Metroid Fusion

Format: GameBoy Advance
Published by: Nintendo
Based on: The art of patience

Genre: 2D Platformer
Media: 32 Mb cartridge
Date: 19 November 2002

One bad M.F.

Among all nature's creations, the rabbit has the greatest reputation for fecundity. It's really quite remarkable, the way they can pop out a litter of baby bunnies in hardly any time at all and line up for more. But for all the legendary reproductive capacity of the humble lagomorph, the speed with which foul corporate entities give birth to awful videogame sequels is enough to make the friskiest stud-bunny fall into a soul-weary depression and concede defeat in the "spawning" arena. With each new Army Men or Tomb Raider or Nicktoons game or even (gulp) Megaman platformer, a little bit of the universe's innate goodness evaporates, rabbits weep, and gaming's claim to be a distinct, respectable artform becomes that much more tenuous. If not for the leavening effect of Nintendo's top franchises and those games' almost ridiculous scarcity, there's no telling how dire the situation would be. Fortunately, with a slow trickle of Zelda and Mario games dribbling our way every five years or so, we're guaranteed that at least one publisher out there is taking the time to exercise some QA and make their games count [ 1 ].

With the Metroid series, Nintendo's famously sluggish release pattern operates on a glacial level - literally. New Metroid chapters appear approximately once every ice age. And apparently the global climate has just suffered a massive, catastrophic shift, as Nintendo has released not one but two Metroid games. You'd think CNN would have mentioned the fact that the earth has been blasted out of its orbit by an extraterrestrial collision a million times more potent than Tunguska, but I guess they've been busy lately, trying to make the prospect of invading Iraq seem exciting after three months of the same political chest-beating and all.

It's given that the world will soon freeze over, icebergs will advance south to Mexico, humanity will become extinct and manatees will replace us as the dominant species, so you might as well pick up both of these games and make the most of your last weeks on earth. The most prominent of this newborn pair of Metroid adventures is Metroid Prime for GameCube, which initially had all the earmarks of "most violent desecration of a franchise ever" but dodged that persistent bullet by going to the trouble of reinventing an entire genre just for the sake of making a kicky Metroid experience. Yet despite being one of the most beautiful, sophisticated and carefully-crafted games ever devised, Prime is a mere side-story to the Metroid series. The true sequel is a GameBoy Advance adventure called Metroid Fusion (its title being a nod to the fact that this chapter steals plot gimmicks from the Alien movies even more blatantly than usual). Prime is a magnificent effort to reproduce Super Metroid's gameplay with cutting-edge technology, but Fusion is a different creature altogether: an attempt to marry contemporary game design philosophy with the technology of Super Metroid. The result: two very different interpretations of the same concept.

A great deal of online criticism has been directed toward Metroid Fusion, which wasn't entirely unexpected; before he died, Uncle Ben warned Nintendo that with great anticipation comes great backlash. A lot of people wanted Super Metroid with a new map, apparently forgetting that Nintendo of all companies simply doesn't take that approach with their major franchises. Plus, eight years has made for a lot of Metroid anticipation, even with the occasional non-linear Castlevania as a pressure valve. These complaints can be ascribed largely to the fact that the Internet has robbed people of the ability to enjoy things [ 2 ]; had the web existed when Super Metroid was released, people would have been panning it for not letting you replay as Samus sans armor, for bringing back the original game's bosses even though they were obviously destroyed the first time around, for being (gasp!) more linear than the original. But in 1994 the Internet had yet to become the globe-spanning forum of mouthy teens it is today, so we just played the game, noted the changes, and loved it regardless.

Then again, Fusion's detractors seem by and large to be RPG fans, who are about as conservative and closed-minded a group of gamers as you can find without digging into those frightening, overly-zealous recesses of the Web where people cling to their Atari 2600s like life preservers. Coming from the same subset of people who hate the fact that every RPG since 1994 has failed to be Final Fantasy VI Redux, such tirades are probably best overlooked. My apologies for this generalization to those among you who dislike Fusion but don't fit the description above. It's one of those unfair guilt by association things at work, and I'm sorry for that.

If anything, the fact that people expect a portable game to be a carbon copy of one of the most matchless 16-bit console titles ever devised is a compliment to the GameBoy Advance, and a sign of how much handheld gaming has matured in the past five years. Metroid II was a tinny, grey step back from its NES predecessor; like most original GameBoy titles, it was somewhere between an NES game and a Game & Watch. Fusion, however, is a step in a different direction than its antecedent, but could hold its own on any "grown-up" console. It's a cleverly-designed, detail-oriented action/exploration adventure game - with benefits! [ 3 ]

Ultimately, of course, Metroid Fusion IS a portable game, and the overall design reflects this. Handheld systems - with their cramped controls, small screens and on-the-go playability - aren't suited to the aimless wandering that typifies the game's console-based predecessors. Metroid II reflected that fact by offering gamers a small, constrictive and honestly quite claustrophobic world. MF tries a different tactic by creating a world even larger and more varied than Super Metroid's while using a story framework to help nudge gamers in the proper direction. Though the resulting gameflow sometimes feel limited and forced in comparison to previous chapters in the series, it's actually only slightly moreso. There's always a computer telling you where to go, but most of the time you're left to your own devices to find the proper route to the goal, and you're rarely forbidden from exploring previously-covered areas for new power-ups, no matter what HAL Adam says. You'll face a few points of no return as you tackle different events, but only one is permanent. The rest of the time you're just as free to explore as in Super Metroid, and you'll find the space station you're exploring is every bit as convoluted as the labyrinthine corridors of Zebes. The space station environment gives the game a slightly different feel from the Chozo ruins of Zebes or SR388. Chozo statues have been replaced with data stations, and the previous games' natural caverns with artificial construction appended have given way to an artificial construct with natural formations tacked on. But ultimately, the entire Metroid universe is constructed of little blocks with symbols to inform you which weapons are needed to destroy them, so it's really just a cosmetic difference.

While the focus on plot is new for Metroid - previously events have been limited to prologue and epilogue bits of the games - it's not really a hindrance. If anything, it's interesting to gain a little insight into the character who for three adventures has been so anonymous that no one could even tell her gender until she stripped to her underwear. The focus on Samus and her history dovetails nicely with Prime's exploration of the history of the Chozo and Space Pirates, even if a Metroid game interrupted by regular data transmissions is a bit odd. Unflattering comparisons to Metal Gear Solid 2's painfully torpid chatter-to-gameplay ratio have been flung about the Internet like a rag doll in the mouth of an enthusiastically critical puppy, although this is such an unfounded strawman argument that I feel compelled to take such claims as a sign that the plaintiff hasn't actually played an MGS game in several years, rather than as a valid criticism of Fusion.

The regular transmissions from nefarious artificial intelligence "ADAM" do rob Fusion of the "Oh hell, where in this stupidly huge fortress am I supposed to go now?" sensation unique to the series. The lack of meandering through dozens of rooms in search of the correct hidden block to destroy in order to progress also gives Fusion a shorter playthrough time than most people experienced for Super Metroid [ 4 ]. Metroid Prime actually has a much better method of nudging players along, in the form of an in-game hint system which can be turned on or off; had Nintendo likewise made it possible to play Fusion with or without story and mission interludes, everyone probably would have been happy. Fusion's game design is intuitive and refined enough that the shifting gameplay factors would have worked every bit as well in pantomime, be it the dangerous ice-powered X viruses or the visually foreshadowed final encounters. The plot is fairly intricate, but the most complex aspects are covered in the opening cinematic, which also establishes the groundwork for the updated gameplay elements. Beyond that, the exposition is hardly needed. In fact, the in-game text takes a rather abrupt left turn into hackneyed, predictable territory, and the only reason 20th Century Fox isn't pounding on Nintendo's door with an angry court appointment is because the programmers changed the names "Weyland-Yutani" and "Cain" to "Federation" and "Adam" at the last minute.

Even so, these are not crippling issues for the game, because with the loss of freedom comes a series of benefits possible only within a structured gameplay environment. For one thing, there are constant "Holy sheboygan!"-type events to keep things interesting. These have shown up infrequently throughout the course of the series - beginning with little more than the timed escape sequence in the first game, to the earth tremors and Metroid mutations in the sequel, and finally the brilliant opening and finale for the third chapter - but in Fusion they're nearly constant. The space station environment, quite surprisingly, is actually far more dynamic than any world Samus has explored before. Explosions destroy doorways, necessitating new routes to reach goals; rampaging enemies slag entire rooms; enemies mutate and grow more powerful. The result is an environment that constantly changes and carefully builds toward stress and tension at just the right times, be it through something as simple as a change in color palettes or as dramatic as entire chunks of map vanishing. As a testament to the careful, intricate design of this game, despite the numerous alternate routes and interconnected areas and constant changes to the map, it's impossible to become stuck anywhere; every time you find yourself shut off from the rest of the world, it's because the tool or waypoint you need to find is within reach. This isn't exactly realistic, but it makes for good gameplay.

The addition of a plot enhances the game in other small ways; the most notable is the addition of an indestructible, obsessed nemesis for Samus, which stalks her throughout the station. This ultimately amounts to just a few limited encounters, but each one is intense. It's really nothing new as a gaming plot device - see also Enemy Zero, the ancient Berzerk, or even the caveman-like ur-game Hunt the Wumpus, for crying out loud - but it adds an element of anxiety which has never really been seen in this genre. The story also goes to pains to explain, for once, why Samus has to start the game as a weakling. Someone at Nintendo finally decided, "You know, it's really damn stupid that most feared bounty hunter in the galaxy starts each game with a frigging peashooter and nothing else." Which is true enough. (Prime also tries to do the same thing, but it's not nearly as convincing.) This has major repercussions on the gameplay, because Samus is genuinely weak. Returning enemies like Kihunters and War Wasps and Space Pirates can pound her into a puddle in record time... and then there are the bosses. Far more numerous and varied than the bosses in any previous title, Fusion's big foes require much more strategy and caution than those in the rest of the series combined. The first few are remarkably easy, and there are a couple toward the end which simply test how quickly you can fire missiles, but the bulk of boss encounters will pose a genuine challenge to almost all gamers. The ultimate, inevitable showdown is quite possibly the single hardest battle I've ever fought in a game of this sort. It's a rare treat to find a game which requires players to work for their victory without resorting to Megaman X6 levels of cheapness, and Fusion hits the spot.

Alas, the game deserves a rap on the knuckles for falling short of Super Metroid's excellent interface and control. The game plays largely the same as its predecessor, but the few critical differences can be a real hassle. I understand why the control keys were remapped (the GameBoy Advance is missing two of the face buttons which came in handy on the SNES), but I'm not convinced that the programmers' solution was ideal. At the very least, why was no customizable interface offered, as in Super Metroid? Holding down the R button to enable missiles is uncomfortable for me and my child-sized hands; I can only imagine the physical torment it must cause those with mitts gargantuan enough to palm a basketball. To shoot missiles downward at an angle, gamers will have to press an amazing four buttons at once (L shoulder, R shoulder, D-Pad down and B), which is a finger-fumbling cluster foul-up one would expect from a particularly ill-conceived Rare 3D platformer, not from a straightforward 2D adventure of such fine pedigree. It's especially nerve-wracking to try to manage such maneuvers while hanging from a hand ladder with gaping jaws of fiery, mechanical death grinding beneath Samus' dangling feet. This isn't the only control issue - even more grating is the fact that Samus seems to have forgotten how to jump correctly. Moving around too much as you take to the air often results in an interruption of Ms. Aran's famous spin jump and an unceremonious drop to the ground, which can be absolutely deadly in certain battles where the invincibility of the Screw Attack is the only thing keeping you from a quick and ignominious defeat. On the black side of the ledger, though, the infamously tricky wall jump maneuver is vastly easier to perform here, for which I am grateful [ 6 ]. No one likes to be reminded of their incompetence by chirpy little monkey creatures.

Despite its flaws and quirks, Metroid Fusion remains one of the best handheld games ever to roam the face of the earth - one which belongs in the same rarified ranks as Link's Awakening, Metal Gear Solid, Match of the Millennium and Harmony of Dissonance. It's a game which, I suspect, will grow to be regarded with even more admiration as the passing of time softens the sharpness of people's violated preconceptions. Especially if we have to wait another eight years for the sequel. Not that I'd complain, if such a wait gave R&D1 time to craft another equally enjoyable experience.

"Thank god for you, Nintendo," he said earnestly as he placed his hands on the company's shoulders and squeezed with heartfelt emotion. "You've always been there for me, fighting the temptation to crank out weak, effortless sequels a few times a year. I know I can count on you to give me another Metroid only when the time is right." He looked gratefully into Nintendo's eyes, oblivious to the company's discomfort beneath that trusting gaze as it recalled with guilt that it had been responsible for those overpriced, underfeatured "Mario Advance" ports to GameBoy Advance - the very ones responsible for the death of his father. "Thank god for you."

Nintendo smiled as sincerely as it could manage and clasped its friend's shoulder, all too aware that with great power comes great responsibility.

The end

The Legend of Metroid: A Link to the Movies

Spoilers? Why, yes.

With each new chapter of the Metroid series, the connections with its apparent inspiration - the Alien movies - become ever more obvious. Either that, or sci-fi is a cliché-ridden mess of contrivances and we're just pointing out inevitable rehashes of the same tired conventions. But that couldn't be the case, right?

I'll try to not insult your intelligence here by giving you one of those Wizard magazine-style charts ridden with puerile, pseudo-humorous comparisons [ 7 ]. I'm fond of believing my readership is capable of comprehending complete sentences; I apologize in advance if you're not. Or rather: ME SORRY YOU NO READ GOOD. The similarities have been well-catalogued by others, so I'm really just wasting space here, but I ask that you kindly suffer my whims. I miss my sidebars.

The original Metroid bore some cosmetic similarities to the original Alien film - it starred a single woman alone against a strange, heretofore unknown alien force capable of using people for sustenance. (Although it should be noted Samus Aran was a bit better-armed than Ellen Ripley.) The presence of an alien boss named Ridley may or may not be an underhanded nod to Alien creator Ridley Scott - if it's not, it's certainly one of the most impressive coincidences ever. And of course, both Alien and Metroid conclude with a tense, timed escape sequence after which the protagonist takes off her clothes. Largely a matter of superficial coincidences, but still worthy of note. If you're an anal-retentive twit anyway - which, of course, being video gamers, we are.

The sequel firmed up any latent suspicions people might have developed about the games' inspiration, though. Metroid II took a few pages from the page of James Cameron's Aliens - Samus, like Ridley, took a leisurely jaunt to the source of the xenomorphic infestation for the sake of committing a little genocide. Along the way, she also nuked the Metroid queen and adopted a sprog - although while Ripley bonded with an endearing girl named Newt, Samus was stuck with a chirping baby Metroid.

For chapter three, everyone's favorite bounty hunter strayed from the beaten path, probably because Nintendo wanted nothing to do with Alien3. Returning to Zebes, Samus sought to rescue the abducted baby Metroid before the resuscitated Space Pirates could do Very Terrible Things with it. Ultimately, the wee tot grew to brodingnagian proportions and saved Samus' life; this particular twist does NOT parallel anything in the Alien films. In Alien Resurrection, Ripley did in her own progeny by allowing it to be sucked painfully into space through a dime-sized hole. And Newt never even had a chance to help Ripley, since David Fincher hates happiness and killed her off about 30 seconds into Alien3.

However, Metroid Fusion leaps back into the Alien knock-off fray in top form. In fact, the plot is practically a pastiche of the Alien series - similar to Ripley's alien-hybrid clone in Resurrection, Samus is given new life through a genetic upgrade via the series' eponymous nemesis, the Metroid. She's also put under the supervision of a didactic computer named Adam, which at first comes off as an unctuous carbon copy of Cain (specifically, because they're both secretly manipulating the hero while working with the powers-that-be to study and retrieve the alien/deadly X parasite for commercial or military applications) but later turns out to be sorta swell and trustworthy, like Bishop. He even pilots Samus' starship to rescue her from an incipient self-destruction after a showdown with a big, ugly Omega Metroid, more than just a bit like Bishop's last-minute rescue the end of Aliens. And incidentally, the space station in orbit about SR388? It's a Metroid breeding facility, a lot like the station in Alien Resurrection... though fortunately Fusion spares us from an equivalent of the sickening alien sex scene and the gruesome lab full of semi-sentient Xenomorph/Ripley crossbreeds, dishing out instead a straight copy of Samus in the form of SA-X. Deadlier, but a lot less stomach-churning.

Which isn't to say that the games are a carbon copy of the films - certainly Fusion's story isn't the greatest, but its dialogue is several thousand orders of magnitude more intelligent than the cornball action flick chatter in Resurrection. But I could do without the snide AI companion - sadly, Samus' new boss survives Fusion, which means he'll probably be back. I guess now we can only hope and pray that, like Call, Adam finds himself imprisoned for shoplifting before Metroid V.

[1] Which is not to say Nintendo's perfect - there's no excuse for the incessant flood of Mario Party titles, for instance. Return

[2] And sites like this have done nothing to foster this condition, of course. I'm offended you would even think such a thing. Return

[3] Provided you can beat the game in 2 hours or less. As usual. Return

[4] Although my first playthrough ended at about 6 and a half hours - roughly the same as my first Super Metroid experience, if I'm not mistaken - since I gave my monocular overlord a hearty "piss off" [ 5 ] and struck out on my own at every available opportunity. Return

[5] You don't have to follow Adam's instructions to the letter, you know. Maybe some people are just conditioned to unquestioning servitude. And to you obedient souls, I say: mail me $20.

[6] Though the game has been designed to prevent you from wall-jumping your way to inaccessible areas this time around. It's not always good for designers to pay attention to what players are doing, because sometimes they go all Big Brother on us. Return

[7] "Metroid: sucks energy - Alien Resurrection: sucks ass - Winner: Metroid! LOL@ME" Return