Nintendo and Retro studio’s METROID PRIME TRILOGY is rightfully regarded as one of the best gaming trilogies in history. And to be fair, have a legitimate claim of being the greatest game trilogy period. If there are three games successively produced by a company in a franchise that are so consistently this incredible, then I haven’t played them. And hey, they even nailed their trilogy closer, unlike a once-great Canadian RPG developer that will go unnamed here. (BIOWARE).
But the internet is an odd mistress. One that is steeped in anger, holds grudges, throws tantrums and has a very, very short term memory. It’s a place where the line between truth and fiction oft becomes blurred and subjectivity of opinion is treated as a crutch to insult each other and rush to judgement. And since its’ inhabited in many of its’ corners by bitter, angry, temperamental loners who constantly need validation, group-think becomes a completely normal way of approaching things. So the way most things are perceived on the basis of the exactly how much they did or didn’t piss fanboys off and not really on actual merit.
And this ritual of narrative forming oft devalues great creative and artistic endeavors and damages their reputation over time, with no concrete guarantees of a sure shot re-appraisal down the line. It may happen. It may not. But there is no doubt that it hurts the message and intent of the piece of art in general, which is absolutely not conducive to the people who created it and the reasoning behind why they did it.
Now, let’s not make a mistake. I won’t even dream of calling THE PRIME TRILOGY underappreciated. They were some of the highest rated games in their time and were rightfully regarded by the the press as not only some of the best, most ground-breaking action adventure games in existence but true- blue, uncompromising METROID titles, made with all the core ethos of the series intact without compromise. The multi-layered level design, challenging exploration, character progression, atmospheric isolation, haunting soundtrack and hard-core boss fights not only survived the translation from 2D to 3D but in fact were better than ever.
The internet is filled with Nostalgia pinged commentary, videos and retrospectives where gamers obsessively and passionately detail their first experiences stepping into Samus’ shoes in 3D, you’ll hear and read stuff about the incredible level design, delectable atmosphere, genius implementation of the scan visor for environmental exploration, intense enemy and boss encounters, item pickups ,secrets and ground breaking puzzles of the original METROID PRIME as well as the superb Wii motion controls, the superb visuals, spider ball puzzles ,level design, genius save system and the sheer scale of PRIME 3: CORRUPTION that ultimately refined the peerless formula into its’ logical conclusion.
And then you’ll hear them talk shit about PRIME 2: ECHOES.
Which is both a shame and also typical for things that are ahead of the curve.
Now sure, there’s no doubting that the whole PRIME series as a whole has been influential for the first person genre. From nailing first person platforming, multi-tiered boss fights, logical puzzles, popularizing environmental storytelling again( i.e “logs”) and a sense of place, weighty weapons and world-building that influenced so many first person games ( i.e EVERY first person game today) and focus on how to build atmosphere and isolation that helped out other genres as well, it can be argued that the first METROID PRIME (aside from being timeless) is one of the single most ground-breaking games of the 6th generation and one who’s influence helped shaped other landmark games like BIOSHOCK and DEAD SPACE.***
But it is the second game in the PRIME trilogy that had a more sophisticated impact in the gaming medium, in this writers’ opinion. One that wasn’t very noticeable at first but accumulated throughout a slow burn over the years . PRIME 2 may not get the universal love from all corners but it certainly gets its share from its’ devoted fans and obsessives who can clearly see some of its design imprint evolve into a lot of popular and over-analysed modern games , which ironically seemed to have stolen most of PRIME 2’s credit (more on that in a bit).
And I can’t even come up with a catchy or amusing line to transition into the next paragraph where I discuss it in detail because ECHOES isn’t the sort of thing that can be described in a mere few words. Here goes anyway:
One will label it as a ‘tedious, over-complicated disappointing slog of a sequel’ and the other who will call it ‘one of the most innovative and complex games ever made’ and to be completely fair, it’s really both at the same time
See, there are two camps of people when it comes to this game. One will label it as a ‘tedious, over-complicated disappointing slog of a sequel’ and the other who will call it ‘one of the most innovative and complex games ever made’ and to be completely fair, it’s really both at the same time. When at its worst, it’s incredibly tedious and frustrating with design decision that would be booed off 2 minutes into a college game design class and when it’s at its best, it uses ground-breaking level design and seemingly precognitive knowledge of player psychology to create some indelible gaming moments that seem almost impossible in theory but still somehow seem to be occurring before your very senses.
I’d say the good: bad ratio is about 70:30. With the ‘good portion’ being the result of some of the best brains ever clicking together collaboratively to make a video game and the ‘bad portion’ being seemingly the result of the days where they showed up to work drunk and on downers. As I mention before, it’s incredibly hard to talk about. Moving on..
Firstly, the core ethos behind ECHOES seems to be subvert the average METROID fan’s expectations and turn them inside out. Especially, those who played the first PRIME. As you can probably guess, this is a bone of contention among fanboys, one of whose primary complaints is : “Why is this not like the way I’m used to it being?”. This sort of thing is pretty commonplace these days, where developers bend over to internet fanboys just to ensure they make the safest possible product and recoup their investment but believe it or not, there was a time when they took risks. They didn’t always work but the ambition was palpable, which in turn was great for the Industry in the long run. And helped inspire new discussions in games and gameplay design.
Which is what Retro studios did. They could have coasted on the success of the original PRIME and could have made the exact same game but instead of hedging their bets, they doubled down on challenging the many things people liked about the first PRIME and twisting them into things that quite frankly most people weren’t expecting and came up with their own version of METROID game. One that catered to the things and themes they were interested in, as opposed to filling a checklist Nintendo wanted for the next game. ECHOES, despite the Nintendo label on it, feels like a true auteur game. One that Retro studios were inspired to make from the works of people like Ken Russell, H.R Geiger, William Gibson and JG Ballard etc. and not only just Miyamoto.
And that’s what sets ECHOES apart.
Whilst PRIME was a love letter to SUPER METROID and it’s classic Nintendo Legacy. ECHOES seems to literally fellate famous works of famed science fiction as well as quasi-post modernism. It also as mention seems to draw inspiration from Dadaist and surrealist paintings and probably filmmakers like David Cronenberg and David Lynch as well. The world of ‘Dark Aether’ in ECHOES seems a far cry from the lovingly and awe-inspiringly created glory of PRIME. Instead it feels like a living breathing organism straight out of a joint William S Burroughs/ William Gibson nightmare where organic tentacles spout from machinery, gigantic insectoid creatures roam about the landscape, the water seems to smell of extra-terrestrial toxin, the mechanical structures and machinery seems horribly contorted, the walls are carved with strange, obfuscated ritualistic design and have cervices protruding out of them that take the shape of strange sub humanoid- eye sockets as bizarre bacterial structures seem to sprout out of the flooring whilst Samus tensely navigates through this world. It feels TRULY like an isolated, dangerous Alien world that nobody has any business being in.
ECHOES in my opinion, is truly the game that fulfills the ‘Alien’ in the ‘Alien exploration’ quota that the METROID series made its name on. Sure, Tallon 4 in PRIME feels instantly iconic to every series fan but it still felt like a world that Samus came to dominate in the end. Dark Aether on the other hand, feels like a true challenge to even the most bad-ass heroine in video games. Even as you play it, you can literally hear Samus seething in uncertainty beneath her power suit, with thoughts in her mind often crossing over to the realization that perhaps this time she won’t make it out alive. And to make the most ferocious bounty hunter in gaming history feel that way is quite a bold move indeed.
Which is to say that the game is fucking hard.
It also knows you’ve played METROID PRIME. All that talk about it catering to a slightly more hard core audience has quite a bit of merit. Every aspect of the design is cranked up to either 11 and those that aren’t are removed entirely. The map is much larger, much harder to navigate and has to be tracked from two different perspectives, namely the ‘light zone’, which is the normal map and over world and the ‘dark zone’, a nightmarish alternate dimension, both of which you will be travelling across frequently back-and-forth to solve complex puzzles, fight difficult bosses and acquire classic METROID items and power ups. All of whom, by the way are also much challenging to find than the previous game. In fact, it’s very possible to now get stuck at a part where you require more health upgrades than you now currently possess and if that happens, you have no other choice to travel back to open zones and look for them. Also, now the special beam weapons require ammunition, so you can’t blast away to your hearts’ content like you could in PRIME. Giving it the feel of a genuine survival horror game.
This along with the ‘link to the past’ inspired multi-dimensional exploration, save points that seem to get farther and farther apart as you progress as well as re-spawning enemies and frequently occurring Boss fights that are much tougher to take down makes the game simply too intimidating for newer players. If you’re new to METROID and somehow had/have the misfortune of starting with ECHOES, then I feel for you. Believe me. It should never be the first METROID game anybody should play.
Modern day COD/ Battlefield fans won’t even last half an hour.
See, there is no sugar-coating this. Whether casual gamer or hard-core METROID fan, you will get lost, you will get your ass kicked and you will on many occasions fight the urge to take your controller and throw it out your window.
And it’s all by design. ECHOES is often called a ‘connoisseurs’ METROID game by many people and that is just about the perfect way to describe it. It takes the already overzealous, borderline OCD, elitist nature of the METROID fan base and has the gall to take their preconceptions for a toss. Sure, these people brag about their love of zero hand holding, hard core exploration and speed running skills and ECHOES has the audacity of putting them all in their places and giving them something that is so complex, multi-faceted and lengthy that no matter how many times they mastered one hour PRIME speed runs, won’t be able to do so here even after beating it a few times.
You bragged about finding the best shortcuts in PRIME? Good luck finding the best one say, from the save point mid-way through Agon Wastes to the bottom of Dark Torvus bog and then back again without feeling like someone slipped you pills that cause short term amnesia. If you want to master ECHOES, you will have to put your speed running ambitions on hold and just focus on absorbing the environment and enemy patters first and finding a way around that. No matter how bitchin’ your PRIME skills were, you are NOT completing this one in less than 20 hours. So it’s time to swallow the pride and braggadocio and learn to play the game the way it’s intended. (In the later parts of the game, the backtracking gets even more intense so it’s best to take one step at a time and not try to beat yourself over not finding the best route. Just saying)
Now with that being said, notice that I mentioned the word complex. Not convoluted. That’s the magic of game design. No matter how complex the game gets, the progression is still laid out in the genius way. True to METROID fashion, you keep on acquiring new gadgets and gear at a superb rate and use them to open new shortcuts and pathways and solve amazing complex, multi perspective puzzles like these almost out of intuition (look at around the 2:27 mark):
You will be lost many times but you will never truly be hopeless. Even if you land up in prior areas with no clue on where to go next, you will be able to access previously blocked areas and acquire weapon upgrades at a very fast rate, making it sure that your time isn’t going to waste. Yes, it’s a big confusing world, but it’s got loads of stuff in it. And figuring out exactly how to get it is part of the fun (And by extension the METROID experience).
It also bears mentioning that in its best moments, ECHOES is a far superior game to its predecessor. A lot of its level design is sharper, the inter-connectivity is far clever, the puzzles are some of the best in any game ever and the new spider ball ‘boost’ ability makes for gameplay sequences that make the bloody jaw drop, even in 2017.
When firing on all cylinders, ECHOES pushes first person gaming even further than its predecessor. With gameplay that blends many disparate elements of the series (shooting, exploration, spider ball puzzles, scanning) and blends those together seamlessly with complex, multi-perspective level design in a way that would make even Valve jealous.
And yes, by which I mean the goddamn Sanctuary Fortress.
AKA the greatest level ever designed in a METROID game and by extension, one of the greatest ever designed in any game.
This thing is to ECHOES what ‘surface tension’ was to HALF LIFE and ‘Ravenholm’ was to HALF LIFE 2. Which is, the culmination of its ambitious design. Described in game lore as the once-proud, now fallen galactic complex of an advance Alien race, It’s plays like a hyper-complex, cyberpunk, almost post-modernistic, Alien Rubik’s’ cube that Samus has to figure out on her own, using all her present abilities and brave its many challenges. From an artistic perspective too, it’s the apex of ECHOES’ aesthetic choices. By which I mean to say, it looks something positively Alien in design. H.R Geiger would blush, believe me. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen sentient micro-sized Alien insectoid drones scurry up against metal walls in groups.
And the epic culmination with multi-tiered, incredible boss fight against Quadraxis is just some truly next-level design that most modern games don’t have the guts to even dare try. Let alone pull off successfully.
From start to finish, every pixel of ECHOES speaks complexity, sophistication and a precognitive understanding of scale, scope and how to guide the player through an increasingly complicated and obscure set of challenges.
And this is where we start talking about ECHOES’ influence on modern games that we discussed earlier: In 2004, it was one of the two games which skewed slightly towards hard-core gamers (the other one being Ninja Gaiden for the xbox) and it was one of the first 3D games to successfully master both obfuscated (yet logical) storytelling and hyper complex level design. It had the courage of its’ convictions to throw gamers in the deep end from the very start with minimal hand holding and introduced complex, multi-perspective exploration in which players had to keep track of a staggering number of things at the same time. This is a philosophy that has come back to popularity in recent times and it all but feels certain that the design philosophy behind like PORTAL, BRAID, THE WITNESS, GHOST TRICK and THE TALOS PRINCIPLE (amongst others) was in many ways inspired by ECHOES.( Not to mention the DARK SOULS series which cribs almost shamelessly, but hey that’s a topic for another time) . In fact, I’d argue that most of those games would never exist had ECHOES hadn’t launched.
I mean it’s entirely possible that your average COD fan will never, ever, ever touch it.
ECHOES, in my opinion is the progenitor of the modern 3D puzzle game that so many people obsess over on the internet and write multiple college dissertations on. Whilst PRIME taught FPS’s a lesson or two, ECHOES’ influence was more apparent on a more niche segment. Which is why perhaps, it doesn’t get the talk it deserves. I mean it’s entirely possible that your average COD fan will never, ever, ever touch it and little kids who start playing it will be bored within the first 15 minutes. But both its central aesthetic of unsettling, oppressive, alien atmosphere and complex level design seems to have seeped on very successfully to the modern era. In that respect, ECHOES is the grandfather of your average pretentious ‘Indie puzzle game’ that wears it’s abstraction on its sleeve as a mark of pride and is a staple of hipster couches all over the globe.
But yeah, it’s got big problems.
You see, as much of a champion I am of this game, I will have to admit whole heartedly that it is not finished. It’s common knowledge now that this game was subject to a troubled development cycle, with Nintendo giving ultra-strict deadlines and Retro studios over ambitious approach resulting in a game that was only 30% finished 3 months before release date and had to scramble to make ends meet. And whilst no doubt, it is incredibly impressive that the final product came together the way it did, the cracks on the surface are all but visible to even the most naked of eyes.
Which is a gentle way of saying that ECHOES shoots itself in the foot quite often.
Firstly, the two horrendously designed boss fights against the Boost Guardian and the Spider Guardian that deserve all the scorn they get. All but ensuring that there was at least a good number of people will lose patience and never finish ECHOES. Whilst the Boost guardian is still a great, well designed fight that is undone by terrible damage scaling, the Spider Guardian borders on masochism, requiring the user to input a series of extremely precise commands with no margin of error and goes on for far too long, with the last third of it being just absurdly difficult. Oh and you have to beat it in your Morph Ball form with the last save point being at least 15 minutes away??. Both of these were eventually rectified a bit on the Wii compilation but they’re still a fucking pain in the ass to get through. Even if they get points for trying new things (and NOT succeeding).
Secondly, there’s the fact that the special beam weapons have limited ammunition. Bringing an aspect of ammo conservation into the game. Now, this is not as infuriating as the former but it still feels completely unnecessary. ECHOES is hard enough as it is and it can be tedious sometimes to just having to rely on you standard charge beam to get through levels without no ice or power beam to back it up. Part of the fun of PRIME was coming back to previous areas and owning all the enemies that gave you so much trouble with your new weapons and power ups and that is absent here. One question to Retro: Why?
Thirdly, there is the fucking Sky temple key hunt. The usual Nintendo late game fetch quest, except 100 times less fun and 1000 times more needlessly complicated. PRIME’s late game Chozo artifacts were forgivable but ECHOES’ insistence to obscuring its Key Hunt behind absurd conditions (read: cross reference the in game lore) is just all but game breaking. At this point , 99% of the game is almost over so most people will just not bother and YouTube the ending and move on. The first time, I beat it, I had to get a guide just to get it over with so I could feel like I got my money’s worth and finish it just for completion’s sake. It feels tacked on and unnecessary and makes a game already requiring overt backtracking feel more bloated. Once again Retro: Why?
Even though these things together collectively drag down ECHOES to a considerable degree, it is still a remarkable, one-of-a-kind game and by all means can be recommended to adventurous gamers who like seeing new things. With caveats, of course. It’s highs are some of the highest in all of gaming (let alone just Metroid) and its lows are so drastic, it makes you question Nintendo and Retro’s playtesting and QC. But by all means, play it as soon as a possible. The sheer scale and ambition and the fact that RETRO studios pulled about 85% of it flawlessly on such a tight schedule makes ECHOES just a vital and impressive game as it’s’ predecessor. And what it lacks in PRIME’s perfection, it more than makes up for it in its ambition and scale.
A large portion of the METROID fan-base buried echoes’ reputation due to said flaws and it as a result its’ innovations got buried with them too. With that being said, no better time to rediscover them and experience one of the most unique games in one of the most unique game series ever. It’s available as a part of the PRIME TRILOGY collection on the Wii/Wii U store , which you should pick up without hesitation.
It’s a 13 year old game that still feels light years ahead of its’ time. And in its best moments, it’s the absolute best of the PRIME games. Seek it out.
And that soundtrack. Jesus.
** System Shock/ Looking Glass studios pioneered it. I know. Relax. I was just trying to state PRIME’s significant influence in pioneering atmospheric immersion in those later games.