Important Games of My Childhood: Metroid Prime

by Tom Ingram

The first video game I ever played was Super Smash Bros. It united twelve classic video game characters with their own unique attacks, abilities, and weaknesses. I had only heard of a few of them. Even to people who didn’t play video games, Mario, Link, and the two Pokemon were ubiquitous. When Melee came out a few years later, it was the first game we got for the Gamecube. By this point I had played enough games to know who Luigi, Mario, DK, Link, Yoshi, Kirby, Fox, Pikachu, and Jigglypuff were, and I was at least dimly aware of the other ones.

One of these “other ones” was Samus, the main character of the Metroid series. Her games were well-known among gamers, but to this day I’ve never met anybody who owned one of the early ones. It wasn’t until the release of Metroid Prime in 2002 that I first played as Samus in her element.

Samus is unique among video game characters. In a culture that tends to marginalize women even more than the mainstream, she is not only a female action hero, but one who isn’t particularly sexualized (certain…lapses notwithstanding). And she’s wildly popular. It’s one of those things that gives you hope about gender equality.

It’s easy to deride Samus as being only superficially female (I’ve seen this eloquently described as “dude with tits syndrome”). But that’s sort of the point. One of the most pernicious, deep-seated ideas in our culture is that men and women are irreconcilably different, completely unknowable to each other. Men and women are the same 99 percent of the time, and 99 percent of the differences are only there because our culture believes they ought to be.

Samus is neither self-conscious of her identity nor ashamed of it. She just is. She goes around wearing heavy armour, fighting the bad guys in the lonely wastes of the universe. And she’s female. This is what we mean when we say “strong female character”, and this is what we need more of*.

Metroid Prime was mind-blowing when it came out, and to this day I will gladly fight anybody who says it’s not one of the best games of all time. It built up an incredible atmosphere and told a story in a way that no other medium possibly could. All you know about Samus’s little adventure is the basics. She goes to investigate a distress signal. She happens across a Space Pirate frigate that’s been taken over by a giant parasite. She destroys the parasite, causing the ship to crashland on the nearby Tallon IV. She discovers that her archnemesis, the alien Ridley, is still alive in a cybernetically-modified form, and she follows him to the planet.

From here on out, you find out as much about the story as you want to. The information is there all around you, in easily-read computers or logbooks. The game is set in an extensive world with numerous areas to explore. As you go through the game you will have to backtrack and discover new facets to places you’ve been past a hundred times. Through bits and pieces, you slowly build up an idea of what happened on this planet.

Throughout, it’s you experiencing this. It’s easy during the long dreamy stretches to lose yourself in the game and forget about the wintery world outside. You don’t have to imagine that you’re seeing things through the eyes of the main character. You aren’t told about the awe-inspiring snow-capped peaks of the mountain with a sheer drop beneath. You see them. You jump across the chasms and pray you don’t fall to your death.

The game is slowly-paced. There are long stretches of exploration with very little action in them. But as much as telling a good story and providing a fun experience (which Prime does in spades), it’s about experiencing an entire world as a person within that world. Good authors can come close, but this kind of atmospheric storytelling is better suited to video games than any other medium.

The first time I worked through the game, I did it slowly, savouring every moment. I’ve never been very good at most games. I’m a button masher, and I never play most games online for fear of getting destroyed. It was a collaborative experience, in some ways, because my brothers and I would share tips on how to get past certain tricky spots. It was one of those games that’s fun to watch. Even though it was not a multiplayer game, it was a bonding experience. Since then, I’ve been through it several times. The power of that atmosphere never dims. The mystery of what happened on Tallon IV remains as compelling the third time you discover it.

Thinking about Metroid Prime makes me miss the days when I had long stretches of free time. I feel like I don’t have the time to properly appreciate a game anymore, and as a result I haven’t played one in months. It’s just part of growing up, I guess. Games aren’t just for kids, but kids are the ones who can appreciate them the way they’re meant to be played. As the age of gamers increases, the ability to make intricately-paced games with save points at regular intervals has receded. We have busy lives now. We’ve lost the childlike innocence of the three brothers sitting down for a dozen rounds of Smash Bros. As a result, so has our entertainment.

Very few games have come out in recent years that I can get excited about. It’s possible that it’s part of some grand decay of the industry, but deep down I fear something worse. Maybe it’s just us.

* Incidentally, Samus fails the Bechdel Test, offering more proof that it’s not useful in any specific instance, only in general. [return]