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It still seems amazing that Metroid
could have been to made to work in three dimensions. Point for
point, everything Super Metroid had is here, and with a
Published by Nintendo
Developed by Retro Studios
Primarily designed by Mark Pacini, Karl Deckard and Mike Wikan
Most of the Metroid games have proven to be paradise for sequence breakers (especially Zero Mission, which was designed with sequence-breaking in mind!), and Prime is no exception. Progress through these games is driven by abilities gained due to found powerups, but sometimes this is done in a binary, get-the-boots-to-jump-the-wall fashion. If one can find a way to get over the wall without the boots, then it might be some time before the next wall shows up. Sometimes bypassing the wall nets the player a new powerup that makes some walls obsolete. In the very first room on the planet surface there's a door high up that leads to the Space Jump Boots. Some versions of the game have a subtle bug that allows players to propel themselves onto the high ledge that leads to the boots, opening their vistas tremendously from the start and making the game far less linear.
Ultimately, Metroid Prime is Super Metroid in 3D. That itself is reason for amazement.
The biggest thing the series gains from the transition, it seems, is atmosphere. Of course the Metroid games have always been atmospheric, but there's a qualitative difference in seeing these things in three dimensions, and rendered in realistic polygons instead of tiles. Yet there is also a drawback to this; it takes far much more work to produce an equivalent room in a 3D game, to current graphic standards, than a 2D one. Modellers, texturers, and level designers must be employed to create all the assets required, while a 2D room can still conceivably be created by one or two people. This matters because, as mentioned earlier, an exploration game is ultimately about consumption. Terrain is consumed by the player's travels. Once it is seen once it'll never have the same effect on him again.
If a designer is smart, he'll try to work around this by trying to get more use out of each place. Sight-seeing need not be the only source of interest from a room. Metroid Prime attempts to get around this in the traditional Metroid ways: by making players backtrack between points, which provides the navigation challenge of getting around, and by hiding important powerups around the landscape to give players a reason to investigate each area. That also makes the scenery more interesting by forcing the player to pay attention to it, instead of treating it like mere wallpaper.
Another way they do it: later on the monsters in some areas changes to the difficult-to-kill Chozo Ghosts enemies. Backtracking through an area long after it was first seen is usually trivial by the time it's seen again, since by that time the player has much more power and health. The Ghosts help to counteract that, yet they don't really replace the normal enemies. They randomly infest certain rooms. If they're killed, the room goes back to the previous enemies for a while, but if the player leaves without killing them, they'll still be there when he returns.
Something must be said about the artifact search late in the game, in particular the reaction of some reviewers to this kind of task. I'm all in favor of it. Engaging the player in a treasure hunt is a substantively different task than the step-by-step objective chasing that forms the rest of the game's structure. It makes the game world seem much more like a real place besides. If the player never had to go back through old areas, or search through them, then why should they be arranged as a complex to be explored at all? Why not just arrange them in a straight line and prevent backtracking, and save the player the effort of navigation?
If a game is truly about exploring then these kinds of tasks should be seen as the main objective, instead of a bothersome distraction. People who complain about wandering around are missing the point. While I would caution against rejecting these players outright, I consider that they should be included by expanding their perspective through entertaining discovery play, rather than by making yet more straight action games.
On a personal note, Metroid Prime remains my favorite of Retro Studios' updates of the classic games. Its story is the least infested by the cliches of game-writing and its loathsome short-hands, with "corruption" and "darkness" lathered liberally over its polygonal surfaces. (The worst game in that regard: Kingdom Hearts.) The second game went and made that the theme, and the third puts it right into the title. There's only so much of that a gamer can take, and at least the first Prime game kept it to a minimum.
It seems like the first Prime was mostly R&D, proving the classic Metroid structure could work in a 3D game. The later games expand upon the basic concept, with stuff like Prime 2's parallel world, but there's no real indication that it particularly needed expanding. At least 3 does bring in many new powerups and intra-planet travel.
If you're making a open world game, don't get pulled off-track! I consider exploration to be a primal impulse up there with fighting, eating and sex, and is better suited for games for being more intellectual than those others. But the degree to which players will be enthralled by their discoveries is directly proportional to the imagination you put into your world. There is definitely no shame in including combat portions, but decide early on if it's a shooter or an exploring game, and then don't lessen the one you prefer at the expense of the other.
After Ocarina of Time's quest approach and Majora's Mask's ruling gimmick, Wind Waker returned Zelda to an emphasis on poking around and finding stuff.
Developed by Nintendo EAD
Main designer: Eiji Aouma
While host to a much greater exploration aspect than the Zeldas just prior, the game puts off access to the full world for a surprisingly long time. There are effectively seven dungeons in this one, and the player's talking boat prohibits access to places outside the direct route between essential places until three of them have been finished.
Some vocal players reacted with dismay towards the Triforce search quest immediately before the final areas. There are aspects of make-work in it (since essential maps to this part cost lots of rupees to use) but all-in-all, it was a welcome change back to the original Zelda pattern, involving the players using their wit in a search for artifacts, more than straight-up combat and puzzle-solving. When it comes down to it there are not that many kinds of activities available for game developers to put into games, and most devote themselves to narrow subset of those: fighting, talking, and solving abstract puzzles. Hunting for treasures is severely under used, not over.
Ah, another Nintendo product. This one makes five in all on this list. I apologize for this, but then, Nintendo did a lot to popularize this kind of game, especially in their 3D efforts. Anyway, here I spare no words, other than these, to discuss the developer's bold decision to cel-shade the game. If you are one of the many who dislike Wind Waker for attempting a comic art style, there are plenty of alternatives for you to enjoy.
Wind Waker makes the list for one over-riding reason: the sea. It is an amazing thing. It is the first game to bring back to the series that feeling of stumbling upon awesome things just lying around that the first game had. Even Link to the Past had secrets that felt more like the player was being led to them, or that weren't meant to be secret at all. Wind Waker brings navigation in to become a much larger part of the game, and makes the map facility much more important than before.
In addition to the individual area maps, there are maps that point the location of upgrades, maps that show treasure locations, maps that show triforce pieces, maps that show secrets, and maps that show giant squid. There's even, for the first time in any Zelda game, a map that helps players find Heart Pieces, an aid that was reprised in Twilight Princess' fortune teller.
But I shouldn't neglect why it is the secrets seem harder to find here, or why the maps are important. It's because the game world is freaking huge. Although it's mostly water, it's true, in size it begins to approach vast-scope RPG worlds like that of Oblivion. Both games tend to have less going on per square foot, however, than a simulation sandbox game like a 3D Grand Theft Auto.
Plenty of the islands in Wind Waker utilize a technique I like to call the Significant Void. If you see a button on a speck of land in the middle of a vast field of blue, who could bear not to press it? Even if there's no other clue nearby to indicate there's a secret there, the presence of the button itself is a clue.
Many of the islands in the game work like this. One that sticks out in memory is an island with a step button, a hammer button, a flame wall, and a hidden spike wall, among other things. Just pressing one of the three buttons there wasn't enough to reveal any secret; it turned out each had a timer on it that caused it to pop back up. So, the player has to figure out the right order, hit them all in time, and find out how to get between them quickly enough. Not only that, but some of these buttons required using items found elsewhere in the game. By the time I finally got the stuff I needed and figured out the puzzle, I hadn't even realized that there was no other clue that anything was hidden there! The presence of the puzzle elements there was enough to indicate a secret could be found.
Take that a step further: if there's an island in the middle of nowhere with nothing on it, the player would be greatly disappointed if there turned out to be no significance to it. It is the responsibility of level designers to not just produce significance leading to goodies, but to reduce significance when there are no goodies to be found.