Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 57, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

A game can be exactly what I don't want it to be and yet still manage to be great.

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 3 might be the first from the Metroid franchise to show up in these rankings, but it’s not the worst of the bunch. Remember, “worst” is relative — after all, the first Metroid game on this list cracked the top 60, meanwhile we’ve already had multiple Mario and Zelda titles appear — but it shares a few too many traits with the actual worst Metroid game for everything that comes after this to be glowing praise. That actual worst, by the way — The Wii’s Metroid: Other M — just so happens to be the only one one from the entire series that didn’t make it onto this list in one form or another. And Prime 3’s shared traits with it ended up getting it ranked where it is, behind every other Metroid that did make it into this little project of mine.

You see, Metroid games are, generally, really goddamn great, and I’m brave enough to speak that truth. Please hold your applause until the end.

Metroid Prime is a sub-series of the Metroid franchise that is played from a first-person perspective. The games weren’t shooters, though, despite the fact that Samus Aran was in a suit of power armor with an arm cannon equipped, and you would shoot it from said first-person perspective. What they were was a way to translate the beloved 2D, side-scrolling platform experience of a Metroid game into a 3D world, in the same way Mario’s and Zelda’s transitions from 2D to 3D created the opportunity for vaster, richer worlds to experience, while still maintaining the core themes and experiences of the games that came before. Unlike with Mario and Zelda, though, development was not handled by a core Nintendo team that had worked on the 2D version of the series. Development was instead handed to Texas-based Retro Studios, a new-ish, second-party outfit staffed by veterans of the Turok franchise, who to that point had mostly disappointed Nintendo with their games. Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo still saw something in them, though, so they granted the developer the Metroid license, asked for a first-person entry in the series, and then made Retro a first-party subsidiary. That seems to have worked out.

Those 2D Metroid roots the Prime series emerged from— which at the time were the NES’ Metroid, Game Boy’s Metroid II, and SNES’ Super Metroid — had essentially invented and refined a new genre. Super Metroid came out before the term “Metroidvania” was a thing, even, because Castlevania hadn’t even gone down that route yet themselves. Metroid games were just, you know. Metroid games at that time. Even now, you might see people refer to something like Sega Master System classic Wonder Boy in Monster World as a “Metroidvania” style game, to narrow down your understanding of what it’s about from “2D side-scrolling action-adventure platformer” even though it pre-dates the Metroidvania moniker by multiple console generations. It’s just a lot easier to understand what you’re getting into with the retroactive application of the genre, you know?

The emphasis in these games was — or is, really, thanks to an extremely healthy collection of modern games in the genre — on exploration, on discovery, on charting an unknown world and finding new weapons and tools to help you bypass its obstacles, be they living or a door or a crawl space or a body of water. There was fighting to be done, sure, but the creatures encountered were mostly just obstacles in the way of exploration. The worlds would be connected in many ways, ways that exploration would inevitably unearth, in a manner that made the world seem both larger and smaller — more easily traversed — than initially believed. The Monster Boy games, and plenty of others in the genre, were social experiences, too, with plenty of NPCs to talk to and interact with. Metroid games, though, were silent. Super Metroid has a quick text introduction to catch you up on where the series is and set the stage for the game to come. It then goes dark for the next however many hours it takes you to complete it, with no one to speak to, to hear from, to converse with, outside of the occasional battle cry of a foe, or an alarm to alert your enemies to your presence. It’s lonely, it’s oppressive, and all of that sets a near-unmatched mood for enjoying what it has to offer as Samus plumbs the depths of the Space Pirate stronghold built into the planet.

The first two Prime games did a tremendous job of carrying over this feeling of foreboding isolation into the first-person, 3D space. There was far more text to be read and absorbed in these titles, but it wasn’t through conversation or interaction with the chatty living. It was through the use of a scanner that read objects, creatures, computers, and so on: it was another form of exploring and understanding the world Samus found herself in, and it worked brilliantly, especially since it was still all so Samus-focused: you were reading these logs and entries as she was, learning about these creatures as she was, and your thoughts on all of these matters reflected — or more accurately, were hers — as there was no one else to bounce them off of, nothing telling you or Samus how you should be feeling or thinking.

Prime 3 has the scanner and all the good that comes with it, but otherwise, it fails at making sure the focus is on exploration and mood and your own thoughts like its predecessors. There are conversations to be had in Corruption. Lots of conversations. Multitudes of NPCs to interact with, a focus on space marines, other bounty hunters with their own personalities and backstories and conversations they insist on having with you that break up the loneliness you should be feeling, and often guide your own thoughts instead of letting them find their own footing.

For some, this was a welcome change, one that made Metroid feel more “modern.” For me, though, it was a relative disappointment — just like how the switch from first-person platformer to first-person shooter for Prime 3 was a relative disappointment. The emphasis moved from one of slow, deliberate pacing and exploration to more action-oriented, with more enemies, tougher enemies, and a focus on constantly clearing rooms of foes. No longer could you mostly just move through a space and leave the wildlife alone, with bouts against Space Pirates more of a rarity that helped lend gravity to your chance meetings with them. Now, the Pirate onslaughts were more of a constant, the local fauna harder to avoid confrontation with, the action placed front-and-center.

Exploration, too, is more limited than in most other Metroid titles, thanks to the decision to have Samus fly her gunship around to different planets. There’s only so much exploring to be done on each map within a planet, all of which combine to be about the size you’d expect from a Prime title’s game world. It takes away from one of the joys of Metroid titles, which is completing the puzzle that is the world’s map, finding out where it all connects, the backtracking to see old areas in a new light that is a hallmark of the series. There are bits and pieces of it here and there throughout the game, but it’s not the same as we’re used to, not what it could be.

Now, it would be one thing if Corruption not only failed to deliver on the reasons I adore Metroid, but failed to make an engaging, action-oriented FPS in general. You can guess that, given this game does sit where it does in these rankings, despite my misgivings about the direction of the franchise — a direction and re-prioritization of the idea of what Metroid should be that resulted in the series’ worst title just a few years later — that it did not fail in this. And you’re correct! Corruption is still great. I might not agree with what Retro Studios prioritized here, but they still made a hell of a game with those priorities.

The combat is more difficult, and is certainly designed with the idea that you played the previous two Prime games before diving into the end of this trilogy. It expects more from you, and it expects it in quicker reaction time, in more accurate shooting, in an understanding of when it makes sense for you to sacrifice life energy for a more powerful attack to end engagements sooner, and with more health intact than if you had fought traditionally. That’s thanks to the Hyper Beam, which Samus ends up acquiring when her body is poisoned by Phazon Radiation to the point that she nearly died from the exposure.

You can use the Hyper Beam to quickly mow down enemies, and in some instances it’s absolutely necessary in order to cut through armor or more powerful enemies, but there’s a cost. Samus has to reroute the life energy found in her reserve tanks into her arm beam in order to use the Hyper Beam, which means you’re constantly balancing the life Samus has left to her with what it might look like should you use or not use this powerful beam. And again, it’s necessary, and not set aside so you can only be using it at the most critical junctures. You’ll be doing this kind of quick math in your head often, and sometimes to solve puzzles, too, like with welding or exploding new pathways into existence.

Corruption’s story is good, too, which it had to be since it was so much more front-and-center, with less emphasis on you discovering how the pieces all fit together slowly through scans and the like. It helps that the fellow bounty hunters — one-time allies who all end up corrupted (get it?) by the same Phazon radiation that attacked Samus — are different enough in appearance and temperament and abilities that your interactions and fights with them all feel unique. And while this ends up being the third game you’ve fought the titular Metroid Prime in, you’ve never done so on the home world of the poison that powers it, either, its seat of power as it were. Nor had you fought a Ridley that had been heavily modified with Phazon technology, either, so check that box off the list.

My favorite action set piece from the entire game, though, comes relatively early on. Samus is helping defend a Galactic Federation base against an attack by Space Pirates that also features a giant meteor screaming toward the planet’s surface to obliterate it all. Samus saves the day, or is seemingly about to, and then, out of nowhere, Ridley — who is, in case I need to remind you, a sentient, naturally and unnaturally armored space dragon pirate equipped with rocket launchers in addition to being able to spew concentrated fire out of his mouth in between razor-sharp tail lashings directed at you — tackles Samus and falls down a giant cylindrical shaft with his nemesis. Samus then fights Ridley while in free fall, Gandalf vs. Balrog style, with Samus trying to interrupt his worst attacks by hitting just the right spots on his body and in his mouth in the nick of time, until finally she just shoves her arm cannon down his throat and squeezes the trigger repeatedly, before she can fall all the way to her doom at the bottom of what is apparently a 17-kilometer tall tunnel.

Don’t ask why the tunnel is designed like that, just enjoy the ride. And uh, get off before you splat:

In this moment, at least, the emphasis on action was certainly merited. And it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t just a wonderful action set piece, but also a charged emotional scene that conveys the depth of the loathing these two have for each other, all without a single utterance of dialogue. Just brilliantly done.

Corruption also makes excellent use of the Wii Remote’s motion and IR functions for aiming, shooting, and interacting with the world around Samus. The controls worked so well, in fact, that my preferred way of playing the preceding Prime games is with the Wii controls, which you’re able to experience if you have the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection.

That doesn’t mean you don’t owe us more traditional Metroid Prime controls in an HD Switch collection, Nintendo. You don’t get off that easy.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is not the game I wanted it to be. And yet, when it first released in August of 2007, I tore through it in… two playthroughs? It’s still excellent in its own right all this time later, even with its departures from both the Prime games and Metroid proper even more noticeable given what Metroid-based disappointment released later on in the Wii’s life. I don’t want whatever Prime game comes next to pull heavily from Corruption, but given how Prime 3 turned out, we’d still likely end up with a hell of a game if that’s how things end up going.

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