To many, the announcement of Metroid Prime 4 at this year’s E3 came as a massive shock. After going nearly seven years without a proper Metroid game – last year’s unconventional Metroid Prime: Federation Force notwithstanding – the idea that Nintendo would revive their beloved, yet underplayed sci-fi series seemed improbable until two weeks ago.
However, if one analyzes the current state of the Japanese video game market, as well as how Nintendo has historically managed its franchises, Metroid Prime‘s return is not so unexpected. Put simply, the Japanese market has developed something of a soft spot for first-person shooters as of late. Destiny, Bungie’s online-only multiplayer first-person shooter, sold strongly in Japan by the country’s standards. Overwatch, Blizzard’s beloved team-based shooter, got an all-star cast of anime voice actors, and also performed solidly. Even Call of Duty and Battlefield, shooters emblematic of Americans’ love of digital militarism and the bombastic, performed well there last year. By no means has the first-person shooter reached the same level of cultural penetration in Japan as it has in North America – however, it has made enough of a dent in recent years that it would be unwise for even a large company such as Nintendo to ignore its newfound popularity.
Meanwhile, even though Nintendo makes video games that are enjoyed worldwide, the company has been shown to favor creating games that appeal to the interests of its native territory first, even if the game in question is known to sell better abroad. Consider that the last console Metroid game, Metroid: Other M, forwent the series’ typically low-key storytelling in favor of a heavy plot and melodramatic voice acting reminiscent of Japanese anime (to mixed reactions). Or the more recent Hyrule Warriors, which eschewed the Zelda series’ typical exploration-based gameplay in favor of Dynasty Warriors-style action (a series that is as popular in Japan as it is obscure in America), or Pokken Tournament, which fused the easily-accessible Pokemon franchise with the more esoteric, and again, very Japanese Tekken.
Thus, it stands to reason that the long-awaited announcement of Metroid Prime 4 – which is being developed in-house at Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto, rather than at Retro Studios, Nintendo’s Austin-based second-party developer – is not just an belated acknowledgement of its fans’ fervor for a new Metroid game, but a response to a Japanese market that finally hungers for first person shooters, after years of apathy.
So what does this mean?
To many people, the Metroid Prime series is great because it doesn’t lean into the exuberance seen in so much of the first-person shooter genre, despite utilizing a first-person viewpoint and featuring plenty of firearms. The first Metroid Prime (2002) dropped players alone into the somber, decaying alien world of Talon IV. Rather than present the player with opportunities to wage destruction on an unblemished environment, Metroid Prime emphasized exploring and mastering an already-ravaged land through platforming, puzzle-solving, and learning about the planet’s history through information logs. What few enemies were in the game were effectively puzzles in of themselves, designed to be taken down slowly and methodically using the full range of protagonist Samus Aran’s arsenal, rather than serve as bullet fodder for a quick, yet passing feeling of satisfaction. Metroid Prime, like its 2D predecessors, was just as much a meditation on loneliness, wonder and growth as it was an action game.
However, the more the Metroid Prime series progressed, the more contemporaneous first-person shooters began to influence its design. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (2005) featured an almost identical premise and approach to level design as its predecessor, yet it also included a multiplayer mode in which players battled each other for supremacy as multicolored Samuses. With no online functionality and limited customizability, Echoes’ multiplayer attracted few fans; nonetheless, the mode’s inclusion signaled a shift in the series’ previous rejection of its contemporaries’ tropes, and an acknowledgement of the rise in popularity of online multiplayer shooters such as Bungie’s Halo. The next year, Metroid Prime Hunters (2006) for the Nintendo DS further remolded the series, featuring more action-focused environments for Samus to traverse through in the game’s single-player, and an expanded multiplayer suite that included online functionality, voice-chat, and 7 unique playable characters. However, it never found success on the same level as other online multiplayer offerings on the DS, such as Mario Kart or Pokemon.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (2007) did away with its predecessors’ multiplayer suite, but retained and evolved Hunters’ emphasis on action-focused environments. Samus was given a new weapon, the phazon beam, which allowed her to shoot enemies much harder and much, much faster than any previous weapon in the series, while the rest of Samus’ arsenal was streamlined so that the attributes of new weaponry would automatically stack on top of previous weaponry, so as to reduce the amount of time spent selecting different weapon types within in-game menus (Samus’ ice beam and missiles, for example, combined to become ice missiles). The game featured many more large-scale enemy shootouts than were present in the series’ first two games, and enemy designs were slightly simplified to require less puzzle-solving to defeat them. The game’s plot, as a whole, bares comparisons to the military escapades of Halo or Call of Duty: Samus teams up with the Galactic Federation (a spacefaring army that had previously only played a tertiary role in the series) and a group of friendly bounty hunters to fight an alien menace threatening the entire galaxy. Rather than be confined to a single, expansive planet, Samus explored multiple smaller ones, not entirely dissimilar to the segmented level design of contemporary shoots.
And yet, Corruption still stayed true to the tenants of its predecessors. Unlike Capcom’s Resident Evil, which compromised its design in its pursuit of the success of the first-person shooter during the last console generation, Corruption managed to strike a balance between the old and the new, presenting a more epic, faster-paced world in which the player’s primary objective was still to bask in and master their environment – not destroy it. Bar a few elitists that felt the game had strayed too far from the series’ roots, critics largely agreed that Metroid Prime 3: Corruption ended the trilogy on a high note.
We don’t currently know how deeply Metroid Prime 4 will attempt to ape this generation’s most popular first-person shooters, but if Corruption is any indication, there’s reason to be confident that Nintendo won’t overindulge in doing so. Moreover, this fall is also seeing the release of Metroid: Samus’ Return for the 3DS, a very traditional 2D Metroid game that sees Samus dropped alone into an alien planet with the sole object of eliminating the locale’s alien population, with none of the superfluous narrative complexity present in Corruption (or Other M). That Nintendo greenlit such a simple title after the series’ more elaborate outings shows that they still understand that the core of the Metroid experience lies first and foremost in the sense of loneliness and wonder of exploring and mastering an alien land, further giving hope that however Prime 4 chooses to evolve the series’ mechanics, it won’t abandon these tenants.
However, there still exists a very real possibility that Metroid Prime 4 will still feature some sort of multiplayer mode separate from its single-player offering. While the Metroid series is hardly synonymous with its brushes with multiplayer, the fact of the matter is that Metroid‘s two largest appearances between 2010’s Other M and this year’s Samus Returns were both multiplayer-focused: Metroid Blast, the Metroid-themed attraction in the Wii U launch game Nintendo Land, pitted multiple players against each other and myriad alien species, while last year’s highly divisive Metroid Prime Federation Force (a game I neglected to mention until now not out of spite, but because it was created for a vastly different purpose than the mainline Prime series), featured both competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes. Moreover, all of the first-person shooters discussed at the beginning of this article – the shooters that are most likely what willed Metroid Prime 4 into existence – live and die by their multiplayer offerings (or in the case of Overwatch and Destiny, only have multiplayer modes), which will likely only incentivize Nintendo further to see how it can finally integrate a compelling multiplayer mode into Metroid.
My only hope is that unlike Nintendo’s previous stabs at integrating multiplayer components into the Metroid series, Metroid Prime 4‘s hypothetical multiplayer will attempt to offer something congruous to the single-player’s emphasis on wonder, loneliness and mastery of the game’s environment, rather than offer another degenerative shootout. Nintendo is likely wise to the fact that in order to penetrate the already over-saturated first-person shooter market, they need to offer an experience unique from what customers have seen before; a multiplayer suite that channels what it is that makes the Metroid series beloved in the first place might just be the solution.