Despite first playing Metroid Prime over 20 years ago, parts of it still came back as clear as day to me as I played through its excellent Switch remaster. I could still recall the exact moment when I experienced my first Metroid, as it bursts out of its test tube and starts wildly zipping around. I remember every camera shot leading into the Thardus battle. I’m even able to find some of its most hidden collectibles with a bit of muscle memory I never even knew I retained.
Even with so much of the first-person adventure game is branded into my brain, there’s one aspect that I can always recall with particular clarity: its soundtrack. Metroid Prime’s original soundtrack is one of the brightest highlights in a game full of them, offering players a host of atmospheric sci-fi tracks to scan and blast to. Each composition is bursting with personality, from its X-Files-like opening theme to the almost West Coast hip-hop synths of Chozo Ruins.
Metroid Prime’s soundtrack is more than a collection of memorable tunes though — it’s a full-on character. You may not understand the full background story of Tallon IV, but the music makes sure that you’re always emotionally aligned with the narrative beats. It’s one example of why the GameCube title remains an enduring classic, showing us the unique ways that video games can offer stories without saying a word.
If you’re zipping through Metroid Prime casually, you may be tempted to say that it doesn’t have much of a story. After Samus answers a distress beacon on an abandoned space frigate and loses her powers for her troubles, she lands on an alien planet called Tallon IV in pursuit of her nemesis, Ridley. That’s about the only explicit narrative beat we get as the game opens up into traditional Metroid exploration. Space pirates get blasted, vague artifacts get collected, and Mecha Ridley gets what’s coming to him.
There’s a deep sci-fi backstory to it all though, which is locked away in hidden historical data obtained by scanning Chozo lore and Space Pirate logs. If you take the time to seek them out, you’ll learn that Tallon IV was once a thriving home for the Chozo race — that is, until a meteor smashed into the planet and flooded the world with a “Great Poison.” The ecological disaster draws the attention of the Space Pirates, who settle on the desolated planet and turn it into their own personal laboratory for biological weapons.
If you read every piece of lore, Metroid Prime transforms into a tragic story. It’s the tale of a peaceful race struggling to survive an apocalypse and the scavengers who came to profit off their misfortune. Tallon IV is one giant graveyard for the Chozo people, who have written their own eulogy and left it for Samus to find.
The beauty of the experience, though, is that you can go through the entire game without knowing any of that. There’s not a word of spoken dialogue and there are no NPCs milling around to spout exposition. Players can either choose to play the role of an anthropologist or treat Samus as a cold and calculated bounty hunter whose only goal is to exterminate her longtime rival; the adventure functions through either lens.
Even if you do adopt the mercenary mindset, developer Retro Studios still wants to make sure that you feel the weight of the world around you. That’s where music comes into play.
Toil and trouble
Every piece of music in Metroid Prime communicates something to the player, from heightening the stakes of a tense scene to building a sense of isolation. Take the game’s iconic introduction, for instance. We open with a shot of the abandoned frigate lying still in space. A splash of text tells us that it’s emanating a mysterious distress beacon, but that’s all we have to go on. As the camera pans over a sky full of debris, synth textures begin to rise and fall under a layer of sci-fi echoes. Each chord in the sequence gets more sinister as the piece progresses, moving from curious wonder to dread as the frigate pulls into frame. That unease is punctuated by a discordant stab of cymbals and low brass as the full ship comes into focus.
You don’t need an NPC to tell you that you’re about to walk into a disaster scene; the music lets you know there’s danger ahead.
That foreboding music becomes more intense as Samus’ ship flies into frame and we realize the bounty hunter is about to dive into that danger headfirst. It’s just a looming threat at first, but Samus’ appearance ratchets up the tension as it becomes clear we’re plunging into that danger. The anxiety builds to a crescendo as digitized strings ascend to a fever pitch as Samus jumps from her ship and onto the loading dock. There’s a moment of silence as she stands and surveys the surroundings. And then it hits: Samus’ iconic motif triumphantly blares moments before the game gives players control. She’s got this.
The score is full of those moments, all of which communicate how players are supposed to feel about the space they’re entering. When Samus lands in the grassy Tallon Overworld biome, the music has an adventurous quality to it. It’s a light, airy song that almost mirrors the tone and instrumentation from Samus’ theme. There’s a feeling of confidence in it, inviting players to explore an opening area that doesn’t pose a threat to someone like Samus. Though listen close and you’ll hear something ominous far in the back of the mix. There’s a low howl that persists through the music, like a gust of wind blowing tumbleweeds through a deserted town. At this point in the game, we don’t know that Tallon IV is a ghost town, but there’s an eeriness under the music that teases what’s to come.
Contrast that track with the main Magmoor Caverns theme. The fire world is the third biome Samus treks through, and it’s where she actually begins to experience some friction. Compared to the previously inviting Chozo Ruins, the space is downright oppressive. It’s made up of largely claustrophobic tunnels filled with lava pools and fire traps that can melt Samus’ energy if she doesn’t trek carefully. The confidence we felt in Tallon Overworld’s theme is entirely gone here. It’s been replaced by a more threatening composition that plays with historical anxiety. Observant Metroid fans will recognize the track as a remix of the Ridley’s Lair theme from Super Metroid. That alone should be enough to put seasoned players on edge.
Even if you don’t know that detail, the track still evokes plenty of emotion and gives players space to imagine the backstory of the caverns. A steady back-and-forth percussion almost sounds like pickaxes poking at rocks. The music makes heavy use of digitized voices too, which almost chant out the song’s melodies. Anytime I revisit the area, I always find myself picturing that it used to be a dangerous mine where alien workers toiled for resources. That suspicion is never confirmed through lore, but the lingering thought makes the space feel oppressive every time I walk through it.
Each of Metroid Prime’s best tracks trigger that sensation, acting as an invisible tour guide. I don’t need someone in my ear explaining the backstory to each biome; I already have all the information I need.
The finest example of that comes from the game’s fourth area: Phendrana Drifts. After braving Magmoor Caverns, an elevator takes Samus into polar opposite conditions. She enters into an icy biome where every surface is covered in a thick layer of snow. The music takes a complete tonal shift here that we have not heard up to this point. Sci-fi synths are replaced with a quiet piano line built around a progression of twinkling high notes. Deeper into the track, it layers in another chant from the same voices we heard in Magmoor Caverns. This melody is different though; it’s almost mournful.
Phendrana Drifts is something of a turning point in the narrative of Metroid Prime. It’s the moment where you finally feel the weight of death that hangs over Tallon IV. The location is littered with Chozo ruins, many of which appear to be spiritual sites built to honor the race — a lost lineage that’s literally buried under snow. We encounter our first Chozo here, but it’s not a living organism there to bestow its wisdom; it’s a ghost haunting, or perhaps guarding, a massive Chozo statue. Whether she’s aware of it or not by that point, Samus has just stepped into the race’s gravesite.
The rest of the story all comes together in Phendrana Drifts too. As Samus gets deeper, she’ll finally come face-to-face with the Space Pirates as she discovers that half of the area has been converted into a research base. That contrast between a cold weapons lab run by scavengers and a temple honoring the Chozo’s native elders is a striking one that lays the entire game’s conflict bare. Phendrana Drifts is where the bodies lie and where the vultures peck at the bones.
Listen to the area’s main theme again with that knowledge in mind and the song’s true function becomes clear: It’s a funeral hymn. Tallon Overworld’s theme encourages us to explore, Magmoor Caverns urges us to exercise caution. Phendrana Drifts asks us to slow down and pay our respects to a lost culture. You don’t need to read a word of lore to emotionally arrive at that feeling.
The main strength of Metroid Prime Remastered is that it doesn’t interfere with that. All of the music and sound has been faithfully preserved here, with every song appearing exactly as I remember. While the remaster’s gorgeous visual cleanup is the center of attention currently, make sure to keep the volume up when revisiting Tallon IV. You may find yourself feeling totally isolated during your adventure, but you’re never truly alone. The score is your companion, a vessel through which the lost Chozo souls can speak their final words.
Metroid Prime Remastered is available now on Nintendo Switch.
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