that level, I understand why such a decision was made. Giving the most accurate first-person experience was a full commitment to this style of game. Unfortunately, it has the side effect of me wanting to use the Morph Ball as much as possible just so I could get a third person view and see what was going on around me (While I want to stick with just talking about Metroid Prime as much as possible, I can’t help but mention Nintendo’s attempt at a third person perspective in Metroid: Other M. That game faces similar perspective limitations in that what the player is able to see is so much less than what is actually there. In Other M’s case, this is caused by a fixed camera angle. Rather than having the camera follow the character around the screen from behind the head like was done for the 3D Zelda and Mario games, the player is stuck watching Samus move around a 3D world as if from the sideline of a football game).

One of the least fun activities I have yet to experience in a game is the constant scanning of anything and everything that the player must do in order to collect data, find enemy weak points and solve puzzles. From a design perspective, I understand why it exists. The player has to have some way of deciphering what can be interacted with and what can’t be. Because everything is all rendered with pretty much the same visual quality in the game, it would be an endless task trying to navigate without something guiding the player. By using the scanning visor, important items or objects are pointed out with little orange and red boxes that can have data scanned and downloaded. The unfortunate side effect of this scheme  is that too much information about the world is revealed, taking away a great amount of discovery. In addition to the necessary controller commands required to use the function, full descriptions of the items and abilities are included. This essentially removes the need for experimentation within the game. All the player has to do is find a red cube using the scan visor, scan it, and the solution is revealed. This problem isn’t completely exclusive to Metroid Prime, but it feels most blatant here compared to Super Metroid (Super Metroid gives clues to the player about what ability to use by showing icons that represent the various abilities). Probably the most frustrating part about scanning things in Metroid Prime has to do with its relationship to combat. The player cannot scan objects and fight off enemies at the same time. Since scanning enemies is practically a requirement, must be done in relatively close proximity and takes a fair amount of time, it doesn’t take long before the desire to scan is almost completely killed in the player.

While I’m on the subject of the uses of visors, the game implements a few different types. There is the regular combat visor, there is the heat visor used for finding hidden passageways or enemies in dark areas, the x-ray visor which allows the player to see otherwise unviewable things, and the aforementioned scan visor. There is no really easy way to switch visors. The small d-pad placed below the left analog stick is used and the player must hit the correct direction to pick the desired visor. This can be a steep challenge when trying to avoid enemy fire as the placement of each visor has to be carefully memorized. Due to the limited number of visors, it’s curious that the player can’t simply shuffle through them by pressing right or left on the d-pad. With enough practice, competence and even mastery of this mechanic can be had, but the barrier to entry is very high. What’s most frustrating about the visors is that they add very little to the game. For particular enemies, certain visors must be used to find weak points or to see them in the first place. This type of gameplay only exists because the game is in first person. Where Metroid classically been about finding ways to enhance your platforming abilities, Prime complicates its fair share of well implemented platforming abilities with visual tricks that are not only unnecessary, but also the worst designed parts of the game.

Metroid Prime’s controls are quite unique for what is essentially a first person shooter. While the left hand is busy moving Samus around, changing visors and locking on to targets using the left shoulder button of the controller, work is far from monopolized on that side. In addition to jumping and shooting, there are also many tasks to manage when it comes to Samus’ weapons. Some of the attacking options are straightforward. You can shoot a regular shot using a single button. Shooting missiles uses a second button. But then, in the same way the visors are made confusing, Prime gives you multiple beam options as you acquire those abilities during the course of the game. You change beams using the small C analog stick below the face buttons. Also like the visors, the player can’t easily toggle them moving the stick in one direction or the other. Instead, each visor must be selected using a particular direction. Shooting the more powerful super missiles means the correct beam must be selected, a shot must be charged and then finally the missile button must be pressed. When you combine trying to decide what kind of beam to use on particular enemies (since not all are susceptible to every kind of weapon), charging your shots to make them more powerful, pressing an additional button to shot a missile and all of the jumping and dodging you have to do in order to avoid some very powerful enemies, it’s really a wonder that combat is possible at all.

When talking about game controls, it’s important to try to consider the intentions of their design. Some games are designed to be difficult, sacrificing intuitiveness in favor of allowing a nearly endless amount of possibilities. A game like Dwarf Fortress comes to mind. Metroid is difficult to get used to, but unintentionally so, I think. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. It does mean that it took me longer than I’d like to admit to become adequate (and that may just reflect my own abilities as a video game player). What Metroid Prime actually does an amazing job of is translating just how difficult it would be to occupy the role of Samus Aran. Were the Metroid universe to exist and a bounty hunter do the things Samus Aran does, it would require a very determined individual to spend thousands of hours of training just to  get used to controlling the power suit that makes bounty hunting on alien worlds possible in the first place. Without dedication, extensive muscle memory training, and an already super human athletic ability, making it through even the most poorly guarded enemy zones would be impossible. For a game, it translates to the player spending a great amount of time just going over the basic controls so that each enemy encounter doesn’t end with a chilling scream and Samus’ visor going dark. While all of this actually makes for an interesting game that comments on the way games take impossible tasks and makes them seem effortless, I can’t help but feel that it was an unintended consequence of trying to include too many design elements into a game that just didn’t need them.

In a lot of ways, comparing Metroid Prime to any 2D Metroid game is unfair. Without Retro Studios taking a chance with this game and trying to make the series relevant in a world where first person games were really beginning to dominate, it’s unlikely that any more Metroid games would have even come to pass. Nintendo’s lack of strong internal direction over the last decade has left many great game series’ with few or no worthwhile entries in the recent past. Now, for many, Metroid Prime does fulfill all of their needs for this series and Prime really is a good game worth playing. For me, it just feels like Metroid’s chances to ever really break into 3D in the proper way died with the Nintendo 64.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
« Praising Praise (An Examination of the Experience Mechanic in Ōkami) | Main | Embracing Archetype »