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‘Metroid Prime’ Level by Level: Frigate Orpheon

For the Metroid fan, it’s either feast or famine. Up until last June, series devotees were in a record-long drought, having waited seven years for word of a…soccer-less Metroid game. But then E3 2017 landed the one-two knockout of Metroid: Samus Returns and Metroid Prime 4. It was as if history had nearly repeated itself, as fifteen years earlier the simultaneous release of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime ended another near-decade-long dry spell. And while Metroid Fusion remains a fondly remembered game, Metroid Prime stole the show, bringing the franchise into 3D while collecting countless accolades. But how does the Gamecube’s killer app hold up a decade and a half later? In celebration of Metroid Prime’s return, I will be systematically analyzing the design of each of the original’s main areas. Tally-ho, Tallon IV — it’s time to scan you region-by-region. In this entry, I will look at the game’s first area: the Frigate Orpheon.

Metroid Prime begins with Samus tracing the distress call of the Frigate Orpheon, a Space Pirate frigate that escaped the fall of Zebes and entered orbit around Tallon IV to perform Phazon experiments on various life forms. Hours before Samus boards the derelict craft, a pair of Parasite Queens broke out of their enclosures and wreaked havoc aboard the frigate, prompting the Space Pirate crew to emit a distress signal before most of them abandoned ship. While the remaining Space Pirates managed to take down one of the Parasite Queens, the other acts as Metroid Prime’s first boss fight, an encounter that takes place after Samus has explored the main throughway. Upon beating the boss, the frigate enters self-destruct mode, and Samus must quickly rush back to her ship. En route through the ventilation system, Samus runs into a rebuilt Meta Ridley and loses her upgrades due to an explosion in a hallway. Once the Frigate Orpheon detonates, its remains can be revisited on Tallon IV, where it curiously bridges the Tallon Overworld and the Phazon Mines.

The Frigate Orpheon is a small, compact area that acts as more of an isolated tutorial than a part of a cohesive world. Its mechanical, interiorized setting stands out from the rest of Metroid Prime’s first half, and acts as a precursor to later game settings, like the similarly industrial Phazon Mines. In some regards, the Frigate Orpheon is aesthetically bland, especially upon subsequent visits, when it serves mainly as a desolate viaduct to the Phazon Mines. However, its initial interstellar setting and the actively unfolding events it houses provide a sense of ambient vitality essential to Metroid Prime and the unique environmental storytelling it famously popularized. Despite this forward-propelling narrative thrust, the Frigate Orpheon exudes an aura of isolation amidst its danger, setting the scene for several of Metroid Prime’s dominant themes and moods.

The Frigate Orpheon has the most linear layout of any region in Metroid Prime. Much like Super Metroid’s introductory sequence aboard Ceres Station, the Frigate Orpheon acts as both a tutorial sequence and narrative bookend. As such, certain events must happen in a certain order so the player can efficiently learn the game’s core mechanics while playing through an actively unfolding narrative that frames everything to come. A couple key differences, however, are that the Orpheon is much less vertical, and the player escapes via a different route than they entered. These changes minimize frustration and amp up the tension, since they reduce backtracking, make platforming easier (since it is much tougher in first-person than while sidescrolling), and make it unclear how close the player is to their ship.

This plot-driven, shoehorned design is in stark contrast to the rest of the game, where the player navigates ruins at their own pace, reading about historical events via the Scan Visor throughout interconnected regions. Also, once the Frigate Orpheon crashes and it becomes part of this interconnected world, its layout becomes more of a hindrance. The primary reason for this is that it acts as the only bridge between the Tallon Overworld and Phazon Mines, meaning that the player will have to run through its repetitious hallways multiple times. In this context, the Orpheon’s linearity works against it, making for some of the most tedious backtracking in the game, further exacerbated by slow underwater movement, poor visibility, and mediocre puzzles; a shortcut through the area could have gone a long way here. And while its all-too-coincidental crash site might not have stood out in 2002, the more naturally developed environments of games like Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild underscore how improbable it is that the frigate would have crashed just so it is perfectly wedged between two disparate regions.

The Frigate Orpheon’s primary concern is ensuring the player leaves ready to explore Tallon IV. This is a tall order, as it has to introduce the game’s central mechanics, push the series into the third dimension, and imbue the series’ trademark sense of immersion, all in one small arena. Fortunately, the game manages to do all of this eloquently by consistently implementing smart design solutions that address all three of these goals. Consider that before entering the frigate, Samus must pass through a series of force fields. These force fields make diegetic sense as defensive measures the Space Pirates might take for security purposes, but they also allow Samus to spend meaningful time in outer space that contextualizes her predicament, all while conveying cosmic desolation and ensuring that the player is familiar with the game’s basic controls.

A year earlier, Halo: Combat Evolved achieved a similarly smooth tutorial by having Master Chief perform basic tasks to test his functioning after cryogenic slumber. His ship is then boarded, and he must employ these newfound maneuvers to survive the rest of the level as it increases in difficulty. Metroid Prime works similarly, starting with a slow-paced series of isolated actions performed in safety, and eventually peaking in a boss battle and a timed evacuation sequence, which together tests combat, platforming, and navigation under duress, while also progressing the narrative. It is a mostly seamless blend of storytelling and gameplay that makes the tutorial feel less like a blatant tutorial than a natural beginning to the adventure, a combination of game and storyline that other first-party Gamecube titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Mario Sunshine could have benefited from immensely.

While the first visit to the Frigate Orpheon is a tutorial, the crashed wreck later in the game reinforces the extent to which Metroid Prime attempts to create a living, breathing world of cause-and-effect. Although it seems incredibly improbable that the frigate would crash at the specific spot linking the Tallon Overworld and the Phazon Mines, the very notion that Samus’ actions in outer space have a tangible consequence on both Tallon IV and the Frigate Orpheon makes the world feel uniquely alive. This is carried through to the crashed frigate’s Power Conduit micro-puzzles, in which Samus must don the Thermal Visor to locate and fire up Power Conduits. While this provides a fresh twist that changes the way the player observes and moves through an old space, it also lends to some mild (and mildly irritating) backtracking, as it is often unclear which rooms have Power Conduits and how many of them there are until the player reaches the other end of the room. But unlike other environmental details, these Power Conduits don’t reset after leaving the area, making the region feel more authentic and lived in, and Samus’ actions more significant and tangible. In fact, this more permanent notion of cause and effect could have benefited the game as a whole, if it were taken more seriously regarding other assets — like constantly resetting door locks and certain endlessly respawning enemies.

Unlike in most regions, Samus doesn’t attain any abilities on the Frigate Orpheon. Rather, she comes with a slew of abilities in tow only to have them suddenly vanish due to an explosion in a hallway. Though this special ability giveth-and-taketh is central to Metroid’s structure, Metroid Prime fumbles the concept both narratively and procedurally. First, Meta Ridley should have robbed Samus of her suit and skills rather than a random explosion. The character is introduced immediately before the explosion sequence anyway, and this would have made more logical sense, while also making Samus’ final battle with Meta Ridley feel more climactic and justified. Second, Samus boards the ship with a hodgepodge of abilities at her disposal, including some that won’t be introduced until the game’s latter half, such as the grappling hook. Introducing an item like the grappling hook now ends up feeling unfocused, and removes the thrill the player could have felt when rediscovering it later in the game. Instead, players may happen upon countless grappling hook points and feel as though they have to wait for an artificially long amount of time to ultimately acquire an item they learned how to use hours earlier. Introducing such late-game abilities at the outset makes this introductory sequence less focused than it could have been, and it makes certain content gates feel especially contrived.

The first visit to the Frigate Orpheon only features Space Pirates, most of which are severely injured by recent events. Hindering the Space Pirates in this manner is a clever way to make for an easy start while maintaining narrative consistency. Meanwhile, the sunken frigate houses Aqua Reapers, Tallon Crabs, Aqua Sacs, and Aqua Pirates, all of which are re-skins, and none of which are as enjoyable to fight as their landlocked counterparts because underwater vision is hazy, and movement is hampered. The extensive re-skinning also points to another one of Metroid Prime’s key flaws: its lack of enemy variety. While the game’s extensive logbook seems to imply stunning enemy diversity, many enemies are effectively identical to others, while several do basically nothing other than walk around aimlessly. Meanwhile, the boss fight against a Parasite Queen is a bit hit-or-miss. On one hand, it is impressively grand and a graceful, a wordless lesson on combat principles — observe enemy behavioral patterns, defensive play is as important as offensive, timing of shots is crucial, etc. On the other, the spinning shield central around the Parasite Queen feels tacked on and weirdly gamic. It also fails to pack the ludo-narrative gut punch of Super Metroid’s initial battle against Ridley, since these Parasite Queens are totally characterless, and never appear again in any meaningful fashion.

The Frigate Orpheon’s first incarnation teaches the player everything they need to know to thrive on Tallon IV, while its second incarnation provides the sense of a living, changing, changeable world rare in the early aughts. The major downfall of both incarnations is that they don’t always accomplish their objectives as elegantly as they could. They sometimes introduce unnecessary elements, repeat the same elements too many times, and are narratively or logically inconsistent. These relatively minor blemishes end up compounding to make the Frigate Orpheon less of a flawless, calculated, legendary experience than I imagine it is in the memory of many gamers, but it’s hard to hold too much of a grudge against this fateful ship. In many regards, it is Metroid Prime’s most ambitious region, the one most deeply tied to the game’s central values of world-building and exploratory storytelling. It is farther from perfect than I remembered, and in many regards inferior to Super Metroid’s remarkably similar opening, but the Frigate Orpheon is still a comprehensive and thoughtful distillation of an introduction to Metroid Prime.

For deep dives into other levels from Metroid Prime, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.

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2 comments

Spencer September 17, 2018 at 3:34 pm

Excellent analysis. I agree that the first boss with the force fields is super cheesy, even tho I appreciate it forcing the player into to learning sideways combat and utilizing the lock on feature.

I enjoyed the underwater sections of the game, personally, but I also just think the slower pacing much of the game has is perfect atmospherically and a nice counterpart to how intense other sections of the game could be.

I also think parts of the game, but especially this one, serve as great gateway-horror games for kids. I know it’s not meant to be terrifying, but parts of this game scared the shit out of me as a kid and I consider it the reason I later got into the horror genre. (Zelda and Mario games also have some under appreciated scary-for-6 year olds content that often goes unmentioned)

Excited to see more reviews of Metroid Prime levels and for you to eventually tackle the rest of the levels in the first Banjo Kazooie! Maybe Rayman 2: The Great Escape would be an excellent game to talk about as well?

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Kyle Rentschler September 27, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for your comment! I totally agree with you about Metroid Prime being a great gateway horror game. There’s definitely a lot of creepy ambience and even a few jump scares. And as you say, the same is true of many Mario and Zelda games.

I’m hoping to return to Banjo Kazooie soon, but to be totally transparent I don’t have a way to play the original game right now. I’m crossing my fingers it’ll be included in the N64 mini, but I imagine the odds of Rare games showing up are slim. Another author published a great retrospective on Click Clock Wood you can read here. And I think Rayman 2 would be a great game to talk about, too! Great idea! Maybe that’ll also be on the N64 mini. 😉

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