Metroid: Route Optimization
Metroid Prime is plenty well-known as being a fantastic game. My own personal experience with it was fairly interesting -I beat the game, then I beat it on Hard Mode, then I played it many more times than that, and for a long time I wasn't really clear why that was. Yes, the game was fantastic, but at any given moment the gameplay was generally fairly simplistic and easy, even on Hard. Many enemies have 'tricks' to them that allow the player to defeat them nearly instantly, or to employ a simple pattern that will always work perfectly on the enemy (At least if it's alone), or otherwise trivialize them, such as by standing on higher ground that particular enemy can't strike at, and once you know the vast majority of these tricks, gameplay from an in-the-moment perspective is honestly fairly shallow, outside of some of the boss fights and a handful of non-boss encounters.
Yet I played through the entire game somewhere over twenty times in the first year of owning it.
This is fairly atypical of me. Most games in the vein of Metroid Prime (Long, multi-hour carefully crafted scenarios that have no alternate characters or the like) I'll play through once or twice, and then be essentially done with the game. If it's really good, I may come back months or years later to play it anew (I periodically do this with the Donkey Kong Country games, for example, the second in particular), driven by a combination of nostalgia and failing memory. (ie once I only half-remember the details of the game, going back and remastering it is an actually enjoyable experience)
So it was puzzling in and of itself that I was playing Metroid Prime so much, and even more puzzling that my essential conclusion about any given sequence of play was 'this is actually fairly shallow'. (It's not as if the 'puzzles' are enjoyable brainbusters, for example)
By contrast, I really liked Metroid Fusion, which came out at the same time as Metroid Prime, but it was more in line with my usual approach to playing a game. I beat the game, then I collected all the items, then I went back and beat the game fast enough to get the best ending graphic widget, and then I didn't touch it until some months later. It was good, and I was a fan of how it did a lot to streamline Super Metroid's design (Admittedly probably driven by the physical limitations of the Game Boy Advance, but come on, when did you not have the Run button held down in Super Metroid?), but it was missing some 'magic' that Metroid Prime had.
It was interesting to me seeing the reception of the two games. I think the closest I've ever seen to a criticism of Metroid Prime is running across a site trying to spitball ways to incorporate some of the elements from Super Metroid that Metroid Prime didn't implement (eg Speed Booster) in a way that made it clear the creator felt the lack of those elements was a real loss. (Okay, and some 'hardcore' fans resented that the hint system was on by default, but that's a pretty dubious criticism. It's better for the design to have it intrude on you once and then you turn it off, than to be someone who needs the hint and has no idea there's a hint system to turn on) Metroid Fusion, meanwhile, I was surprised to find a sizable portion of fansites and fan communities criticized it as being 'too linear'.
I had a hard time making sense of this criticism. Metroid II is basically linear. Super Metroid is basically linear. Metroid Prime is basically linear. What makes Metroid Fusion 'too linear'? I could assume that some players just didn't realize that these other games had a fairly rigid order of 'primary' items (Outside glitches/exploits/developer oversights, Metroid II/Super Metroid/Metroid Prime are designed so that the items that let you go new places and do new things must be collected in a single specific order, but if you play through the game only a single time it's easy for an illusion of non-linearity to take root), but the communities I found the sentiment strongest in were plenty aware there was an 'intended' order, so it wasn't simple ignorance.
And sure, there were bits and pieces that could have been fit into the obvious interpretation. Metroid Fusion does do a lot more to block sequence-breaking attempts. If you collect eg a Power Bomb expansion without having gotten the Power Bomb plot-controlled download? The game doesn't give you Power Bombs. That's fairly arbitrary, and I could see how it would be frustrating for players who were particularly interested in 'breaking' the game... yet I found the 'too linear' criticism was found more in communities that liked to sequence break, not exclusively in such communities. Whatever people collectively meant by 'too linear', it didn't fit any definition I was aware of... yet everyone did collectively agree on it. I had to be missing something.
These things all rolled together in my head for.. well, this post is more than 15 years after Metroid Prime and Fusion came out. A while. I felt clear I had the pieces to make sense of all this, but couldn't quite make the final connection for several years. (And even once I had the realization, this post took still longer...)
One day, when I was playing Metroid Prime for the umpteeth million time, I had a very satisfying moment that started pulling it all together. I'd always made a point of acquiring the Wavebuster after my first run of the game, because the only boss in the game I legitimately hate is utterly trivialized by the Wavebuster, and so it was a quality-of-life experience, but I'd always been frustrated by how I diverted significantly out of my way to go acquire the Wavebuster. At this moment, a few different things 'clicked', and I realized that the way the game was set up, the mandatory lane would happen to take me near the Wavebuster before said boss and after I could actually acquire the Wavebuster. Instead of adding an additional sidetrip far earlier than I would really benefit from acquiring the Wavebuster, I could make a much smaller detour later, accelerating my timetable for the entire game.
Suddenly, I saw things differently. I'd been thinking of Metroid Prime, on some level, as an action game with a plot. On another level, the level I'd been engaging with it as a player, I was viewing it as a route optimization game of a grand scale.
The individual moments of the game weren't the point. It was the collective whole, trying to understand the entire game and improve my ability to play through the game as a whole that had kept me coming back time and again, and that likely was a contributing factor in Metroid Prime standing out as one of the best games to exist, period.
In Metroid Prime I found myself going, essentially, 'well I could go collect X object in Y region now that I've gotten Z item, but that would take me out of my way. Can I swing by that area later, when I'll be able to collect a larger portion of this stuff, or do I really need all of it to be able to take on some specific boss?' There was a complex web of ideas that was difficult to untangle that involved both mapping out the larger game and also upping my skills in the moment (Because the better I am at beating the game on my own merits, the more flexibility with my routes I have: if I don't need 3 Energy Tanks to beat a boss, that can let me put off collecting an out-of-the-way Energy Tank until far later), all culminating in the game telling me how many hours I'd taken to do it, which acted as a concrete feedback mechanism. If my new route was better than my old route, my new time was lower than my old time. Clear and simple.
Metroid Fusion, meanwhile... well. It almost completely lacks route optimization. Not completely completely, but fairly close. The plot has you on fairly tight rails, often outright forbidding you from returning to a previous Sector until the plot sends you there, and even if it didn't in many cases there's not much point to returning to previous Sectors. I have a vivid memory of going back to Sector SRX immediately after completing the next Sector plotpoint in my original run of the game, searching the entirety of what was available to me, and coming to the disappointing conclusion that the only items I'd collected by backtracking were items I could've simply collected without backtracking. I never tried to backtrack again until I was at the end of the game thanks to that disappointment. Even when there is a benefit to non-mandated backtracking, from a route optimization perspective backtracking is basically always the wrong decision in Metroid Fusion if the plot isn't making you backtrack. And even if that weren't true, the way the entire game world is set up just makes the process of optimizing your route primarily one of timing, as most areas are sufficiently linear that there's only one possible path to get to an item.
One of the most obvious elements of this is how, barring the secret Screw Attack-based shortcuts (ie the shortcuts that only open up once you're ready to beat the game) and certain secondary plot-derived alternate entries, each Sector has exactly one way in or out: its singular elevator. There's no swinging through to collect some stuff in Sector 3 because the quickest path from Sector 4 to Sector 6 takes you through Sector 3, or more convolutedly because it means you don't have to make a separate trip to Sector 3 later to collect those items even though it's a longer route for that particular pair of travel points, not until you're at the very end of the game and the quickest thing to do is to go beat the game. (Unless you're going for 'fastest 100% run', obviously) This design element really does kill a sizable fraction of the game's potential for route optimization-based fun, and then it's further exacerbated by the fact that most individual sections of the map are designed to be... again, too linear.
You want to go to Destination K. To go there, you enter Room A. Room A is a room that connects to three or four different overpaths, but you're going to go to Room B. Room B serves no purpose except to go between Rooms A and C. Room C is the same, but for B and D, with maybe a side room with a goodie hidden inside of it. Repeat the same idea for Room D being a halfway point between C and E, and keep repeating this idea until you've reached K. At that point, you might have an actual choice: go ahead, or turn behind. Alternatively, Metroid Fusion may well have designed it so that it's not actually possible to accomplish anything by turning around. You're going to take the designer-mandated Exit Path From Room K To Room A (Which is itself another series of interconnecting rooms that serve no purpose except to be something the player travels through between K and A) and you're going to like it, dang it.
Metroid Fusion is still a good game, and indeed it's much stronger at the moment-to-moment gameplay than Prime is in some ways, with a larger number of bosses that are actually enjoyable to fight in their own right and more rooms/enemy sets that make for interesting challenges for even an experienced player.
But it's also missing the 'magic' of route optimization.
There's some other elements I intend to explore later (eg why I don't really see the 'Metroidvania' Castlevania games as being all that similar to the Metroid games, and why this ties into Corruption being an underwhelming game), but those really deserve to be posts of their own that call back to this one.
So, another time.