"It is the start of one of the most cherished franchises, one that spawned sequels many consider to be among the best games of all time. It's ending surprised everyone, becoming one of the most iconic moments in gaming history. It is ingrained into our collective consciousness, an experience anyone who plays games knows about. And it's a bad game. Yes, you heard me. The original Metroid was nearly unplayable thanks to some poor decisions, limitations in the hardware, and simply awful design ..."
It is the start of one of the most cherished franchises, one that spawned sequels many consider to be among the best games of all time. It's ending surprised everyone, becoming one of the most iconic moments in gaming history. It is ingrained into our collective consciousness, an experience anyone who plays games knows about. And it's a bad game. Yes, you heard me. The original Metroid was nearly unplayable thanks to some poor decisions, limitations in the hardware, and simply awful design flaws. And yet, for those of us who grew up with the NES, we can't escape our happy memories of the game. Who can forget the music, the levels, the boss fights, the Justin Bailey code? And sadly, the only way we had to reexperience these moments was to slog through the game again, reliving all those awful aspects that our rose-covered glasses made us conveniently forget. So then why not give the game a compete makeover? Why not keep the parts of Metroid we love while substituting in Super Metroid for the parts that were not so loved? Such is the philosophy behind Metroid Zero Mission.
From the moment you step off that ladder in Brinstar, it'll hit you. This is Metroid. The classic music, the classic moves, the classic enemies, the classic gameplay. All of those nostalgic moments will come rushing back as you once again search through the caves of Brinstar, starting as a weak little bounty hunter and ending up a powerhouse. You must discover your own path, find the secrets on your own. The brilliant exploratory gameplay comes alive, as you rediscover all those areas you loved in the original. Climb that towering vertical passage to find your long beam. Freeze enemies to access new areas. Take a wrong turn, but be rewarded with an extra missile expansion for your efforts. Come to a seemingly dead end, and suddenly realize how to get past it a half-hour later. Slowly fill in your map. If you can't picture your first few seconds of playing the game in your head already or recall some of the classic secrets, perhaps this game isn't for you. As a remake, it relies heavily on reproducing the experience of the original (as well as the more modern Super Metroid). And since the latter game is so brilliant and the earlier one deserves to be, experiencing the Metroid thrill once again is just too tempting to pass up.
But fortunately, not all of the Metroid moments have been brought over, as all of the old flaws have been eliminated. Saving instead of passwords? Check. Having a map so you can actually see where you are and where you've been? Check. Varied level design instead of the same bloody room over and over? Checkity check. Actually making picking up missiles useful by not allowing Kraid and Ridley to give you a gazillion of them when you beat them? Check. Graphics and animation befitting the atmosphere? Yep. Giving Samus maneuverability so we don't have cheap difficulty? Check. Lava, quicksand, and the like a dangerous obstacle, but not the extraordinarily frustrating experience like the original? Check. No more starting at 30 health and spending forever killing weak enemies to fill it back up? A very thankful check. In other words, there's no more reason you should even be tempted to play that broken and inconsistent game. Everything I hated has been removed, replaced by everything that made Super Metroid great.
But forcing Super Metroid into the original isn't exactly an easy task. When fitting newer gameplay mechanics on a 20 year old game, you're going to end up sacrificing something. And it's even worse when you miss the point, putting the elements in the right place but failing to see the big picture. Sadly, I think that's what happened here. It's Metroid, yes, but not the pristine Metroid gameplay I'm used to. The exploration elements, so critical to this series, just were not planned well at all.
Take, for example, the second quarter or so of the game. You've got the basics down, now it's time for a stream of upgrades to catch. So you go to Norfair, get a new item, and then return to Brinstar. Grab a new item, go back to Norfair. Then back to Brinstar. Then Norfair. Sound tedious? Sadly, it is. People complain about backtracking in Metroid games, but when done right they're part of the game's brilliance. Take Metroid Prime for example. There, the game was mostly linear until you got the boost ball, after which you are required to backtrack to the beginning of the game. It's not a chore though, because all those new powerups you got in between can lead you to new secrets and new paths. Thus, backtracking makes the old areas seem new again. It's fun. Here, you're backtracking so often that there's no time for seeing the paths in a completely new light. At best, there's maybe one new missile expansion you can get, which hardly seems worthwhile. Instead, you're simply climbing the same tower yet again, fighting the same enemies, just to reach one small new path. This is something that clearly should have been thought out better, as it makes this quarter of the game drag on. I realize Nintendo was trying to work within the confines of the original game, but this part absolutely necessitated increasing the size of one of the areas. Would it have hurt to expand Norfair, perhaps adding in rooms from Super Metroid? Would it be a crime to add another elevator between the two? It won't make you turn off the game in frustration or boredom, but it sure drags on at times.
That's not the only part of the exploration aspect that's messed up. See, you get the power bombs near the end of the game, much like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime. And, again like these two classics, you can increase the number you can carry by finding upgrades. However, unlike the two classics, the power bombs are completely and utterly useless. They are ineffective against the one boss that's left, there's no enemies left that make them useful, and the number of doors that require the powerbomb to open are few and far between. Meaning there's no point to getting them, other than to increase your percentage at the end. Are you seeing why the other two games are classics and this one isn't? In fact, a good portion of the items you collect aren't actually available until the very end of the game, meaning they can be used on only one boss. Do you really feel the need to stock up on energy tanks and missiles when there's only one battle left and it's fairly easy anyway? Do you feel like running through the entire map again when you're five minutes away from beating the game? Thus, these extra items become worthless, meaning nothing more than extra items to jack up your percentage and make the game seem longer. The usefulness of the items you collect is part of what separates Metroid from boring collect-a-thon games, and the fact that this game fails in that respects is almost criminal.
And then there's the hints. C'mon Nintendo, is that really necessary? Sure, they were mostly optional after the first few, but that's besides the point (besides, I always ended up getting them by accident - you can never be sure they're not switches or items or something). We already got a map and fairly obvious obstacles; that's all we need. The joy of Metroid comes in roaming around, trying to find any secret or new passage that will move you forward. That's how you find powerups - by looking around. That's how you get delight in a game that's fairly easy - by finding a new path on your own. By pointing out the general direction, that thrill is diminished. You didn't discover the way on your own, Nintendo held your hand. Thus, you never feel completely isolated and alone in this game, a feeling the Metroid series depends on. Instead, you're just going through the motions, advancing mindlessly. OK, so it's not THAT bad, but such hints need to be abolished (at least Retro gave us the option of turning them off completely in Prime). So if you haven't played the game yet, a word of advice: do not sit in the hands of Chozo statues if you can avoid it. Your experience will be much more worthwhile.
Meanwhile, there's also the length issue that needs to be addressed. Everyone complained that this game is too short, but they're kinda missing the point. Yeah, the game's short, but so are the rest of the Metroid games. Do not feel ripped off that the game will only take 4-6 hours to play through; that's as it should be. Instead, the joy of Metroid comes from playing and replaying and replaying yet again, whether it be to go for a low percentage run, 100% run, or speedrun. A massive 10-20 hour game would merely drag on, becoming more and more tedious due to the expansiveness and lack of reward for powerups. Instead, the issue is one of size, not length. The game just feels so small, even with the extra area tacked on at the end. You see it in the underutilized powerbombs or the tedious backtracking. There's just not enough room to effectively utilize all these cool new things you pick up, making them seem irrelevant. Heck, the game tries to hide it by not activating some of the items you get until the end of the game, but that just makes it even more sad. The game definitely could have used an extra section, maybe by actually incorporating the last section into the rest of the game rather than using it as a cheap tack on. Or maybe they should have bit the bullet and not hidden 100 items. Either way, the game could have used more space. This wouldn't require making the game any longer timewise, but it would have made the time more enjoyable.
When I look back at the game, about the only thing positive I can really say for it is that it's a Metroid game. On the flip side though, that's a really strong positive. It's a testament to how brilliant the Metroid style gameplay is that Nintendo can mess up the exploration side of things yet still make the game fun. The overwhelming sense of nostalgia you feel running through Brinstar (assuming you still remember the old games), the thrill of finding a new piece of equipment (even if we found it before in three other games), and the apprehension when you finaly reach Tourian are all there. Unfortunately, the uselessness of most of the collecting, the poorly planned backtracking, and the blatant hinting are there as well. I could spend hours pointing out how the exploration aspects could be improved, but I could also spend hours playing and replaying the game instead. And it's certainly a heckuva lot better than the original. So in the end, I'd have to say it was worth the purchase, just not an instant classic like some of its brethren. Here's hoping Nintendo can make a spectacular 2D Metroid next time, instead of one that is merely competent.
Community review by mariner (May 24, 2006)
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