Echoes Fifteen Years On: Metroid Prime’s Masterful, Perfect Follow-Up

Like 1991’s Metroid II more than two decades before it, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes has become something of a less spoken-of entrant in the long, winding, seldom-present, but well-beloved, Metroid IP. The impressive heights of the other titles dotting the series’ chronology could very well be an unfortunate benefactor. The original’s foundation for exploration and of its anti-melodic interpretation of sound design; Super’s unequivocal brilliance in tone, aided by its on-point musical scoring; the original Prime’s perfectly-executed rendering of formerly 2D world-building and environmental story-telling, into 3D space. Heck, even the less-than-lauded Fusion — with its last-in-the-timeline placement and slight deviations into horror at points — and those that spark little more than frustration a la Other M, are spoken of in grander breath, positively or not. It’s not that Echoes, the 2004 follow-up to Prime, and the second Metroid entrant on the Gamecube, was a bad game.

You couldn’t be further from the truth; it kept what was so critical, so captivating about Prime’s delivery and if anything, gave developers Retro Studios the springboard to flex their artistic muscles. Perhaps it’s the lofty heights of the series’ past (both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime remain two of the most highly-rated video games of all time) and maybe the over-inflated expectations that 2002’s Prime garnered that caused people to think Echoes would somehow be a[nother] unassailable leap for the series. What Prime was to Super essentially. While that prediction at the time is understandable, it’s important — whether that’s in hindsight or simply at the time of release — to recognize Echoes was (and still is) a continuation of the Prime philosophy. To declare the game, for whatever reason, isn’t deserving of the same deep, analytical delving-into its finer mechanical, structural and artistic merits, however, would be foolish.

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Long have I considered Metroid Prime 2: Echoes to be the best of the Prime sub-series (yes, better than the original Metroid Prime) and the reasons for this are many. That’s not to dismiss, or for whatever reason, pose a “controversial” viewpoint for the pure sake of one. Metroid Prime is still a brilliant video game — fittingly accompanying both Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in how to translate a series’ conventions and appeal to 3D space…late to that particular party the Metroid series might have been. Briefly going back to the original Prime, purely for the sake of this piece, it’s remarkable how well it’s aged nearly two decades on. But to gush over Prime, at the cost of the other entrants in the trilogy, let alone the whole series?

As discussed in a previous write-up, Prime 3: Corruption found ways to build and deviate on how elements like narrative, tone and scope could be encompassed to the [then expanded] Metroid universe, even it did come at the cost of that isolated, alienated vibe that has often been at the heart of the series’ appeal, outside of its exploration. But five years before even the series’ next generation/console leap, Echoes could be seen as the point with which Retro Studios proved that the series needn’t require the recalling to established lore, or simply bringing back old staples, for the experience to still shine. That’s not to say seeing old, signatory upgrades like the Screw Attack incorporated in a way that made sense wasn’t commendable. Or that weaving series antagonists the Space Pirates into the narrative in a way that better highlighted the severity of the situation and of the stakes at play wasn’t surprisingly intriguing. Not least because it once more played a part in the game’s environmental storytelling, both in the moment and in subsequent scenes thereafter.

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Again, the original Prime made this work by contextualizing its references as opposed to simply relying on them. Elements and characters from past games were there, but it was the situation unfolding, the stakes at play, that threaded it all together. That same unison of purpose is presence in Echoes, but to a much more liberating degree — unshackled by the historic weight of the series’ past. One of the great and uplifting factors behind Echoes is in the simple act of Retro trying/setting things in new surroundings. Not completely ditching old material or familiar elements, again, contextualizing all this in a way that better served the narrative in progress, and of the new setting both you and protagonist Samus Aran, have no personal relation to.

This wasn’t a revisit of former surroundings like Zebes, nor was it a world that so conveniently had been colonized by the Chozo — an easy excuse to have familiar collectibles and upgrades show up on Metroid II’s SR388 and Prime’s Tallon IV alike. Echoes instead takes players to, what the game’s lore even describes, as a region of space on the brink of Galactic Federation jurisdiction, a “rogue” planet by the name of Aether. The only surmountable reference to Metroid’s narrative foundation, being that Aether’s natives, the Luminoth, once conversed with the Chozo at some point in the past, amidst their own attempt to find a permanent home. From the refusal to confide to thematic environmental tropes (grass/fire/ice) to the introduction of new creatures to encounter. Even the core objective loop in reclaiming lost energy and returning to Aether’s three main temples, Echoes was the first real step out of the figurative comfort zone for the series. One that provided players with a real definable objective, but one that still encompassed that familiar explorative, revisiting of previous areas.

How you respond to that more defined objective — and how much, if at all, it takes away from Prime’s appeal of progression through curious, untinged exploration — will vary from person to person. What’s critical here is that Echoes was built upon a premise, a tale that starts with dire straits and ends on a surprisingly triumphant high. There’s no bittersweet shade to one’s mission being completed like Metroid II or Fusion; a situation that could be disastrous for the wider galaxy has been averted…all the while still leaving a couple of lingering hints as to what may happen next. For anyone who managed to unlock the true ending, game/sub-series antagonist Dark Samus survives (of course) and the biomutagenic nastiness that is the mysterious Phazon is still as vague, illusive and dangerous as it was the past two games. We’re no closer to an answer as to what it is or where it came from, but at least we know a bit more about its capabilities. It caused a rift in space-time and manifested a dark doppelganger of an entire planet. At the very least, the victory feels all the more sweeter, but even then it’s hard not to call back to the tragedy and the very verge of collapse that the setting of Aether suggests up until your arrival and inevitable triumph.

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It’s here wherein the game’s lore — the collectible, holographic projections dotted about the planet — once more does such a fantastic job at coloring in between the lines that are its narrative set-up. As you proceed on, you gradually build up a logbook of the Luminoth race’s history, past and eventual struggles. Their desire to call a celestial body their permanent home; their over-zealous use of technology for the initially well-intended good of their race; the confused desperation in how to combat the dreaded Ing. And eventually, sadly what ended up being a rapidly declining chance of success. The “light of Aether” — the concentrated planetary energy of which you’re tasked to reacquire from the temples of Dark Aether — lost in all but one remaining refuge. Even in your success, these brief excursions into success, and of bringing Aether back from the brink, are met with a constant reminder of the permanent change that war has caused on the planet.

Restoring the light does cast aside the clouds in Agon Wastes, yet the once green plains remain ravished. So too Torvus Bog; successful you are in putting an end to the rain and seeing rays of clear sun pour down, the area remains flooded, forever changed. Prime carried with it this subtle message that victory may simply lie in salvaging what’s left, rather than reclaiming what’s lost, but the tone is slightly more direct and potent in Echoes. War has left this planet in a state of ruin — restorable perhaps in the distant future — but the dead won’t be coming back. Littering many of the game’s regions and corridors; there are even hints towards civilians, families, even young recruits caught in the cross-fire, forced into a situation they weren’t ready for. Echoes doesn’t demand you take great importance in these brief tragedies, but the game finds ways to remind you of the series’ subtle themes on the provocation of science and religion, without beating you over the head with it. Of not indulging so far into technological wonder or tribal isolationism, you lose one’s self in zeal.

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It was something the Chozo of Prime/Tallon IV recognized, hence their decision to live among nature and approach things from a more religiously-conservative and communicative endeavor. The Luminoth of Prime 2: Echoes chose against this and the indirect calamity that followed may not exactly be that unaffiliated. There’s even the planet of Bryyo and of the race inhabiting it from Prime 3: Corruption. How they were warned by the Chozo to not lose themselves to science and yet they ignored such sound advice. Again, as anyone who’s played Prime 3 and gathered together all available scan lore on the planet will know: the impending war between the conflicted tribes of science and magic may not be that loose a presence.

All of this, when looked at collectively, is fascinating reading but not one of these games demands its players to think so long and hard about its supposed message or ideas. After all, this is a game about a bounty hunter who can turn herself into a ball with zero ramifications as to her skeletal structure, for one. But away from the exploration, the puzzles, the impressive boss fights of Echoes particularly — from the troublesome Boost Guardian, to the towering, multi-stage Quadraxis, to the ticking-clock tension that is the third and final encounter with Dark Samus — the game still finds time to make its world not so much brim with life, but moreso the suggestion there was life. Life now lost, vanished. It’s why the Metroid series is such an attractive proposal for anyone frequently dabbling in Nintendo’s wide assortment of IPs. Metroid is one of the few series by the Big N that doesn’t try to bathe its delivery in bright, vibrant palettes of optimism and cheery sentimentality. There’s curiosity and there’s a sense of adventure yes, but such knowledge doesn’t always make for easy reading nor an easy ride. Death, destruction and that persistent theme on the struggles between science and religion remain a part of Metroid’s secondary/narrative intentions.

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Whether or not you saw issue with the implementation of ammunition for beams or took no notice of the multiplayer mode (I sure didn’t), it’s hard to ignore the many elements Echoes brought to the series structurally as well as thematically. No one can deny just how powerful a statement the original Prime put forward, but its sequel should not, by any means, be disregarded as a game fated to linger in the legacy of its predecessor’s expansive, ever-lingering shadow. It’s fifteen years to the day that the game was released in my continent of Europe, but coming back to this after a fair number of years further reveals just how bullish and confident Retro Studios were into making that faithful leap into the conceptual unknown. Still borrowing traces of material old and familiar alike, Echoes’ refining — redefining — of aesthetic, tone and storytelling’s purpose and place in the series are easily some of the more palpable accomplishments. In a trilogy that, it goes without saying, stands as one of the best in video games, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes remains a masterful sequel. The light and the dark, a perfect harmony.