Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 2, Metroid Prime

The conversion of Metroid into 3D took years and outside developers to figure out, but the payoff is that it still stands as the best in the franchise nearly 20 years later.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Super Metroid was — or rather, still is — a perfect video game, as we discussed not all that long ago on this list. One which Nintendo was very unsure of how to follow up, due to said perfection. Thanks to a Nintendo subsidiary taking the reins on the Metroid franchise and an insight from famed developer Shigeru Miyamoto that would change the series forever, however, Nintendo eventually got not only their successor to Super Metroid, but one that surpassed one of the greatest games ever. And one they have failed to improve upon, despite some pretty great attempts at doing just that, in the nearly 20 years since.

It’s hard to be upset about that, though, just like it’s hard to get too mad about there not being a better 2D Metroid than Super Metroid despite how long ago it came out. We still have Super Metroid, and we still have Metroid Prime. Like the greatest game on the SNES, the GameCube’s finest outing remains easy to return to even all these years later, and still impresses with its world, its exploration, and even its visuals — seeing a reflection of Samus from inside her helmet when the light hits just right is still just stunning, even in this pre-HD game, and the whole game got that level of detail and thought put into it. Despite its setting on a dying world, Tallon IV is bursting with life, in the sense that this planet feels extremely lived in, with its own history, its own cultures, its own lifeforms, all worth exploring. And also sometimes the life itself bursts on you. Samus’ visor probably needed a little windshield wiper attachment.

Exploring is the thing you do the most in 2002’s Metroid Prime: despite being a first-person perspective game where you shoot, Nintendo labeled Prime as a “first-person adventure” rather than a first-person shooter. They weren’t wrong to do so, either: the transition of the Prime series to more shooter-esque for its third entry, Corruption, is part of the reason that game came in at 57 on this list, while Prime prime is comfortably nestled at number two, the kind of ranking that implies it’s not just one of Nintendo’s best offerings, but one of video games’ best.

Let’s talk a little more about the genesis of Prime before we get into just what it is you do in it. Nintendo didn’t know what to for a Metroid game on the N64, with the first hurdle being that they were unsure how to make it work with the controller. The second hurdle was that they knew they needed to absolutely nail the transition from 2D to 3D, like they did with Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, with even more pressure on this given how well-received Super Metroid had been. When they approached a third-party developer about collaborating on a Metroid game, the studio declined, with the cited reason being fear of failing to live up to the high standards Super Metroid had set.

So what did Nintendo do, when they couldn’t convince an outside party to make a Metroid for them? Well, they formed a new studio in collaboration with former developers from Iguana Entertainment, and then eventually commissioned them with that task. Iguana was responsible for a whole bunch of Nintendo 64 games you know, like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, its sequel Seeds of Evil, Forsaken 64, and the All-Star Baseball series. Iguana would become Acclaim Studios Austin, around the same time that its founder, Jeff Spangenberg, would found Retro Studios with Nintendo and other former Iguana devs. The idea behind Retro was to give Nintendo a supply of more mature-themed games, or at least ones looking to capture the “hardcore” demographic.

Retro got to work on four games, all of which disappointed Nintendo when they got a chance to look at the progress on them, and would inevitably be canceled. Miyamoto, though, did think a first-person game engine that Retro had developed was of note: the engine was simply known as “Action-Adventure” at the time, and Miyamoto suggested it be used to develop a first-person Metroid game. Mid-development, Nintendo ended up purchasing a large enough share of the company to make them an actual subsidiary, so Metroid Prime went from a collaboration with a third-party to one made by three different Nintendo studios: Retro, Nintendo R&D1, and Nintendo EAD.

Don’t be mistaken, though: Prime was Retro’s baby. Nintendo was there to ensure that, musically, Prime did not stray from creating the kind of atmosphere that was expected of a Metroid game, and to be right there alongside Retro to keep the game’s lore, concepts, and Samus herself in line with the expectations Nintendo had set with their past Metroid games. (Plus, Nintendo R&D1 was developing Metroid Fusion (number 25) for the Game Boy Advance at the same time: Nintendo always works closely with developers as a publisher, but there was even more reason to do so than usual here, to keep everyone abreast of what was going with the franchise as a whole.) If you are wondering if writing these things is making me mad about how Other M’s collaborative development and resulting game went down, wonder no longer: of course it is.

The collaboration that resulted in Prime certainly worked. The music is excellent, with new tracks combined with updates to preexisting songs, helping give Prime a touchstone to the franchise’s past while still making it all something its own. The GameCube’s audio systems made for an excellent update to the Lower Norfair theme for the Magmoor Caverns. Those drums are haunting, their beat the perfect sound to go along with churning lava, fire-spewing enemies, and heat so intense it requires a suit upgrade to withstand. The Tallon Overworld theme is a repurposed Brinstar theme, and it’s lovely, while also evoking feelings that this new world you’ve landed on is massive, ripe for exploration, full of secrets to uncover. The Phendrana Drifts theme, like the snow-covered area it represents, is beautiful, with minimal piano playing introduced into what has to that point been a very synth-heavy soundtrack, to better reflect the isolation inherent in a frozen landscape such as this. Then there is the Space Pirates’ theme, a machine-gun burst synth audio intro alerting you to the presence of Samus’ intergalactic foe, that builds to one of the most intense themes of the entire game once the pirates actually appear on screen:

Battles are not a constant in Prime, and many of them can be avoided if that’s how you want to operate. Clashes with Space Pirates, though, are, at least the first time you’re in a particular area, required to progress. Unlike Tallon IV’s native creatures, the Space Pirates are not so easily convinced to leave you be, and will chase you down, or be ready to fight once more should you leave the area they’re in. Clear a space or room of them, and the theme should die back down, or disappear altogether, depending on the situation. While it plays, it’s music that befits the combat-heavy scenario Samus finds herself in.

I am, of course, partial to the Metroid Metal rendition of Prime’s Space Pirate theme, which should not be a shock given the band’s two-word name describes two of my interests:

I mentioned that battles are not an always happening thing in Prime, and that’s because fighting is secondary. There are some excellent boss fights that will test your skills, sure, and plenty of space to use Samus’ varied arsenal in, but most of the game is environmental puzzles and exploration. Just because the series switched to first-person does not mean Prime left behind the feelings of isolation, of finding your own way on an alien planet, or those moments where Samus is no longer alone and the danger they possess. Those remain central to, and vital to, the experience.

If anything, Prime feels even lonelier than Super Metroid, in part because it’s just so much larger, and there is more to be done exploration-wise. Not just in terms of the space to check out, but with what to do in that space. Scanning is a major part of Prime. When in scan mode, Samus’ visor can identify items or creatures of interest, be they dangerous or simply a native plant worth checking out to see what it’s deal is. Every single scannable item has a codex entry, which either gives Samus insight into what might help defeat a certain enemy, such as where its weak points are, or it simply gives the world of Tallon IV and its inhabitants more color and depth by filling you in on plant life, architecture in a decayed state, how those bodies you discovered found their end. You also use the Scan Visor to read the various computers and technology lying around, which can help you progress through a lab with locked doors, turn on an elevator, or just give you a chance to laugh at how absolutely terrified the Space Pirates are at Samus not being satisfied with blowing up their command headquarters and research labs on Zebes all by herself, and feeling the need to follow them out here, too. This is how you learn that the Space Pirates are arming their scientists even though they know all it will buy them is time, and not much of it, against the bounty hunter who has both personal and professional reasons for wanting to put a stop to their plans for galactic domination, and the skills to do just that.

You are immediately introduced to the pacing of Prime, its quiet solitude and moments of contemplation, its atmosphere that inspires fear and dread. Samus arrives upon the frigate Orpheon, a Space Pirate vessel that escaped the destruction of Zebes, and she finds that the Space Pirates aboard are either dying or dead, mutilated by their own genetic experiments. The quiet is not a serene quiet: it is the kind that makes you jump out of your seat when suddenly there's an unexplained noise, or an enemy that, shockingly, is not dead yet begins to open fire. Scanning the Space Pirates to find out what grisly death they found aboard the ship only enhances those feelings, and that you are given the space to solve the mysteries of the frigate on your own time — until you are forced to escape as it begins to fall from orbit — helps prepare you for what is to come on the surface of Tallon IV.

Samus might not speak in Prime — famed voice actress Jennifer Hale plays the role of the bounty hunter here, but it’s mostly for the kinds of grunts and groans and pained noises you hear Link’s voice actor make in 3D Zelda games, since her narration in the intro was cut — but the scans and logs Samus makes do the talking for her. You get to see the planet the way she does, and see how she thinks about that for her official records. And, of course, you get to do with that information what you will, as the one controlling the protagonist. This fully realized world is given a fully realized protagonist to explore it, even if she doesn’t communicate her feelings through voice.

You will be using other visors to explore, too, which, like the Scan Visor, will help you progress through the game at certain points. The X-Ray visor returns, and allows Samus to keep track of the Chozo Ghosts that haunt Tallon IV, as well as other enemies warping through timespace and, at some points, through walls or objects you might need to get through or into. The Thermal Visor tracks heat signatures, which has both fighting and exploration uses, and the Combat Visor, well, you can guess what that’s for. That’s your standard view, the one you’ll use either the most or the second-most, depending on how you want to utilize the Scan Visor. You’ll balance these four visors, as well as four different beams — Power, Wave, Ice, and Plasma. Unlike in previous Metroid installments, these beams do not stack, but are instead switched between depending on the situation. They also all have optional charging options that can create some serious offensive capabilities for Samus, but you can get by without them.

While Metroid Prime eschews incessant combat for quiet exploration and scanning of the environment, when it does lean into fighting, it nails it. The boss fights are multi-layered, well thought out affairs, and for the most part, remain impressive to this day. The various weapons and the need to switch between them make for some thoughtful battles, and tying Super Missiles to regular missile blasts, only charged and therefore difficult to time and aim, adds a level of complexity to Samus’ weapon choices. There is real risk and reward factor there, the kind that can make or break a battle against a particularly difficult opponent. While there isn’t the same emphasis on the Morph Ball in battle in Prime compared to its sequel, Echoes (number 36), there is still so much to love here. It helps, too, that the true standouts are in the game’s final two battles: against Meta Ridley, and against the titular Metroid Prime, leaving you with a feeling that everything continued to escalate as Samus’ own powers did, and that your time spent exploring to become superpowered wasn’t for nothing.

The Ridley fight, in particular, is a drawn-out affair, but not in a negative sense. It’s a battle of stamina, of wills, of the raw power of this goddamn cybernetic space dragon with its own thoughts and feelings — most of them very negative toward Samus — that takes a long time to resolve — especially if you can’t nail those brief windows where a Super Missile shot will wreak havoc on Ridley. If you rushed through the game without the skill of a speedrunner, if you didn’t go hunting for health upgrades and missile expansions, Ridley will outlast you, will win the battle of stamina and power, regardless of what your will to win might be. And that’s because Ridley got all kinds of upgrades attached to his body in order to match up with a fully-powered Samus.

And yes, the Meta Ridley battle theme rules. Super Metroid’s standard boss theme has become Ridley-specific, and, like the terror himself, got a cybernetic makeover to represent that character change:

One of the great villain themes in video games, and with multiple renditions throughout the Prime series and Metroid as a whole building off of it. Just stellar, thoughtful work by Kenji Yamamoto and his team.

When not fighting, Samus is platforming. The verticality of Prime is still astounding to this day, just how well the game transitioned the various platforming aspects of its 2D predecessors into a 3D space, creating gameplay that feels as fresh today as it did in 2002. How you now need to be looking all around, 360 degrees, at all times, to find whatever hidden nook or cranny will help you find an upgrade or a path forward. How the Space Jump transitioned so seamlessly into 3D to help you reach places once thought impossible to reach. How you need to be aware of potential uses of the Morph Ball, which shifts Samus into a third-person, or sometimes even side-scrolling, perspective. If anything, it’s been difficult for the industry to perfectly replicate what Retro and Nintendo managed with Prime when it comes to platforming, which is part of the reason that this transition to 3D has aged so much better than its still-impressive big three counterparts, Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. It just still feels so good to play, its transitions from viewpoint to viewpoint performed with such ease, everything feeling just so perfectly of a piece, that you can’t help but be impressed without needing to use any kind of “for its time” caveats to do it.

There were complaints that the controls were difficult to get used to, but I’ve come around to the idea that they weren’t difficult so much as different. Like with Treasure games, Metroid Prime’s controls made sense for the game that you were playing: learn them, stop fighting them by trying to play as if it is a different game, and everything within will become second nature, with you understanding why they are exactly the way they are in the process.

The Wii re-release of Prime (as well as Echoes) featured a pretty different control setup, since you know used the IR functions of the Wii Remote to aim Samus’ beams and to choose targets for scanning, but this, too, becomes comfortable with some familiarity. Being able to lock on to a target and then strafe around them was always a joy in Prime, but being able to so freely move your reticule around thanks to the IR functions of the Wii only enhances the experience. It doesn’t change the game in the way Corruption’s focus on combat over exploration did or anything: it just gives you some more options for how to aim and fire, as well as an alternative for folks who couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the GameCube pad’s setup.

While you can certainly rush through Prime, you can’t do so to the degree of Super Metroid. The world is just a little too big for that: a standard playthrough for me at this point is around a dozen hours, a few hours quicker than it used to be when I was less familiar with the world, but you can take your time and put 20-30 hours down easy if you want to discover everything there is to discover without any desire for haste. It’s this additional world to discover, to reveal, that separates Prime from Super Metroid for me. We’re talking a razor-thin difference, of course, given there is all of four spaces (and just three individual games) separating the two on this list, but I am better able to lose myself in Prime because of how it treats exploration. Super Metroid did nothing wrong: Prime just did it ever-so-slightly better.

I have been singing the praises of Metroid Prime for nearly 20 years now. Its greatness is part of the reason that the GameCube, which sold around 22 million units worldwide and was absolutely decimated by the Playstation 2, is still held in high esteem despite this trouncing and the space it left open for Microsoft to enter the console wars Sega had just announced defeat in. Say what you will about whether the GameCube looks kiddie or not (that little cube with a handle is “aesthetically perfect” and I will absolutely fight you over this), but it’s games were excellent, and mostly missed out on due to poor sales figures. Metroid Prime is the best of the bunch, a game unequaled by Retro in subsequent Prime entries, and by Nintendo itself for what, in an industry as young as video games, might as well have been forever. If you’ve never played Prime — and I’ve seen the sales numbers, I know statistically speaking not all of you have played this gem — you need to. It was unimaginably great for 2002, ahead of its time, the only followup possible to the greatness of Super Metroid if the series was to move forward in more ways than just giving in to serialization or annualization. It retains so much of that greatness to this day, enough to award it this ranking, and I cannot stress enough how much you need to revisit the world of Tallon IV — or visit it for the very first time — enough.

Maybe Nintendo will get around to porting the Metroid Prime Trilogy from the Wii to the Switch before Metroid Prime 4 inevitably comes out, maybe not. Regardless, you could stand to be proactive about it: it’ll be worth the effort and cost. Hook up that GameCube again, and order a copy of Prime. Plug in your Wii, and buy a copy of Metroid Prime Trilogy so you can experience all three games. Hell, buy a Wii U and get all of the games I’ve told you about that are on this list and are also available on that system, and then make Metroid Prime the crown jewel of that collection through the eShop. I do not care what you do or if you have to invoke an emulator to do it, but you need to play this game.

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