I am a man who likes his Metroids. I’ve had a fondness for this franchise for years and I was ruminating on discussing it with a brand new sidescrolling game upon us in the form of Samus Returns. With the Schooled Bloggers wanted, I think it would be interesting to muse about an element of Metroid games that I have always found interesting as well as one of my favorite aspects of games in general-atmosphere. But first, allow me to explain my experience and fondness for Metroid before we get onto that.
My first Metroid game was Metroid Fusion, the venerable GBA classic that follows Samus on a space station dealing with a brand new threat in the form of the x-parasites. I fondly remember exploring the areas, being terrified at the invincible SA-X as it stalked me throughout the game, and getting lost in the fascinating station with its multiple biomes. After this came Metroid Zero Mission, whose original iteration I’ve still never played. Again I was engrossed in a beautiful world, gathering abilities and unlocking new areas as well as another moment of powerlessness near the end of the game followed by the most powerful equipment in the game creating a wonderful sense of catharsis.
After those two I became enamored with the series as a whole and moved onto Metroid Prime which was a wonderful experience that managed to be one of the most engrossing FPS games I had ever played. The entire Prime series was wonderful with its pervasive atmosphere and music wrapping me up in what was going on. Metroid Prime Hunters was regrettably a weak game but it did manage to be at least competent and have some fun elements to it even if it wasn’t anything to write home about. But going on from Metroid Prime 3 in 2007, I haven’t really played an official game in the franchise. Other M was thoroughly repulsive to me from what I saw and heard of it, and Federation Force looked like a cheap unappealing slapdash game that missed what I loved about the franchise. Luckily with Samus Returns so far, I think we’re seeing a return to the quality highs of the franchise slowly but surely and I’m hopeful for the Metroid series in a way I haven’t been for a while.
So with my thoughts on the franchise quickly summed up, what has this series taught me? Well...it has taught me the importance of atmosphere and tone, as well as how you set that with visual design and music. Metroid Prime is a game that's more than just a great FPS-its a game that near perfectly translates the isolation and loneliness of the prior Metroid games into a 3D environment. It manages to have a powerful atmosphere that matches the feel of the previous games and feels like a Metroid game despite jumping genres-something that many doubted it could do at the time. In so doing it helps demonstrate how important these elements are to the feel of a game and how managing to match those elements allows a game to feel like it belongs in a series even if it is in a different genre.
Music is an important part of setting the tone or atmosphere of a scene-large epic scores can help boss fights feel more epic and impactful, more reserved tracks and quieter ones can give the player some quiet contemplation time as they wander the world and ambient music that's always playing can contribute to a bit of familiarity with an area as well as lulling the player into whatever mindset the music is trying to convey. Music can be just as important an element as visuals-often talking about music setting tone isn’t as at the fore as the most arguably immediate sense, vision, but it's such a powerful force that its use or lack of use can be key in how a world feels and when it feels that way.
Zero mission and Fusion combine excellent music with cues when certain events are about to occur, or simply silence to intensify the unrest you feel before something dramatic. Prime has a more orchestral sounding set of tracks, with wordless vocals that help bring across a bit of an epic tone. Some unique musical elements help it keep its own identity, and here or there it does call back a bit to the music of the previous games. It's brilliantly done, and helps immerse the player deeply in the world as well as helping solidify a feeling of isolation and lost majesty in some areas.
Sound design is important in general even outside of music-the sounds made as you walk or jump on things, the assorted background noises that help flesh out the aural experience and even how enemies sound as they move or attack you. The sound of jumping, walking on certain surfaces or when you fall into water further deepen your immersion and contribute to the atmosphere of an area by bringing it to you on a level that's subtle but important to helping you get more into everything else and letting the atmospherics of a given area not be hampered by distracting missing sounds or out of place sounds.
Visuals are, of course, very important to help set the atmosphere as well. Little background details like tropical vines growing on things in the tropical sector of a base or random animals wandering around in the background can help give the world a little personality and further keep you engaged in the game you’re playing. The way areas are set up, and details like crumbling Chozo ruins in Zero Mission and prime tell their own stories without needing any flavor text. The extra details, even in things that have no impact on gameplay contribute to a cohesive world and how they look can contribute to how any given area feels. That makes certain areas have different atmospheres-a tense one from an area filled with dead soldiers, a chaotic one with lots of visual stimulus and enemies filling it and a calming one in a lush tropical area that has a calm property to it even with dangerous enemies.
Enemy design is also obviously important-the types that live in areas can help further the feel of the area as well as the sounds they make. Making them fit with the world can help give the player a subconscious idea of what the areas like and what kind of environment you’re walking into. Heck even making them not fit can be a good strategy-Meta Ridley is a great example of that when you fight him in the Chozo temple he forms a striking contrast between the ancient temple and his more technological form. That and the excellent music of his boss battle helps to heighten the energetic feel of his battle and the stress involved with surviving his attacks in an energetic atmosphere of battle.
And there are some thoughts on atmosphere in games that I’ve had cause to ponder on via the Metroid series and its examples of it. Of course, there are plenty of games that master that sort of thing but Metroid was one of the finer examples I was exposed to early on in my gaming times and I thought it would be nice to muse on it while using some Metroid examples. It's a franchise I love and tends to do a great job at an important aspect of games I value highly. Feel free to leave your own thoughts, interpretations, and whatnot below, thanks for reading!