(Switch) ***** Age: 15+
Few games can claim to have invented a genre but Nintendo’s Metroid series came to define a style named Metrovania that spawned a thousand imitators on many platforms. The signature elements of non-linear exploration gated by the dripfeed of special abilities reached an early peak with 2002’s superlative Metroid Prime for the Gamecube.
More than two decades later, Nintendo revealed and released on the same day Metroid Prime Remastered, a gleaming new remake for the Switch console. Imagine if Casablanca suddenly reappeared in widescreen Imax format or Elvis Presley’s raw early recordings resurfaced in polyphonic stereo. This is similarly a big deal.
In the convoluted Metroid timeline, Prime marked the fifth main instalment of the adventures of female bounty hunter Samus Aran. For context, Metroid 3 came out in 2007 and the much-delayed Metroid 4 has no visible release date despite its announcement in 2017. Having swerved back and forth between 2D and 3D, the series settled on 3D for Prime’s eerie exploration of abandoned planet Tallon IV, which has more than a few nods to Ridley Scott’s Alien.
During a breathless prologue in which Samus wields all her considerable powers, Prime pulls the usual stunt of stripping away all your abilities before you descend to Tallon IV. Now you’re alone in hostile territory with just a pea-shooter for defence. You learn about the familiar sci-fi trope of experiments gone wrong that left behind a horde of angry mutants. You get drawn into a warren of corkscrewing tunnels filled with strange creatures, runic symbols and hidden paths. Most of all, you feel utterly alone in a dangerous, unwelcoming place.
That was Prime’s triumph originally — its tremendous atmosphere, its pervasive air of mystery. The remaster gilds the lily with a visual and aural facelift that makes the planet at once more threatening and more beautiful. That it meddles precious little with the rest of the game speaks to 2002’s forward-looking source.
Samus gradually regains her faculties — from increased weaponry to her unusual transformation into a sphere. It’s a staccato process that slowly unlocks new traversal options and thus previously inaccessible sections of the planet. This element of backtracking — an accustomed feature of any Metroid — exposes one of Prime’s few flaws. The rotatable 3D map is adjacent to useless in handheld Switch mode, rendering it a challenge to determine your destination or even from which direction you’ve just come. Viewed on a big screen, however, it makes a lot more sense.
On a philosophical level, the map confusion aligns with the game’s conviction that it should explain nothing overtly. It leaves the player to scan the environment for clues both to your enemies and your ultimate goal.
Prime Remastered succeeds because it’s not content to turn Samus’s journey into a clichéd shooter. The expedition is as much about exploration and puzzle-solving as slaying enemies. Several boss fights provide a combat challenge where needed but the sense of immersion in a treacherous world is what will live longer in the memory.
My instinct with most remasters tends towards: yes, lovely, but why bother? In Prime’s case, it’s an exceptional exception.