Version tested: Wii
Looking back, perhaps the most galling aspect of the GameCube's relative failure was that two of the best games of the past decade never reached a wider audience. Anyone who experienced Retro Studios' twin masterpieces, Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, will know that both of them deserved to be hailed alongside the very biggest brands in gaming.
Simply put, both games excelled at everything they did. The challenge was greater, the design more intelligent and imaginative, with intricate, varied and fully-realised worlds alive with lavish detail and absorbing atmosphere. How these shooter-adventures weren't multi-million-selling worldwide hits has always been a source of personal frustration. Even hardcore gamers seemed reluctant to give them a try.
The 2007 release of the series' conclusion, Corruption, provided some comfort but also a few niggles. The revamped Wii controls were tailor-made for the first-person shooting. At the time, we noted that the lock-on free-aiming system "gives a degree of fluid, accurate control that's far and away the most intuitive, satisfying system anyone's come up with on a console."
The idea that Nintendo and Retro might some day go back and apply these control enhancements to the first two Metroid Prime titles seemed almost too good to be true. The New Play Control reissues we've seen lately gave us hope that it could happen, but to throw all three titles onto a compilation package was beyond our wildest dreams. Not since Super Mario All Stars in the SNES era has Nintendo taken an opportunity to unite one of its great series in such an irresistible way.
Better yet, Retro hasn't thrown the package together without love. It has retooled the controls for the two GameCube episodes, added a full 16:9 widescreen mode, improved some of the texturing, and even rebalanced the games to answer the barrage of complaints about some of the howlingly unfair difficulty spikes which many will ruefully recall - especially from the repeatedly spiteful Echoes.
As a result, we're presented with a definitive collection which will not only appeal to those who missed out, but offer a tantalising opportunity for fans of the series to experience enhanced versions of some standout, must-own classics.
This generously-priced collection also presents a long-overdue opportunity to put the series in some sort of context. Released over a five-year period between the end of 2002 and 2007, the Prime games brought Metroid into that select club of game series which successfully negotiated the notoriously tricky transition from 2D to 3D. Retro not only managed it, but did so with breathtaking style.
When Metroid Prime made its debut in October 2002, fans were quick to jump on anyone daring to call it a first-person shooter. That was a little overzealous, looking back, but it's certainly fair to say that it's a multi-faceted title that involves a whole lot more than shooting aliens in the face. By retaining all the elements which made the original Metroids so revered, it fused platforming and puzzling with intense combat, while retaining the intricate game-world design that rewarded patient exploration.
It also kept upgrading at its core. Additional weapons and components would gradually allow the power-suited space-heroine Samus to take on new challenges, explore areas previously off-limits, and generally beef up her abilities across the course of the adventure.
The Metroid Prime games made fighting boss monsters a major event, and the generous rewards always felt appropriate after such memorable and taxing encounters. Often screen-filling, generally challenging, and imaginative in design, some of the key encounters (especially in the fearsome dark/light world of Echoes) became some of my own personal favourite boss encounters in videogames history. Driven by the chillingly insistent soundtrack, they were the sort of games that forced you, at such frantic moments, to press pause and furiously shake the strain out of your hands.
They could be real pad-bouncers, too. The murderously unnecessary requirement to restart boss encounters at the most recent save point would sometimes mean a lengthy trudge across the map to even reach the boss' location, never mind replay the damned thing. The chief flaw in the games, this unfortunate throwback to old-school game design remains in all three Metroid Prime titles, and still has the capacity to inspire the kind of red mist you maybe thought you'd grown out of. Losing maybe an hour of patient progress because you've neglected to save, and then stumbled unprepared across a boss is a cruel and - these days - unusual punishment.
Nevertheless, the improvements to both Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes are worth celebrating. The slick controls, combined with lock-on free aiming, make them a joy to play - and in some senses, slightly easier.
The originals' curious decision to forgo the standard twin-stick console control system in first-person mode meant that players had to hold down the right shoulder button to look around. These days, you simply point the remote to aim, and move around with the nunchuk, turning by pointing at the sides of the screen. Combined with the ability to easily lock on to a target with Z, and dash-evade by tapping B, it's a system which feels as precise as you'd hope without being ache-inducing. Factor in the rebalancing of some of the more insanely difficult enemies, and you end up with games which stay on the right side of challenging.
A few improvements that made Corruption feel more refined have not made the transition to either Metroid Prime or its sequel, however. Most obviously, the expanded on-screen mini-map that made navigating the sprawling environments in Corruption so much easier hasn't been retrofitted to 1 or 2.
But even without refinement, I would still rate both GameCube Primes ahead of the series' concluding part. Corruption suffered for the simple reason that Retro had started to run out of ideas. If it felt contrived having to find all of Samus' gear in Echoes, having to do it yet again the third time around was stretching the formula. With hindsight, it was the excellent controls which helped us tolerate the repetition, but playing them back-to-back now, Corruption can't help but feel stale by comparison. An over-reliance on novelty motion controls creeps into the game, and the boss design also suffers, with certain elements contrived as a means to show off the controller - while the addition of voiceovers to the NPCs jarred with the Metroid atmosphere.
What's surprising about the first two Metroid Prime games is how little they've aged technically. While it can be horrifying to go back to games from a previous generation on bigger, sharper screens, Retro's titles still stand out for their visual opulence. With fantastic world design and a varied selection of imaginative creatures populating the various worlds, the satisfaction to derive from discovery and exploration is immense. And with widescreen support and a modicum of texture improvement in evidence, you'll still find yourself enchanted by some of the most well-realised game-worlds ever created.
Unlike so many linear action adventures, these are environments you'll get to know intimately, thanks to the ever-present need to revisit them to scour previously inaccessible areas for secrets, upgrades, or simply to make progress. The requirement to continually criss-cross environments in Metroid Prime games might seem a cheap way to pad them out, but it's actually part of their enduring appeal.
The way the games drip-feed their narrative is also contrary to tradition. Equipped with a scan visor, you'll need to scan everything to find out anything at all about the story: dead bodies, equipment, adversaries, the works. To begin with it feels a bit unnecessary, but again, once you're immersed, it can become a curious compulsion. You learn so much more about the world and its inhabitants this way, and after a while you actually find yourself caring more too. Somewhere along the line, the Metroid Primes transcend from mere action games to beautifully-crafted works of interactive science-fiction.
Laid end-to-end, you're looking at maybe as much as 100 hours of top-quality entertainment in Metroid Prime Trilogy. Although it's hardly been spoken of as a high-priority release by Nintendo, this could well be the finest single product it has released for the Wii. For all its quirks, Metroid Prime remains a landmark action series, and as such, owning it ought to be mandatory.
9 / 10