For a Few Dollars More is Sergio Leone’s best film. It is his revolutionary vision for the Western perfected, 132 minutes of indispensable scenes, aesthetic flair and cinematic mythmaking. You don’t believe me? Go back and watch The Good the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West. The former is a slog through diversionary subplots, scattered with enough golden moments to keep you awake. The latter is epic in scope, but unfocused in its execution, and sorely missing both Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. No, For a Few Dollars More is the true masterpiece, despite being stuck with cash-in sequel name, and holding that tricky middle spot in what is was only a trilogy for box office purposes: Clint Eastwood doesn’t even play the same character in this one, and Van Cleef? He’s the hero! But, thanks to all those Wikipedia-researched top ten lists, and populist TV schedules the world over, the film remains in the shadow of its bigger brothers, its perfection of the formula half forgotten.
This is a fate shared by Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Similarly stuck with an ugly name, an awkward middle position and a forgotten legacy, it also holds the unfortunate honour of being the only Metroid game to try multiplayer. Yet, if you forget all of that, and avert your eyes from that multiplayer menu option, it’s possible to uncover something very special—the perfection of the formula Retro studios brought to Nintendo’s timeworn series. It would be ingenuine to say that Echoes is the best of the series however—alongside the incredible translation of Super Metroid’s systems into 3D present in the original Metroid Prime, its hard to compete. But those systems are still very much at the heart of Echoes, sleeker, more elegant, and surrounded by a whole collection of new ideas. Echoes, like For a Few Dollars More, was a refinement, an iteration. The success of the original in both cases bought the chance to do something few creators get the opportunity to do—to hone an ideato its sharpest point. For Echoes, the peak example of this is Sanctuary Fortress.
In the original Prime, Retro Studios stuck to the Nintendo formula like gospel. Green and verdant starting zone, desert level, Fire level, ice level—the order may be shuffled, but this coda is intoned in Nintendo’s development offices like a monastic chant. Echoes, freed of this refrain, pursued a minor key—a planet of subtle shades and ominous shadows. Extravagant colour shifts are replaced by a consistent atmosphere of devastation, every setting reminding you of the planet-wide catastrophe that has scorched this alien land. The only nod to classic Nintendo “zones” is the dark world, but Link to The Past would never dare to stretch into the purpled-hued H. R. Geiger nightmare that Echoes fills with its most grotesque terrors. Here the possibilities of a sequel really show, with the art of Andrew Jones, which had just begun to reveal its twisted face in Prime, was set free to run rampant. Echoes was the second and last Metroid game to feel the influence of Jones’ ornate design, and the game pulses with style because of it. From his radical space pirate re-design and his armies of freakish mecha, to his new additions to Samus’ wardrobe, it straddles both comicbook energy and fine-art finesse. There are still hints of what might have resulted if he had continued to steer the series towards darker ends, but for now Echoes remains the peak of his work on the series, and Sanctuary fortress is the culmination of that.
A cyberpunk monument to icy holograms and tungsten circuitry, it hangs above a luminous sprawl of streaking lights like a crystalline server bank. As an edifice, it rivals Dark Souls’ Anor Londo and Half Life 2’s Citadel for imposing beauty. But its true strength is its sense of life, from the lower rooms that are attended by swarms of maintenance bots to its upper reaches that streak with data lines, the Sanctuary Fortress is brimming with mechanised creatures. The enemies only add to this menagerie, with Rezbits hacking Samus’ suit and forcing her to perform a hard reset, while segmented horrors fill her visor with screaming static. The music undergoes the same transformation, its bleepy noodling and digital choirs suddenly making sense when soundtracking a spire of thrumming tech rather than a dusty desert. There are tones of Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! and the inhibitors of Revelation Space in Sanctuary Fortress—the idea of an ancient but futuristic mega-city left to maintain itself for empty centuries, slowly decaying robot minds perverting the world around them as they compile error upon error. The result is an unexpected and invigorating location, the like of which has never been seen in the series before or after. Even now, with its impact lessened by the decade of graphical development since its release, its art exerts a certain grip.
Yet Sanctuary Fortress is not just an artistic revelation, it also stands as Echoes most inventive display of level design. The grapple beam, screw attack and spider ball all allow the opening up of new possible routes in a dramatic manner, allowing the player to finally cross huge open voids and roll their way through ornate mazes. Sanctuary Fortress becomes a level of contrasts, of claustrophobic tunnels and huge vistas. The finale of the fortress is a worthy one. The boss battle against Quadraxis, a vast mechanoid monstrosity, takes on a Shadow of the Colossus sense of scale, requiring deft use of the spider ball to launch yourself from the creature’s fallen body to latch onto its floating weaponized head. This encounter is the height of Echoes’ punishing and perverse approach to boss design, leaving you in an atmosphere that eats away at your energy second by second, while asking you to puzzle your way through an ornate set of attack patterns and weak spots.
Taken as a whole, Sanctuary Fortress is not without its weaknesses (the unique but painfully difficult spider guardian battle being chief amongst them) but within a trilogy defined by the elegance of its systems, art and design, it represents a kind of high-water mark. Its place within the most idiosyncratic game of the series is perhaps an unfortunate one, although now, ten years on, it means that Sanctuary Fortress still remains a mystery to be discovered for new players. Just like For a Few Dollars More, which will forever be the last of the dollars trilogy to be watched (the entry points to the series sitting either side), Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is an end, not a beginning—the unique development of an idea before it got halfway towards becoming something else.