The GameCube had a bit of a reputation for being a console for kids. While it didn’t help to be bright purple with a carrying handle, the main focus of this accusation was that it was full of kiddy games, especially the preponderance of titles like the Mario series and Pikmin from Nintendo.
While this was demonstrably false, as the GameCube had plenty of adult titles, it stuck, and probably helped contribute to the console’s poor sales figures. But that doesn’t mean Nintendo didn’t try to counter the assertion, and in 2004 they released probably their darkest first party game to date: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
The sequel to the sublime first-person shooter Metroid Prime, Echoes followed erstwhile bounty hunter Samus Aran on a mission to discover the fate of a team of Galactic Federation troopers on the planet Aether. Her ship damaged by a storm, Samus finds what remains of the troopers but cannot yet leave. Eventually, she is dragged into the conflict on the planet, which exists in a state of flux between a light and a dark version of itself.
The game is replete with dismembered corpses and gory descriptions to be read at the player’s discretion using the Scan Visor (which returns with even more flavour text to be assiduously mined from every location). There is no blood (this is Nintendo after all) but Metroid Prime 2 still manages to be more haunting than most contemporary horror games managed.
Real horror – not just jump scares but a deap-seated unease and discomfort – is notoriously hard to achieve in video games. The perceived need for player action is difficult to balance with a feeling of powerlessness or uselessness. It is difficult to make a player feel that they are in constant peril if they spend most of their time merrily blasting lines of zombies in the face, so many horror games take either the Resident Evil 4 route – dressing up an action game with extra gore and a spooky soundtrack – or make combat both avoidable and desirable to avoid, in the fashion of the earlier (and better) Silent Hill games. Metroid Prime 2 manages to marry intense combat with a feeling of isolation and powerlessness, and succeeds.
While there are any number of scary creatures in Metroid Prime 2 – the giant, spider-like Ing of Dark Aether, the cold mechanical beast Quadraxis and the furious, face-hugging Metroids, it’s the planet which is Samus’ real enemy. The dark side of Aether turns normal foes like the ruthless Space Pirates into hardened, angry opponents totally controlled by, and suicidally defensive of, the darkness which has consumed them. The harsh, even toxic environments and remnants of a dead, intelligent species, the Luminoth, serve as constant reminder that Aether hates both Samus and the technologically driven, enlightened world she represents.
To look around, even in the most peaceful areas of the light world, it is plain that Samus stands alone. But for one of the last living Luminoth, a mysterious creature named U-Mos who watches Samus throughout her journey, there is no backup, no outside protection and nothing but a suit of armour standing between Samus and destruction. The vast halls through which she travels stand as testament to a civilisation she can barely understand except through the writings of the dead saved into her logbook.
But the best horror tells the player something about themselves, and Metroid Prime 2 certainly manages that. The main antagonist is a creature which takes on Samus’ form – Dark Samus. Not human but made of the highly radioactive and poisonous substance Phazon, Dark Samus terrorises everything – Space Pirates as well as Samus – in her attempts to spread the infection of Phazon across the galaxy. She invades alien worlds, wreaks havoc and then leaves. In some ways, it’s implied, she’s not so different from the bounty hunter whose form she takes.
A creeping realisation comes in after proceeding some way through the story of Metroid Prime 2. There is no specific reason for Samus ever to stay on Aether. No reason for her to get involved with U-Mos, to do battle with Dark Samus or to cleanse the world of the Ing. She is bound to her contract, but all that implores her to do is to find out the fate of the Federation patrol, which she does within an hour of landing. Her ship is damaged of course, but repairs itself automatically and waiting for it would incur minimal risk. Samus does not do this. It’s as if her instinct for adventure drives her towards intervening in conflicts, even if at great risk and little reward to herself. She cannot help but fight, and is inextricably drawn towards the Pirates and the Metroids.
The lush world presented to us – with rain drops running down Samus’ visor and bizarre alien biology at every turn – makes this experience much more real and terrifying than it might otherwise have been, and the depth of lore available for those who want to read it shows off just how much effort Retro Studios put into world building for this instalment. A soundtrack of deep tones and discordant noises brings across both the oppressive size of the hostile world and the wild otherness of it. Aether is beautiful, but it’s also wild and, even if it can be tamed and cleansed of the dark forces of the Ing, can never be controlled.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes should stand as a shining example of the storytelling power of video games. Not only does it tell a gripping and shocking tale of a battle between light and darkness, it also warns us of the folly of meddling in worlds we do not understand and the darkness in all of us which, left unchecked, will destroy reason and beauty in favour of rage and violence.