I’m still not sold on Metroid: Other M. First of all the title is stupid. Second of all, the marketing blitz surrounding the game (such as it is) is heavy on showing us clips from cutscenes rather than actual gameplay. Which is like… who plays Metroid for the cutscenes? Does anyone care about the tortured brooding past from which Samus Aran draws her motivation? I mean besides the creatures at fanfiction.net.
When you start thinking seriously about the Metroid series your brain tries to stack each one up alongside some nebulous “Metroid formula”. You plug in the variables and if they don’t add up it’s easy to make two neat little piles labeled “good Metroid” and “bad Metroid”. This is an illusion, though; there is no “Metroid formula” and there never has been. The series as it stands has one breathtakingly stellar game at the peak, and the slopes on either side. On the run-up you have the series learning its lessons, refining its tricks and laying its groundwork. And on the downhill you have sequels scrambling to catch up, or attempting to reinvent themselves.
I may or may not play Other M. I’m still undecided. I thought I’d take some time out, though, to organize my thoughts on the series and what it’s really meant to me over the years. After all, can you really call yourself a fan of a series if you’ve disliked more of its entries than you’ve enjoyed?
There are two things you need to understand about the original Metroid. First of all, it’s a highly experimental game. There was no other platformer quite like it back when it came out — even its “sister game” Kid Icarus is a different animal entirely. Exploring the map was the point of the game, you see, and if you couldn’t wrap your head around it than Metroid wasn’t for you.
The second thing is that the game pretty much sucks. It sucked enough if you tried to play it when it was new. It definitely sucks if you try to play it now, in 2010.
The game most similar to Metroid, back when I was playing it as a kid, was The Legend of Zelda. In each game you would walk into a new room and see a dead end. But you know there’s really no such thing as a dead end, so you start systematically looking for the hidden door. In Zelda this meant setting fire to every tree on the screen, then moving to the next screen and starting over. In Metroid this meant rolling up into a ball and placing a bomb every sixteen pixels to see if a passageway opened up. The difference between the two experiences is that in Zelda you are relatively safe, and there are easily accessible faeries to refill your life if the monsters get too thick for you. In Metroid you are always under attack, and the only way to recharge is to farm critters.
When you start the game you do so at only a fraction of your health. Every time you turned on Zelda, you took a few seconds and went to the faerie. Every time you turned on Metroid you spent ten minutes killing bugs for purple pills. I’d be lying if I said that spending your first ten minutes with a game being bored can’t unfairly color your perception of it.
Metroid II: Return of Samus
Pretty completely terrible. Pretty much all the problems of the original game are still here, plus a few new ones to spice up the pot. There are save and recharge stations now, so farming purple pills is less of an issue, but in its place are gigantic multi-screen rooms you don’t explore so much as… poke. Metroid was all hallways and shafts; if you bombed the floors in the hallways and the walls in the shafts, you knew you’d checked everything. Metroid II has huge, empty, featureless rooms, which meant screens and screens of bombing and checking everywhere. Plus it was on Game Boy, so you didn’t even have differently-colored tiles to keep the areas from looking exactly the same.
Then you had the spider ball, a special item that allowed Samus to stick to walls and ceilings. This was a fantastic idea on the design table, but made for a truly horrid gameplay experience. The spider ball was slow, see, and getting hit dropped you out of it. But because this is Metroid you couldn’t afford to not explore every single nook and cranny along every single enormous ceiling of every single featureless, cavernous room. So you’d spend three minutes spiderballing three screens up and two screens over — then you’d get hit by a bee or a crab and have to spend three more minutes spiderballing back from the opposite direction.
Oh, and the map overlapped. You could draw the original Metroid up on graph paper, if you were so inclined, and see just how the world fit together. Metroid II had areas of the world that should have occupied the same physical space, but didn’t. So if you weren’t using a pre-drawn map it was easy to convince yourself you’d made a mistake when you hadn’t, and since every room looked exactly the same it was nearly impossible to go back and check your work. I bet a lot of players wasted a lot of time on that.
This game is perfect. It solved all the exploration problems of Metroid by giving you an in-game map screen and by coming up with an ingenious set of block symbols to delineate how Samus’s weapons could interact with the world. There were still areas you had to be systematic with your searching, but you now had tools that could check the game world a screen at a time rather than a block at a time, and since the map was so comprehensive you could usually make educated guesses about where the secret paths would be — and be right.
It solved all the exploration problems of Metroid II by not having a spider ball.
It’s no mystery that I hold this game up as some kind of platonic ideal of what a freeform platformer should be, and I’m not alone. Super Metroid is magic not just in its gameplay, but also in its animation, its background ambiance, and the quality of its storytelling. There had never been a game like it, and there have been precious few since.
I was one of those people who really wanted to hate Metroid Prime. There was just no way to shoehorn the majesty of Super Metroid into a goddamn Doom-clone, you know? Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion were due to be released right at the same time, and it wasn’t uncommon in those days to see hardcore Super fans salivating over the upcoming 2d entry while ready to dump on the FPS.
Joke was on us. The FPS was better.
I was pretty amazed at how well they managed to translate Super‘s sense of exploring a hostile alien world into 3d. I spent a lot of time studying my in-game map, looking at how rooms were connected, or might be connected. And, just like in Super, my guesses were quite often correct. When they weren’t enough, my path forward was carved by careful use of my bombs and my visors. The actual experience of taking the game apart was very, very similar to my beloved Super… probably closer than any other game in the series.
It has something Super didn’t, though: high-octane action sequences. I tend to be bad at FPSes, and Metroid Prime was no exception. I only very narrowly won the game on its hardest difficulty, and only after a great many deaths. Exploring a world is something that is done at one’s own pace, and the controls of a game tend not to get in your way much as you’re doing it. Fighting monsters, on the other hand, is rooted firmly in reaction and reflex, and I never quite felt I had a good handle on how I was supposed to go about it in Prime. Now I know better than to play FPSes on the hard setting, of course, but I was pretty resentful of Prime for a while because of my own shortcoming.
This game was supposed to be everything great about Super, but better. Instead, it was everything great about Super, but way way worse. It’s easy to look at every single aspect of Fusion and describe it as “Super, except it sucks now.” And while you’d be totally correct if you did that, you still wouldn’t arrive at the real heart of the game’s issues. Fusion isn’t just bad at being Metroid, see; it’s bad at being a freeform platformer, period.
It just gets everything wrong. Upon entering Area D, Areas A, B and C become instantly and irretrievably closed off to you. A computer natters at you to collect items not for their own sake, but because it promises to re-open the unlocked doors once you’re done. The game doesn’t let you experiment, doesn’t let you try things. You’re only allowed to go off the rails once, and only when the plot dictates. Indeed, when the time comes, there’s no choice but to go off the rails. All other options are removed except the one way forward.
I could spend all night articulating how intensely I dislike this game. Playing it, you get the sense that the creators really couldn’t decide if they should try to stay true to the series’s roots, or let it branch off and do its own thing. Either of those options would have been fine, but since Fusion doesn’t successfully do either one you’re left with this kind of awkward, ill-fitting frankengame.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
Whatever force allowed Fusion to take everything wonderful about Super and warp it into something twisted and ugly was very strongly at work in Prime 2. If the first Prime could be described as a Metroid game with FPS controls, Prime 2 could be described as an FPS with slight Metroid trappings.
The best fun to be had in Prime was exploring the world and examining how it fit together. Prime 2 introduced two amazingly bad game mechanics that prevent you from doing that. First, Samus’s guns now use up ammo. So if you’re bad at aiming (like I am) you will burn through your powerful guns and be forced to fall back on your weak little pea shooter. Even if you don’t burn through your reserves, the counter is always onscreen, threatening you. Do you need to conserve resources? Are there more crates in the next room? Should you play it safe? You can never be sure. Whether the threat of running out is real or imagined, it’s there, and it’s stressful.
Second, half the game world naturally drains Samus’s life. It’s supposed to do that, too; there’s nothing you can do but slog through it. No time to explore each room, no time to consider the pieces of the game world. No time to do any of the fun things from the first Prime. You run from checkpoint to checkpoint watching your health like a hawk and praying for ammo crates.
You know, just like Doom. I hated Doom.
Metroid: Zero Mission
This was a tentative remake of the original game, but it’s obvious it was trying to be more similar to Super than Metroid. The best way to describe Zero Mission is: they tried to make up for the sins of Fusion by making a game as similar to Super as they knew how, without really knowing what made Super so brilliant. The result was a great game, don’t get me wrong… certainly one of the best in the series. You can see where the cracks are, though, if you look for them. And any Super fanboy worth his salt is going to look for them.
My biggest beef with Zero Mission is that it resists attempts to replay it by having a long, boring, way-too-difficult stealth section smack dab in the middle of it. Playing the Zero Suit segment of the game is incredibly fun, but only the first time you do it. On replays, and especially on harder difficulties, you’re just going through the motions. You can’t find anything new in this part of the game, and there’s only one way to play through it, so you either push through to the other side of it or you get bored and quit.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
Hmm… haven’t I blogged about this game in detail already? Why yes I have. The condensed version is that Prime 3 has a lot of what I loved about Prime 1, but you have to play through a huge length of Prime 2-flavored bullshit to get to it. The game tries too hard to be Halo and not quite hard enough to be Metroid Prime, in other words. I only started enjoying this game after I got to the point where I had enough life to play it recklessly, which doesn’t say much for its balance or its design.
So of the entire Metroid series, I’d say I’ve only really, truly, unreservedly enjoyed three of the entries. Just going by sheer statistics, Other M is more likely to irritate me than not. I’m going to really have to scrutinize the reviews on this one, especially considering this is already going to be one of the more expensive gaming seasons in recent memory.
Everyone brushes my concerns off with, “Oh, he just wants it to be Super Metroid again.” While I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at another Super Metroid, I know it’s not forthcoming. I like seeing my old favorites grow up and be explored in new ways, even if the directions they take bring them to strange places. The Final Fantasy game I played this year bore only a very distant, passing resemblance to the Final Fantasy I played as a kid, and that’s true with pretty much every video game series that has been around that long.
I’m not carrying a torch here. Other M doesn’t have to be Super Metroid, but it does have to be a good game. The series’s track record isn’t great in that regard, so I’m approaching it cautiously. I admit the videos look fantastic, but hey, it’s 2010. The whole game will be up on YouTube within 24 hours of street date, so if the reviews and recommendations are sour I’ll just queue a playlist and be done with it.
Then I’ll go play Super Metroid again… and maybe the first half of Zero Mission.