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1. Metroid Prime
Retro Studios | Nintendo | 2002
A pristine blend of shooting, exploration and sci-fi spookiness all wrapped around the most graphically astounding GameCube game ever
What made it so great?
It's 2002. You've been through Super Smash Bros. Melee a billion times and Super Mario Sunshine has come and gone without the same impact Super Mario 64 had before it. Nintendo's ace card for the holiday season is a 3D, first-person retelling of one of its classic 2D franchises, one that hasn't seen a release in eight years. Every previous game in the series revolved around collecting power-ups through extensive, exhaustive exploration - and here it is presented as a first-person shooter with lasers and aliens flying all over the place. All this in the hands of an unproven developer. Could the odds be stacked any higher against Samus and her bounty-hunting future?
But all you needed was five minutes to realize why this was an amazing product. Not amazing in that generic sense, where we use that word every day to describe impressive stuff. No, it was amazing in the truest sense of the word. The graphics looked better than anything that had been done on the system before (and still blow away anything on Wii). Samus' new planet to explore didn't feel like a series of areas strung together to make a game - it looked like a real place, with uneven caves and rough patches of vegetation strewn all over the map. Insects would scurry from one hole to the next, with no point other than to immerse you further into Metroid Prime's beautifully constructed environments.
And that's without even touching the fact that developer Retro Studios revolutionized an ailing franchise in the most startling way possible - by presenting a thought-heavy puzzler in the same manner as a first-person shooter. The viewpoint didn't once feel tacked-on or unnecessary. Instead, it sucked you in even more, forcing you to assume the role of Samus rather than control a chunky sprite that moves left or right on the screen. Rain would splatter on the visor and steam effects could creep up and obscure your view, creating an ever-increasing sense of claustrophobia that stays with you from one save point to the next. In short, it's everything a franchise reborn wants to be.
Get ready to play
Oh wait, did we not make it to the sound effects yet? They're just as important as the visuals - here they bleed together effortlessly. The resultant mood is so thick you can taste it. It all comes to a head when you charge a shot to maximum capacity and let it loose in some toothy monster's face - for a brief moment you can see Samus' face reflected in her own visor, proving there is in fact someone inside this armor.
Been there, done that?
After you've torn through Prime a few times (speed run, anybody?), you should check out its 2004 sequel, Echoes. It's more of the same, but fails to capture the same sense of awe its predecessor blasted all over our faces just two years prior.
Click here to check out the rest of our Games that Shaped a Generation coverage.