The 'Super' in Metroid Prime 4 - ArticleSpencer Manigat , posted on 23 August 2017 / 8,351 Views
A year ago, I wrote an article lamenting over the Metroid series’ lessened focus on platforming since the transition to 3D with the introduction of the Metroid Prime series. This was at a time when the then current state of the franchise was in question, and the future wasn’t looking bright. Fast forward to today, and we now have two new Metroid games on the horizon; one being a 3DS remake of the Gameboy underdog, Metroid II: Return of Samus, and the other being the highly clamored for Metroid Prime 4.
As I expressed some nervousness around the idea of continuing to make games in the Metroid Prime series instead of doing something new, I thought it might be fun to explore how Nintendo could instead prove me wrong and turn Metroid Prime 4 into the platform adventure game that the first three couldn’t be. As this discussion will be a continuation of the previous one, I recommend you read that one first before moving forward.
What I really want from this new Metroid game, if they’re really sticking to this 1st person perspective, is for Nintendo to take inspiration from newer 1st person platformers like Mirror’s Edge, Titanfall, and even Portal to an extent. That’s what Prime lacked; an agile Samus. Where Prime 4 has the most room to improve over its predecessors is in Samus’ mobility, so let’s start there.
At the most basic level, Samus moves way too slow in the Prime games. Like in 2D Metroid, Samus’ default walking speed should be a light jog. For reasons we’ll get into later, her movement was slowed down tremendously in Prime, even taking away her ability to run, so those decisions need to be redacted. By simply increasing Samus’ walking speed and adding a run button, so many platforming possibilities already open up because these introduce momentum into the equation. Now Samus can jump further and higher, but this new mobility may bring up an interesting issue - one of control. One of the drawbacks of platforming in the 1st person is that your periphery is limited, so it may be hard to maintain perspective on exactly where you’re supposed to land. Another is depth perception. It can be hard to gauge distance in this perspective.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption gives Samus her double jump as an innate ability from the offset, and Prime 4 should follow suit. This was actually somewhat of an internal debate for me. Samus never starts off with the ability to double jump in the 2D games, so why should she here? The answer is that you simply cannot comfortably control trajectory mid-jump in the 1st person the way you can in a 2D platformer. That feeling of control is essential to making platforming enjoyable.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst handles this problem differently, but there’s a reason for it. With Catalyst, player character Faith doesn’t have superhuman mobility. What I mean by this is that she doesn’t jump higher or run faster than the average athletic human, so her platforming feats aren’t very extreme or demanding. You get the impression that, with enough training and exercise, you could probably do most of the things she does in game. Titanfall 2, by contrast, does give the player superhuman mobility. This means increased speed while wall running, higher jumps, and most importantly a double jump by default. Titanfall 2 understands that increased mobility needs more control measures to ensure enjoyment is maintained.
That being said, Catalyst isn’t completely devoid of control improvements, as it does allow for some margin of error with ledge grabbing, meaning that if you slightly miss a jump, you still have a chance to reach the platform. This isn’t new to Metroid. Ledge grabbing was introduced in Metroid: Fusion, but it’s definitely something that would add to the sense of control in Prime 4 along with the double jump. Prime fans should remember, however, that in the first two games, this double jump came in the form of the Space Jump Boots upgrade. This upgrade pays homage to the original Space Jump upgrade introduced in Metroid II, where its original function was to allow Samus to jump continuously. Continuously. Essentially, what we have now in Prime is another example of downgraded mobility, so let’s fix that.
Instead of removing the Space Jump Boots from Prime 4, let’s restore it to its original functionality, and give Samus back her infinite jump. We can even call them the “Super” Space Jump Boots to avoid confusion. In fact, let’s bring back her High Jump Boots as an upgrade as well, allowing Samus to jump much higher than before.
Now before anyone starts getting nervous, I see your concerns. You’re likely worried that giving Samus this much mobility in a 3D space will break the game. And I won’t lie to you about that; it will break the game, but that contributes so much to the charm of Samus Aran in the first place. She was always game-breakingly powerful by the end of her adventures. That’s largely the point. The important thing to keep in mind though is that the level design of games like Super Metroid and Metroid: Zero Mission was tweaked to accommodate and take advantage of this mobility in interesting and manageable ways. This has to be the case in Prime 4 for it to succeed. The world needs to be tailor built to contain Samus.
In order to be able to point out where the Prime level design philosophy has room to improve or adapt, however, we first have to recognize the technical limitations that likely birthed some of my issues with it. What is likely the biggest differentiating factor in level design between the 2D games and the Prime games is the fact that the 2D games were far more massive in scale. This is something that was really easy for me to take for granted before, but it obviously requires hardware with much more space and power to accurately replicate the immense scale of the worlds present in the 2D Metroid games. Because you’re playing in the 1st person, it’s easy to forget just how small most of the rooms in Metroid Prime are by comparison, and that’s not a flaw of game design, but a limitation of the hardware. That’s probably why Samus is so slow in these games. If she was any faster or jumped any higher, the illusion of scale would immediately be shattered as the world failed to load around her.
The hope then is that those limitations no longer exist. With the power of the Nintendo Switch, worlds can be made as vast as the Hyrule presented in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This isn’t at all to say that I want Prime 4 to be Nintendo’s next “open air” game. Quite the contrary. But the limitations in power and space should no longer be there, and the level design needs to evolve to follow suit.
As the Space Jump Boots would be a vertical platforming upgrade, this would naturally open the doors to a much more vertical level design focus, which was a huge area of weakness for the previous games. A quick look at any map in the Prime games will show you just how laterally levels were designed. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that Metroid Prime’s map was as lateral as Super Metroid’s was vertical. The challenge then becomes designing a world expansive, vertical, and labyrinthine enough to contain a protagonist with such overpowered abilities; a challenge that’s not at all insurmountable.
With a much larger map, rooms are now big enough to contain the Speed Booster. The big thing to keep in mind is that Samus doesn’t actually need to move very fast. The player just needs to feel like they’re moving fast. Much of this can be done with blur effects, pulling the camera back, and the like. Doing cheats like these will help keep the player feeling fast, but like they’re still in control. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that by the time the player even has access to a power up like the Space Jump Boots or the Speed Booster, they should already be past the point where they’ve earned the freedom to break the game. By the time the player has reached these upgrades, they should’ve already explored most of the map. This means that their primary function should be to eliminate the tedium of backtracking through areas by allowing the player to quickly and conveniently skip obstacles.
Metroid Prime 4 should be looking to replicate the spirit of the 2D games, not directly copy iconic 2D power ups in 3D. That was my big issue with the Screwattack in Primes 2 and 3. It just felt like Retro Studios was asked to represent that attack in the Prime games, and they slapped something together quickly without any thought to its original design intent. The Screwattack is basically just an expansion of the Space Jump. While the Space Jump grants players the ability to jump continuously, this is only so long as they aren’t attacked or stopped by an obstacle. The Screwattack eliminates this handicap by allowing players to bulldoze through enemies and obstacles unfazed. That’s why it’s cool.
If we want to replicate the spirit of the Screwattack in Prime 4, it has to be the same thing here. Just an expansion to the already present Space Jump Boots upgrade. Allowing Samus to jump into enemies like in the 2D games wouldn’t really work because of how unwieldly jumping is in the 1st person, so it would have to be something else. What could work is a sort of “Screw Tackle” homing attack. Namely, if you’re in the air and you lock onto an enemy and press the jump button, Samus will home in on and tackle them, killing them instantly. The momentum of the impact would then propel her slightly upward, allowing her to continue to gain altitude and keep her momentum going for subsequent jumps. This allows Samus to keep the spirit of the Screwattack without needing to make an inferior carbon copy that doesn’t work nearly as well just to have the name on the box.
Another ability that suffered from this mindless copy treatment is of course the wall jump, which for some reason was duct-taped onto the Screwattack upgrade in those games as well. This is an area where Mirror’s Edge shows clear room for improvement. Again, in order to see where Prime 4 can improve, we first need to look at why the wall jump worked in the first place. A big thing that fans like me appreciated is that you had to actually think to pull off the wall jump. The input wasn’t very difficult, but it was specific, meaning you had to be mindful while pulling it off. It made the player feel as skilled as pulling off a wall jump should make someone feel. Another unspoken element, at least in Super Metroid, was that players were actually able to exploit the wall jump to sequence break the game, or go to areas outside of the intended order. Also, it’s optional. Players never needed to wall jump to beat the game.
Now I’m not going to pretend to expect the designers of Prime 4 to intentionally allow players to exploit the game, but that’s the spirit that led to players loving this trick in the first place. It let players organically interact with the world in a way that, if skilled enough, granted them a real sense of freedom in how they explored. Restricting it to limited “wall jumpable” areas flies completely in the face of that. What Mirror’s Edge does, is it just allows Faith to perform wall jumps in the game’s own 1st person perspective. The input isn’t as simple as clicking jump against a wall either. It requires a little bit of momentum and a separate about-face button, but pulling it off grants that same sense of freedom found in Super Metroid. The only caveat is that Faith can only chain two of these jumps together.
Granting Samus the ability to chain these jumps continuously, on top of the added speed and the double jump, would be more than enough to give Samus an immense sense of freedom from the outset, but we can push things even further.
Mirror’s Edge and Titanfall are perhaps most notable for their wall running, and I don’t think this should skip Prime 4. In fact, this ability can even be expanded in Prime 4, allowing Samus to wall run both horizontally and vertically. These can be boosted further still by, well, the Speed Booster, granting Samus an endless wall run. It can also segue into a Shine Spark, catapulting her to far off platforms or plowing her through walls. The possibilities really are endless. My only worry is in the way that this would affect level design. Both games have their most interesting platforming challenges placed along the perimeter of the maps to facilitate wall running, and I don’t want Prime 4 to devolve into something like that.
Titanfall 2’s single player avoided this somewhat by having floating wall-runable platforms scattered in various locations throughout the maps, so this is the direction I’d want Prime 4 to go in, and only sparingly. Like with wall jumping, the most important thing is that it’s optional. Levels shouldn’t be designed to require wall running or wall jumping, but to facilitate them.
Equipping Prime 4’s Samus with so many platforming tools will obviously affect combat, so let’s talk about that. Metroid was never a franchise that put too much emphasis on the fights. The role of enemies was largely to act as obstacles to get in Samus’ way as she’d explore. Most enemies would actually double as platforms themselves once the Ice Beam was introduced, so I’d love for some sort of “platform beam” to return in the next game.
Where platforming and combat really shone together was in the boss fights. Last time, I talked about the Kraid fight in particular because it really is one of my favorite boss fights in the series. There’s just so much going on all at once. Something I really appreciate about Metroid’s approach to boss fights is that it’s always experience first. The reason Kraid’s fight is so good isn’t because it’s difficult, but because it really forces you to be a bad ass.
What I want for Prime 4 is a similar marriage between combat and platforming where the experience takes priority over anything else. I know we’re looking to 1st person games specifically for inspiration, but Metroid Fusion has to have the most dynamic collection of boss fights in the series. A lot of this is due to Samus’s new ability to climb here – an ability that Faith just so happens to also have in Catalyst. While it would be odd to see Nintendo explain how Samus was ever able to climb anything with a blaster on her arm, the combat possibilities are evident in many of the Fusion fights.
What Prime 4 needs is level design that not only encourages, but necessitates platforming during these boss encounters. It also needs bosses with movesets that necessitate platforming. The most common of these moves is the clichéd “ground-pound shock wave.” I’m more partial to forcing players to stand on platforms to reach the opponent’s weak spot though, while the enemy attacks those platforms.
With climbing, one of the coolest fights in Fusion has Samus climbing up a wall and then stopping to shoot at the boss Nightmare. Another has Samus climbing along monkey bars on the ceiling while shooting missiles downward at a giant mechanical spider. If these concepts seem too exciting for Prime 4, they really don’t have to be. Nothing about the 1st person perspective flies in the face of gameplay like this; Mirror’s Edge proves it. The objective is ultimately experience over everything else, though. If there’s a boss fight that would pack a harder narrative or emotional punch with limited platforming, let that be the case. But in at least half of the boss fights, I see no reason why it should be.
EXPLORATION THROUGH PLATFORMING
The most important elements of a platform adventure game are, of course, platforming and exploration. That’s why I put so much emphasis into platforming in the Metroid series; the platforming facilitates the exploration. In my mind, you can’t have one without the other because they’re so intrinsically entwined. I get why this idea makes people nervous, though. A big part of Metroid Prime’s appeal was that it forced players to slow down and just take in the game’s world. Not just literally by slowing Samus' walking speed down, but through mechanics like the Scan Visor forcing players to stay in one spot for a moment and just breathe.
The worry is that returning Samus to a more acrobatic pace would make players breeze through areas and skip those moments, but this just isn’t true. I think people forget just how difficult the platforming could be in Super Metroid the first time through, or just how long players would be in some areas. Super Metroid had a very different approach to how it slowed down players, and again, that approach was platforming. If you missed a jump in Super Metroid, you didn’t die, you fell. The punishment was having to get up and try it again. You were kept in the world, and as you overcame those little obstacles, you familiarized yourself with that room or that area.
Something else to keep in mind is that level design is what ultimately controls the pace of an area. Titanfall 2 proves that not all platforming needs to be a fast-paced speed run to be engaging. That being said, Mirror’s Edge proves that at least half of it should be. Many of Titanfall 2’s levels don’t give room for building momentum, which results in a more methodical approach to platforming. In contrast, most of the platforming in Mirror’s Edge is built around Faith building momentum, making her feel far more “super” than the Titanfall 2 protagonist, even though she has less juiced up abilities. What Prime 4 needs to do is find a balance between these two sides. The way players can bust through doors with no loading times in Catalyst is something that Prime 4 should take great strides to replicate, because hiding load times behind opening doors is no longer a good way to slowdown pace. Using the level design to slow down areas you want the player to take in more, ala Titanfall 2, absolutely is.
Can Metroid truly be preserved in the 1st person though, or would a greater focus on platforming ruin Metroid Prime 4? That’s really the question that all of this has been leading up to. Going by what I’ve said so far, the answer would have to be no, it would not ruin Prime 4. The improvements I’ve proposed would lead to an incredibly franchise authentic game, but there’s a catch. It would be franchise authentic specifically to the mainline Metroid games. To the 2D games, not to the games in the Prime series.
Narrative isn’t something I wanted to get into with this essay. The point of this mini-series was always just to examine how platforming plays a role in the Metroid series and nothing more. I’m not going to go into the specific narratives of any of the three Primes, but the Scan Visor obviously plays a major role in all of them. This isn’t an insignificant element present in these games either; it’s ingrained into the identity of all three of the Prime series, and it doesn’t really fit my vision for a “Super” Metroid Prime.
You’d think this wouldn’t bother me, just scrap it if it doesn’t fit, but franchise authenticity is more complicated than just being authentic to the first game in a series. Metroid Prime has set its own standards and established its own rules for what belongs in its own sub-series. What I’ve proposed for Prime 4 may be good for Metroid as a whole, but a lot of it flies in the face of the corner the Prime trilogy has since carved out for itself.
Should Prime 4 abandon being a Prime franchise authentic game to be a greater Metroid franchise authentic game? As much as I’d love that personally, the answer is probably no. The Metroid Prime brand means something now, and that something isn’t platform adventure. I think it’s fine to criticize it for that, but it’s carved its own path for itself and it’s been 10 years since the last.
That’s why my hope is that Nintendo doesn’t actually end up calling this new game Metroid Prime 4 at all. Keep the perspective. Keep the chronology. Keep everything that ties this game to the last, but change the branding for this one. I can get behind calling it Metroid Prime 4 for now as nothing else will communicate that this is a 1st person Metroid game more clearly than that, but after that, Nintendo should really give this game the room it needs to grow into its own thing, whether that matches my vision or not.
Can Metroid truly be preserved in the 1st person though, or would a greater focus on platforming ruin Metroid Prime 4? Those really are two opposing questions. To the first, the answer is yes and to the second, I really don’t know. The answer may still be no, but the Prime series might just loose a bit of its differentiating factor by turning into just the 3D "2D Metroid," which is never what it was. It was always a weird, different spin off, and that may be okay. Perhaps not in the absence of a more authentic 3D Metroid, not for me anyway, but in a vacuum it’s fine. Special, even.
Playing video games since the age of 5, Spencer Manigat has been fascinated with the possibilities of this interactive medium for nearly as long as he could speak. Recently, his growing obsession with learning about tactile mechanics, interactive narratives, and all things on the academic side of gaming has lit a new passion in him to discuss, debate, and critique various topics in this brilliant medium of video games that we all find ourselves participating in. Super Metroid, Metroid Prime, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker are a few of his favorite games. You can contact Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @spencewashere.