There are a select few games in existence that had game play, graphics, story, and music so great that they left little room for improvement. When Retro Studios burst on the scene two years ago with the groundbreaking Metroid Prime many reviewers jumped the gun and called it the “best GameCube game ever.” Now its sequel has arrived with a huge legacy to live up to. Perhaps the developers themselves realized what a good thing they had created before and thus decided to change the core game as little as possible when devising Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
I suppose I should say this flatly up front. Fans of Metroid Prime might love Metroid Prime 2. For those who didn’t care for the original, there is little to win anyone over in the sequel. The differences between the two aren’t enough to create too many converts to the franchise, and unfortunately some of the differences between the original Prime and Echoes may very well irritate hardcore Metroid fans.
That being said, there is much to note about this latest offering from Retro: the story and pacing. While the actual play control remains virtually identical to Metroid Prime, Echoes has a tight, cohesive set of controls that are a joy to play one you pick them up. Rarely in either game did I find myself cursing the controller, for the button scheme, at least. The lock-on feature is as accurate as ever, and both the camera and Samus (your trusty heroine) move responsively and intuitively. Unfortunately, while the controls remained the same in Echoes, the brisk pacing and precisely tuned difficulty level – not to mention a story not completely rife with plot holes – are sadly missing in this installment of Metroid.
There was certainly more emphasis placed on story in Echoes. This time the favorite powered suit wearing bounty huntress was called upon to investigate the disappearance of a Federation Marine ship on an alien planet. Rumor had it Space Pirates were involved, and those two words will always pique the interest of one Samus Aran. Of course the rescue wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed when the heroine discovered a lot of bugs and some pretty gruesome corpses on the planet of Aether.
At first I was thrilled at this apparent effort to bring more plot into Metroid. Unfortunately, the interesting and sometimes macabre storyline was for the most part buried in the log book. I had to actually stop the action and read to figure out what exactly was going on. There are a few lovely cut scenes, including a surprisingly touching one that gives Samus the most humanity I’ve seen in her ever, but for the most part, the story came from reading, reading and scanning.
Indeed there was much more emphasis on the beloved scan visor in Echoes. Although the mechanics have improved slightly – I could actually see this time what I scanned and what I missed – the sheer volume of scanning required (particularly in the early levels) dragged the pace of the game to a crawl. There were some areas where I swore a Viking chorus was standing behind me singing: “scan, scan, scan, scan, scannity-scan, scannity-scan, scan, scan, scan?” (If you are not a fan of Monty Python, I apologize for the obscure reference).
To further annoy the more action-oriented player there were vast stretches of exploration that could be described as ponderous, at best. Yes, the hallmark of Metroid has always been exploring environments to the fullest, but in the case of Echoes I spent ages wandering around fighting piddling battles, then stumbled upon a boss, died, and was forced to repeat a long stretch of game over and over again. Generally, I am all for difficulty in games. However, the weird, long stretches without save points caused more frustration than titillation for this normally challenge-starved gamer.
Last but not least, no matter what trappings Retro places on the storyline in Echoes, the entire plot boiled down to this: Samus landed on the planet, Samus found something weird, Samus obtained all her cool equipment deactivated/stolen and had to spend the rest of the game finding it. Conveniently this world seemed tailor-made for Samus Aran’s unique set of suit functions, including the ability to collapse herself into a tiny ball. Sure, this is the hallmark of any Metroid game, but there were at least some plot points to justify the world design previously. At least the planet in Metroid Prime was the home of the designers of Samus’s suit. This new world of Aether was inhabited by a pair of insectoid races. Why were there spider tracks (for Samus’s morph ball) littered all throughout a planet predominantly inhabited by a winged race?
On the bright side the game did pick up pace and level out on difficulty after the first few levels, but getting there may test even the most ardent Metroid fan’s patience. At least there was plenty of eye candy to take my mind off the frustration factor. I found myself genuinely wowed by the luscious organic levels. Beautiful phosphorescent mosses and glittering spider webs treat the eyes with their sheer delicate beauty; while the corresponding Dark Aether world was a twisted, terrifying place – a mockery of the beautiful parallel world. Samus Aran sparkled in this glorious surround, and the levels did differentiate from one another just enough that there was always something new to look at while not feeling like the player suddenly stepped into another game.
The music in Echoes was as atmospheric and creepy as ever. It truly harkened back to the days of B Science Fiction movies with its wobbly synthesizers and driving beat. I always loved the music in Metroid, all the way back to the original on the NES, so I was delighted in this case that they didn’t tamper with a good thing. The sound effects were also the same from previous installments, and they echoed particularly nicely on a surround sound system. Echoes supported not only surround sound but progressive scan as well, so Metroid Prime 2 was the game to test out all the bells and whistles on my brand new HDTV and home theatre.
As much as I’ve picked at the pacing and difficulty in Echoes, the game will plod along for over 20 hours – a welcome respite from the recent glut of day-or-two games. There was also, for the first time in Metroid history, a multiplayer option tacked on. It’s not much to write about honestly, but it was a diversion for a few hours if anyone became frustrated with the single player campaign and just wanted to shoot Samus for a while (like I did after I had to replay an hour’s worth of tedious exploration for the third time).
Perhaps the massive hype surrounding this title did a number on me as a reviewer. Perhaps nothing could have lived up to what I was expecting when I broke the seal on Echoes. Overall I was simply disappointed with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes but despite the flaws and my frustration, I could still see the artistry and craftsmanship that went into this title. It’s not a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, but this Samus tale has such mighty boots to fill that little short of perfection would have surpassed Metroid Prime. I guess if anyone can stomach the difficulty, Echoes will reward a gamer as one of the most lovely pieces of eye-candy in GameCube history. If easy frustration is something to be avoided, however, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes will languish alongside Majora’s Mask, Codename: Veronica, and the second half of Metal Gear Solid 2 as yet another disappointing sequel.