Metroid Prime's alien progression

Last week a friend of mine started playing Metroid Prime for the first time. While he enjoyed the game immensely, to me it was a bit of revelation to watch him play. I never experienced Metroid Prime as Metroid Prime. I always experienced it as “that game that came after Super Metroid“. As a result I blazed through the game. I never really stopped and thought about things.

Well, I did think about how the game was structured and why certain choices were made. But I didn’t realise how uninviting the game is. While watching my friend play the game, it hit me square in the face as he explored the ice country of Phendrana Drifts for the first time. As he picked up the Boost Ball upgrade, I remembered the next upgrade: the Space Jump Boots.

Which can be found at the very start of the game… Madness!

Don’t get me wrong, the to-and-fro’ing in the Metroid series is basically what defines a large part of its flow, but while the game up until that point had always left you wandering about in the same area, here it was suddenly asking you in the fourth uncovered area, to go back to the very first. It was anything but subtle.

Even worse, I already knew where the Space Jump Boots were located. He did not. The location therefore was completely out of bounds (if we disregard the hint-system). The needed item could be anywhere if he didn’t consciously notice all the half-pipes in the game up until that point. Personally, that’s what I want in a Metroid game. But for modern games, this might spell instant death.

Either players give up on the vague directions where to go next, or they give up at the thought of having to go back to the start to pick up an item, and then back to where they were to continue. It feels pointless. And indeed, it did feel pointless as I realised that step. Back when I played it for the first time, it wasn’t pointless; it was Metroid. I was thinking as a fan.

Nowadays, the sense of progression has become so incredibly important, that every aspect of a game must be drenched in it. Whether it’s a constantly filling EXP-bar or a large amount of Achievements and/or Trophies unlocking; we need constant confirmation that we are indeed going forward. The mere notion of going ‘backwards’ in any form is regarded and treated as failure.

It’s why large game worlds still exist, but are never as complex or maze-like as the worlds of Metroid. You don’t really ‘go back’ inGrand Theft Auto IV or inFamous. Everything is open and accessible so it’s just going ‘round the block. Even when you do go back, there’s a story-element driving it, confirming you need to go there to progress. Compare that to the silently waiting Space Jump Boots in Metroid Prime which you almost have to stumble over. It’s so subtle that almost nobody can notice it. No wonder the hint-system was put in. In GTA IV as long as you follow it, the story unlocks the next island for you. Follow the story in Metroid Prime and nothing happens, save for some background lore being uncovered.

All of this didn’t make my friend give up on the game; he’s pretty much an old-school core gamer with an adventurous streak and a thirst for exploration. But I knew that would it have been presented to a modern day gamer, Metroid Prime wouldn’t have stood a chance. And that makes me feel a little sad.