While I was on holiday, I spent some of my free time playing on my 3DS. Before leaving, I spent some money on the eShop and picked up a few Virtual Console titles; Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. As I played through the latter one on the final leg of my trip, I was astounded by how well it has held up; much better than I thought back when I last played it a few years ago. While it definitely has some issues, such as no quick way to replenish energy and missiles or no in-game map, the core game is still absolutely incredible almost 30 years after its initial release in 1987.
It got me thinking; 2014 marks 8 years since the last proper game in the series; Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. For reference, this is the same time gap between Super Metroid in 1994 and the series’s triumphant return in 2002 with Metroid Fusion on the Gameboy Advance and Metroid Prime on the Gamecube. With only a couple of exceptions (Other M and Metroid Prime: Hunters), this series has been pretty much nothing but five star titles. There are really only a handful of franchises out there with the pedigree of something like Metroid. Why? Read on to find out.
Metroid invented a genre that spans generations
The term ‘Metroidvania’ is one of those expressions that has been so overused, it is all but taboo to use it when describing a video game; cast upon the same pile as terms like ‘visceral’, ‘mixed-bag’, ‘immersive’, and ‘responsive controls’. It’s really too bad as well, because it diminishes the fact that the Metroid series basically invented an entire genre of gaming.
Prior to Metroid, sidescrolling games tended to be level-based and moving from left to right. Suddenly, the whole game was a persistent world in which the player could go in any direction at any time, provided you had found the item or upgrade which allowed you to access new areas. It’s such a tried and true design choice now and can be found in everything from recent Batman games, Tomb Raider, Dark Souls, and throughout the indie scene.
Metroid rules in both 2D and 3D
Not only did this series create a genre with Metroid, but it perfected it with Super Metroid on the SNES. I’ve written about this particular game previously, and my opinion stands. With this game’s perfection of 2D environments however, one couldn’t help but wonder how it would translate into modern game design. There are not many franchises from the 8 and 16-bit era which successfully made the jump from 2D to 3D. Look at something like Castlevania; when it does 2D even now, it ends up being great (largely thanks to Metroid for its level design BTW). In 3D however, its record is less stellar. The recent Lords of Shadow is probably the best attempt to date, and it was little more than a mediocre-to-good God of War clone.
A big part of the Metroid games involve platforming and traversal, and it really is an underrated achievement that Retro Studios managed to crack that code in delivering the Metroid Prime games. Not only was the transition to 3D superb, but even Fusion broke new ground with new mechanics in a 2D space. Even the GBA retelling of the first game; Zero Mission, added backstory and stealth mechanics to the core experience.
Metroid games have superb controls…yes, on the Wii also
Metroid Prime: Corruption used all of the Wii’s motion controls perfectly. In 2007! That’s before the Motion Plus add-on, and it’s only one year into that console’s life. How many games from that system can you legitimately say that about?
What I find fascinating, and a little sad, about Corruption is how this game is all but forgotten as one of the Wii’s finest titles that implemented all of its innovations so well. Hell, Retro Studios even went back and re-released the first two Prime games with updated controls and they were great also. Obviously I want a new entry on Nintendo’s new console because I’m a big fan, but also I’d just love to see what a proper Metroid developer can do with the touchpad on the Wii U.
Every single Metroid game still looks good today
Nintendo games tend to be very nice looking, but more in the sense that they use a colorful and consistent visual style that is bursting with charm. Unlike other publishers, console manufacturers, or PC developers, they tend not to subscribe to the ‘more graphics=better graphics’ philosophy. This is certainly true of franchises such as Super Mario and Zelda; neither make you think “how did they squeeze all that into this system?”
In the case of Metroid games however, Nintendo has managed to create a number of games that really do cause you to sit back and appreciate what those systems were capable of. Super Metroid was released late in the SNES cycle, and it presents a colorful and evocative world which tells a thrilling story with virtually no dialogue. Enemies were bigger and more detailed than anything else at the time, and this game still looks incredible 20 years later.
More recently, take a look at some gameplay from Metroid Prime. Not only does it still look crisp and beautiful, but the visual touches Retro Studios added to the HUD still hold up over a decade later. I’m talking about steam from geysers, droplets of water, frost, and of course Samus’s reflection when a nearby explosion causes a lens flare. I can’t think of a game since that has pulled off that kind of visual creativity, even taking into account the technological advances we’ve seen over the past decade.
Considering how revolutionary the Metroid series is, it’s curious that it’s never been the monster success of something like Zelda or Mario. It’s always sold well to be sure, but nowhere near on the scale of Nintendo’s other flagship franchises. Then again, the hipster instinct in me kind of likes the fact that this series remains somewhat niche. If you’ve never played a game from this series, I highly recommend that you try it out. You’ve been missing out on something truly special.