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Looking back at Metroid: Approaching Planet Zebes by gunship

Friday, August 20, 2010

On August 31st, the latest game in the venerable Metroid series will see release here in the states. To celebrate the arrival of Metroid: Other M, N-Sider will be counting down these final days by looking back at this exceptional series.



Metroid's roots run deep into the early days of video game history, so let's kick things off with a look at the series' origins as well as how Nintendo chose to update the first game in order to bring it to modern audiences.

Twenty-four years ago, on August 6th, 1986, Metroid was born on the Famicom Disk System in Japan. A year later, it was brought to American shores for the NES. These were the early days of the video game industry. Entire genres well established today were still being invented. Most games were simple, linear affairs, divided up into clearly defined levels. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid were among the earliest console games to break from this mold and birth the action adventure genre, presenting gamers with sprawling worlds and no obvious path to a goal.

During these trail-blazing days, Metroid set down many elements destined to become staples for the series. It introduced players to a labyrinthine environment loaded with secrets. There was a sense of solitude and self-reliant determination in playing the lonely hero, who started off as a rather fragile individual and gradually gained immense power by finding well-hidden upgrades. Metroid filled its world with all manner of bizarre creatures, but rather than simply being enemies, some could be turned into stepping stones if frozen by the ice beam. It was a treasure trove of creative game conventions, but like so many early game experiments, it was rough in the execution.

Limited by the hardware of the day, it was easy to get lost in Metroid's game world. Endless rooms and corridors sported identical tile sets that blended together in memory and there was no map. Environmental hazards and numerous enemies made death an eminent concern right from the start. Samus could not crouch and could only shoot left, right, and up and her somewhat floaty jumping (along with numerous aerial enemies) could lead to quite a few missed jumps. All of these aspects made Metroid a frustrating, even intimidating experience.



Despite this being my favorite series, I have never gotten very far into the original. When I first rented it long ago, my tastes were too narrow to really appreciate such a sprawling game. Now, when I try to go back, Metroid's primitive nature prevents me from really getting into it. Truly, this is one for the genuine lover of retro gaming.

Still, it was regrettable that I found the first game of my favorite series all but unapproachable; so, I was thrilled by the announcement of a remake to be released on the Game Boy Advance. Simply updating the graphics and adding a map would have gone a long way towards making the game playable for me, but what Nintendo ultimately did was above and beyond my expectations.

This new version of the game was titled Metroid: Zero Mission, and it set the high bar for how to remake an old game. Zero Mission took the structure of the original and started from scratch, rebuilding it from the ground up.



Zebes is the alien planet the first game took place on, and the Zebes of Zero Mission was an eerily lovely place, with natural-looking stone and organic structures replacing the original game's simple tiles. The classic bosses Kraid and Ridley were updated to reflect their Super Metroid incarnations and a slew of new mini-bosses joined them. Most famously, the game itself was extended such that, where the original game ended with the destruction of the Mother Brain, Zero Mission continued with an armorless Samus stealthily exploring the Space Pirate mothership. However, it was the catalog of new abilities added to the old that brought about the greatest changes.

The original Metroid introduced gamers to series staples such as the Morph Ball, Ice Beam, and Screw Attack. Zero Mission added power-ups and abilities that came later, such as the Speed Booster (and its shine sparking capabilities), wall jumping, and advanced bomb jumping, along with new elements like the Morph Ball launchers. These new elements, however, would have been superfluous if the game wasn't also redesigned around them. In regards to this, it really can not be overstated how elegantly Zero Mission integrates Samus' powers into the way the game world works.



When played in a straightforward manner, Zero Mission's progression could be very linear. However, the Metroid series is also famous for players taking advantage of the interconnectedness of the game world to sequence break. That is, if you have the skills, it's possible to gain access to items and areas before you are supposed to. Zero Mission was actually designed with sequence-breaking in mind and was loaded with shortcuts for those who work at gaining the skills to exploit them. I urge my readers to head over to YouTube sometime and watch videos of speed runs that can only be described as poetry in motion. Watching a highly skilled player also makes obvious the brilliantly intricate design of the game world, with its innumerable secret expressways for those players who know how to make a shinespark last.

Metroid's design wasn't the only aspect of the game that saw a significant update in Zero Mission; the story was also rewritten. The game's design was influenced by the movie Alien, with the story setting up a simple plot that gave the player an excuse to run through strange environments blasting equally strange creatures. Since that time, Metroid grew from a stand-alone game into a fully matured series, with hero Samus Aran steadily gaining a back story. Through the strategic addition of brief cutscenes, Zero Mission inserted glimpses of her past into the original game's basic pirate-hunting storyline.



The original Metroid was a foundation game for the adventure genre and captivated a generation of early gamers with its open environment and science fiction themes. Zero Mission took that original work and recreated it so that new and old gamers alike could better enjoy the origins of a classic series. Every Metroid that has since followed has both built upon its establishing formula and boldly experimented with new elements of game design.

With that exploratory spirit in mind, join me next time as I analyze a trio of Metroid games that weren't shy about breaking new ground.