Games Meet Metal: GAMES THAT ARE METAL: Looking back at Metroid: Zero Mission

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Monday, December 6, 2010

GAMES THAT ARE METAL: Looking back at Metroid: Zero Mission

When the September issue of Retro Gamer (an excellent UK mag for the retro-inclined) ran an article on Metroid: Zero Mission, praising it to high heaven, it got me thinking about the title. I first played Zero Mission shortly after its release and I remember that the game went quick. In those days my Metroid skills were primed from multiple play-throughs of Super Metroid, Metroid Prime and the original NES game. Zero Mission struck me as a streamlined, “my first Metroid” kind of experience. The only thing that really threw me for a loop was the stealth section at the end.

The majority of the game is a modernized summation of the original NES Metroid. But the story continues! Samus escapes planet Zebes and after being shot down and losing her gear, she is forced to infiltrate a Space Pirate ship to retrieve her suit. You go from being a powered-up badass, to a speedy, but vulnerable vixen.

My original experience with this addition was pure frustration. In 2004 tacking on a stealth element was a played-out misstep, one that I couldn’t believe a Metroid game was making. The design choices left me dumbfounded. Why would Zero Mission take a series built on exploration, and player expression, and make its conclusion a linear battle of trial and error?

My recent romp through Zero Mission led to a reconsideration of my condemnation. The first chunk of the game didn’t turn Metroid into a ‘baby game,’ it streamlined it in a way that was both faithful to its roots, and forward thinking. The level design was so thought-out that an experienced Metroid player would naturally make speed-run-like decisions. Backtracking for items is an option, not a requirement, and the wall-jump is available from the beginning allowing for sequence breaking. Furthermore, the game requires the amount of player-precision that one would expect from the platforming and battles in a Metroid title.

When I came upon the Zero Suit stealth section I was ready to hate it. I was immediately spotted by space pirates, but rather than resigning to death, I booked it. Flying through the space pirate ship with a crowd of enemies amassing behind me, the section became a thrilling chase rather than a frustrating mess. Samus was vulnerable, but remained a badass. And when her fully-powered-up suit was retrieved the space pirate slaughter was all the sweeter.

My original ‘meh’ reaction toward Zero Mission was influenced by my personal definition of a Metroid game. I had played the series to death, and frankly, I was probably sick of it. Things played out differently this time. What previously seemed like linearity, struck me as clever design, and a tacked-on exercise in frustration became an exciting chase. With my mind in a different place, I found an appreciation for what could be the last great 2D Metroid.

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