Metroid Prime: Echoes is a 2004 videogame originally released on the Nintendo GameCube, a direct sequel to Metroid Prime. While it achieved only moderate commercial success, it was highly critically acclaimed. The original Prime is widely regarded as the best GameCube game ever made, but while Prime 2: Echoes is outstanding, it didn’t stray far enough from the formula or bring enough new gameplay mechanics to supersede it. (Within Retro Studios, the developer, the game was thought of as “Metroid Prime 1.5”.)
Both games are oddities which still merit close examination, especially to present them to non-gamers. Why write about a game that’s nearly two decades old — and not merely that, but one that has had far too many keystrokes expended on it already? While the gameplay, lore, and development history have been sufficiently covered within gaming ‘zines, there’s precious little writing from a metapolitical or metaphysical standpoint regarding Echoes. There’s a dearth of material discussing how the game, contra equivalents like Halo, succeeds as a science-fiction shooter when its metanarrative, control scheme, and worldbuilding largely contradict the Western version of the genre.
Firstly, there’s the gameworld’s structure. The Prime games are first-person action-adventure, mainly puzzle-platforming with moderate combat. This is unusual in and of itself, with first-person being normatively linked to shooters (FPS), and puzzle-platforming being normatively third-person, for the fairly obvious reason that it’s easier to position a character from a third instead of first person perspective. The gameplay of Prime and Echoes involves navigating a complex, interlocking world built up of individual rooms, corridors, and arenas to acquire powerups and defeat enemies and bosses. The games economized on console memory by loading only each relevant area at a time. Each room normally has some kind of environmental puzzle or intervening enemy, which are defeated using a lock-on function to enable free movement whilst continually aiming. Samus, the protagonist, can also turn into a “morph ball” to travel along systems of pipes and tracks.
The gameplay loop is one of exploration, identifying a goal, world-traversal, and combat to acquire a new tool, which then opens up a new area to allow for further exploration. The maps of Prime and Echoes — which can be quickly brought up to full view by the player and rotated around — look like isometric displays of hamster playgrounds from hell. Doors are activated with a beam-blast and open with a satisfying “swoosh,” revealing a new area to push through. Due to the relatively quick speed of Samus through the environs (all speed in videogames is relative to the gameworld), combined with various item-acquisition and button-activation fanfares, playing through the game is an experience of constant, earned progression which rewards close attention to detail of what abilities can be utilized where.
Prime and Echoes sometimes rely on the player shifting between “visors” in order to see previously invisible or inoperable objects, meaning that environmental storytelling and interactions are multilayered. For example, one must acquire the “Wave” (electricity) beam and combine this with the thermal visor to uncover and energize control panels, or use the X-ray visor to identify moving platforms or hidden powerups. One stand-out sequence early in Prime uses the thermal visor as the environment is plunged into darkness. Some foes negate visors with static, and other foes phase in and out of the visible spectrum.
As the number of abilities the player possesses expands, the environmental puzzles escalate in complexity, leading to manifold interactions within the same environs. This is something unique to the Prime series, and a method of interaction that other first-person games on the GameCube like TimeSplitters or the oddball Geist, as well as the big names on competing platforms like Killzone, Halo, and Call of Duty have neglected. Only the Prime series within the first-person shooter genre uses this method of backtracking as a gameplay driver. The player revisits and unlocks previously inaccessible parts, or interacts with the environment in a new, and often narratively-unforeseen, way. Other shooters are mainly about clearing levels of enemies rather than dense and multilayered interactions with the level itself. The emphasis is heavily on exploration and discovery, with the combat leaning into using agility, environmental advantages, and particular methods to take down foes. Many contemporary shooters and role-playing games are still rudimentary compared to the narrative and environmental polish of Prime and Echoes.
Secondly, there’s the archaic control scheme. Prime and Echoes inherited a control scheme previously used on the Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye, where the left analog stick on the controller governed forward and backwards movement and turning left and right, similar to the initial Doom. To look around freely (free look), a shoulder button was used which left the player stationary. This format was already obsoleted by 2001’s Halo, which consolidated as a universal the form of using the left analog stick for forwards, backwards, and side-to-side strafing, and the right analog stick for free look. For non-gamers to conceptualize how weird switching from one format to the other is, imagine driving with a gearshift that works in reverse order, or using a computer mouse with movement inversed along the X or Y axis. Muscle memory in videogames is important, and the first two Prime games catered to an existing Nintendo demographic only, partly out of necessity to utilize the right analog stick for visor swapping.
This is something that came about as a necessity of the format, and is now thankfully redundant; anyone interested in playing should use PrimeHack and a keyboard and mouse, which allows for continual free look and an increased field of view (all the way to 120°, but maximum 100° before fish-eye lens distortion affects the view). The archaic control scheme can be completely overhauled with emulation to make it fluidly playable. It’s worth noting that these games were designed to be forward-compatible; the game engine is designed for a field of view between 75° and 100°, but the GameCube’s meagre hardware only allowed for the low ~75 degrees in the original game, appropriate for a console setting. The textures are also ridiculously high resolution, rendering well in full HD, well over and above the requirements of what the GameCube’s 640 × 480-pixel output. But the purpose of this review is not to advertise this lengthy, outdated game when the 20 hours needed could be better spent, but to discuss it.
An essential ingredient to Prime — something later partly compromised by the third installment, Corruption, and disastrous Other M, is brooding isolation. Samus is an entirely mute protagonist other than mild female sounds of pain when taking damage. Samus is the forerunner to Bungie’s comments that Master Chief is “a big green suit of armor that you walk around.” She is a cipher, a bizarrely brightly-colored, arcade-figure of yesteryear thrust into a creaking, unknown world full of lethal flora and fauna. Samus is nominally a “bounty hunter,” but “treasure hunter” seems more appropriate. Dialogue in both Prime and Echoes is entirely minimal, largely being restricted to the equivalent of “go here, find this, then plug it into that”, and there is no voice acting, but only synthesized and inhuman burbles. Unlike Gordon Freeman’s relatively chatty entourage of Alyx, Barney, and Professor Kliener, Samus interacts only with non-human characters who use nonhuman speech. Master Chief is embedded in the command structure of a spacefaring humanity and human military, and Samus (in Prime and Echoes) is a lone wanderer who becomes entangled in and must recover from disastrous situations. The closest equivalent is probably Portal, but even Portal compromised on the isolation to allow for continual taunts from the antagonistic GLaDOS. There is plenty of text to keep lore-fans occupied, but barely any of it is relevant to the gameplay. The result is that Prime and Echoes are simultaneously universally accessible games requiring a minimum of language localization, and yet every aspect of their gameplay, development, culture, and metanarrative is extremely specific to Nintendo, the pre-existing franchise, and the underlying game mechanic that makes Metroid genre-defining in “Metroidvanias.”
As the gameplay relies on exploration and incremental access to new areas and widgets, the narrative is written as a framework to justify this by necessity. Echoes is largely a retread, rework, and retelling of Prime from a more informed viewpoint after the latter’s commercial success and feedback on its gameplay failures. The plot of both games is largely identical:
- Samus encounters an unknown planet.
- Her equipment is stolen or damaged, necessitating that the player recover it.
- There has been some form of calamity, and all the prior inhabitants are dead, missing, or otherwise removed from their original form.
- The player has to remedy the situation to prevent a further and complete collapse.
- Enemies preventing escape have to be defeated.
As such, there is a calculated absence of talkative, friendly, and helpful non-player characters. The isolation is persistent, the gameworld a puzzle that we have to deconstruct in order to make it through to the end. This underlying driver is present, but never explicated or remarked upon. The majority of the storytelling is through direct interaction and observation. Environments are structured in a consistent and logical way relative to their inhabitants, emphasizing to the player that they are exploring a deterministic world assembled by species that have their own agendas, architecture, technologies, and cultures: the player can infer that there are reasons why the environments are structured in a particular way, but often they’ll be damned if they know what they are. The presence of bridges, magnetic rail tracks, save-stations, fire-breathing magma snakes, radioactive rock monsters, and “planetary energy” are explained either as gameplay Deus ex machinas (they just are, so the player has something to shoot at or a mechanism to access a new area) or remain conundrums: the strange, three-dimensional line-and-dot patterns that appear throughout Echoes seem completely meaningless and random, until one learns that they are a visual representation of a sign language. This carefully crafted mystery makes the worlds of Prime and Echoes greater than the sum of their parts; they have a solidity and believability that exceeds their finite nature as a sequence of platforming levels.
One evolution on Prime is Samus’ weapon systems: the Pokémon-matching schema of having four energy beams to cycle through to zap enemies in a tedious game of Simon Says for the final boss has been streamlined; from Power, Ice, Wave, and Plasma to just Power and Light and Dark beams (the Annihilator beam that fires homing ping-pong balls of death is just a synthesis of Light and Dark to reduce beam switching). Just as all echoes are a diminished reflection of their priors, the third in the trilogy, Corruption, abandoned beam-switching altogether in favor of persistent upgrades, removing a key mechanic and part of the franchises’ identity. Similarly, the isolation is replaced by a neutral, forgettable, “Galactic Federation” functionary issuing this-or-that accompanying dialogue, a narrator much better characterized in Halo as Cortana, an accompanying artificial intelligence.
Prime’s ancient Chozo ruins are elaborated upon in the Temple Grounds of the Luminoth, a much more industrial area containing Galactic Federation equipment. The scritching, scratching background track mirrors insect-like Ing “darklings” which strafe from side to side to fend off attacks before pouncing, a throwback to Prime’s armored beetles. After the player makes it inside the Great Temple, Samus learns that the world of Aether has been uncannily split into two: There is Aether, the light and normative world, and “Dark Aether,” a corrosive and energy-draining planetary twin, parasitical on its namesake. Samus has to hop in-and-out of the dark world through portals in order to defeat foes and retrieve “planetary energy.” Interestingly, this dark world that forced the player to conserve energy and ammunition and behave more tactically has been criticized by their lead engineer:
Being in the dark world was constantly stressful, the ammo mechanic was stressful, the dark world’s color palette was samey which led to environmental confusion and thus, stressful. The game simply made you anxious when you were playing it.
Nonetheless, it’s the presence of this dark world and its oppressive atmosphere that makes Echoes credible as a more mature, refined, and introspective experience than Prime. Echoes felt a lot more comfortable expressing adult aggression and horror in its art direction, with marketing material centered on the Ing as five-legged, predatory crawlers, the only things Samus has for company in the dark world. The two worlds’ environments are overlayered, so this geographic duplication make each area denser. A limitation on Echoes is that using a portal to enter and exit the dark world requires a cutscene interlude, probably due to technical limitations, whereas Prey two years later had a few persistent portals where one could look through and walk in and out of a remote area seamlessly (a direct influence on Portal).
Prime’s five exploratory areas — Tallon Overworld, Chozo Ruins, Phendrana Drifts, Magmoor Caverns, and Phazon Mines — have been condensed slightly to four; the Temple Grounds, Agon Wastes, Torvus Bog, and Sanctuary Fortress. The environmental themes outside of the dark world have grown up a bit as well: Magmoor caverns, despite its geothermal industrial bent, was a bit too Super Mario to feel like it was more than just a lava-themed underground transit tunnel. Echoes’ Torvus Bog is multi-tiered, with bridges crossing expanses of water and an aquatic “hydrodynamo” sub-section emphasizing verticality and depth (a throwback to the submerged frigate Orpheon of Prime.) The Sanctuary Fortress is home to a high-tech industrial, vibrant-neon color palette, spider-ball railtrack puzzles, and mechanized quadropeds that have turned on their former masters. Throughout Echoes, the corpses of the Luminoth litter the environment, as the conflict is more recent.
Unlike the somewhat haphazard sequence of enemies in Prime, where the enemy was more of a substance (“Phazon”) that corrupted various creatures you encounter, Echoes is a straight story of beating a hostile race one outpost at a time. In Prime, Meta-Ridley shows up to mess with the player early on, and then shows up later for the sake of messing with the player. Bosses include Space Pirates infused with Phazon, rocks infused with Phazon, aquatic predators infused with Phazon, plants infused with Phazon, and Metroids infused with Phazon. The final boss is the titular Metroid Prime, the root of the poison. Metroid Prime is seemingly absent in Metroid Prime: Echoes, despite the title, with the final bosses being the Emperor Ing and Samus’ dark, Phazon-infused twin, handily-named Dark Samus.
Metroid Prime: Echoes, itself a direct echo of its predecessor, chose a very weird, difficult, unusual, and possibly painful subject for a videogame to be about. The intangibility of the concept of an echo threatens the overall game design and narrative, and Echoes struggles to express this aether-like subtext that is implicit in the gameworld and mechanics. The dark world Samus enters and exits to retrieve “planetary energy” (light and truth to the luminous-moth “Luminoth”) is a distorted echo and reflection of Aether’s real world — the actual, the preceding, the real-that-has passed, the real-that-clings-to-the-margins. An echo carries implicit loss — echoes are remote to their origin, and whether the origin continues to exist is up to inference and speculation. The original sound of an echo once existed, and through interruption and reflection, it becomes echo. An echo is something listened for only when the speaker has been lost. Echoes are distinct from direct communication; discontinuity implies a lack of sight and a lack of immediacy. At the conclusion of Halo: Combat Evolved, after the destruction of the ring and the forces contesting it, Cortana remarks there’s “Just dust and echoes . . . we’re all that’s left.” But in Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime: Echoes, there is nothing but echoes to start with. The essence of echoes is that a listener cannot know or be unified with the origin; they are too distant and dislocated. One can hear what was said, but one cannot experience the situation, or being, of the speaker.
The Luminoth, Echoes’ central subject, are a nearly extinct race. The Chozo of Prime are already long dead, and their ghosts harass the player, unable to see them as anything except a threat to their rest. Neither world is “saved” in the sense that they are teeming with prospering civilizations that have to be defended. The moment of “saving the world” in a Western sense is negated; the Western mode of saving the world is heroism in defense of a world that is present, a comfortable norm with which one is well-acquainted. In Prime and Echoes, the world has already been emptied of sentient life and the player has little chance to actively intervene to save anyone or anything. The player arrives in both games after the cataclysm to deal with what’s left behind. Instead of saving the immediate and familiar, the player merely saves themselves and the remnants of the remote and incomprehensible. Even the Galactic Federation troopers that precede the player are promptly exterminated, and Samus ends up doing battle with their corrupted corpses. The enduring presence of wildlife assures the player (and reader) that life goes on, and the cosmos does not miss those who fail to replace themselves with another generation.
In Echoes, admittedly, the player actually saves the Luminoth. There’s some of them in the cutscene, but there’s few of them; only the remaining aristocracy. They’re the last of their kind. It comes as the conclusion to using the criminally-underused Echo visor, the game’s namesake, which plunges the player into a bleak, black-and-white world. The visible world disappears and the player is left only with echoes. Prime’s X-ray and thermal visors showed alternate spectrums to view the immediately present, but in Echoes, the element of waiting is involved. The Echo visor shows only the sonic landscape, and the player sees the world through a sonar ping that emanates as a visible wave out from the player. It doesn’t show what is present, but what was there at the time of reflection. The player uses it outside of the stand-out final boss fight to interact with various locked areas, identifying sonic locks and listening to four-note sequences, and then playing back the correct tune in a resonant echo.
Overall, Echoes fell short of what it could have accomplished. Jumping between light and dark worlds could have been more seamless, and the Echo visor could have been integrated into boss fights and environments in a more regular and expressive way. Despite these minor flaws, Echoes exceeds Prime in quality and manages to relay its core message. It expands the definition of a “hero” to include someone who is ultimately almost ineffectual, and who arrives too late yet who becomes a custodian of the past. Echoes is an elaboration on the threats of parasitism and replacement; save for the player, the race of the Luminoth (and the entire planet!) would be absorbed, eliminated, and superseded. This has a burden of isolation and responsibility: Samus must travel into a corrosive world alone. Echoes carry with them a choice: Once one has heard an echo, the sound has passed, and one is only left with its memory. It is then up to the listener to decide whether they will let it fade and vanish, or venture into the void.
Perhaps this is something that can help post-millennials situate themselves in the temporal landscape?
* * *
Counter-Currents has extended special privileges to those who donate $120 or more per year.
- First, donor comments will appear immediately instead of waiting in a moderation queue. (People who abuse this privilege will lose it.)
- Second, donors will have immediate access to all Counter-Currents posts. Non-donors will find that one post a day, five posts a week will be behind a “Paywall” and will be available to the general public after 30 days.
- Third, Paywall members have the ability to edit their comments.
- Fourth, Paywall members can “commission” a yearly article from Counter-Currents. Just send a question that you’d like to have discussed to [email protected]. (Obviously, the topics must be suitable to Counter-Currents and its broader project, as well as the interests and expertise of our writers.)
- Fifth, Paywall members will have access to the Counter-Currents Telegram group.
To get full access to all content behind the paywall, sign up here:
Paywall Gift Subscriptions
- your payment
- the recipient’s name
- the recipient’s email address
- your name
- your email address
To register, just fill out this form and we will walk you through the payment and registration process. There are a number of different payment options.
Jonathan Bowden on British Sculpture
British Sculpture, Part I
Gaming for Nationalism
Counter-Currents Radio Podcast No. 488 Jason Kessler & American Krogan on the Carny Question
Traditionalist Archetypes in Street Fighter
Counter-Currents Radio Podcast No. 437 Interview with American Krogan on Call of Duty
Audio Versions of Recent Articles