After the success of the Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi and his R&D branch began experimenting with a new piece of technology. A Massachusetts-based company named Reflection Technology Inc. (RTI) produced a 3D stereoscopic head-mounted display prototype that utilized their LED eyepiece display technology, which had existed since 1985. Dubbed the Private Eye, they sought funding and partnerships with various electronics ventures, including Mattel, Hasbro, and Sega. Executives of the latter company declined, expressing concerns about motion sickness. As led by Mr. Yokoi, Nintendo felt there could be potential in this hardware, and enthusiastically received the Private Eye. Coupled with the perception that the technology would be difficult to emulate, they intended to create a new console with it, cementing their status as innovators. They entered an exclusive agreement with RTI, and as the successor to their 16-bit Super Famicom console, the Nintendo 64, was being developed by the third R&D branch, the other two were free to experiment.
Codenamed the VR32, Mr. Yokoi and his team spent four years developing a device that was intended to change the industry just as the Game & Watch line and Game Boy had done years before. This console, called the Virtual Boy when it was unveiled to the public, billed itself as the medium’s first virtual reality experience. Finally players could become one with the games they played, or so they thought. When this console launched in 1995, its reception was less than welcoming. A combination of its prohibitive price point, constant downscales during development as the company focused on the Nintendo 64, unimpressive 3D effects, and true to Sega’s prediction, health concerns regarding eye strain, all sounded the Virtual Boy’s death knell. The high-profile disaster left Mr. Yokoi to take the blame for the failure. Among other things, Nintendo made him man a booth at a trade show – something considered entry-level work in Japanese corporate culture and therefore a grievous insult for someone of his background.
Shortly after serving as producer for the fourth Fire Emblem installment, Genealogy of the Holy War, and developing a new, smaller model for the Game Boy called the Game Boy Pocket, Mr. Yokoi resigned from Nintendo thirty-one years after he joined. He and many of his former subordinates formed a new company named Koto, whereupon they teamed up with Bandai to create the WonderSwan. This handheld console proved to be a worthy rival to the Game Boy. Unfortunately, before he could witness its launch, tragedy struck. On October 4, 1997, Mr. Yokoi was driving on the Hokuriku Expressway with an associate when he rear-ended a truck. As the two men left the vehicle to inspect the damage, Mr. Yokoi was hit by two passing cars. Paramedics quickly arrived on the scene and took him to the hospital, but two hours after the incident, he was pronounced dead. He was 56. Since then, Nintendo has all but expunged the Virtual Boy from their history in respect to his memory.
One year before Mr. Yokoi’s death, the Nintendo 64 was launched. Upon this platform, gaming enthusiasts saw many beloved franchises successfully make the leap from 2D to 3D. Among these titles were Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However, in the midst of this innovation, there was one franchise conspicuously absent from the Nintendo 64’s library: Metroid. The first installment of the series invented a style of gameplay which would later be dubbed the Metroidvania while the third perfected it. As the fifth console generation went on, fans began wondering why Super Metroid had yet to receive a sequel. Mr. Yokoi had intended for the series to be an airtight trilogy, and the director of Super Metroid, Yoshio Sakamoto, expressed in interviews that he was worried it would be a particularly difficult act to follow. To make matters worse, he disliked the Nintendo 64 controller, so the generation came to a close without a single new entry in the Metroid saga.
Fortunately in 2001, Nintendo at last launched the true successor to their bestselling, 8-bit handheld system. Called the Game Boy Advance, this device rendered graphics almost on par with that of the Super Famicom. Later that year, an unnamed Metroid game was announced to the surprise of enthusiasts everywhere. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the Game Boy Advance provided a perfect solution to the problem which put the series on hiatus. Some speculated that it would follow the trend of the Super Mario Advance series, and turn out to be a remake of or heavily based on Super Metroid, but Mr. Sakamoto decided to treat audiences to an original story instead. Such were the lengths the development team went to create something unprecedented that they refrained from consulting previous installments for programming techniques, instead using Wario Land 4 as a reference. This fourth installment of the Metroid series, titled Metroid Fusion was released in November of 2002. Was Mr. Sakamoto able to create something worthy of Gunpei Yokoi’s legacy?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain minor, unmarked spoilers.
Sometime after eradicating the Metroid species, the famed galactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran, found herself once again on the surface of Planet SR388. She was acting as a bodyguard for a research team of scientists employed by Biologic Space Laboratories (BSL). When they confronted a hostile creature, Samus easily dispatched it, but to her surprise, a globular organism emerged from its carcass. Before she could react, the organism latched onto the bounty hunter, entering her body. Feeling no effects from this, Samus was able to continue then complete the assignment. However, on the way back to the laboratory, she fell unconscious, and her gunship crashed into an asteroid. The emergency systems ejected an escape pod to ensure her survival, but the spacecraft was destroyed.
Upon recovering the pod, a medical team attended to the fallen hunter. They discovered the creature that entered her body was a parasitic lifeform they would later name X. Because the organic components of her Power Suit had become so integrated with her system, the team soon learned that they could not entirely remove it while she was unconscious. Large portions of the suit were surgically taken out, dramatically altering its appearance. Unfortunately, the X was firmly embedded in her central nervous system, and could not be safely removed. Her chances of survival were predicted to be less than one percent.
Miraculously, somebody found a cure. Though the Metroids were rendered extinct, the Galactic Federation was able to preserve a cell from the hatchling Samus brought back from that mission. With it, they synthesized a vaccine, and the serum was then injected. To everyone’s relief, the X residing in Samus’s body was purged. She realized when she awoke that she owed the hatchling her life for a second time.
Once she recovered fully, she is then sent by the Galactic Federation to investigate an explosion at the BSL research facility. The mission is to be overseen by an AI residing in the computer of Samus’s new gunship. Out of respect and some degree of irony, Samus decided to name it Adam after a former commanding officer. Upon reaching the quarantine bay and defeating the creature that had escaped captivity, she learns it was infected by an X parasite – just like the one she encountered on SR388. After reporting back to Adam, the AI informs her that every specimen recovered by the BSL team was infected with the X. It’s now up to Samus to unmask the true nature of these parasitic lifeforms.
The gameplay of Metroid Fusion is recognizable to anyone who has been following the series up until this point. It is a 2D platforming game that takes place in a single cohesive level as opposed to multiple smaller ones disconnected from each other. Despite her altered appearance, Samus still has her suit’s Power Beam to defend herself from the hostile creatures running rampant in the facility. For situations requiring percussion, she also has a supply of missiles. They are usually more damaging than the beam, but she can only carry so many at a time.
Most of the creatures roaming the hallways of BSL have been infected by the X parasite. Killing such a monster will release it. Samus’s Fusion Suit has the ability to harmlessly absorb the X. The benefits of this process depend on the color of the X. The yellow X restore health while the green X restore her missile supply. The X can also, upon release, merge with other parasites to form new creatures. Monsters formed with two or more X are invariably stronger than one bearing single specimen. However, on occasion, this can actually be beneficial, so it pays to study their behavior.
The research facility is divided into seven sectors; one serves as the hub while the remaining six were built to simulate different environments. Sector 1 is modeled after Planet SR388, Sector 2 resembles a tropical jungle, Sector 3 recreates hot environments, Sector 4 accommodates an aquatic biome, Sector 5 was designed for researching frigid regions, and the cavernous architecture of Sector 6 makes it ideal for studying nocturnal creatures.
One major difference between this game and Super Metroid lies in how it is structured. Super Metroid barred progress organically; you would pass by doors you couldn’t open immediately, rooms were designed in a way that you couldn’t navigate them, and platforms were placed just out of your reach. Metroid Fusion, with its heavier emphasis on storytelling, is decidedly more objective-oriented. Throughout the facility are navigation rooms, which helpfully generate a map upon entering a sector for the first time. You are then given a mission, and where you need to go is then marked on the map. Once you have completed this assignment, you must then go back to the closest navigation room so you may receive new orders. You can examine the map at any time during gameplay. From this screen, you can access the status screen, which displays Samus’s inventory, including her suit’s energy, current amount of missiles, and the power-ups she has accumulated. Unlike Super Metroid, power-ups can’t be toggled on or off; once you receive one, it is always activated.
The linear design is enforced with the hatches that act as doorways. While the hatches in Metroid and Super Metroid open up once you hit them with the correct weapon, the ones in Metroid Fusion remain closed until you interact with the corresponding security terminal – and you can only reach them when they become relevant to the plot. This radical change in style causes Metroid Fusion to resemble Metroid II in structure than it does its direct predecessor. Despite this, traces of the exploratory elements from Super Metroid remain. You will still often come across obstacles you cannot circumvent from the onset, but in the context of this installment, it could mean one of two things. The first is that you will revisit the sector later, accomplishing a mission in a previously walled-off area. In almost every other case, they just simply house collectables such as energy tanks and missile tanks. Even though you’re always carrying out an objective, you’re rarely timed, so it is therefore still worthwhile to deviate from the path and see what lies beyond each door.
Despite using an entirely different engine and the staff’s refusal to use Super Metroid as a base, both games were ultimately cast from the same mold. There are several improvements, to be sure. For starters, Samus can now grab ledges and pull herself up, making it easier to gauge whether or not she can reach a platform. She can also climb grooved walls and ceilings whenever necessary. Moreover, Super Metroid introduced a technique known as wall jumping. It’s exactly what one would expect; a maneuver that allows her to jump off of a wall to gain height. However, it was situational to the point where one could ostensibly complete the game without ever using it. Not only that, the timing was so precise, even those who knew about the technique had trouble executing it. Metroid Fusion makes the timing a bit easier, which is appreciated.
However, I don’t believe Metroid Fusion raised the bar for the series to the same extent as Super Metroid. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because rather than reinventing the wheel, Mr. Sakamoto and his team opted to use a provably working formula to explore new ideas. The Metroid saga up until this point operated on similar premises. The fearless independent bounty hunter, Samus Aran, marched into enemy strongholds, and emerged victorious in the face of grim odds. She was a hunter in the purest sense of the term; though her accomplishments weren’t exactly handed to her on a silver platter, she nonetheless had an advantage over a majority of her opponents which were only thrown into a sharper relief the more upgrades she discovered.
Metroid Fusion dares to openly challenge this notion, thus turning it on its head. The events leading up to this game have left Samus in a severely weakened state. Though normal enemies are easily dispatched, average attacks do more damage than corresponding ones in Super Metroid. This means with each group of enemies you encounter, you must strategize wisely. In a creative twist, she isn’t really gaining new powers as much as she is recovering old ones. Installments set chronologically earlier often had to establish why she no longer has the helpful upgrades. This explanation is not only far more effective, it enhances the uneasy ambiance of this installment.
When Samus descends a certain elevator, you’re presented with a new, eerily familiar presence. When it fires a missile, it obliterates the doorway it’s facing, and when it jumps, you can see that it has the Screw Attack, a power-up obtained nearing the end of Super Metroid. Dubbed the SA-X, the X parasite that infected Samus’s Power Suit formed an evil doppelganger with the removed pieces. These few seconds of screentime is all it takes for you to realize just how dire the situation has become.
She will find it patrolling the hallways, and her only recourse when it sees her is to run; attempting to engage it |without the Plasma Beam| is futile. The hunter has become the hunted. It’s because of these touches that by playing Metroid Fusion countless younger enthusiasts were unwittingly introduced to the survival horror genre.
This is where Metroid Fusion arguably shines the brightest. Previous entries were content to tell a story solely through the environment, yet the switch to a more dialogue-heavy narrative still prompted Mr. Sakamoto to think about how to convey a plot in terms of the medium. Another example of this comes in the form of Samus’s Fusion Suit. The reason the cure worked as effectively as it did is because the Metroids were genetically engineered to prey on the X. In gameplay terms, it’s the reason the X parasites act as energy refills. Unfortunately, by destroying the Metroids on SR388, Samus inadvertently allowed the X took over the planet, which is why all of the specimens brought back to the BSL station were infected. What I particularly like about this development is how the narrative establishes an easy out for Samus’s survival only to later demonstrate a logical ramification from using it.
At one point, Samus is given an assignment in Sector 6. The X parasites that entered Sector 5 mutated due to the freezing temperatures, turning blue. This presents a problem for Samus, as the Fusion Suit effectively makes her part Metroid. As anyone familiar with the series knows, Metroids, despite being fearsome enemies, have a debilitating weakness to cold. Because of this, she has inherited that weakness, and any attempt at absorbing the blue X will cause her to take damage. Once she has obtained the Varia Suit upgrade, which protects her from extreme temperatures, she can absorb the blue X to recover energy. In a nice touch, they will still try to swarm her, but once they realize this tactic is proving ineffective, they start fleeing.
My favorite aspect about Metroid Fusion would be its boss battles. Intentionally or not, they seem to take cues from the Mega Man franchise in that they’re centered around a gimmick. Upon defeating them, Samus absorbs the X that inhabited its body, and gains its ability. To wit, once she defeats the first boss, which rolls around like an armadillo, she gains the Morph Ball ability. As with normal enemies, you can’t fire mindlessly and expect to win. The game forces players to study their patterns and play conservatively, lest you exhaust the Fusion Suit’s energy supply in a matter of seconds.
Despite the many good things I have to say about this game, there are a few niggling issues that detract from the experience. The first I wish to expound upon is its length. Super Metroid wasn’t exactly long, as an experienced player could clear it in roughly three hours, but even a fledging enthusiast could complete Metroid Fusion in that amount of time. Possibly because the design restricts exploration, far less of the experience is spent wondering where to go next, but even with that factored out of Super Metroid, it still feels grander in scale.
A reason for this could even be rooted in a simple locale change. The BSL research facility, despite having diverse level design, feels synthetic and lifeless. There’s no questioning that this is the point, as unlike older installments, Metroid Fusion takes place in an entirely manmade environment, but it lacks the same level of intrigue as exploring alien worlds. In those cases, the environments opened up to you gradually. With Metroid Fusion, you’re told what the purpose of each sector is shortly before entering it, ruining any kind of mystery they may have presented. There are areas in every sector that are not initially displayed on the map, but they’re more likely to be in service to the plot than they are to help build a world.
Fans were disappointed about the change to more linear design. The general perception was that even with the series’ limited canon, Metroid Fusion ran counter to what the series represented up until this point. Many of them felt that by railroading the player, they precluded the player from engaging in what is known in gaming circles as sequence breaking – the practice of completing a game outside of the intended order. The freedom to complete the game on one’s own terms was what many people considered its greatest appeal.
I feel this criticism is a bit exaggerated, as Super Metroid had an intended order in which you had to find all of the power-ups and achieve your goals; the only difference is how much it’s enforced. Having said that, there are still two major flaws which arose from this shift. The first is that the script is rigid to the point where breaking it can result in making the game unwinnable. To be fair, rendering the game in such a state requires a lot of work to the point where it’s unlikely to occur by accident. The more pressing problem is how difficult it is to backtrack. For those seeking to achieve one-hundred percent completion, they would almost certainly have to get every single upgrade as soon as they become available. Leaving one behind will either waste time or render it impossible to collect later on. The only way you would know which doorways can be opened at what points would be to read from a guide the entire time.
Luckily, these issues don’t weigh down the game to the point where it’s a chore to play. In the unlikely event you make the game unwinnable, you can rest knowing it probably won’t take you long to get back to the section in which it occurred. Furthermore, the story is interesting enough that you’ll want to see how it unfolds, and Samus’s brief internal monologues sheds some light on her backstory.
Drawing a Conclusion
I find the reputation of Metroid Fusion to be an interesting case study. Though critically acclaimed upon release, fans were quick to declare it the black sheep of the series for its story-focused, linear design. To some extent, I agree in the sense that I wouldn’t exactly call Metroid Fusion a good Metroid installment. I think what helps is to think of it less as a Metroidvania and more of an action-flavored survival horror that happens to take place in the Metroid universe. On that front, it succeeds quite well with its premise, which is about as close as one can get to adapting John Carpenter’s classic horror film, The Thing, without the actual license.
Even if it’s not quite the trailblazer Super Metroid was, Metroid Fusion is worthy of your time. Mr. Sakamoto and his staff truly utilized the Game Boy Advance’s capabilities to deliver an experience that remains surprisingly tense to this day. It’s fitting that one of the games responsible for reviving the franchise was released on the successor to Gunpei Yokoi’s greatest contribution to the medium. Continuing a series after the death of its creator is often considered a controversial move, but Mr. Sakamoto did justice to the franchise established by his former superior.
Final Score: 7/10