Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 36, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
The sequel to Retro's stunning achievement was nearly even better, until it wasn't. But it's still wonderful despite its faults.
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.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is a divisive game. There are those who believe it’s too hard, the difficulty spike from Metroid Prime to this unfair and unexpected: multiple outlets described it as being “unforgiving” in their reviews. There are those who don’t think it did enough differently from its predecessor to truly separate itself from the instant classic that was the original, that it didn’t innovate or iterate well enough. And there are those who ask, “What’s a Metroid Prime 2: Echoes?” because Metroid games never sell like Mario or Zelda games, and the GameCube had a small install base.
All of those people are wrong, even the ones asking a question — they might be the most wrong of all, play Metroid games, what is wrong with you!? Metroid Prime 2 is absolutely tougher than its predecessor, but in a way I find extremely rewarding that informs the gameplay and meta narrative elements of the title, and creates some of the separation that supposedly doesn’t exist between these first two titles. I prefer the way the game was changed up from the first here to the way Retro Studios turned a well-paced, exploration-based adventure game into a first-person shooter in time for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. I’m a big fan of Corruption, too, as you know if you’ve been reading along for a while now, even though it’s not the game I wanted it to be. My reaction to Echoes is a little different, in that it is exactly what I wanted it to be, until it was exactly what was wrong with games of the time.
In the end, it’s still sitting here at number 36 on this top 101, so you know that, in spite of that significant fault, I’m firmly in support of it. But I do look at it and wonder how much more I could have enjoyed it if not for its late game, which is, in essence, a design mistake that takes hours to get through. We’ll get to all of that, though.
“Corruption” was named thus because of the Phazon corruption Samus Aran was inflicted with in the game’s early hours. “Echoes” is named the way it is because Samus is traveling between two dimensions on the same planet, where changes in the one dimension inform the other dimension. One dimension echoes in the other, if you will, and as the walls between these dimensions begin to collapse, so too does the planet Samus finds herself on. Think of the Dark World/Light World mechanics of various Zelda games, like Link to the Past or Twilight Princess or Link Between Worlds, except now consider what would happen if the entire game was made out of hopping back and forth between those dimensions in order to progress and advance through the story and world. Not just little bits here and there, but constant back-and-forth, the discovering of rifts you can travel through, causing an event to happen in one place to create a situation in the other that allows you to progress or unearth an item.
Echoes is much more than Zelda, but make it Metroid, however. Imagine if, whenever you were inside the Dark World or Twilight of Hyrule, that Link was constantly losing hearts because the air itself was a noxious poison that ate away at his armor. And that there were no inhabitants of these worlds at all who could be considered a friend, as instead, every single creature there was intent on his destruction? That the only way to avoid death from toxicity was to find or create little pockets of light where the aura would repel foes and heal our protagonist? The reason Echoes is difficult is because it is unrelenting: the enemies you find in the dark version of the planet Aether require a significant amount of ammunition pumped into them before they die, and the whole time you’re trying to end them, the air itself is eating away at your life energy.
There are ways to defeat these enemies, the Ing, more quickly, as you end up acquiring both light and dark cannon modifications that are used for opening different doors, creating safe zones, or destroying foes who are of the opposite alignment. The ammunition for these cannons is limited, though — that’s right, there is actually ammunition for Samus’ modified cannons here, and not just an endless supply of ice beam or wave beam or whatever shots — so you have to be smart about the use of them. You basically have to use the cannons to get more ammunition for them, because of the way they work, but if you overdo it and can’t acquire more for when you need it, well, things are going to get hairy, especially in Dark Aether.
All of this means the atmospheric horror aspects of Metroid are ramped up here, as you need to be more aware of your supplies than usual. Your health can vanish far too quickly in a bad situation that will become much worse if you’re also low on whatever ammo you need. The isolation is keenly felt, as Samus is as alone as she’s ever been, but even more so when on the dark side of things. It’s everything you want from a Metroid title, only more so: even the boss fights, which are not always the strongest part of a Metroid game, are stellar.
The morph ball is the real star of this game at times, as there are even bosses where its use is necessary: and one where the entire battle happens in ball form. Echoes? More like Morph Ball Prime. An Ode to the Morph Ball. There are four or five bosses where the morph ball is crucial for reasons beyond “drop a bomb now,” and none of them feel forced: they’re all excellent design choices that make the game as a whole sing. Retro made this game a love letter to the morph ball and its capabilities, and it was the right call… and not just because it gave Echoes even further separation from the original Prime.
Retro also took the time to emphasize other aspects of the 2D Metroid experience that, unlike the morph ball, didn’t make it into the original Metroid Prime, which originally converted the series from 2D side-scrolling adventure into a fully 3D, first-person platform adventure. The wall jump now exists, with Samus able to perform it on special walls that allow for that kind of climbing, and the Screw Attack makes an appearance, as well. Neither of these work quite as well as they do in the 2D realm: the wall jump only being useful in very specific spaces makes it a bit limiting compared to its all-purpose role in the 2D games, while the Screw Attack makes for some varied gameplay, but its implementation is just wonky enough to bounce between cool and annoying to use. Overall, though, these were good adds: they just aren’t vital in the way other changes to the Prime formula were.
The actual “Metroid Prime,” which was fought at the end of the game as a massive creature, returns, but in the form of Samus herself: her Phazon suit was consumed by the essence of Prime at the end of that game, and now it’s the shell that creature uses to interact with the world. The only reason this avenue within the Prime games is a bit of a bummer is because Metroid Fusion already went down this path a few years before, and does a better job with it: whereas in Echoes, Dark Samus/Prime is mostly viewed from afar and occasionally battled until the end of the game, where it must finally be vanquished, the Samus replicant in Fusion is a terrifying force that is all but guaranteed to end you if it finds you.
The good news is that, even though the Fusion model is obviously superior, Echoes’ version of a copy of Samus isn’t attempting the exact same thing or trying to create the same feelings of despair and fear in you, so it doesn’t come off like a poor second attempt so much as it’s the kind of thing I can mention here as being disappointing in the grander scheme of things, given the general lack of originality. This isn’t a complaint with the game so much as an acknowledgement that it isn’t flawless.
The real complaint with the game comes with its forced, late-game fetch quest. In the original Prime, you needed to collect a number of objects, the MacGuffins of the day, in order to finally progress underground to face off against the titular Metroid Prime. You could begin collecting those objects very early on, even before you were aware just what they were intended for, so if by the time you needed them to progress you didn’t have them all in your possession, that was on you and your lack of curiosity or sense of exploration. Echoes repeats the need for objects to be collected in order to make it to the end, but unlike in Prime, where this was just kind of an open thing you could get to whenever, it all has to be done at once in Echoes. You effectively finish the game, with just the final boss(es) left to go, and then Echoes goes, “but wait, we’ve padded out the experience!”
The hints about the location of these keys is vaguer than in the original, and to make matters worse, you can’t actually see the keys without a specific visor on. So you have to travel all over the places you’ve already been to in order to find hidden enemies holding onto objects you don’t even want to be collecting, because the pacing of the game was so good and on point to this stage that it felt like you were about to go kick the ass of the king of the Ing and then settle things with your doppelganger, but then you can’t. Not until you spend a few hours backtracking and searching and backtracking some more, and not in the good way Metroid tends to do backtracking. Hey, guess what game inspired this tweet:
The first time I played Echoes, I actually stopped entirely after searching for these objects. I was so furious at the game for the kind of obvious fetch quest padding of hours that it was inflicting on me: it was a real problem during this era of games, designed to keep critics and consumers from complaining about game length, but detracting from the game that was already there in the process. I eventually finished Prime 2 when the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection released on the Wii, and have since completed it a couple more times, but I’m preemptively mad about having to do this extend-the-game fetch-quest bullshit every time. It took me about three hours to get all of those objects in my last playthrough, and I used a guide to just tell me where they were so I could keep the time down. [screams]
Now, this is obviously all a problem. However, let’s keep some perspective, says the guy who just bracket screamed in text. I obviously loathe this section of the game, which is not short, nor necessary. However, the rest of the game is stellar. The rest of the game? You could argue it’s the absolute pinnacle of the entire Prime trilogy. This fetch stretch probably cost this game at least 25 spots in the rankings, and I’m being vague there mostly so you don’t know where Prime Prime ranks. Echoes is incredible, until it isn’t, but once you finish the part that isn’t any good, it’s incredible again. Zooming out on it a bit, and you’re left with one of the better Metroids, which in turn means it’s one of the better games Nintendo has ever put their name on. And that ain’t bad.
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