Metroid and why it’s nearly dead to me

My Wii was blinking blue[1] this morning so I fired it up and right there was a proclamation that August is “Metroid Month”. There was an announcement that Metroid for the NES would be released next week and Super Metroid for the SNES would be released on the 20th (yes!) followed by the Wii release of Metroid Prime 3. To promote that they released a Metroid Prime 3 Preview channel which was just an elaborate interface to house two trailer videos. Fairly underwhelming but interesting in that it’s the first time the Wii Shop has been used for something like this.

Metroid Prime 3 is a game that I’ve been both anticipating and dreading and while watching the videos today I realized that my anticipation was strictly based on name brand recognition. I’m left with nothing but dread. The feeling that Metroid Prime 3 will be a bastardized hybrid between the game that Retro Studios wants to make and the Metroid license they’ve been burdened with.

The original Metroid on the NES was quite probably the first game that I ever mastered. Sure, I was good at Super Mario Bros. at that age and I had traversed every dungeon in Legend of Zelda, but Metroid was the first time I was one with the game. I still remember the tension of being down in Tourian the first time and the stress of the timer after defeating Mother Brain and, especially, being floored by the ending (he’s a she!?). I beat the game once and Samus took off her helmet. I beat it again and she took off her suit. Then I beat it again, two more times, for good measure. (There’s a common misconception that the “Justin Bailey” password unlocks the leotard Samus and gives you a lot of power-ups. This is wrong. It’s merely an aberration of the password system that places you into a game being played after a quick play-through, which is what’s needed to play suitless).

Then came Super Metroid. It was a game that exceeded, by leaps and bounds, any expectation I could have ever formulated. There aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice and it had a profound effect on my future game design ideals. It still remains a great example of interactive storytelling precisely because it does so strictly through its gameplay. Apart from the game’s introduction, there are no cut-scenes, no dialogue and no explanatory or decorative text. Everything that happens happens strictly in the mechanics and the atmosphere. It was unlike any console game that came before it.

Needless to say, the many, many years before the Gamecube release of Metroid Prime fueled even higher expectations. Like many at the time, I was cautious of the move to first person perspective. Even more cautious of the fact that a new American studio, with a lot of FPS veterans, was doing the duties. I first laid my hands on Metroid Prime at E3 and while it didn’t destroy my expectations, it certainly satisfied them. The controls were good, the atmosphere and art direction was very good and it was a perfect translation of the Metroid formula into the first person perspective. There were some sections that felt a little forced to me and I didn’t much like the addition of all the narrative, though I was very thankful that it was all optional, but overall I thought it was a great addition to the series and I still think it’s one of the best games of the last generation.

Not long after release some minor things made me question the direction of the series all over again. No, not Metroid Fusion — let’s ignore that game altogether — but some changes they made to Prime after launch. There were “tricks” in Metroid Prime that exploited the mechanics of the system to allow sequence breaking. In other words, it allowed the user to explore the world on their own terms. Things opened up differently and played differently if the first item you picked up was the double jump boot.

Exploration was always key in Metroid and the game always rewarded you for it, intentionally or otherwise. The original Metroid secret worlds were nothing more than extraneous map data left outside the normal ‘playing area.’ accessible via a glitch exploit, but they were explored and charted just as much as the real map.

Retro Studios, seeing their game played in a manner and direction that they didn’t dictate, decided that the best solution was to “fix” their game. The PAL and Japanese versions, and the later NTSC “Player’s Choice” version, all contain many changes that which drastically reduce the ability of the player to play the game in any way other than what was intended. That control of direction followed through to Metroid Prime 2. Along with that came other minor additions like Galactic Federation characters that talk to you and multiplayer further diverged the Prime series from its Metroid origins.

Interestingly, Metroid: Zero Mission, the Metroid remake for the GBA that was released months before Prime 2, shows a very different philosophy. Zero Mission was designed with sequence breakers and low-percentage (not collecting any item) players and speed runners in mind[2]. There’s an alternate hidden series of tunnels and secrets that can be used to bypass everything. Some of those require a high degree of skill (infinite bomb jump, wall jump experts, shine spark) but the fact that they are there to be used by those that want to use them is significant[3]. Further credit has to be given to the 2D world map design because none of these optional bits ever interfere with the straight path nor do they ever lead into a no-escape situation (that I know of). It’s, arguably, the best designed 2D world to ever grace a console or portable system.

Retro Studios is a competent and Nintendo should give them a lot of money to make their game, but my faith in their ability to handle the Metroid name is diminishing. Prime 2 went in the wrong direction, opposite of Zero Mission. Everything I’ve seen about Prime 3 seems to follow even further down that route. I fear that once it’s released, Metroid might move from my “on notice” board to full-on “dead to me” status.[4]

Thankfully, Bioshock is coming out that very same week so I’ll have a good excuse for not playing Metroid Prime 2.

  1. Throbbing blue slit.
  2. A Japanese developer is opening up the world while an American developer is closing it down? It’s usually the other way around.
  3. My third time through (or fourth?), I got stuck at Mother Brain. I was trying for a low-percentage run and was managing it fine until I got to her. With, I think, one extra energy tank and at most 3 missile upgrades she is fucking hard. “High degree of skill” is right.
  4. There was no mention of Metroid Prime Hunters. For good reason.
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