Metroid Prime 4: Fantasy Pitch
Posted at 23:14 on 20th August 2018 - permalink

We now know that Metroid Prime 4 is coming at some point in the lifetime of the Nintendo Switch. The as-yet-unannounced developers have big shoes to fill: the interval between Metroid Prime 3 and 4 will be longer even than the one between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime.

While the Switch is a substantially more powerful platform than the Gamecube or Wii, it’s hard to imagine the new game having the same epoch-shattering impact Metroid Prime did in 2002. Now players are spoiled for choice for sprawling, rich fantasy worlds to explore, what can still be done to surprise them?

Even before the announcement, I’d thought a lot over the years about how the Prime series could be revisited in the light of subsequent developments in technology and design trends. While I wait for the call from Shigeru Miyamoto, I’ve jotted some ideas down here.

What works

First off, I don’t think the Prime series needs to dramatically pivot in the way games like Breath of the Wild or Resident Evil 4 called a reset on their respective franchises. The view should still be first person, the world should still be relatively small and dense, and the player character should still be Samus Aran, alone in a remote alien environment with the minimum of friendly NPC encounters.

There are some established expectations of what a Metroid game should be, both thematically and mechanically. Quite a lot of the appeal of the series is that it’s such an out-of-character thing for Nintendo to make. The series’s aesthetic takes cues from Alien as well as pulpy horror comics, and it was successfully marketed to seem timeless and exotic.

From my first glancing encounter with the series (when a school friend bought Super Metroid), I got the impression of being privy to something momentous – the oversized box, and the ponderous (subtitled!) intro sequence, and the promise of a sprawling world all diverging from the console game norms we’d understood up to that point.

When Metroid Prime came along it used the change in viewpoint to really thoroughly explore the feeling of being a foreign entity intruding into a lethally hostile ecosystem with only a thin shell of metal and glass protecting you. (This theme is referenced right away in the electron microscope images on the title screen, and Retro only get more confident from there.)

It went to great pains to not break immersion (only leaving the first person view for brief establishing cutscenes) and constantly used small animations and effects to remind the player that Samus is physically present in the world (from reflections and condensation on the visor, to displaced leaves and pollen, to idle animations such as Samus holding out her palm to feel raindrops).

But we can’t just remake Metroid Prime (although if Nintendo did, I’d definitely buy it). If we’re keeping what works, we need to give Samus a new interesting challenge to face, and new themes to explore.

Themes

Retro Studios already covered a lot of the stock adventure game clich├ęs in their trilogy – ice and lava worlds, light and dark worlds, giving the hero an evil twin and a life-sapping (but ability-granting) curse. But we don’t have to resort to Nintendo’s favoured tactic of coming up with hyper-specific themes (e.g. coffee, emotions, wool, hats) for late entries in a series just yet.

There was a minor enemy in Metroid Prime 2 (the rezbit – used perhaps only once or twice in the whole game) that could attack Samus by crashing her cybernetic suit’s computer, requiring the player to ‘reboot’ it to be able to see again.

A cute throwaway Robocop-esque gimmick, but it made me think that this could be the key to doing something new with Metroid Prime’s situation: have Samus face off against an alien species that can ‘ghost hack’ her suit’s systems. Samus’s suit has always been a dependable constant in the series – having to be wary of it being breached (perhaps having to actively maintain its integrity?) would add a new level of tension.

The player could then use the tools at their disposal (visors, beams and environment traversal) to reveal misleading sensory data, both to find secrets and to advance the game. As the game progresses there would be an escalating arms race in Samus’s puzzle solving ability and the level of cunning used by the enemy to cover their tracks. (This would also provide an excuse if needed to take the adventure to more abstract locations, if the enemy eventually resorts to creating wholly illusory environments – plundering Samus’s memories perhaps?)

It would require some care to stop the unreliable inputs from being frustrating and confusing for the player – perhaps these sequences would be used sparingly and signposted for players paying attention. When designing the puzzles it should also be kept in mind that this isn’t intended to be a ‘sanity’ mechanic as seen in some survival horror games.

(Another somewhat meta idea – which I don’t think Nintendo would allow, sadly – would be for the game to detect when the player is taking screenshots of puzzle solutions etc. and doctoring the screenshot output.)

Beams

It would also be nice to see the game take a more simulation-based approach in the light of Breath of the Wild’s success at giving the player multiple routes to beat many of its puzzles and battles by exploiting the physical properties of objects in the world. A voxel- and material-based environment would open up a huge possibility space for new puzzles and situations. (And because individual rooms tend to be relatively small, a manageable CPU – and QA testing – overhead.)

Using the Switch’s gyro aiming we could finally deliver on the promise of motion controls (which seemed to start to be going somewhere with Half Life 2’s Gravity Gun, and then various Wii and Playstation Move experiments, but of late seems to be confined to VR games like Media Molecule’s Dreams).

The first person view would give us more fine-grained control than the rather clumsy end effectors of the Slate powers in BOTW. Prime 3’s motion control implementation never really got the attention it deserved at the time – early on in the game it tended to be gimmicky but later it allowed for some brilliantly immersive sequences, and would be a good foundation to build upon.

The beams collected over the course of the adventure could open up new systemic ways to manipulate the world, rather than being a red key for red doors.

We could for example have a filament beam that cuts through soft materials but wraps around dense materials, which could be used to build temporary ‘spiderweb’ walkways and barriers, or charge up mechanisms like a whip and top. Coupled with Samus’s locking on and strafing around enemies this could lead to lots of variations on ‘snow speeder vs. AT-AT’ tactics.

Or perhaps a microwave beam that passes through certain materials but heats up or excites (or disintegrates) others? Or a concrete extrusion beam that lets the player fill negative space with expanding foam (a bit like the terrain manipulator in No Man’s Sky), allowing the construction of dams, bridges, keys, traps or other oversized tools by using parts of the environment as moulds. You could even use the other beams to carve up the sculpting material.

The only limitation Metroid Prime’s conventions place on these ideas is that each beam needs to be effective as a weapon as well as a special purpose tool, but this is hardly an insurmountable problem.

Dreams

It would also be important (particularly after such a long hiatus) for the opening stretch of the game to be memorable. Like, Naughty Dog, ‘throwing bushels of money at the screen’ memorable.

Retro Studios stunned naysayers with the extended prologue sequence in Prime 1, and I hardly need to explain the impact of the Super Metroid’s opening, echoed consciously or not in the intros of dozens of indie passion projects two decades later.

It’s probably wildly overindulgent, but the opening I’d pitch for the new game would be to drop straight (cold open) into a hyper-bombastic, over the top ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ action sequence, with a Smash Bros. styled Samus (over the course of a few minutes) crash landing on a weird jungle planet, fighting through a Space Pirate facility/ancient temple, stealing a ludicrously overpowered MacGuffin and escaping as everything collapses and explodes.

Then just as we’ve seemingly confirmed that Nintendo don’t know what to do with Metroid and are making it into a sugary Uncharted-esque action game, we pull back and reveal that everything up to this point has been kid Samus playing at being a bounty hunter.

(I’ve thought of an elegant way to frame this reveal, that would melt a hundred Twitch streamers’ faces off, but this post is getting long enough already.)

In this way the player would be wrong-footed and introduced to the overarching theme of whether they can trust their perceptions. Such a ‘twist’ would of course be spoiled all over the internet within minutes, but collective efforts not to spoil films until they’ve been out for a while, plus the fact that the massive divergence of the modern games audience means even ‘tentpole’ Nintendo releases don’t dominate the conversation for weeks in the way e.g. Halo, Half Life and Quake did, give me some hope that at least some players would want to try to go into the game blind.

The second half of the prologue could then show (through time shifted jump cuts, still under the player’s control) Samus’s origin story more or less as told in the official manga – Space Pirates (led by Ridley) destroy the mining colony where Samus grew up, and she alone is saved by the Chozo and trained and augmented to be a bounty hunter. This could be told with minimal dialogue, and emphasis on the young Samus’s lack of agency being the motivation for hunting the Space Pirates in adulthood. (Yeah, Samus is basically Space Batman.)

The above is perhaps a lot to wade through before we get to the story (and actual peril) ‘proper’, but seeing as the Metroid Prime games have gotten away with the motivation of ‘respond to this distress call’ or similar it could perhaps work. The prologue would be a success if players play through it again after knowing the ‘twist’ to spot details they missed the first time.

The main game world would presumably once again take the ‘Crystal Maze’ approach of a handful of discrete themed zones (with lots of backtracking), and the bump in technology gives us endless possibilities of new things to try here:

1. A zero-G orbital space station that can be reconfigured (perhaps by making improvised hacks using the beam tools) – with lots of morph ball/spider ball exploration.

2. A boss that you have to capture alive, setting up traps and constructions in the surrounding area to lead it to a containment pit.

3. More and richer organic environments in general. Even with the rudimentary technology of the time these were by far the most visually interesting parts of the original trilogy. Let’s see jungles, coral reefs and cave networks.

So that would be my approach, or at least the equipment I’d pack and the bearings I’d set off to follow: a more simulation-based (and probably less relentlessly combat focused – easing off on the Chozo ghosts and boss bottlenecks at least), reality-bending 2019 retooling of the Prime trilogy.

It would also be vitally important (and here I hope the real Metroid Prime 4 devs agree) to have distinctive art direction, from someone of the calibre of Andrew Jones or Kenneth Scott. The Switch hardware may preclude the game from being as technically mindblowing as the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn, but the art style should at least be immediately recognisable even from screenshots.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, I hope we’re not going to be seeing a return of the voiced NPCs / cowering scientists / comic relief rival bounty hunters from Prime 3. I skimmed some Let’s Plays to refresh my memory when writing this and I’d forgotten just how horrendously they shatter the mysterious tone of the series up to that point.


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