"There are certain gaming franchises that are legendary. The Mario games. The Final Fantasy games. The Zelda games. One such legendary series is the Metroid saga. Telling the tale of bounty hunter Samus Aran, the games formed an epic plot, as Samus battled the evil Metroids, sinister space pirates, and various creepy aliens. What is surprising about the success of the series, though, is that, up until late last year, there were only three games produced, the last of which appeared on the SNES nea..."
There are certain gaming franchises that are legendary. The Mario games. The Final Fantasy games. The Zelda games. One such legendary series is the Metroid saga. Telling the tale of bounty hunter Samus Aran, the games formed an epic plot, as Samus battled the evil Metroids, sinister space pirates, and various creepy aliens. What is surprising about the success of the series, though, is that, up until late last year, there were only three games produced, the last of which appeared on the SNES nearly a decade ago, and yet the saga remained one of gaming's highest regarded. And now it's back with not one, but two new entries - the forthcoming Metroid Prime on the Gamecube, and Metroid Fusion on the Game Boy Advance.
After the events of Super Metroid, the Metroid race is extinct. With the dominant race gone, planet SR388 is undergoing evolutionary upheaval. Keen on observing this process the Galactic Federation hires out the Biologic Space Labs research facility - a vast space station containing several unique ecosystems, and hire Samus as an advisor, her experience of the planet being more extensive than anyone else's. All is going swimmingly until, on a trip to the planet's surface, Samus is attacked by a parasitic life form known as X. It seems as if the Metroid were the natural predators of the X, and with the Metroid gone, the X have become dominant. Falling into a coma, Samus is swept away to the Federation HQ, where she is infused with Metroid DNA in order to beat the infection ravaging her and her biosuit. However, as she recovers from this undeniably stressful turn of events, she is on her way back to the facility - the X have invaded, and wiped out all human life on board. But Samus is not alone on the station. A sinister, yet familiar, figure stalks the shadows... watching..... waiting to strike....
You could be forgiven for wondering just how the saga could continue following the apparent demise of it's titular species, but Metroid Fusion's plot handles that admirably - both introducing a new foe for Samus to battle, and continuing the plot in a logical way. In many respects the events on the research facility are Samus' fault - if it hadn't been for her the Metroid race would still be around, and the X would have remained oppressed. This is a nice touch, as it shows Samus becoming more and more central to the proceedings - she is no longer just your average hero, on hand to dispatch the bad guys, but never truly involved. This game will also do very little to dispel the comparisons between the Metroid story and the Alien movies - the fourth instalment of both sees the main female lead become, in part, a member of the species she fights. This isn't a criticism - quite the opposite - as deliberate or not, it makes for a nice touch. The plot does start to lag a little as the game goes on - after a plot heavy start, the game descends into a simple case of travel here, fight this, repeat and repeat again, although the plot thickens up again as the game hurtles towards it's finale. Ultimately the plot manages to maintain the Metroid 'feel' quite admirably, which is something that the game on occasion fails to do.
One of the more distinctive aspects of past Metroid games was the way in which the player was very rarely told where to go - instead you just explored and figured it out on your own. It was certainly quite challenging, and it was very popular, but despite this, Nintendo have seemingly decided that it was a bad idea, and as such, Fusion is a far more linear affair. Fusion still contains a great deal of exploration - playing in a very similar way to the recent GBA Castlevania titles, this game sees you running, jumping and shooting your way around vast areas, trying to gain new abilities in order to progress further - but there is a strong feeling that the developers are holding your hand the whole way through the game. New to the series with this instalment is 'Adam' the computer. Every time you complete an objective, you must report direct to Adam at the nearest computer terminal (found in 'Navigation Rooms' across the facility), and he will tell you where to go next, and even helpfully point it out on a map for you. This has the effect of making the game seem far more linear than it perhaps is - while Adam tells you where you should go, there's still time to backtrack to older areas to see if any new abilities you've gained (such as more powerful weapons, speed boosts or better jumping abilities) can grant you access to new, hidden, areas, meaning that the game can be more freeform if you wish, although on occasion the game develops an infuriating tendency to block off areas you want to explore by locking doors that previously were open (and will no doubt be open again when you're done with the task in hand). While many gamers may welcome this more controlled style of play, it does reduce the challenge somewhat, and may well reduce the appeal to Metroid veterans ever so slightly.
So it may be far more linear than before, but that doesn't mean that it's a poor game - it's not. In fact, it's all very atmospheric, especially in encounters with your stalker. You hear an explosion. The screen pans up slightly. You see your nemesis is walking along the platform above your head. Does it know you're there.....? For a GBA game this is actually very tense at times. Granted it can't create the suspense and tension of games such as Silent Hill (due in part to the fact that you need to play in a well-lit room to see the thing), but it's still a very noble effort.
The game also does away energy pellets and ammo refills - instead, defeating an enemy results in it degenerating to it's most primitive form: a pure blob of parasitic X goop. Samus' newly Metroid-ed up body can absorb this and recharge, but in a nice twist, failing to grab the X quickly results in it flying away and reforming, becoming a monster again. There are also a few nice twists on this formula. For example, when you first meet raw X that has been dosed with an ice element, you can only run from it - contact will freeze you. However, once your suit has been upgraded to survive extreme temperatures the ice X fly away from you, as now contact replenishes a significant amount of your health. This use of the nature of the X is a very nice touch, as it raises the status of your foe slightly above that of the generic aliens that most games of the genre would throw at you - again making the game see more atmospheric.
The level design is also superb. Hidden areas and paths are often hidden very well (at the end of the game you are given a percentage of the hidden power-ups and such you found. You'll more than likely be amazed that you missed so much), and just pottering around the station trying to find them can be great fun, and uncovering a new hidden area never fails to be satisfying. In addition, the multi-ecosystem nature of the facility means that there is far more variety in terms of the areas of play you'll encounter than the space station setting would suggest. During the course of the game you'll have to navigate deep pools of water, climb over lakes of lava, confront freezing temperatures and tropical jungles, and crawl around in the very guts of the station. Although once you have the relevant ability upgrades all areas essentially play the same, the fact that there is such a wealth of different environments on offer shows imagination on the part of the developers, and makes the adventure feel more epic (very welcome, since the game clocks in at a disappointing four to five hour length).
My main gripe with the game isn't that it's more linear than before (perhaps a little too linear), or that it's really quite short, but that the controls can be extremely annoying at times. While most of the abilities translate well onto the GBA, the jumping gave me a great deal of trouble. Not only is the Space Jump manoeuvre about as easy to control as a cat in heat, just the standard jump can be a nightmare at times - specifically when trying to jump off of a ladder and on to a nearby platform. On more than half the occasions that the game required this manoeuvre I found myself merely dropping off the ladder and having to backtrack a little, only to fail most spectacularly to perform the move I wanted at exactly the same point yet again. Frustrating at the best of times, but when this occurs during one of the sections in the game where you are racing against the clock, this becomes a serious flaw - I shocked even myself at some of the language I came out with on occasion during these moments (so this is probably not the best of games to play on the train - you may get one or two funny looks).
The presentation really does bring out the best of the GBA. While some of the character models may look quite small and thin, they move with an amazing fluidity - indeed the whole game runs incredibly smoothly. The environments, too, all look rather lovely - the different areas all look the part - my personal favourite being the sections set deep in the heart of the station, when Samus must crawl through various tunnels, and navigate the inner chambers of the facility in order to find the cause of a power failure. Here the scenery is top notch - the harsh metal look of the area forms a nice contrast to the 'cleaner' look of other areas, and this really creates the sense that you have travelled beneath the veneer of the station and into the more raw areas. Again, this makes it all seem rich in atmosphere. The only thing I can really moan about in terms of the graphics is the fact that when the alarm goes off and the red warning light starts pulsing on the screen it can become quite difficult to see what is going on - leading to one or two frustrating instances of Samus/enemy collision.
The music is also quite memorable. At times very dark and broody, it makes the BSL facility seem quite imposing and claustrophobic, and it is no exaggeration to say that the music in the game single-handedly cranks the tension up a few notches. There is even a rather shibby little feature whereby you can choose whether you are listening to the music through the GBA's speaker, or through your own headphones - the sound will be adjusted accordingly to ensure that the best result is always produced. Yay!
Metroid Fusion is not a bad game at all. It's very well designed, it oozes atmosphere like pus from a wound, and it's packed to the rafters with that patented Nintendo magic. However, the controls can be very frustrating at times, and the linear nature of the game makes it quite a short journey for Samus this time round - no doubt a disappointment for Metroid fans who've waited since 1994 for this game. Still, while it may be lacking compared to other Metroid titles, it still manages to be one of the better GBA games on the market, and rumours of unlockable extras when hooked up with the Gamecube's Metroid Prime sound enticing (I'll have to wait 'til the UK release of Prime in March to test this out), and add to the value of the game. So if you don't go in to the game expecting to spend many hours just exploring the facility, then you'll find plenty to enjoy here. Not what many hoped for, and not what many expected, but still a good game in it's own right.
Community review by tomclark (March 07, 2004)
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