"With that said, I was also happy to see that this game doesn't lead you by the hand to the same degree that Metroid Fusion did with its 'computer' set-up. It's still quite possible to get lost and wonder where you should head next. The map might tell you that it's time to approach Kraid's lair, for example, but that doesn't mean you can just take a few passages and find yourself at the encounter; you'll have to locate hidden chutes and such all by yourself."
In the original Metroid title for the NES, you begin on a platform between two elevated columns as spiny monsters creep toward you. You have to get blasting right away if you want to survive, have to plan your moves carefully from that point onward. Interestingly enough, Metroid: Zero Mission begins in the same manner. And when I say 'in the same manner,' what I really mean is that when the stylish intro animations end, Samus literally appears on that same platform. She is, in fact, in the same corridor. On the same planet. With the same apparent nemesis.
Experienced gamers might well grow disheartened and fear that they've landed themselves right in the middle of a remake. And to be honest, they have. But with expanded environments, visuals, moves and weapons, this is much more than a retread; it's a shining example of what Nintendo has always done so well, retouched for the new millennium. Yet it isn't without its flaws. Chief of these is the rather short mission. Five hours after you first return to the planet Zebes, you'll likely be viewing the game's closing credits. So it is that the question must be asked: are those five hours enough to justify a $30 expenditure? And the answer... depends on just how much you like Metroid.
Regardless of which Metroid titles you may have played in the past, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect on Samus Aran's latest outing. The planet of Zebes is a monstrous one, divided into several regions bristling with alien life forms. Players must guide Samus Aran through each of these, taking note of the ways in which they connect. As always, it's hard to travel more than a few screens without seeing a tunnel or ledge that is presently out of reach. Nintendo's developers are good at rewarding the player not only for exploring dangerous new territory, but for returning to familiar ground with new weapons and skills. For example, the map might indicate that a corridor stretches far above Samus, yet she can't climb to the loftiest of that passage's heights. Not to worry. All she needs to do is come back once her firepower has the ability to freeze the enemies gliding about the area, and she will be able to use them as stepstools that will take her to the summit. More than anything else, this type of ingenuity is the driving force that will keep people glued to the tiny Game Boy Advance screen while events around them transpire unnoticed. It's hard to stop playing when you know you've just earned a weapon that will finally allow you to see what was behind the barricade in one of the earlier portions of the game. This has always been true of the series, but perhaps never to the fine-tuned degree that it is here. And while it may be my imagination, it seemed to me that the corridors in Metroid: Zero Mission are much more tantalizing than those offered in Metroid Fusion, even if they sometimes differ from one another a little less.
Something else Metroid games typically have going for them is a great degree of difficulty. When players experienced the NES version, they had to keep their wits about them at all times. Zebes was a planet only the most determined could penetrate, sprinkled with a few boss encounters and lots of danger in the form of lava flow. While many of those same elements are again present, they're much more subdued in Zero Mission. When I played through, I was extremely careless the majority of the time. I dropped into lava more than once, blazed through enemies without much regard for Samus' health, and tackled boss encounters without much dread. And with only a few exceptions, I found that the game's greatest challenge came not from enemy encounters, but from determining which direction to head next.
Bosses here are, to put it bluntly, a piece of cake. It seems there are less of them than there were in Metroid Fusion. Not only that, but half of them are crowded together into the last hour or so of gameplay, so Samus will truly be going long stretches without much concern for her safety. This is made even truer by the fact that you can select your difficulty level. It's good for the kids, I guess (and for those of us troubled by the last few frustrating areas), but mostly it's so void of challenge that more experienced gamers will find it a waste of time.
Speaking of time, Nintendo at least implemented measures to help you avoid wandering about aimlessly for hours on end. Throughout the planet, you'll find bird-shaped Chozo statues that offer energy refills and special weapons upgrades, as well as hints about where to go next. These hints let you know where you can put your new abilities to use most readily, and are great if you just really want to play through to the end of the game without exploring on your own. With that said, I was also happy to see that this game doesn't lead you by the hand to the same degree that Metroid Fusion did with its 'computer' set-up. It's still quite possible to get lost and wonder where you should head next. The map might tell you that it's time to approach Kraid's lair, for example, but that doesn't mean you can just take a few passages and find yourself at the encounter; you'll have to locate hidden chutes and such all by yourself. Even if you played the original Metroid, know that a good percentage of what you find here is entirely new. If the former world map was a two-story house, Nintendo has successfully expanded that to a full apartment complex.
The way old and new elements mesh is for the most part quite satisfying. Retro gamers will be delighted by the chance to visit Zebes all over again, and younger gamers can just sit back and appreciate a map design that is fresh and exciting. And while around 20% of my game time was spent backtracking through a lot of the same rooms, I was constantly rewarded for my persistence. That indeed is the mark of a good game.
Of course, there are plenty of other such marks. Chief among these is the game's audio department. While I'm not usually one to pay much attention to the sound piping out of the Game Boy Advance's speakers, in this case I couldn't help but notice. For one thing, it's much crisper than normal. And for another, it's much louder. Compared to any other game for the system that I've yet played, Metroid: Zero Mission's sound flat out blares. The haunting atmosphere spread across the planet really owes a lot to the compositions filling this game. They're all familiar stuff, but they just blend in so perfectly it's hard not to appreciate them. Also, they're accompanied by some of the nicest sound effects I've ever heard. When a giant robot clanks across the cavern near the end of the game, you'll feel as if you're in the cave right along with Samus. I was glad that Nintendo made it sound so authentic, and it's made all the more impressive when you consider that such resources are devoted to all sound effects, regardless of the number of times you may or may not hear them.
Then there are the visuals. If you played Metroid Fusion, or perhaps Super Metroid before that, don't expect any radical changes. The rock material that fills the planet looks good, to be sure; there's good color depth, and granite is easily distinguished from lava. Enemies look great, too. I don't really think anyone would look back and say that Metroid games have pushed the envelope in terms of visuals (with the possible exception of Metroid Prime), and that's certainly true this time around. With that said, there was never a moment I found myself heading into a new room and wishing Nintendo hired better artists; the terrific sense of atmosphere more than makes up for any petty complaints one might voice in that regard.
Also, it would be a grave injustice if I didn't mention the cutscenes. There aren't many to see in Zero Mission, but the few that do exist are nothing short of astounding. Though the amount of art that's really there is minimal, the artists do a great job of adding slight bits of animation that come together for what ends up an almost cinematic experience. Eyes narrowing, light flashing over a visor, and glowing lights springing to life on a computer panel have never looked so good on a handheld. If they notice nothing else about this game, rival developers should at least take notes on how Nintendo so effectively used rather limited hardware. Also, I never knew Samus had such a nice posterior. Now I do.
As you might expect, there's more to Metroid: Zero Mission. Unfortunately I can't discuss it without ruining some very cool surprises. What I will say is that when you think it's over, it's not. This is at first very cool, then very irritating, then cool all over again before you finally see the closing credits. If not for the frustration in the game's closing scenes, and for its short length, Metroid: Zero Mission might well have ended up being the best game to own on the system. As it is, it's a fantastic rental. And for Metroid enthusiasts, I dare say it's an obvious must-own. Kid Icarus must be jealous.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 14, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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