Metroid: Zero Mission Review

Rebuild of Metroid 0/1: You Are (Not) Strong


While Metroid Fusion was generally well regarded upon its release and shortly thereafter, it did receive some flak for deviating from the roots of the series in setting, tone, and visuals, especially when put right next to Metroid Prime.  However, for others, Metroid Fusion was the only Metroid they knew given the popularity of the GBA and the 8 year break between it and Super Metroid.  This inspired the development team of Fusion to conduct a remake of a prior title, but rather than adapting Super Metroid for the dark screen and limited buttons GBA, the decision was instead made to remake the original Metroid and enhance it with both modern conventions and a more prominent story.  Is that what they delivered here?  Well… kinda.

Metroid: Zero Mission Review
Platforms: GBA(Emulated) and Wii U
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo

Something that has always bothered me about the story and mythos of Metroid is the ambiguous nature of Samus’s origins in the games themselves.  While there have been scattered hints and insights throughout various ending CGs or a bit of flavor text here and there, the only detailed depiction of her past and childhood are found in the Metroid manga series published in Magazine Z throughout 2003 and 2004.  This comic recapped the events of the series at that time and gave an origin that is considered to be canonical by the Metroid community, but it was never officially released outside of Japan and was not a video game.  This causes the events of this comic, and Samus’s origins, to occupy a state of ‘soft-canon’, meaning they can be discarded or forgotten about at any given moment.

The reason why I bring this up here is that Zero Mission had the opportunity to dive into Samus’s backstory and explore her origins.  According to the soft canon, this game is about Samus confronting the space pirates, the people who killed her family twice over, traveling through the remnants of Zebes, the world she was raised in, and battling against both Mother Brain and the Metroids, created by the Chozo, the weird bird people who made her power suit and raised her from age 3.  There is so much laid out on the table that the game could make use of either explicitly or subtlety.  From narration during key scenes or elevator rides, small cinematic moments where Samus is walking through a familiar location from her childhood, or simple flashback scenes that have her contextualize who this silly looking brain in a jar and this purple space dinosaur are to her.  But it does almost none of that.

I find this approach to be perplexing after Metroid Fusion’s successful attempt at building out the world and lore of Metroid, and letting Samus as a character shines through words, instead of just actions.  In Zero Mission, the story offered here can largely be surmised on a single piece of paper containing a description of each CG scene and every line of narration from Samus.  I understand that this makes the game more true to the original, but that really should not be the goal of a remake.  Especially one that, considering the expansion to the mechanics, world, and overall structure of the game, is closer to a reimagining than anything else.

The starting rooms, the roaming critters, the tall vertical shafts of Brinstar, general item locations, the path of defeating Kraid and Ridley to get to Mother Brain, the short beam— the iconic elements of Metroid are featured in Zero Mission, but the game never strongly adheres to the original game’s design.  Instead, much of the game’s composition and mechanical underbelly are derived from what Super Metroid did in its approach to reinvent and modernize the series.  So while you still find some missile expansions placed in familiar structures, you don’t have a sea of samey looking vertical shafts, or even the same cluttered and alien aesthetic of the original.

While something is undeniably lost in the transition, with the misdirection and endless wandering through the maze-like locales of the original being replaced with a far more structured and directed affair, one that goes so far as to incorporate objective markets, I think this was for the best.  Super Metroid very much established what the developers wanted the series to be, and what a bulk of the fanbase wanted from it.  They wanted a 2D action game driven by a gameplay loop of semi-directed exploring, exterminating of bosses and mini-bosses, and enhancing the player character to make them stronger, faster, more durable, and overall better.  It is certainly what I personally prefer from Metroid, but after having gone through Super and Fusion so recently, I cannot help but think that Zero Mission borrowed a bit too much from its predecessors.

For example, the list of power-ups is composed entirely of series staples, without much variation.  What was seen in the original Metroid carried over to every 2D installment thereafter, and when new upgrades are introduced here, they are borrowed wholeheartedly from Super, such as the speedbooster, power bombs, and plasma beam.  Or in the case of the grip ability and long beam, they’re features from earlier games that were available from the start.  Aside from the occasional environmental gimmick, such as the shafts where Samus can fire herself from a cannon and the ceiling-mounted tram system or a scattering of creative new sub-bosses that attempt to channel the horror elements a bit more, there really is not much new in Zero Mission.  

From snagging the morph ball to escaping Zebes before Tourian goes boom, the game feels like a remixed and condensed version of Super Metroid, with a few carryovers from Fusion.  The environments have the same names, occasionally the same design elements and the big three bosses of the original Metroid were reimagined by copying the structure and style of the same boss fights in Super.  

Now, none of this is necessarily bad or prevents the game from being enjoyable.  Zero Mission is a consistently engaging affair without much in the way of memorable grievances.  Exploring interwoven caverns, battling imposing bosses, and getting upgrades are as fun as they ever were.  … At least until one reaches the final stretch of the game, where the developers sought to expand on the original with an additional sub-campaign bolted on in order to make Zero Mission seem like a more robust and innovative package.  

After defeating Mother Brain and initially escaping Zebes, Samus’s ship gets shot down by space pirates, and she is left stranded outside of a space pirate mothership, armed with nothing more than her jimmy jammies and a stun gun.  Thus requiring her to run and stealth her way through the space pirate forces until she happens upon ancient Chozo ruins where she gains her power suit once more.  There, with her power suit restored and abilities like the gravity suit, space jump, plasma beam, and eventually power bombs now a part of her arsenal, she is able to do one final sweep over the environments of Zebes before fighting the final boss.  All of which sounds fine on paper… but in execution it kinda sucks.  

Let’s start with the stealth section.  I see what the developers were trying to do here:  Put the concept of Metroid on its head by depowering the player and forcing them to carefully avoid and run from ferocious opposition.  However, while this worked wonderfully in Fusion due to how intimidating, sporadic, and foreboding the SA-X was, and how quickly they would kill you, the space pirates lack such intimidation.  They can indeed harm Samus, but they have low attention spans, can be momentarily immobilized with Samus’s stun gun, and are so plentiful, acrobatic, and… not scary, that they come across as annoyances more than anything else.

They also cannot be avoided at certain intervals, with the game regularly trying to tunnel the player into frantic chase sequences as alarms inevitably start blaring and reinforcements show up.  When combined with how the game is indeed designed around speedrunning, I can only assume the developers did not want to create a traditional stealth game, as much as a stealth-flavored frantic chase sequence of sorts.  Again, on paper, this sounds great, but in execution, it really is not all that fun to go through.  It goes on for a bit too long, involves constant reminders of things that need to be found when backtracking through this section later, and is not thematically consistent with the power fantasy seen before and after this section.  It’s this odd mechanically anachronistic interlude that raises more questions narratively than it could ever hope to answer.

Speaking of which, while I do appreciate the inclusion of what became series staple abilities in the final stretch of Zero Mission, the game does not especially use these abilities well, as the player does not gain access to them until they reach the 85-90% of the game.  Or, in the case of the power bombs, until they are at the final boss’s doorstep, and could beat the game in 10 minutes from there if they were so inclined.  This begs the question of why these abilities exist in the first place… and the only answer, other than fan service, that I could come up with was that they prolong the game with one final circle around Zebes to get a stray assortment of collectibles.  Collectibles including additional power bombs, a few health tanks, and more missile upgrades, even though a dedicated player would have well over 200 by this point.

It is the least worthwhile and most tonally inappropriate final clean up lap I have seen in a Metroidvania, and it all feels like it could have been avoided by… not including these few sections.  This entire epilogue section is a net negative to the overall experience, and that is only compounded by the complete bullcrap the developers pull involving the space jump and shinespark during this final trek.  I thought that it was annoying in Super Metroid, it made me never want to return to Metroid Fusion, and with Metroid: Zero Mission it got even worse.

The shinespark mastery challenge in upper left Chozodia requires the player master a mechanic that is never so much as hinted at in the main game, shooting themselves up small ramps to keep their charge and then immediately crouching before hitting a wall, several times, in succession, while ascending then descending across multiple rooms.  The space jump challenge right before the final boss, meanwhile, necessitates that the player makes several precise continuous jumps while avoiding lasers, and finding a way to maneuver 2-block-tall Samus through a 3-block-tall crevice.  The falling blocks in Metroid Fusion were obnoxious, but this… this is somehow worse, as there is no push and pull, no leeway or possibility to escape.  One misstep and you need to start all over, kill the enemies that spawned, and try again.  

I understand that this is all optional, that these are meant to be rewards for seasoned mechanical masters, and that I am kinda bad at video games.  But this is so disproportionally harder than the main game and requires such precise player inputs that I cannot imagine a way the developers could have justified their actions without sounding like complete hacks.  I revel in the sense of achievement that comes with getting everything in a tightly packed action exploration title like this.  But I cannot do things this precisely.  I cannot recognize and understand the near frame perfect inputs I need to make in sections like this.  And I felt absolutely zero satisfaction as I finished the game with garbage like this still uncollected, the sub-100 percentage looking back at me serving as a reminder of both my inability and the absurd requests of the developers.  

Seeing as how I have already lambasted the game mechanically and with regards to its design, let’s talk about its graphics, which are… just not especially interesting, as the color scheme and design of the environments of Zero Mission tend to occupy a very familiar palette.  From navy blue to dull purple to a saturated pink to an unremarkable shade of grey available as both stone and metal.  It has some variety, and you can indeed identify one environment from another, but I failed to see much character, a sense of place and purpose, in these locales.  Everything just looks like one cave that leads to another and lacks the same liveliness of otherworldliness that made the visuals of prior games, and Super Metroid in particular, so memorable.  

It’s a shame, because, between the character sprites, environmental tilesets, and background art, the game is quite appealing visually, with detailed enemy sprites, smooth animations, and some pixelated CG artwork thrown in for good measure.  There was clear talent put into the craftsmanship of the game’s presentation, but it all simply did not come together as well as it should have or had in prior games.

Metroid: Zero Mission has a lot of good things going for it and for the bulk of its running time, it is a thoroughly enjoyable affair.  However, when pushed up against its predecessors, and taking into account its misguided attempt at an epilogue, the cracks become all the more apparent.  The bizarrely limited story, the environments that lack the same personality and atmosphere as prior entries, and an attempt at putting the series on its head that… just doesn’t work.  As always, I never take pleasure in tearing down games like this, especially ones so widely regarded both critically and communally, and games that I grew up playing.  

…However, if you just turn the game off after beating Mother Brain and call it quits, then yeah, it’s still a pretty good time.

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