I’ve owned a PlayStation 2 for about two years now and a Dreamcast for three, which means I only lacked a Nintendo GameCube and a Microsoft Xbox to have my sixth generation collection complete (or is it seventh? I can never remember).

A few times over the last year, since the release of the GameCube and Xbox, my Wife has asked me which one I would want first. I always told her the GameCube. She pointed to Xbox commercials every once in a while and asked “That’s the one, right?” to which I would politely correct.

The reasons I wanted a GameCube include the cheaper price, the games, the franchises (Metroid, Zelda, et al) and the fact that I never miss a Nintendo console. The PS2 has sold 47 million consoles worldwide, the GameCube has sold 10 million, and the Xbox 8.2 million 1, so the battle is not so much for first place, it’s for second.

At some point my Wife mentioned to me that she had purchased my Christmas gift. This made me nervous, mostly for the aforementioned Xbox confusion, but also because of her ability to drop vague hints. At some point all I had gotten out of her was that it was expensive enough to merit multiple layway payments, that it was available at Wal-Mart, and that I had “dropped enough hints”. When I asked her point blank if it was a GameCube, she responded “No.” in such a way to seem confused that I might think that. That really threw me for a loop.

Finally though it dawned on me she might just be a good bullshitter and she really had gotten me a GameCube. But then I started thinking about how, if I convinced myself (again) that it was a GameCube and it wasn’t, then my reaction would be pretty shitty. So I tried to put it out of my mind. Still, I couldn’t think of anything else that fit the description. I started wondering what in the heck else at Wal-Mart I might have accidentally dropped hints about.

Then last Monday she told me that the gift was wrapped and in the house, and if I could find it. When I did find it I didn’t think it was big enough to be a GameCube. After I found it, I started opening it and the first thing I felt was a DVD-sized case next to the big cardboard box, so that’s when I knew. Wendy had a good laugh since she had successfully fooled me into thinking she hadn’t gotten me one. It was the limited edition Platinum colored one, which surely makes it more interesting than the purple one. The DVD case was Metroid Prime.

The only thing I needed was a memory card, but I still fired up Metroid Prime and got my ass kicked.

Several things I noticed. For starters, although I knew the GameCube was small, I had no idea it was this small. It’s tiny. No wonder I thought the box was too small. It even seems bigger in store displays. It has three serial ports on the bottom, covered by plastic covers and designed in such a way that whatever they wind up connecting can still plug in from the side. I know one of these is used for the Broadband Adapter (or Modem Adapter) but I wonder which one is the forthcoming Game Boy Advance player going to use.

Also the tiny disc thing is odd. I can’t seem to figure out why they did it. The discs are 3″ DVD discs, not the standard sized 4.7″ DVD discs that Xbox and PS2 use. I know one of the problems the Xbox and especially PS2 have is people making “games” that simply use DVD Video authoring techniques (like Dragon’s Lair). This really only becomes a problem with pornographic games. But Nintendo could just have made the GameCube not play DVD Video and solved that problem. But then again perhaps they were concerned that people would naturally expect that anything that takes standard sized DVD Video discs would be required to play movies. Perhaps they wanted to control the manufacturing process – but it’s not like cartridges – anyone can press DVD’s. Perhaps they wanted to thwart piracy. True, few people own DVD burners, and while 3″ DVD-R’s are rare they’re still available. At best Nintendo is buying time, but then again in 1994 when the PSX dropped in Japan, CD burners were hideously expensive, and CD-R’s were $10 a pop.

I popped the Metroid Prime disc into my PC’s DVD drive and it didn’t recognize it (unrecognized format) so there’s that hurdle, too. I think I remember hearing that one of these discs can hold 1.5GB of space, as opposed to the 4.7GB of space a DVD can afford (most of the storage space is in the outside of the disc). However the Metroid Prime disc looks to be a dual-layered disc (it has that telltale 2-layer mirror effect on the front of the disc) so it’s probably 3GB of space. Still, given that Nintendo developers used to have to limit themselves to 64MB tops, this is a huge improvement.

Although my revelations are a year late (since the GameCube dropped in November 2001) it’s still odd to me to see certian things – most importantly this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Nintendo name on a game disc. That’s just wild. The little Nintendo seal of quality, unchanged since they changed in in 1989 or so. Of course the real wild part was the oval-shaped Nintendo logo in red at the opening screen of Metroid Prime – I’ve been seeing that logo on stuff since 1985. I still see the Atari logo on stuff – but it’s not the same company anymore. Nintendo pretty much is.

It still has the hallmarks of a Nintendo game – the warning about seizures, the Nintendo Power brochure, the additional manual about how to use Nintnendo games, everything. I think I’ll start putting my DVD console game cases on the same shelf as my DVD movies – they’ve got the logo of the target system on them, so why not? Of course, whereas Xbox and PS2 games have the logo at the top 1.5″ of the spine, GameCube puts them at the bottom 1.5″. Not sure why that is, but at least the cases aren’t neon green. Blech. Plus the cases (like some PS2 games) have a spot for the memory card, something the giant Xbox memory card can’t do (I presume).

The following weekend I got a memory card. The 251 block card is $19.99 and the 59 block card is $14.99, so coupled with the $5 coupon for Best Buy I finagled (which requires the item be $19.99) it was a no brainer. Makes me wonder why they still have the 59 block cards for sale anymore (leftovers I presume). I have no idea how much tangible space 251 blocks is or how long its supposed to last me, but it still beats the $34.99 that Sony charges for an 8MB PS2 memory card.

Then there’s the actual game Metroid Prime. Retro only had to do three things on this one:

  1. Make it a good game
  2. Put in all the stuff Metroid fans want
  3. Don’t screw it up

And suffice it to say they pulled it off.

Metroid was the product of Gunpei Yokoi (whose name is spelled differently depending on where you read it, since it’s always a rough translation fron non-English characters), who was one of the big guns at Nintendo – in the rank right below Miyamoto (Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong). His most tangible contributions to Nintendo during his tenure were the original Game Boy and the Game-And-Watch series (which predated the NES). He also made the game Kid Icarus, another perennial favorite of Old Army NES gamers.

Metroid told the story of one Samus Aran, who was dispatched to the planet Zebes (also sometimes spelled Zebeth due to the lack of a “th” sound in Japanese) to destoy the Mother Brain in an attempt to keep Space Pirates from using the Metroid for space warfare. Metroids are little jellyfish-like domed creatures that latch onto the user and suck the life out of them. Not exactly high drama, but then again back when this game came out, having a plot for your game was unusual (i.e., no one knew why Pac-Man had to eat the dots and avoid the ghosts – he just did).

It is a testament to the strength of the title that it was one of the first NES games out and still people love to play it. And not for retro’s sake, either – most people don’t think Super Mario Bros. is still a good game, it just reminds them of youth. People still play Metroid for fun, though. Plus it was a long game. I still don’t think I ever completely finished it.

And the other big contribution Metroid made was the fact that (spoilers ahead) when you beat the game Samus Aran took off his helmet to reveal… that he was a woman. While today this is less of a big deal (what with Lara Croft and the proliferation of girl gamers), in 1986 video games were almost entirely “boy’s stuff”. That the majority of male gamers didn’t worry about this ending says something.

In Japan, Metroid was on the Famicom Disk System (FDS) a disk drive for the Famicom (NES in Japan) that allowed saving without need for batteries. It was released to make for cheaper manufacuring costs (since the silicon in ROM chips is expensive) but dropping silicon prices rendered its main feature moot and it died away (more or less the identical fate the 64DD suffered over a decade later). In Japan, Metroid allowed you to save your game like The Legend Of Zelda did on the NES, but in the U.S. they went with a password system to save time and money (versus using a battery since the FDS equivalent never made it over here). The password was pretty much a snapshot of what was in memory, and was annoyingly long.

The only problem with Metroid was that it was only popular in the U.S. In Japan it didn’t sell. This didn’t ring well with the Nintendo brass and they wouldn’t have allowed the creation of Metroid II, but Yokoi pushed it through anyway. Metroid II: The Return of Samus came out for the Game Boy, the system Yokoi pioneered. While seen by many as the weakest in the series, it still holds up much better than most other games. It also had a built-in save system and when the Game Boy Color came out years later, Metroid II was one of the games with a special pallette built into the system to match the NES colors as best as possible. It says something about the sales of Metroid in Japan though that Metroid II came out in the U.S. a year before it came out in Japan.

Super Metroid (also referred to as Metroid 3 in the opening credits) is usually everyone’s favorite in the series. While keeping most if not all of the original gameplay elements of the first two games, it added cutscenes and used the best of the SNES’ abilities to produce a truly immersive experience. The sound design was superb and the graphics are 16-bit at their best. This time, the game came out in Japan first where it enjoyed brisk sales, but in the U.S. it was not only a huge success, but it was a merchandising boom.

At some point, Yokoi started working on his next system. The Game Boy had pretty much peaked (or so everyone thought) with the multicolored units, the Game Boy Pocket, and the multicolored Game Boy Pocket units. At this point in time the buzz word (or term) was Virtual Reality. Everyone wanted to come out with a VR system. Virtuality made expensive helmet/glove/game systems for use in arcades, but every games company started working on their own system – all aiming for what someone decided was the golden price: $299. This is where Yokoi decided to go.

But every company bailed out. Hasbro decided it couldn’t be done. Atari had contracted Virtuality to make a version of their helmet to connect to the Atari Jaguar but bailed on the idea. No one went through with the idea – except Nintendo. Nintendo, fueled on by Yokoi who hadn’t been wrong yet, went forth with their project, the VR-32. However when it was finished it was dubbed the Virtual Boy and had scaled the idea back a bit. Instead of a large helmet to strap on, it was a visor that stayed on a pedestal. Instead of moving it stayed put. Instead of full color, it had four shades of red. Essentially it was a cross between a Game Boy and a View Master.

Yokoi believed it could replace the Game Boy – it was after all basically a better Game Boy (a 32-bit processor to the GB’s 8) with a better gimmick (3-D effects). Plus it had a pricetag of $179 – well below the golden $299. But there were problems. For one thing, it traded off the main selling point of the Game Boy – portability. You weren’t going to play this in a car, nor could you really take it with you anywhere. The gimmick of 3-D games was neat but it wasn’t too impressive or useful. And the system wasn’t powerful enough to do DOOM-style games it seemed – the one 3-D game it had was vector based.

Critical reaction to the Virtual Boy was bad, as well as sales. Word is 500,000 systems were sold in the U.S. in the first weekend, only to have over half returned in the first two weeks. It didn’t help that it was going up against new systems from Sony and Sega while Nintendo’s “real” system – the Nintendo 64 – kept getting delayed. After trying to sell it for a year and a half, Nintendo gave up. Yokoi, facing termination, resigned to form his own company in 1996.

In 1997, Yokoi was hit and killed by a car while changing his tire on the side of a road in Japan.

Yokoi’s death took with it the one person who kept making Metroid games happen. Nintendo of Japan simply wasn’t interested in doing one, and Nintendo of America didn’t bother to try. Gamers in the U.S. tried endlessly in vain to try and get a Metroid game for the Nintendo 64 made, but nothing happened.

A dim glimmer of hope in the form of the fighting game Super Smash Bros. was released in 1999. In this game, several of Nintendo’s franchise characters fought each other, and one of them was Samus Aran. This meant that at least someone at Nintendo thought the Metroid franchise was signigficant. Ultimately, though, it would prove to be the only time Samus was on the Nintendo 64.

Several rumors were floating around that a new Metroid game was under development “for a Nintendo system”, but no one was saying for what system. Miyamoto finally confirmed these rumors, but allowed nothing more. The fear was that the new system was going to be the eventual follow-up to the Game Boy, not quite the N64 or Dolphin (GameCube code name) game everyone was expecting.

Pretty much nothing happened after that, and most people gave up hope. But then at SpaceWorld 1999 (Nintendo’s personal E3) the Nintendo GameCube was unveiled, and the footage they showed off had some footage of… Samus Aran. Finally, Nintendo was working on a home console version of a new Metroid game. However, even then Nintendo wouldn’t let on – claiming that they still hadn’t announced anything.

Eventually though word did leak out – Nintendo formed a studio in Austin, Retro Studios, and one of the games rumored to be there was the next Metroid game. Retro had even wooed away David “Zoid” Kirsch (author of the original CTF for Quake) from his id Software contract.

What this meant was several things – that development of the Metroid sequel was not going to be done in Japan by Nintendo, which was a first. This alone gave many fans pause. Also the hiring of employees with 3D FPS experience meant that in all likelihood the game was going to be 3-D, which was another first. While the trend of consoles was 3-D this wasn’t neccessarily surprising, but still some figured the game should at least be from a side scrolling perspective.

Then word leaked out that the game was going to be from a first person perspective. This is when most people started losing faith. The game Halo was originally a third person game but changed to first person at the last minute – and many think the game suffered because of it. Many people didn’t want Metroid to be a FPS, mostly because FPS games were difficult to pull off on consoles (with notable exceptions).

When the game Metroid Prime was finally formally announced, the term they gave to the gameplay was “First Person Adventure”. Jaded gamers called it “marketing jargon”. For all its interactivity, Half-Life was a FPS. All the gameplay “elements” Quake II added to the mix were really just variations on “get the key, get out of the level”. Texas game developers are good at FPS games, but this isn’t really what Metroid fans wanted.

Another disappointing aspect was that Metroid Prime was to be set between Metroid and Metroid II – not Metroid IV in other words. At this point gamers wanted to know further plotlines (plus The Phantom Menace made everyone leery of prequels for a few years).

And then the shakeups at Retro went down. At one point in time Retro was working on three different games for GameCube’s launch, including what would have essentially been a Nintendo Football franchise. But every time Nintendo came by to pay a visit, the comments were bad, the complaints were plentiful, the layoffs were handed out, and projects got cut. Before it was all over, Metroid Prime was the only game Retro was working on anymore. This did not instill confidence in Metroid fans.

But when gameplay footage finally started to be shown, the results were attractive. And the early word was positive.

Then the reviews started trickling down – and they were across the board good. Finally when the game dropped on November 18, 2002 most people were indeed satisfied – Retro had done the impossible: make a good Metroid game that didn’t ruin the legacy. They delivered a good game but more imporantly – they delivered a system seller to Nintendo. I won’t be the only person to get a GameCube for Metroid Prime.

But if Retro Studios was an American game developer what was that Japanese developer working on? In all likelihood, Miyamoto’s comments were about Metroid Fusion – a Game Boy Advance game which also came out on November 18. Metroid Fusion starts out by declaring itself Metroid 4 so it is the sequel to the SNES game Super Metroid, both in timeline and graphics.

Metroid Fusion even links up with Metroid Prime via the GBA->NGC link cable to unlock… Metroid (1) for the NES on the GC game when you beat Prime first (and the password is optional – now you can save to your memory card). Also when you beat Fusion first you get to use the different suit Samus Aran has in Prime.

So a gaming legacy isn’t squandered, two great games are produced, and if you made it to the end of this long fan rant, go catch up on your history: Download Metroid and a NES emulator and check it out.