Route Optimization: Artifacts and Temple Keys

Previously, I talked about 'route optimization' in relation to the Metroid series as a whole and especially contrasting Metroid Prime to Metroid Fusion.

This time, I'm contrasting Prime with its direct sequel, Echoes.

One of my favorite pieces of Metroid Prime that's an especially good representation of my point about the route optimization is the Chozo Artifacts.

Your first time through Metroid Prime, you'll probably get through a decent chunk of the game without seeing any of the Artifacts. Probably you'll collect the first one around when you're intended to collect the Space Jump Boots, read the riddles, and then... not really do anything further with it. The riddles are pretty confusing if you don't already know what they're talking about, and even if you do figure them out, most of the Artifacts can't be collected the very instant their riddle is unlocked. As such, a player who does try to follow up on the Artifacts immediately instead of advancing the 'main plot' (For lack of a better term) will probably end up frustrated and move on without having collected any Artifacts.

Then you'll get to the end of the game and work out that you actually need to collect all the Artifacts to enter the Impact Crater, and it'll turn into a worldwide scavenger hunt sort of dealy. Along the way the player will probably also find a lot of regular collectibles, and it's fun and enjoyable all-around.

Of course, it would be really annoying to have to do this last-minute scavenger hunt every single time you played through the game anew. It's fun the first time, but on later runs the riddles are irrelevant and doing a big scavenger hunt at the end is just a big time waster when you're probably looking forward to the fun boss fights and/or just to beating the game again at all. (Such as because you're doing Hard Mode this time)

Which is where Metroid Prime doing route optimization so wonderfully comes into play.

Most of the Artifacts can't be acquired the instant you have access to the room they're in, it's true, but nonetheless very few Artifacts really require you to go significantly out of your way. I actually eventually managed a 100% collection in under four hours run where the only Artifact that required a trip purely to collect it was the Artifact of Newborn (Which is technically possible to collect without the Phazon Suit, but I didn't know that for sure at the time and I probably couldn't have pulled it off anyway), as every other Artifact was either basically incidental to collect or required I simply wait until my 100% collection caused me to go there anyway for a non-Artifact item. (Though one of them required the unintuitive decision to put off collecting a useful item until I had the Gravity Suit and so could get both in one trip)

So on your first run of Metroid Prime, the Artifacts are probably a late-game scavenger hunt, but on later runs it's about figuring out how to smoothly integrate Artifact collection into your run. It's great stuff.

The Sky Temple Keys in Echoes are not nearly as well-designed.

They have the same dynamic that you'll probably end up collecting most of them on an endgame scavenger hunt on your first run. In fact, this is more true, as you can't access the clues until you're more than halfway through the second major area of the game. The Chozo Temple, by contrast, can be accessed once you've gotten your very first item, meaning the Artifact clues can be found from almost the beginning of the game. The Sky Temple Gateway is also fairly lacking in Light Crystal locations, which will discourage players from even going there until they have the Light Suit, especially if they've already checked out some of the areas that are intended to be Light Suit only and clued into the fact that a lack of Light Crystals goes hand in hand with serious measures preventing further exploration.

Right there this means that a player's first run may well stall for a tremendous amount of time because they don't even know about the Sky Temple Keys for a long, long time, which is unfortunate.

More relevantly to my overall point, though, is that the Sky Temple Keys can't even be seen, let alone acquired, until you've acquired the Dark Visor, which is acquired by beating the final boss of the second major area of the game, in a game that only has three major areas.

Digression time:

Part of the difference between Prime and Echoes that's important to ground the Artifact/Sky Temple Key contrast is just the fundamentals of how the game world is organized. In Metroid Prime, you weave in and out of the areas as you advance through the game, with one of the more illustrative examples being how Magmoor Caverns is pretty much purely a transition zone, a place you pass through on the way to your actual destination rather than a destination in itself, and that it fills this role repeatedly throughout the game. (Yet it's not a 'hub area') You don't, for example, enter Phendrana Drifts, 'complete' it, and then never have any reason to return to it. In fact, your first trip involves collecting exactly one item, then returning all the way to Tallon Overworld to collect an item, then returning, running around collecting a decent number of items, leaving for the Chozo Ruins, and then coming back to Phendrana Drifts again to collect one last major item.

So in Metroid Prime there's enough mandatory 'backtracking' (In the sense of your path crossing over itself rather than in the sense of retracing your footsteps) that you end up exploring old areas with new gear anyway as part and parcel of completing the game.

In Echoes, the game world is broken up into a hub area (The Temple Grounds) and three major areas. (Agon Waste, Torvus Bog, Sanctuary Fortress) For the most part, once you've entered one of the major areas, you're not leaving until you've beaten the local major boss, and there's no mandatory reason to return to an area after beating its major boss until it's time to collect the Sky Temple Keys. (There's two notable exceptions, but they're kind of awful in a way that illustrates the point. Without adding a digression to this digression, I'll note that I only turned on Echoes' Hint System three times in the entire game, and these two exceptions accounted for two of those times)

The overall map design reflects this reality. Strictly speaking, every major area of the game has elevators to the other areas, but they're mostly fairly tacked on. The primary expectation of the game is that you'll travel from your current region to the Temple Grounds and then to your destination region, and new power-ups mostly don't make old areas of the game easier to travel through or open up shortcuts in them in the way you see in Metroid Prime. As such, going back to an old major area is a fairly big diversion.

So to end this digression and return to the Sky Temple Keys; I consider it more accurate to call the Dark Visor being acquired the halfway point in the game rather than saying it's 2/3rds of the way into the game. Nonetheless, taking into account how Echoes handles its world design, this means that only the Sanctuary Fortress Sky Temple Keys are possible to acquire relatively naturalistically... and one of the two Keys in Sanctuary Fortress demands the Light Suit regardless, meaning there's really only one Sky Temple Key in the entire game that can be naturalistically acquired prior to the end-game scavenger hunt beginning. (The Sky Temple Grounds Keys and the Keys in Dark Agon Wastes have no main-game-chain reason to go after them prior to the scavenger hunt, not after you've gotten the Dark Visor that makes it possible to collect them at all) Indeed, Torvus Bog's two Keys are actually also impossible to acquire without the Light Suit, so you're not going to collect them on your way out after having acquired the Dark Visor.

So where in Metroid Prime the Artifacts are a fun one-time endgame riddle-solving scavenger hunt and then on future runs are almost completely naturalistically integrated into your run, in Echoes the Sky Temple Keys are designed to force that endgame runaround every single time, no matter what, making what was a fantastic mechanic in Prime instead an incredibly tedious, arbitrary mechanic in Echoes.

It's really too bad. Echoes is actually my favorite entry in the Prime sub-series, personally, but flaws like this mean I consider it objectively inferior to Prime. It's difficult to convey in text the flow-breaking effect the Sky Temple Key run has, especially since if you're paying attention some of the basic facts might seem to suggest it's less of a pain: you only have to collect 9 Sky Temple Keys, compared to 12 Artifacts in Prime. Less things to collect should equal less time collecting them, right? Yet the Sky Temple Key collection will take a fairly sizable chunk of time all on its own, with no way to really integrate it efficiently into the main of your run, and so in actuality it's just this motivation killer. I can distinctly recall runs of Echoes where I realized I still needed to collect the Sky Temple Keys, and just couldn't motivate myself to pick up the game for days or even weeks because it's such a pain. (Which admittedly ties in part to other flaws with Echoes: trying to get from Point A to Point B can be an astonishingly convoluted task, even once you've collected literally all the major items)

Corruption has its own equivalent to the Artifacts/Keys, and is more in line with Prime in this particular regard (ie that you may well only get started on them near the end of the game, but you don't remotely have to), but the game as a whole is far more on-rails than even Echoes is, with little room for actual route optimization, so it's a relatively minor relief, especially since the way the Energy Cells are handled it's entirely possible to beat the game the first time, and then on your second run through have no idea why it is you can't go to Phaaze, because you didn't really realize the Energy Cells weren't optional at all and didn't remember acquiring the 'code' that lets you go to Phaaze from bothering with this seeming sidequest.

This isn't even getting into fact that Corruption has by far the weakest justification for why the clues exist, why the entire sequence has to be bothered with at all, etc...


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