By Ishaan . December 20, 2009 . 3:01pm
Sometimes, it’s funny how things work. Most game development studios today aspire to be able to make players feel like they’re in the game, rather than simply playing it. Developers go to great lengths to make good on their promises of “immersion” and “realism,” both terms usually used as an indicator of how effectively the art and narrative invoke a sense of escapism in the player.
While there are certainly other ways of making a player feel more involved in a game, these days, immersion is commonly defined by how effectively the script and the artwork can make you believe in the world your character inhabits. This is upheld as the mantra of modern game design, and very rarely does one come across a game where the developers go out of their way to constantly remind you that you’re playing a game, as opposed to being in one. Strangely enough, this exactly what Retro Studios have done with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and the end result is nothing short of fascinating.
A couple points worth mentioning before we proceed further into this write-up: First, I have great admiration for Retro’s design sensibility and a couple months ago, I wrote at length about just how much of an impression the first Metroid Prime made on me with the way it suffocates you — in a good way — early in the game. While Prime was and still is an amazing experience, looking back, I’m going to have to concede that Echoes is clearly the superior of the two; although, I’m sure I’m one of the few that feel this way.
Second, I also said that Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was possibly my favourite of the trilogy, but I’m going to have to withdraw that statement as well. Again, after completing it, I now feel that Echoes is easily the best of the three, and it makes me sad that very few people will ever actually realize this and / or accept it. Part of the reason for this could be that, back when Kensuke Tanabe and Retro were doing interviews for Echoes, they didn’t do a very good job of explaining just what was so great about it. The impression most people got was that it was Metroid Prime all over again with some Zelda-inspired light-versus-dark themes thrown in to keep it from feeling stale.
And therein lies the problem. While all the wonderful things about Echoes — everything that makes it a memorable experience that will likely stay with you for months after you’ve completed it — are precisely those that make it different from Prime, they’re also:
a) Hard to describe in words. How do you say, “The level design is much better” or “Finding hidden items is more intuitive” without sounding vague?
b) Not apparent until you’re about 5 hours into the game, because Echoes is the first Metroid that actually feels like it takes place on a single planet and does a good job of tying different areas together without making the overall map seem completely ridiculous when you try to envision what it would look like in real life. The problem is, you need to experience a good portion of the game to understand just how well this concept is executed.
Still, these differences are certainly present, and they go a long way toward giving Echoes its unique flavour. Let’s talk about level design first because the rest of it stems from there.
Aether, which is the planet on which Echoes takes place, is put together extremely well. It’s astounding just how much Retro’s architectural sensibilities evolved between Prime and this game. While I’m in no position to be commenting on the technicalities of putting together a functional level — let alone an entire planet — I can certainly say that the level-design (if you can call them “levels”) in Echoes is one of the best in any game I’ve come across. In Metroid Prime, I always had a very hard time envisioning how Tallon IV was structured. The Magmoor Caverns — filled with molten lava — led straight to the Phendrana Drifts, which were covered in snow? What? Furthermore, the Tallon Overworld just wasn’t very interesting as a separate level. Compared to the rest of the game, it felt a little barren.
Compare that to the way Echoes very effectively uses a substantially vaster and more interesting central hub area as the starting point for the game — detailing it enough to make it feel like its own separate level — and seamlessly links it to three other absolutely huge regions, each with their own “light” and “dark” versions, and you could swear they put far more thought into Aether’s design than Tallon’s. It feels like a single, consistent world. The Sanctuary Fortress on Aether couldn’t be more different from the Agon Wastes, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel like they were built and inhabited by different races. Instead, it helps you understand just how technologically advanced the Luminoth were, and the scans you come across throughout the game illustrate just how much they differ from the Chozo, who seem more primal by comparison.
But how could that be? The Chozo built the freaking Varia Suit for God’s sake. That miraculous piece of technology that could assimilate a Pepsi can and turn it into some kind of beneficial upgrade. No, the Chozo are just as sophisticated as the Luminoth. My theory is that SPD just haven’t done a very good job of fleshing the Chozo out in the numerous 2D Metroids they’ve worked on. It’s something I’m sure they’re aiming to fix with Metroid: Other M, but for the time being, the Luminoth and the civilization of Bryyo in Corruption are far more well-defined in my eyes. Retro clearly had more freedom while developing Prime’s sequels, and it shows. They’ve put a great deal of thought into creating these worlds. You’ll constantly find yourself amazed at how large and complex some of the areas are, and how you always notice something new each time you return to an area you’ve already visited. The puzzles, the traversal, the scanning, the shooting…it all comes together so naturally.
And this is what Retro excel at. Not only creating a believable world but also giving meaning to everything in it. On Aether, the industrial areas are distinguished from the residential ones. The research centres distinguished from those meant for worship and religion.
Metroid Prime was a great game and it takes you on one heck of a ride, but after completing Echoes, I can’t help but feel that Prime was merely emulating Super Metroid in 3D. Echoes, on the other hand, is where Retro’s craftsmanship and originality really shines. They weren’t asked to work within the confines of existing Metroid lore. Everything about this game feels fresh, but also like it belongs. For once, I actually have use for the morph ball beyond just climbing spiderball tracks and getting into tiny passages. I can use it effectively as a weapon…I can use it as a means of defense. There’s even an explanation for why the spiderball works at all. (The Luminoth were experimenting with new transportation systems. It makes sense for these to be compatible with Samus’s suit because the Luminoth were supposed to be on good terms with the Chozo and likely traded technology with them.)
Everything about Echoes feels like it’s the perfect Metroid, when you compare it to what the concept of “Metroid” has been up until now. And this is what makes it so very unique. That Retro go out of their way to, at every point, remind you that you’re playing a game via subtle cues like the item collection messages and the music and the save points and the way Samus animates. Granted, this is because Metroid isn’t — or hasn’t been so far, rather — about its incredible and consistent (haha!) story or memorable characters. It’s always been about throwing players into a game and letting them “go out and play.” It’s always been very “gamey” and Retro very much wanted to stay true to this. Thing is, while this is perfectly acceptable in a 2D sidescroller, it’s much harder to walk that fine line between “gamey game” and “immersive game” in 3D (and in first-person at that), especially when half your audience wants one and half wants the other.
Both the gamey and the immersion factor in Echoes come from the experience of traveling through Aether. Of constantly moving from one place to another, making new discoveries, feeling yourself hounding the game as it tries to hound you, and eventually, coming full circle and leaving like you were never there at all. You’ll treat it as an experience, but you’ll also treat it as a game.
That isn’t to say Metroid Prime 2 doesn’t have a story to tell. In fact, the story across all three Prime games comes together much better than the story of Metroid as a whole. In Echoes alone, you learn so much about the Space Pirates and the Metroids that helps give meaning to your adversaries. There’s a very deliberate progression by which the pirates are the immediate threat at the start of the game, but are pushed further into the background as the Ing threat becomes more apparent and deadly the further you push on.
I just find it amusing that they can pull you into a make-believe world so easily, but would rather you keep your distance, so you can focus on the fun rather than the “immersion.” By the looks of it, Other M is trying to walk the same fine line Echoes does, and it has the benchmark set by Retro to live up to as far as I’m concerned.