Reflections on a Ruined Fountain 8

On a whim, I booted up a copy of Metroid Prime a few week­ends ago. About an hour in, I came across a place called Ruined Fountain – and then, some­thing sur­pris­ing hap­pened. I did a sort of dou­ble take, and gen­uinely laughed out loud. My ten-year-old mem­o­ries of this game were that it was atmos­pheric (yes) and demand­ing (yes) — but I’d never appre­ci­ated that it was also won­der­fully clever.

Welcome to the Fountain

ruinedfountain1When you first enter the room, this is what you see: the afore­men­tioned foun­tain, spew­ing filth, and a scat­ter­ing of cracked plat­forms, islands in a sea of gunk.

The gunk is an implicit threat. Most play­ers will know from their expe­ri­ence that this slime can kill Samus in mere sec­onds.1 Even if you don’t, the haz­ard bar on the dis­play will flash Warning! if you get too close, and the scan visor will inform you, “Contact with con­t­a­m­i­nated water extremely haz­ardous,”  if you point it at the floor.

This, then, is a jump­ing puz­zle. You’ll look towards the islands, try­ing to fig­ure out the safest path across.


You can prob­a­bly deduce that this room’s exits can­not be reached unless you leap from plat­form to plat­form, hug­ging the right-hand wall; an osten­si­bly more direct path to the left will tempt a reck­less Samus to a toxic grave. (You just can’t jump that far.)

Before you go bounc­ing off, there’s one more com­pli­ca­tion. A hand­ful of plump fire­flies trace agi­tated paths across the Fountain, throw­ing shad­ows onto sand­stone. These crit­ters, called Plazmites, are rel­a­tively harm­less,2 but are still capa­ble of hurt­ing you on con­tact. Their ran­dom motion means that as you pick your way across the cham­ber, you’ll have to time each jump if you want to avoid dam­age — unless you opt to shoot the Plazmites first.

A savvy player will notice there’s no nat­u­ral light­ing in the Ruined Fountain. Indeed, the only light is com­ing from the flies. If you do shoot down the Plazmites, the room is plunged into dark­ness. The chal­lenge of jump­ing from island to island becomes eas­ily twice as hard.3 (If the player is quick enough to realise the likely out­come of their slaugh­ter, they can of course stop mid-way. This will help: one dead Plazmite is a minor incon­ve­nience; four means the room is pitch black.)

Players who killed the Plazmites must make another deci­sion. Do they jump across the plat­forms in the dark­ness, or wait to see if the Plazmites respawn? The sec­ond option is the safer one: hang back, and the fire­flies will return.

Needless to say, I fell into the trap of killing every one of the poor Plazmites, despite being an expe­ri­enced player. I felt humil­i­ated: how could I have made such an obvi­ous mis­take? But as I sat there in the dark­ness, the thought occurred to me: maybe the game wanted this to hap­pen. In the Ruined Fountain, the player is invited to think before they act, and above all to observe their sur­round­ings closely. And the more I thought, the more I found that this par­tic­u­lar sense of watch­ful­ness was what defined my expe­ri­ences with Metroid Prime.

Samus as Hunter

Miyamoto-san said to us that for sur­vey­ing the envi­ron­ment around you, switch­ing to first-person per­spec­tive was the best solu­tion. So since the main objec­tive of the game is explo­ration, it was ideal that it would be played from this per­spec­tive. Therefore, with this set in our minds, we went on to cre­ate a world in which the player would have to look around in order to dis­cover things.” — From a trans­lated inter­view with Retro Studios, cour­tesy of Metroid Database.

Visually, Prime is filled with fine detail that rewards close atten­tion: water stream­ing down Samus’s can­non; fish flit­ting to and fro in lakes; tiny plants that encrust uneven, organic ter­rain. A lot of the game’s charm comes from these small strokes, which add def­i­n­i­tion and char­ac­ter to the envi­ron­ments the player inhab­its.

On a more prac­ti­cal note, vital mis­sile expan­sions and energy tanks lurk in obscure regions, and divin­ing their loca­tion takes effort. Sometimes, a scannable item will sug­gest the pres­ence of a hid­den object; other times, scru­ti­n­is­ing the over­head map might help a player find a secret area. The best way to dis­cover mis­sile expan­sions is sim­ply to stand still and lis­ten care­fully to your sur­round­ings: these upgrades emit a tell-tale throb­bing hum.

Prime has other ways of mak­ing you think. Say you scan a suspicious-looking statue and the game tells you, help­fully, that the object is sculpted from Cordite (coloured in red for empha­sis). That’s your cue to pause the game, access the main menu, look through your weapons, and see if any of them are capa­ble of break­ing Cordite (you need the Super mis­sile, which will be listed under “Missile Combos”, three menus deep).

Daniel Primed argues that Super Metroid, Prime’s pre­de­ces­sor, coaxes the player to embark on a voy­age of men­tal car­tog­ra­phy:

The in-game map works as a crutch for play­ers to refresh their own men­tal map. Wisely, R&D1 chose to seg­ment the main map away from the core game­play by virtue of the pause screen, only offer­ing a mini-map of sur­round­ing rooms while the player nav­i­gates Samus. In this way, where paus­ing to check the map dis­rupts the flow of game­play, play­ers are per­suaded into rely­ing upon their estab­lished men­tal map.”

This intrigued me, because one of my endur­ing mem­o­ries of Metroid Prime is star­ing at the main map for maybe min­utes at a time, labo­ri­ously work­ing out which speci­fic ele­va­tor of twenty I should take to get from A to B. Perhaps this is because I have the spa­tial aware­ness of a sack of half-bricks; nev­er­the­less, the game encour­ages this behav­iour. Take Prime’s cen­tral puz­zle – a quest for a series of Chozo Artifacts which unlock the game’s last area. To find these arti­facts, the game asks you to scan the Chozo Totems in the Artifact Temple, open your menu, and read the clue that they provide. Each hint sub­tly ref­er­ences the name of a par­tic­u­lar room (coloured in red for empha­sis).

Here’s the clue for the Artifact of Nature:

A molten Lake lies within the tun­nels of Magmoor. Shatter the column at the lake’s cen­ter to reveal the Artifact of Nature.”

There are lit­er­ally sev­eral molten lakes in Magmoor Caverns, and once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. But if you look at Magmoor via the main map, the game will list the name of each room as you’re view­ing it. You may then dis­cover that there is only one true Lake: “Lava Lake,” where the Artifact is to be found.

Far from dis­rupt­ing the flow of game­play, in Prime, “paus­ing” to access the main menu, the main map, the log­book entries, and the weapon infor­ma­tion is a crit­i­cal part of how the game works on the player, and how the game is played.

Many of Prime’s ene­mies pun­ish the hasty player who fails to appraise each room. For exam­ple: Zoomers patrol plat­forms on a set path. If you tackle these plat­forms with­out remov­ing the crea­tures or tim­ing your jumps, they will hurt you, and may knock you to the floor. Innocuous-looking mush­rooms will scar you if you fail to scan them first: they are Blastcaps, and, as their name sug­gests, they will explode on con­tact.4

The Plazmites also fit into this broad type of enemy design: pas­sive in nature, they only cause Samus harm when she col­lides with them. In fact, most of the reg­u­lar ene­mies in Prime will never attack you directly. If you want a great lit­mus test for this – walk into any room in Prime and stand per­fectly still. Almost every time, Samus can stay there indef­i­nitely with­out get­ting hurt. This sort of design empow­ers the player to work out the best way of deal­ing with each crea­ture before being forced to act.

(I think that’s part of the rea­son why, in Prime, I feel like I inhabit the char­ac­ter of Samus so closely: I am the Hunter, free to track down and oblit­er­ate the ene­mies of Tallon at my leisure.)

Ruined Fountain as Theatre


But what of my expe­ri­ence in the foun­tain? Perforce, I did not sit there in the dark­ness forever. In a few moments, a bright light from the sand­stone ceil­ing inter­rupted my reverie.

The Plazmites of the Ruined Fountain are not like other ene­mies. This is the only room where the player is pun­ished so explic­itly for shoot­ing crea­tures.5 The pitch-black of the foun­tain teaches you that some­times (just some­times) mur­der­ing every­thing that moves isn’t your best plan. This is valu­able infor­ma­tion: there are areas of the game where con­serv­ing Samus’s resources (health, and mis­siles) will give you an advan­tage, and sec­tions spent back­track­ing through cleared areas where not killing every crea­ture will save sig­nif­i­cant amounts of time.

But I think this unique set-piece is deployed pri­mar­ily for another, sub­tler pur­pose, sug­gested by the lay­out of the room on your first visit:


The sym­me­try of the wall emplace­ments draws your eye to the foun­tain, but also to the dark rec­tan­gle vis­i­ble behind it – a tablet of Chozo Lore; the cen­tre­piece of the room. You can flip over to your scan visor and see that the Lore is coloured in red (for empha­sis). Yet you can’t scan it prop­erly from where you’re stand­ing at the entrance of the stage.


The Lore serves as an incen­tive to get you over to the Fountain; it also acts as a reward for when you get there. But there is some­thing else about this ancient tablet which means that the game wants you to read it after you’ve taken your first leap through the room.


Our sanc­tu­ary grows by the day. We Chozo know much of tech­nol­ogy, but we do not wor­ship it. Our home here on Tallon IV will be a place of sim­plic­ity: struc­tures hewn from the stone, bridges woven with branches, hall­ways caressed by pure waters. We build around the ancient and noble trees, draw­ing from their strength and giv­ing them our own in return. All that is wild will flow around us here; our race will just be one more group of crea­tures in the knit of nature. It is our hope that such a state will bring with it great wis­dom and a greater under­stand­ing of the nature of the uni­verse.

Our race will just be one more group of crea­tures in the knit of nature.”6 So much for that: the knit of nature has been ripped apart and rewo­ven into a hideous fab­ric; Space Pirates inject­ing Phazon into harm­less crea­tures to turn them into mon­sters. And the Chozo? The Chozo are extinct. So, then: were the Chozo of Tallon hope­less ide­al­ists, with a phi­los­o­phy that left them pow­er­less in the face of dis­as­ter? Does assert­ing dom­i­nance over other liv­ing things lead invari­ably to evil?

It is no coin­ci­dence that Prime has cho­sen this room to show you that not shoot­ing some­thing is also a valid option. The Ruined Fountain stages one of Prime’s cen­tral con­cerns: the ten­sion between civil­i­sa­tion and the nat­u­ral world. Your inter­ac­tion with the Plazmites has been a tiny drama upon this very theme. Before you read the Chozo Lore, you have to make the deci­sion either to shoot the Plazmites or to leave them alone. You are either in har­mony with nature or have ele­vated your­self above it; you are no longer some dis­pas­sion­ate out­side arbiter of jus­tice. After all, the suit you wear and the gun you carry are sym­bols of Chozo tech­nol­ogy.

And this is why I had to stop and laugh for joy. I couldn’t believe that the game had placed this text here delib­er­ately, almost as if issu­ing a chal­lenge: do you think that you aren’t cul­pa­ble? What have the crea­tures of Tallon done for you to casu­ally destroy them? By cast­ing Samus in a morally ambigu­ous light, Prime gave me an oppor­tu­nity to reflect on both my own moral­ity, and my moti­va­tions for mak­ing fur­ther pro­gress. What did I really hope to achieve?

Later on, the Ruined Fountain becomes a stage for a dif­fer­ent type of rev­e­la­tion. After defeat­ing Flaahgra, the mon­strous plant which has poi­soned the well­spring at the heart of the Chozo Ruins, any con­t­a­m­i­nated areas within the Ruins revert to their for­mer state. The floor that was toxic gunk has now become clear. You can wade through the room instead of ner­vously hop­ping about. You can even curl up inside the foun­tain, where it will shoot you to the ceil­ing in a jet of pure water.7

I felt that this was Prime doing its best to reas­sure me, and per­haps even attempt­ing to answer its own ques­tion: Yes, some­times the exer­cise of power and tech­nol­ogy can be used to help pro­mote a state of har­mony with nature. In this way, your vic­tory over Flaahgra also antic­i­pates the final bat­tle of the game — maybe if you kill the Monster at the Centre of the World then the planet of Tallon IV will even­tu­ally revert to nor­mal?8

But once again, the Ruined Fountain intro­duces a note of uncer­tainty. The puri­fied foun­tain is dif­fi­cult to make out in the dark­ness, because one of the Plazmites light­ing the room has dis­ap­peared — never to return.

The envi­ron­ment of Tallon IV is con­stantly in flux. Creatures grow and move as you make pro­gress through the game, like the baby Sheegoths of Phendrana Drifts, who mature into larger, dead­lier, beasts. Samus’s rela­tion­ship with the envi­ron­ment also changes: gluti­nous under­wa­ter mazes that halve your speed and jump­ing power feel open once you have the Gravity Suit; yawn­ing chasms become minor prob­lems once you have the Grapple Beam; even Phazon — mid­wife to mon­sters and lethal to the touch — becomes ster­ile once Samus’s suit is sud­denly sat­u­rated with the stuff.

All of which makes me think that Prime does well to endorse Samus’s mid­dle way – a phi­los­o­phy some­where in-between the two extremes of Space Pirate genetic med­dling and Chozo abju­ra­tion of tech­nol­ogy. Academic envi­ron­men­tal­ists rarely advo­cate the “prim­i­tive state” idolised by the Chozo of Tallon IV. Instead, they acknowl­edge the power humans have to affect the ecosys­tems they inhabit, and sug­gest that we use this power to man­age our envi­ron­ment respon­si­bly and sus­tain­ably. Conversely, they do not sug­gest that we use our power to exploit the planet – or, while we’re at it, to selec­tively mutate Corgis to cre­ate potent bio­log­i­cal weapons.

Now. I really don’t want to go off about how won­der­fully rel­e­vant Metroid Prime is to Real World Issues; how you could read the game as an envi­ron­men­tal­ist tract (although you could); how the final boss rep­re­sents, I don’t know, the dan­gers of deep water drilling enfleshed and given gru­elling attacks. That is an entirely dif­fer­ent arti­cle. The prob­lem with this game is that the more I study it, the more there is I find to merit study. I could talk about Prime all day.


The Ruined Fountain reflects the bril­liance of Metroid Prime. That one lit­tle room should evoke all these dis­parate notions: watch­ful­ness; wist­ful­ness; themes of tech­nol­ogy opposed to nature; the muta­bil­ity of the envi­ron­ment; the moral ambi­gu­ity of power – as well as being a clever and instruc­tive puz­zle in its own right? That shows such ambi­tion, such con­fi­dence in the power of games, that I had to stop and laugh for joy.

But I very nearly missed this joy­ful moment. Ten years ago I didn’t think that games could be like this. It is only because our cul­ture, and our crit­i­cism, is being broad­ened by writ­ers and cre­ators alike that I could stop and think the game was up to some­thing, that I could find the tools to even write this piece.

If we only pause a moment to reflect, some­times we glimpse hid­den depths beneath the sur­face.

Acknowledgements and Endnotes

Articles / authors which informed / inspired this one

Other thanks to

  • Wikitroid; Metroid Database: for mak­ing research­ing around this arti­cle so much eas­ier – with­out fan-sourced maps, inter­views, data, this wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble
  • S: tire­less proof­read­ing; putting up with my tedious bull­shit
  • BC and JC: for work­ing with me to really pol­ish and improve the arti­cle.
  1. The Hive Mecha boss spawns Ram War Wasps, who’ll try and knock you into the acid gunk sur­round­ing the raised plat­form where you fight. This will prob­a­bly kill you. []
  2. You were forced to encoun­ter them in Totem Access. []
  3. You can see this hap­pen in the playthrough video avail­able here, from 12:5013:15. []
  4. They are used to set up a rather nasty trap in the Ruined Gallery. When you enter the level, War Wasps spawn around the door, and so you might be tempted to jump down onto a Blastcap-coated plat­form, seek­ing to put some dis­tance between them and the wasps. Needless to say, doing this with­out tak­ing out the Blastcaps first will get you mauled. []
  5. Plazmites have appeared before in Totem Access, but shoot­ing them does noth­ing nearly so dra­matic to the light­ing sit­u­a­tion. This is because Totem Access has light sources other than the Plazmites. []
  6. There are three main ver­sions of Metroid Prime – the NTSC Gamecube ver­sion, the PAL/International Gamecube ver­sion, and the Wii Trilogy ver­sion. In the updated PAL/International and Wii ver­sions, the Chozo Lore in the Ruined Fountain is “Purification”, quoted above. This replaces “Hatchling”, from the orig­i­nal NTSC ver­sion. This was part of sev­eral changes made to “improve” the game. []
  7. When pump­ing gunk, the foun­tain hurt Samus if she touched it. Once you have the Spider Ball upgrade, this water jet will help you find a hid­den mis­sile expan­sion. []
  8. At the moment the envi­ron­ment has a poor prog­no­sis: “Tallon IV was a bio­log­i­cal paradise…at cur­rent rate of decay, [it] will be a bar­ren Class XIII waste­land in approx­i­mately 25 years.” (Quote from a scan of Tallon IV in the Observatory area. []

Sebastian Atay

About Sebastian Atay

Sebastian Atay is just happy to be here. He likes games, ephemera, overthinking things, and trying not to be a terrible human being.

  • Sarah Stephenson

    Seb — I really loved read­ing this arti­cle! It is won­der­ful to expe­ri­ence this with you (as I feel I have) and gain a real respect for game design­ers and all the work that clearly went into cre­at­ing this, My eyes are opened for sure. However when you say that you could read a range of dif­fer­ent the­o­ries but it would be an entirely dif­fer­ent arti­cle — I would like to say that what you have writ­ten is one of those arti­cles but with­out the the annoy­ing in-your-faceness of them I think. The the­o­ries are sug­gested at, you con­vey the argu­ments with humour but with poignancy. I think one of those ‘dif­fer­ent arti­cles’ would be a harp­ing on. Like ani­mal farm Any how thanks for writ­ing this piece I really enjoyed the thought train it took me on.

    • Seb Atay

      Sarah — I’m really chuffed that you dig the arti­cle, and that it res­onated with you and took you some­where cool! I think there’s a lot we often don’t talk about when it comes to game design so when I expe­ri­ence some­thing great like I did in Prime I feel like I’m duty bound to share it Also glad that the tone worked for you — I didn’t want to be too jokey, but I didn’t want it to be dry either. Anyhow: yay! Thank you for shar­ing your feel­ings.

  • Jason Mateosky

    Beyond sick. So much I hadn’t thought about, so many per­spec­tives I hadn’t con­sid­ered. Thanks for this arti­cle, Metroid Prime my favorite game of all time and it’s always enjoy­able to dis­cuss with other peo­ple who are pas­sion­ate about it.

    • Seb Atay

      Ace! You’re wel­come, I’m glad I could share it with you. Prime is one of those games that I thought I only liked because of the age I played it — it was really heart­en­ing to come back to it and find that yup, past!me did actu­ally have some good taste in art.

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  • Michael Fontanini

    This arti­cle is amaz­ing. I loved Metroid Prime ever since I first played it, and enough so that it was worth it for me to pick up Metroid Prime Trilogy when it came out even though I already owned all three games. Retro Studios did an amaz­ing job on them. This arti­cle is a won­der­fully inter­est­ing thought train that I hadn’t had before and was a very enjoy­able read!