Metroid Prime’s Scanner Is The Original Detective Mode

I hated Metroid Prime’s Scan Visor when I was a kid. All of Samus’ other abilities help you kill things, reach new areas, or solve puzzles, but all you can do with the Scan Visor is read stuff, and I ain’t about that nerd shit. I resented scanning because no matter how hard I tried to get 100 percent completion, I would inevitably forget to scan a boss during a fight and ruin the entire run. The Scan Visor is in the same category as lore books and audio logs. I’m glad it’s there, but it’s not for me.

That’s what I used to think when I was young and very stupid, but Metroid Prime Remastered has given me a newfound appreciation for the Scan Visor. In truth, Metroid’s scanning mechanic has almost nothing in common with the scrolls and cassette tapes game designers like to sprinkle around the world for added flavor these days. Samus’ Scan Visor is a critical storytelling tool that diegetically guides us through the world of Metroid Prime. Samus may be a bounty hunter by trade, but in Metroid Prime she plays the role of detective as she investigates the disaster aboard the Orpheon, and eventually, the complex history of Tallon IV. The Scan Visor, then, is Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass – an essential tool for investigation. And while the Arkham Series may get credit for pioneering Detective Mode, Metroid Prime did it first, and in many ways, did it better.

The entire intro cinematic in Metroid Prime is only 30 seconds long. It begins with a one-sentence setup: “Unidentified distress beacon has been tracked to a derelict space vessel in orbit above Tallon IV.” Responding to the distress beacon, Samus arrives to find the station has been thrown into chaos. Death and destruction greet her at every turn, the bodies of space pirates and aliens are strewn across every compartment and corridor, and the station itself is on the verge of total system failure. It’s immediately clear that this is not a rescue mission, but an investigation. The damage has been done, there’s no one left to save, but Samus ventures deeper and deeper into the derelict vessel to figure out what happened here, and more importantly, where ‘here’ even is anymore.

So, she scans. The computer terminals and test tubes reveal that this was some kind of research facility where the Space Pirates conducted experiments on the native life from Tallon IV, the planet below. Scanning the Space Pirate corpses reveals that their mortal wounds are filled with some kind of acid that cooked their organs from the inside. In a large lab area, Samus stumbles upon a harrowing battlefield where several Space Pirates died fighting a giant alien. Scanning this scene helps her put the pieces together: this was a genetically modified creature that the scientist lost control of – and it’s not the only one.

Metroid Prime’s entire story is told through events that already happened. The massacre aboard the Orpheon may be the beginning of the game, but it’s actually the end of the story. To understand how the Space Pirates got there and what their intentions were, you have to understand the entire history of Tallon IV, the Chozo civilization that inhabited the planet, and the Phazon scourge that destroyed them. None of these developments are revealed to the player in the modern way – with dialogue, voice over narration, or cutscenes. Samus is alone on Tallon IV, she doesn’t report her findings back to Adam like she does in Metroid Dread. The only way she can understand the world and what happened to it is by scanning and putting the pieces together on her own, which is exactly the experience we’re meant to have too.

The Scan Visor is Detective Mode in its truest, most literal sense. It is Samus’ way of understanding the world around her, and it’s essential to understanding the story. The Arkham games took a similar approach. Batman’s altered detective vision allowed him to spot clues, track footsteps, and identify points of infiltration. They don’t rely as heavily on Batman’s detective skills to tell their stories the way Metroid Prime does, but detecting is an important part of the character and the development of the plot. In the transition to an open world, Arkham’s Detective Mode becomes a gimmick that’s only used, narratively, in a couple of crime scenes, and more constantly in stealth missions to track enemies and lay traps without getting caught.

Detective vision has become a common video game trope, and we’ve seen lots of games, especially open world ones, take after the Arkham series. Instead of evolving the mechanic as a narrative device like Metroid Prime or Arkham Asylum, detective vision is now little more than cheap solution to a UI problem that emerged once games became sufficiently visually complex; a quick way to identify interactables in the environment, or pings distant quest markers when the art is too busy to find it on your own. Marvel’s Spider-Man, Horizon, and Red Dead Redemption 2 all have some version of Detective Mode without any real justification for it beyond the desire to help players spot important objects against a cluttered backdrop. There’s never been a game that captured the spirit of Detective Mode as good as Metroid Prime did, and I doubt there ever will be.

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