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Metroid Prime 2’s pacing : a few thoughts

Having finished Prime 2 yesterday for the first time, and left a bit puzzled about what I think about the game, I wanted to share with this sub a few of my thoughts regarding the game. Having already checked similar threads, I solemnly swear not to talk about those two issues that are always brought up :

  • The ammo system (I don't really care for it, except for the dark beam being way too slow IMO, and the sunburst/darkburst made almost useless against bosses due to their ability to shield from it, especially Emperor Ing)
  • The light/dark world mechanics, which are fine by me.

However, there are some major gripes I have with the game, and I'd like to know if they are somewhat shared and/or legitimate. (Disclaimer: I played the Gamecube version, which I feel is fine for the control scheme, but sometimes runs into issues due to the level design of the game – Emperor's Ing room should have been bigger in order to lock those damn tentacles.).

I read after completing MP2 that the majority of the game had to be rushed out in three months to meet the deadline set by Nintendo – which honestly is impressive considering the quality of the world design and the rooms themselves, but which can be truly felt when considering the progression scheme of the game. In order : getting to the temple of the area, gathering three keys, defeating a major boss, giving the energy back to the dark world, doing the same in Light Aether, going back again to the temple grounds, rinse and repeat three times, and then AGAIN having to find nine keys before being granted access to the final boss. I am not trying to blame the Key Hunt at the end of the game on its own ; I just feel this Hunt is made considerably worse by the lack of innovation in the progression through the areas before hand, and makes the whole progression of the game feel very samey, and cruelly uninspired. This type of progression, although classical and expected if you want to consider MP2 as a Zelda-like game (which it is), sometimes truly feel like padding, and uninventive : it feels Retro had to adapt the areas they had already developed to a progression format they had to come up with to meet with Nintendo's deadline – hence, a feeling that the areas themselves were used and put together in order to feel like a video game, and not as believable areas that could exist on their own.

Of course, all Metroid games feel like this to a certain extent – the sole idea of progressing through specific powerups is a requirement of the area being designed to indulge this progression. But Prime 2 feels awkward because an entire planet that you are exploring, in order to save a species from adark source of energy, has turned its quest for survival in a checklist of elements to pickup in order to open a door. Sure, in principle, this is no different than Super Metroid or Zero Mission, but that door was only an embodiment of defeating the bosses of the areas, areas that you had to explore for themselves and master in progression. In those 2D games, what you had to do in the areas themselves was the motivation to go forward and discover the world; in Prime 2, because you know you are always chasing those stupid keys, the exploration feels rigid, and pretty pointless. The lack in diversity sure makes the game easier to understand, but feels very unimaginative very quickly.

More generally, I couldn't shake off the feeling that the game was clutching at straws in order to lengthen its runtime. Another (most controversial) example : the boss design. While some are truly great (obligatory Quadraxis mention, and the encounters with Dark Samus are fun), a lot of the bosses feel like bullet sponge-like enemies that would have been more entertaining had their fight been shorter. Before you tell me that this is all about that “git gud” attitude, I truly don't think this has anything to do with difficulty: spending 10+min on a boss whose patterns you have figured out at first glance/scan is not difficult, it's just frustrating and not really interesting (Emperor Ing first and final phase; a bit of the Chykka fight; and a general feeling of repetition in the mid-bosses). This may have to do with the fact that I am much more familiar with the 2D games, where bosses can be challenging but still over fairly quickly (even in Fusion). This is already an issue I had playing Prime 1, but bosses there were not as frequent, and the issue felt not as drastic then. The item bosses in particular feel, for the most part, undercooked and too much of an annoyance to really justify their existence.

All in all, I really had the feeling that the game tried its best and worst to be longer, which led to the very unpleaseant thought that the game didn't really respect your time. You know the feeling you get when you hear someone give an oral presentation that is supposed to last a certain amount of time, and it feels clear they don't have enough material to cover it all, so it all feels slowed down and overdeveloped for bad reasons ? This is how I perceived MP2's pacing – the key structure, the bosses, the inevitable rooms that lock down for no good reason even though you went through here ten times, the constant knockback enemies that have you redo an entire room that you just climbed up… this is not all about the “git gud” mindset, this is about a studio that had to come up with ideas because they were short on time.

And even if it were about the “git gud” mindset, MP2's global design makes the items and powerups almost moot when it comes to traversal. What I find satisfying in the 2D series, for instance, is the way a room might be completely changed in its approach once you have a certain powerup – the high/space jump, the speed booster and subsequent shinespark, etc. A room where you were slow and clumsy a few hours prior now feels like a breeze, because an item radically change the way you can go through it. In Prime's design philosophy, a powerup only serves as a tool to access an area or open a door, and rarely to redesign your approach to the ones you already know. Except for the screw attack in areas where you might be supposed to use the grapple beam, and in a few places the spider ball, I personaly never had that feeling of reinventing Samus's movement in Prime 2 – you either can or cannot go somewhere, there's not much difference between actually going somewhere before or after acquiring an item.

I finished the game in about 12 hours, and even if there are some truly great moments included in that runtime, I have the general feeling that at least a third of this time has been deviced to justify the tag price of the game, and that the game would actually have made a more lasting impression on me had it been shorter and/or better designed when it comes to each area's global objectives. Which is a recurring problem of my story with Prime games so far : Prime 1, due to its excessive backtracking, felt sometimes like a chore to complete; Prime 2 works sometimes better thanks to its area being self-contained, but on the whole feels like a game that only works because its progression had to be made simplistic, and should have been given more time in order to have more interesting things to do.

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