Or, A Theoretical Defense Of The Black Sheep.
Yeah. I know I’m talking about a 2007 game, and games sort of age in dog years, where even last month’s DLC is considered “old news”. But I believe that once a product is released, it has its own inherence, a place in time, no matter if it was released in 2012, 2007, or those old Nintendo playing cards from like 1899. So if anyone out there can’t get past the “it’s not a new game” syndrome, then, well…get past it, please.
I’ve previously looked at how Metroid protagonist Samus Aran is a light in the dark for representations of women in video games, a feminist symbol in a medium where Dead Or Alive and Tomb Raider are the dominant depictions of the female gender.
Now, I’m gonna level with you. I love the Metroid series. I think Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are two of the greatest games ever made. Of Nintendo’s “core franchises”, I think they know that they’ve really got something special here: they don’t spam yearly Metroid Party games a la Mario, they don’t hem and haw about where to take the franchise now, unlike Star Fox, and while Zelda now has a full-fledged timeline, the story is something that they’ve paid close attention to in the Metroid series for over a decade now.
So when Metroid Prime 3 was close to release, I was like a cat that was ready to spill the catnip bag. I remember going on AIM with a friend and mutually spazzing out over the things the latest Nintendo Power previewed for us: “Oh-em-gee, Skytown! Pirate Homeworld!” Looking back on it, though we were in our late teens, I really felt like a kid again at that moment, the kind of mindset where the simplest things can set you off on a tangent.
A part of the reason I was excited for the game was because this was going to climax what I’ve come to call the “Phazon arc”: the three-game story arc in which this dangerous, semi-sentient substance called Phazon was infecting the galaxy, leaving whole civilizations in ruin. While Samus was investigating these worlds, the Space Pirates wanted to make a cosmic plaything out of this extremely dangerous unknown thing, because when you’re something called a Space Pirate, you’re already well beyond OSHA regulations.
I was excited to see how things wrapped up. It looked like Retro was planning to conclude the arc with all barrels blazing: this was to be the Metroid series’ first true planet-hopper, and as it turns out, Samus would venture through four planets, two space cruisers, and one planet-sized Lovecraftian horror.
And man, did people ever bi-I’m sorry, complain when the game came out. The more superficial complaints had it that the first half-hour felt too much like Halo (because it had action and a protagonist in a full-body suit, because the Halo franchise has a monopoly on action and characters in suits), but I’d like to address the more common, and semi-valid, concern: the supposition that Metroid Prime 3 rips out the beating heart of what makes the Metroid series tick.
Now, this blog sways somewhere between academia and casual discourse. I’ll be approaching this as a narrative theorist, but it’ll be done in such a way that you’ll understand it if you’ve never studied narrative theory. This article in particular isn’t so much for academics as it is for Metroid fans.
So what does make the Metroid series tick? What drives us to play it to begin with?
One of the more common answers, one that I tend to agree with, is the sense of exploration in a truly alien world. That sense of being wholly lost in exotic catacombs for just long enough to make you sweat, only to find something that might lead you back on the right track. That wonder at finding a new door, not sure where you’re going – not sure if you’re supposed to be going this way, or if you’re going to be in way over your head when the monsters in the next room attack you.
They managed to create that sense of immersion in Super Metroid on a 16-bit console, for Pete’s sake. And in Metroid Prime, they not only did that, but they weaved in a whole new dimension of take-as-you-go storytelling. In Prime, Samus is exploring an alien world that has undergone a cataclysm (hint: Phazon killderized it), and through the ancient logs of the Chozo and the transcripts of the Space Pirates working on the planet parallel to Samus, you gradually piece together the truth of what happened to Tallon IV. You can skip all of that if you just want to shoot aliens (in which case, you might actually be better off just playing Halo…), or you can take your time, read the lore, and watch the universe unfold before your eyes.
So that’s what the Metroid series has come to represent, for me: a balance between the exploration of hostile, exotic alien worlds, well away from the centres of civilization, and the fleshing out of those worlds, breathing into them authentic life. The sense of isolation is certainly nice when they’ve set the right mood, but I’m not going to decry anything else at face value simply because it isn’t isolated.
So how does Prime 3 handle that?
There are parts of the game that sidestep this, but it never outright destroys it. In fact, I posit my thesis to you now: By serving as a sprawling, action-heavy climax to the Phazon arc, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption actually does more justice to the Metroid series as a big cohesive narrative than if it had just toed the genre line.
To me, it makes it feel like the Metroid narrative is undergoing actual progression, highs and lows, rather than a simple straight line. If I sift through my rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, the original Metroid Prime was actually quite subdued a lot of the time. The Space Pirates were consolidating their resources, experimenting with this new Phazon acquisition, while both Samus and the player were learning more about the cataclysm that ruined the planet.
Fast-forward to Prime 3, where the Pirates are mounting full-on offensives against the galaxy. Though they’ve been well and fully corrupted by Phazon at this point, Prime 3 codifies the Space Pirates as a credible, major threat to galactic life, as opposed to a fringe group that just operates in the shadowy interior of exotic out-of-the-way planets. It’s constantly been insinuated that Space Pirates are a major threat to life in the cosmos, but in the narrative tug-of-war between showing and telling, telling can only go so far. I think the series was owed an installment where we see outright battles between Space Pirates and Federation soldiers.
But what about the planets themselves, and how they contribute to the atmosphere?
First of all, I happen to disagree with the people who say that Bryyo, the first proper world you set foot on (not including Norion, which is just a station high above the ground), thrusts you right back into the classic Metroid isolation. I feel like the whole ‘exploring in isolation’ concept is gone in Prime 3.
But I’m also saying, that’s not an objectively bad thing.
Because even though Bryyo presents us with ancient ruins and deep catacombs that will make any Metroid player worth their salt feel all tingly inside, you’re constantly receiving feeds from the Aurora unit (more on that later) and others. Because your gunship can set down at multiple places throughout the world, you never feel like you’re too far away from safety.
But on the flipside, you also never really feel like you lose track of the big picture. By constantly receiving feeds from other characters, you feel like Samus is connected with the “Phazon War” that’s been going on, rather than just off on some isolated burg. Yeah, it’s not perfect; play Mass Effect 3 and go to the Citadel if you want to see fallout from a war done really effectively. Prime 3 doesn’t go that deep, but it does something.
Ironically, the Pirate Homeworld is where I felt it held the most true to those old Metroid axioms: adventuring alone through a hostile world, danger around every corner, not quite sure where you’re going. This being the very belly of the beast for the main antagonists of the series, you’d expect it to be more action-packed than anything else, with epic scenes akin to Master Chief smashing Covenant heads or Shepard laying out waves of Geth.
But for a lot of it, Samus is playing the part of the covert operative, going around undetected and making sure that the planet’s defenses are nice and docile for the Federation to commence their attack. The world itself is beautifully garish, a mixture of offensive crimson hues and odd textures that make it feel just as alien as Zebes, with an oppressive disregard for any kind of organic life. And you’re right in the middle of it.
So how does this make the rest of the series seem to flow better in retrospect?
In most series worth their salt, each installment will have a rising action and climax. But in long-running series, there will be moments, whole installments, that act as a climax, or rising action. Look at Mass Effect 3: 95% of the game is like a climactic fulfillment of the rising action of the previous games. The other 5% is…well…
Anyway, back to Metroid!
My point is, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption acts as the fulfillment of the rising action present in Prime 1 and 2. Metroid (well, Zero Mission, the remake that overwrote the original in the timeline) set the scene for the canon, and had skirmishes with Space Pirates, but Corruption takes it to a whole new level. You actually feel like you’re in the midst of a galactic war, and that feeling rubberbands throughout the rest of the series as well.
Even though the Space Pirates are well and corrupted by Phazon at this point, their ability to wage war in Corruption makes this their ‘high water mark’ in the series. Chronologically, after Corruption you’ve got: no Pirates in Return Of Samus, Pirates in Super Metroid (because you’re invading their stronghold), and in Other M and Fusion, the Pirates you see are, respectively, clones or X-parasites. So in terms of the rise and fall of the Space Pirates, the Metroid series’ main antagonists, Corruption is the mark that we can anchor the rest of the series around.
But wait, what’s that? What about the actual titular creature, the Metroids themselves?
It’s a bit strange to say it like this, but Metroids never were really the focus of Metroid. In the first game, they only appeared at the end. Same with Super Metroid. In Prime, they were prominent, but as a subplot. Prime 2, barely there. The series continues on for three installments after most of the Metroids were systematically exterminated in Return Of Samus. So it’s not a big deal that they’re mostly a non-issue in Corruption.
And fittingly enough, the game that takes place after this one, Return Of Samus (detailing Samus’s destruction of the remaining Metroids, sans one) is a much lower-key adventure, almost like a breathing point in the timeline after the rush that is Corruption. Her foes there are basically just Metroids and feral alien creatures, not a calculating force like the Space Pirates. After that, it’s back into high gear, albeit in more “traditional” Metroid style, with Super Metroid.
But you know the thing that I never really latched on to about Corruption? The Wii controls. They were touted right on the box as the best FPS controls ever, but…honestly, I just didn’t get it. That was a common trend in my experiences with the Wii: the first-party games were great…but the controls brought the experience down for me. Take Donkey Kong Country Returns, also developed by Retro: on its face, it’s a beautiful platformer that offers up stern, but mostly fair challenge, like the previous DKC games. Add in the fact that you need to waggle the remote to perform the crucial rolling attack, and the overall unintuitive dynamic of the controller, and the difficulty spiked up to unimaginable levels for me. And you know, maybe it really is just me.
Granted, there was one plot point they introduced in Corruption that they never really took to its logical conclusion: the Aurora units. Everything, from the design of these organic computers to the promotional material that introduced them, was clearly meant to reference Mother Brain, the organic computer in charge of the Space Pirates. And here they were, in the hands of the Federation! Well, this was obviously huge! Could we be in for revelations concerning Mother Brain’s very existence? Were they reverse-engineered from Mommy Cerebellum, what?
As it turns out, it’s never touched on. The most likely theories, by virtue of being the most straightforward, are that Mother Brain is either a stolen Aurora unit (since the Pirates do pretty much the same thing in Corruption to the AU on board the Valhalla ship, because hey, Pirates), or Auroras are a common technology in this far-future canon that are, for lack of a better term, mass-produced somewhere and the Pirates just happened to get a hold of one to make into Mother Brain. Did I miss a log somewhere that wraps this up in a neat little bow, or do you think Retro intended to keep it ambiguous? Metroid mongers, hit me up in the comments and let me know!
Speaking of ambiguity…
Psst, hey. Want to know the big secret of entertainment-based narrative? The secret is that none of us knows what we’re doing. Not really. Not in the sense that there’s some secret society of prodigal geniuses who can accurately predict every market trend and what will be a hit. Success in the creative arts is more of a crapshoot than skydiving, because at least with the latter, you have a parachute. The best a creator can do is to go with their gut, and hope that people will enjoy what they’ve created.
I realize I’m digressing just to support a point that I had only started in the conclusion of the article, but Alan Moore (Writer of – come on, you know him) has said, relative to the question of “where do you get your ideas?”, that “we don’t know the answer and we’re scared that somebody will find out.”
So Retro, in the creation of Prime 3: Corruption, went with their gut. Having been handed the keys to the time-honoured Metroid series, they decided that the series would benefit in the long run by an installment that took on a more sprawling, epic mantle than the others, in order to convey the climax of a major plot arc. And I think they succeeded.
Now, good writing will successfully hide the seams. To use an inverse example, the seams show all over the place in the second and third Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, as they were writing by the seat of their pants. See: introducing a badass eldritch monster in the second movie, then having it killed offscreen in the interim between the second and third films because you couldn’t think of a less transparent way to do it in. To go back to Mass Effect 3, the infamous “God-child” ending is a case of the seams showing in a very real way. But good writing will allow you to step back, take a level-headed approach even if you don’t like the way they went at it, and say, “Yeah, I get what they were aiming for here.”
That’s what I think deserves to be said about Corruption, at the very least. It provides a tether for the series at large, both in terms of the antagonist role and the over-arching narrative of the series.