The dual release of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime breathed new life into the Metroid franchise. The former was a 2D affair that took the canon in a different direction while the latter broke the series into 3D – a feat many thought impossible given its nonexistence on the Nintendo 64. After the success of Metroid Fusion, Yoshio Sakamoto, a veteran who had been involved with the series since its inception began brainstorming ideas for the next entry. A fellow developer suggested porting Super Metroid to the Game Boy Advance. The Super Mario Advance series ported three classic Mario titles to the handheld console by that point, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was made available for the system as well.
However, Mr. Sakamoto had another idea; though Metroid Fusion was inspired by the classic installments, it largely abandoned the exploratory elements which gave the series its identity in favor of providing a more story-focused experience. He wished to bring the series back to its roots with his next project, thereby allowing newcomers to discover where the franchise came from. To accomplish this goal, Mr. Sakamoto saw fit to return to the very beginning and expand upon Samus Aran’s original mission. Utilizing a reconstructed version of the engine used to create Metroid Fusion, work quickly began. Released in 2004 and titled Metroid: Zero Mission, this installment continued the series’ second wind, and is considered one of the best games in the Game Boy Advance’s library. How does it compare to the original, beloved NES classic that started it all?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.
As a reimagining of the original Metroid, the premise remains unchanged. Space Pirates have begun to experiment on Metroids, dangerous, parasitic lifeforms from Planet SR388, attempting to turn them into biological weapons. Numerous attacks have been carried out by the Galactic Federation on the Pirates’ headquarters on Planet Zebes, but all of them have failed. It is then that they turn to Samus Aran, considered by many to be the greatest bounty hunter of them all, to infiltrate the base, and put an end to their operations. To do this, she must destroy the mechanical lifeform known as Mother Brain, which controls the fortress and its defenses. Samus faces insurmountable odds, but she must succeed in order to restore peace to the galaxy.
The gameplay is similarly recognizable to the genre-defining original. Metroid: Zero Mission takes place in a single biome divided into smaller regions. More of the game world will open itself up to you as Samus collects power-ups for her suit. This is a stark contrast to the average Mario installment or any other similar platformer wherein progress is made simply by getting to the end of the stage. In Metroid: Zero Mission, your progress could be barred simply by not being able to reach a distant platform.
As usual, Samus’s Power Suit grants her two main methods of defense: a beam and a supply of missiles. The beam is typically weaker than the missiles, but she does not need to find ammunition for it. Missiles can also open doors or damage enemies the power beam cannot with their percussive impact, so conserving them whenever possible is vital to succeed. By pressing down on the control pad twice, Samus can enter Morph Ball mode. In this spherical form, she can access narrow passageways and generate bombs. They’re a little unwieldy against enemies; instead, they’re mainly used to blast open weak structures. She can also take advantage of the explosion by using the force of the blast to propel herself upwards.
Zebes’s structure is loosely based off of the level design of the original game. Despite this, Metroid: Zero Mission is decidedly more linear than the game on which it’s based. Scattered throughout Zebes are statues modeled after the Chozo, the birdlike race that used to inhabit the planet. By shifting into Morph Ball mode in the hand of the statue, a target will be marked on your map. You should head to the indicated spot on the map to progress. Usually, it indicates the location of a power-up, but other times, you will be made to accomplish other objectives. Incidentally, this process will also restore your energy and missile supply. Moreover, the mechanics introduced in Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion are retained. After obtaining a certain upgrade, Samus can grab onto a ledge and pull herself up. She can also jump off of the walls in order to reach higher ground. Upgrades are perpetually activated; there is no need to enable or disable any of them.
Despite the game giving you a clear goal at all times, you adhering to the intended order is not necessary, as there are usually no consequences for sequence breaking. This is a contrast to Metroid Fusion where defeating certain bosses in the wrong order could render the game in an unwinnable state, though the structure made this difficult to achieve by accident. By this point, the staff likely caught onto to their audience’s propensity to experiment with the game, for they brought back a common technique introduced in Super Metroid. If you lay three bombs in the right way then use a fourth at a certain point in midair, you could jump indefinitely in Morph Ball mode as long as you have perfect timing. This was made impossible in Metroid Fusion, yet Metroid: Zero Mission brought it back, which all but confirms the developers knew about it.
Some reading this review might wonder how this game compares to the series’ debut. To begin with, Metroid: Zero Mission manages to address nearly all of the issues I and many others had with the original. There is no longer a need to grind health and missiles with each new session, and thanks to the cartridge’s battery, you can easily return to your game without spending a few minutes inputting a password. Another obvious improvement is that there is a map. Although the graphical update means it’s easier to find your way around than in the original wherein you traversed identical corridors, it nonetheless streamlines navigation. As a result of these enhancements, the pacing is far more brisk with less time spent on busywork.
Furthermore, there are a greater number of boss fights than in the original. Other than Mother Brain, Metroid featured two bosses, neither of whom were particularly challenging; they were dealt with by firing missiles at them while periodically dodging their salvos. The main trait separating them from normal enemies was that they had significantly more health. That is not true in Metroid: Zero Mission; you will use more advanced tactics to defeat bosses, which includes exploiting weak points and waiting for the opportune moments to strike. Firing at them without thinking is invariably a waste of ammunition.
Even though there are many good things I can say about Metroid: Zero Mission, there are still quite a few aspects that hold it back. Remakes are a trickier proposition than most people give it credit for. If you end up abandoning the source material outright in favor of going in new direction, fans will wonder why it needed to be a remake and not its own installment. Going too far in the other direction by creating something unyieldingly faithful to the original often reveals weaknesses that could only be seen in hindsight after observing the medium’s growth. To be honest, Metroid: Zero Mission doesn’t really fit in either category cleanly, but the latter is where I would place it if I absolutely had to.
Although Mr. Sakamoto didn’t follow the original’s level design to the letter when making Metroid: Zero Mission, he clearly used it as a rough outline. The result is that many of the same long, boring hallways in Metroid can be seen in Metroid: Zero Mission as well. They’re a little more dynamic, featuring a plethora of new obstacles and enemies, but compared to Super Metroid, it’s a bit of a step down. There are two completely new regions in Metroid: Zero Mission, but they feel out of place among the older ones, and don’t synergize with each other well.
Another major difference is that the story does not end after Mother Brain is destroyed. Instead, upon escaping, Samus’s ship is shot down, and she loses her Power Suit.
With only a rather useless emergency pistol only capable of stunning enemies to defend herself with, she must infiltrate the Space Pirates’ stronghold to obtain another one. Whether it’s The Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear Solid, levels in which you’re stripped of your gear tend to the most annoying sections in any video game. You spend a fair amount of the experience getting used to, and consequently depending on, progressively more advanced power-ups, thus none of the skill you built up using them will apply for these levels. The Metroid franchise had done such a good job not forcing these on the players, so seeing them implemented in this entry is jarring. Exacerbating matters is that the stretch you have to go in order to retrieve the Power Suit is lengthy, and a lot of it consists of the brand of trail-and-error gameplay one would expect out of an eighties adventure title.
The other, less obvious problem with this sequence is that it effectively gives the game two climaxes. Destroying Mother Brain is what drives the primary mission, so the developers had to give players a second final boss to satisfactorily wrap up the proceedings. The final boss happens to be a mechanized doppelganger of Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates and Samus’s archnemesis. The encounter is rather underwhelming, for the robot is not nearly as intimidating as the genuine article. Finding every single collectable makes the battle tougher, but it’s still not one of the series’ more memorable moments.
Perhaps the Achilles’ heel of Metroid: Zero Mission is that it falls into the trap Metroid Fusion deftly avoided. By taking place on Planet Zebes, featuring similar power-ups, and recreating the original’s plot, Metroid: Zero Mission comes across as a watered down version of Super Metroid. It hits most of the same marks, and the times it doesn’t stand out because by this point, we have a baseline of quality to which we can compare the new content.
Even with these issues, there is a silver lining to all of this. By this point in history, Samus’s gender was common knowledge among gaming enthusiasts. While in older titles, you would discover this fact by clearing the game in a timely fashion, confronting players with information they already have would be pointless. Instead, the plot touches upon Samus’s backstory. She was found on Zebes by the Chozo as an infant and raised among them. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense why the Galactic Federation would send a lone bounty hunter, even one of Samus’s caliber, to combat the pirates on Zebes. There would be no one better to handle such a mission than someone who once called it home. These developments are presented in Metroid: Zero Mission in the series’ signature “show, don’t tell” brand of storytelling, and while most of them are better fleshed out in supplementary materials, they succeed at making her character dynamic despite, or maybe because of, the overall minimalistic dialogue.
Drawing a Conclusion
Metroid: Zero Mission isn’t what I would consider the pinnacle of the series by a long shot. For that matter, it’s not the best remake ever conceived because while it’s admirable Mr. Sakamoto and company resisted the urge to settle for a 1:1 recreation, the old and new ideas didn’t always meld together smoothly. That being said, Metroid: Zero Mission solves a majority of the problems which weighed down Metroid, successfully updating it for a new generation of gaming enthusiasts. The original was a pioneering game to be sure, but it’s ultimately more frustrating than fun to play through these days. Metroid: Zero Mission may lack the same level of mystique as Super Metroid or the intrigue of Metroid Fusion, but it’s a decent game in its own right, and if you’re a fan of the series, chances are great that you will enjoy this installment as well.
Final Score: 6/10