The Metroid ready reckoner

DoG dusts of its power armour and looks at a Nintendo sci-fi classic...

Long before a certain Miss Croft and her ridiculously oversized baps appeared on screens the world over, there was another heroine fighting the good fight for gaming girls everywhere, oh, and the fate of life as we know it too. This heroine is Samus Aran, the star of Nintendo’s long-running shooter-come-platformer-come-puzzler, Metroid.

Beginning life on the 8-bit NES, Samus’ long journey has been a twisting tale, jumping forward and backwards (as the games don’t flow in linear order, with later titles actually being prequels), and switching from side scrolling 2D to the 3D FPS action of the latest instalments.

Metroid games have won numerous awards, and the mix of exploration, epic boss fights and always huge worlds to hunt space pirates in have presented us with some of the most compelling gaming this side of the Mushroom Kingdom and Hyrule. We thought it was about time DoG took a look at this Sci-Fi gaming classic.

Metroid (NES – 1986/7)

4 stars

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This was the game that introduced the world to Samus and the eponymous Metroids – the deadly life-sapping space jellyfish. Discovered by the series’ main antagonists, the insect-like Space Pirates on planet SR-388, Metroids are feared to be the ultimate weapon, and in the hands of the tyrannical Space Pirates, the Galactic Federation believes these mysterious life forms could spell the end of civilisation.

Enter Bounty Hunter, Samus Aran, who is sent on a mission to Zebes, the Space Pirate’s planet base. Her goal? To eliminate the Space Pirate threat and ensure that the Metroids pose no danger to the rest of the galaxy (read: kill ’em all!).

The original Metroid was a game far ahead of its time, and its gameplay has been cloned many, many times since. As Samus, players started out relatively weak, but by exploring the vast game world, could acquire various power-ups and abilities, such as more powerful weapons like the Ice and Wave Beams and the now staple Morph Ball. Many areas of the world were inaccessible until Samus acquired a certain power-up, which added to the exploration element (although this sequence of events was broken by some players who managed to complete the game in a non-standard way, leading to the infamous Metroid ‘Speed Runs’, a trick that continued through to today’s releases).

The game also included boss fights against villains that would re-appear later in the series, such as Kraid, Mother Brain and the boss that just won’t die, Ridley, who has appeared in several Metroid titles.

Oddly, Samus’ gender remained secret right until the end of the game. On completion, and depending on the rank the player attained, Samus removed her armour to reveal her true self. Before this fact, most gamers simply assumed she was actually a man, or even a robot, with the manual referring to Samus in an androgynous manner.

Metroid was a fine start to the series, and as well as the innovative gameplay, it also featured a then unheard of password system, to let gamers continue the epic quest another time, as completing the game in a single sitting would take far longer than most games of the time.

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Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy – 1991/2)

Nintendo didn’t exactly hurry to release a sequel to the first Metroid, and when it did appear, it didn’t appear on the NES as many would have expected, but instead on the handheld Game Boy. Not all that surprising given the fact that the Game Boy was taking the world by storm at the time.

Taking place some time after the first game, Metroid II saw Samus sent on a mission to the Metroid’s home planet of SR-388 with the single goal of eliminating every Metroid there to safeguard the galaxy against any future threats. As expected, Samus’ mission doesn’t exactly go to plan, and it was no mere clean up task, as she not only battled the vicious life-draining Metroids she’s seen before, but this time witnessed the entire Metroid life cycle, with each evolution becoming stronger, and some resembling dinosaur-like predators. Eventually Samus killed every Metroid, including the Metroid Queen (the game’s final showdown).During her escape, however, she encountered a lone Metroid Egg, which hatched. The baby Metroid believed Samus to be its mother, and so, in the interests of science, Samus captured it and presented it to the Galactic Federation’s scientists (not a wise move really…).

Being on the Game Boy, Metroid II was presented in monochrome, but featured larger, better looking sprites than the original NES title. The task of finding and killing Metroids formed the core of the game. But, although Samus began with more abilities than before, the game still introduced new abilities that would carry over to following games, including the spider ball and the space jump.Sadly, Metroid II was far more linear that its predecessor, with more emphasis on combat than exploration, and so many criticised the relative simplicity of the progression, and the title remains the runt of the litter, so to speak.

Still, this is still a Metroid title, and although not as good as the other instalments, is still better than most other games of its ilk, with the usual high quality production values we’ve come to expect. It also introduced the standard battery backup for save games, ditching the password method of the first.

Super Metroid (SNES – 1994)

5 out of 5

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Utilising the power of the SNES, and a beefy 24 megabit cart, Super Metroid was a true return to form after the slightly disappointing Metroid II. Once more venturing to the Zebes after Ridley captured the last Metroid from a Federation research base, Samus was thrown into another struggle against the Pirates who sought to revive the Metroid race, in order to breed them as weapons.

With the extra power of the SNES came improved graphics, a larger game world than ever, bigger bosses and tons of atmosphere. Ditching the linear gameplay of the second outing, Super Metroid returned to the free-roaming gameplay of the original, and improved upon it with the larger, and more varied world. Again, Samus started with limited abilities, and along the way found new power-ups, including a number of beam weapons, the morph ball, the grapple beam and the x-ray visor. While doing this she fought a range of indigenous creatures and security, and to proceed into the planet’s core, where Mother Brain, her ultimate target lay, she first needed to battle and defeat the four primary bosses, including Ridley.

Arguably the best Metroid game of them all (even now), the size of the world, and the range of power-ups coupled with the free-roaming gameplay made this an amazing title indeed, and the atmosphere of the opening, with Zebes appearing deserted and devoid of any life, until you find the morph ball, was a stroke of genius. It was a tough challenge too, with some bosses requiring ingenious tactics (such as using the grapple beam to electrocute Draygon, the water dwelling boss), and the use of Samus’ skills being emphasised even more so than before.

Although I’m a huge fan of Metroid Prime, I still find it hard to decide which is better between the two, and can only place both on equally high pedestals (although if pushed, Super Metroid would probably take the trophy). This is a triumph, and one of many testaments to Nintendo’s grasp of rock solid game design. Oh, and the last battle remains one of my favourite of all time.

Metroid Fusion (GBA – 2002)

After nearly ten years, Nintendo gave Metroid-starved fans not one, but two new Metroid titles at once, with Fusion appearing on the Game Boy Advance. Set after the events of Super Metroid, Fusion saw Samus on a mission aboard a Federation space station orbiting the Metroid home world of SR-388. With Metroids no longer the dominant life form on the planet, thanks to Samus, the ecosystem changed and a new life form, known as ‘X’ parasites had taken over. These creatures could take on the form of a host, killing them in the process. This new lifeform was being studied on the space station, and, predictably, things went very wrong. So it was left to Samus to clean things up.

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Like Metroid II, Fusion was far more about action, with a much more linear structure, and as such, some found fault with this. But, the game still won plenty of praise, more so than Metroid II. In fact, although I prefer the traditional Metroid gameplay, I did enjoy Fusion quite a lot, and it’s certainly worth a punt, especially as it can team up With Metroid Prime to unlock some extra content.

Metroid Prime (GC – 2002)

Retro Studios had a mammoth task ahead of them with this title, and somehow had to bring Metroid into the present while retaining the same look and feel. Rather controversially, the FPS style was chosen, with many fearing the worst. But, these fears disappeared almost instantly, and as soon as the game was loaded and the first shot was fired, you just knew this was going to be special.

The story takes place between the first and second Metroid games, and so is not an actual sequel. Receiving a distress call from a vessel orbiting the planet Tallon IV, Samus explores a strange ship that seems to be performing experiments on lifeforms using an unknown substance. Eventually she has a run in with her nemesis, Ridley, and chases him down to the planet’s surface (escaping the exploding vessel and losing all of her powerful abilities in the process).

From here on in, it’s pure, unadulterated Metroid gameplay. There’s the massive, open world, tons of power-ups, weapons and abilities to find, bosses to defeat and a tough challenge (with both Ridley and the last boss offering a tough fight). The storytelling element of the series was given a bit of a boost, as Samus could use her scan visor to download and read enemy descriptions and background info from computers, and cut scenes introduced boss fights and new locations.

Graphically excellent, using the Gamecube’s power to the full, Metroid Prime was a real tour de force, and one that was universally acknowledged as one of the best games of all time (some would even say the best). Keeping every element of Metroid down to familiar music and effects (Metroid screeches still send a shiver down the spine), Prime is simply stunning. And, with the Wii being fully backward compatible, there’s no excuse for missing out on it.

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Metroid Zero Mission (GBA – 2004) </p/>

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Here we have another Game Boy Advance release, but this time, not an entirely new game. Metroid Zero Mission is actually a remake of the original NES game, and despite some new graphics, a new ability, and a section where Samus is played sans powersuit, little has changed.

This isn’t a downside, and playing the original title is certainly welcome on new hardware. Other enhancements include a greater level of storytelling, finally revealing the fact that Samus was raised by the Chozo on the planet Zebes (who made her power suit and are referenced heavily in the Prime series).

Zero Mission is a great entry into the series, and with the enhancements does improve on the original. Whether you’ve played the first classic game or not, you should certainly try this.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (GC – 2004) </p/>

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The second part of the Metroid Prime trilogy, Echoes wasn’t that much of a departure from the first Prime, which is no bad thing really. The story sees Samus head to the world of Aether, which is in the process of being ripped in two by a dimensional war between the Luminoth (the good guys), and the Ing (dark, blotchy evildoers). Existing in both light and dark at the same time, Samus has to enter the Ing’s dark world to recover energy for the light-sided Luminoth in order to stabilise the planet, and eventually ends up face to face with ‘Dark Samus’, who turns out to be none other than Metroid Prime in a different form.

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Using the dark and light world mechanic as its main puzzle element, Echoes features some very interesting gameplay, and changes you make in the dark world affect the light world, often allowing progressions. For example, power up a generator that’s stuck in the dark world, and you may open a door or extend a bridge in the light world.

Samus’ abilities were all present, including some new additions such as the return of the space jump, and the new arrival of the dark and light beams, which, in a style reminiscent of Treasure’s Ikaruga, fire dark and light beams, each of which is more effective against some enemies than others. The beams also have limited ammo, so you have to juice them up by collecting ammo from enemies (kill light enemies with the dark beam and dark with the light beam to release the corresponding ammo pickups).

I found that the level design wasn’t as tight as Metroid Prime‘s this time, with far more aimless wandering, and most of the boss fights were very similar, and not all that challenging. In fact, the game was notably less challenging than Prime. And, although the dark and light beams were quite cool, the armaments in Prime were more satisfying, and more conducive to puzzles.

Still, Echoes is a class A title, and any Metroid fan should definitely check it out.

Metroid Prime: Hunters (DS – 2006)

Metroid‘s debut on the Nintendo DS was something of an eye-opener for those who doubted the DS’ capabilities. Managing to recreate the 3D look and feel of the GCN’s Prime titles (albeit in a lower, jaggy resolution), Hunters was impressive for many reasons. Technically, it was a triumph for the DS, and the game ran fluidly despite the graphics number crunching going on. Behind this sheen however, was not just a full, traditional Metroid single-player story, but, more notably, the multiplayer mode, in which people could wirelessly connect to other DS owners for some deathmatch action.

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The single player game saw Samus having to track down an ‘utlimate power’, eventually competing against other bounty hunters, and then teaming up with them to defeat the game’s final boss. During this adventure, Samus wasn’t restricted to a single planet either, but flitted around planets, and spaceships (which would be adopted for Prime 3).

The multiplayer mode offered the most thrills though, and few would have thought that Metroid would have worked so well as a multiplayer title, but work it did, even on the technically limited DS.

The game was criticised for its difficulty, of which there wasn’t much, and experienced Metroid fans could breeze through it in no time. The controls, which used the stylus for aiming, were also attacked, and although you could get used to them in time, they were hardly perfect.

Because of Hunters‘ far easier difficulty level, and cumbersome controls (that can cause serious hand strain), this isn’t the best Metroid can offer, and while it’s an impressive title, if only that it works on a DS, newcomers should look to other titles first.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii – 2007)

This is the final part of the Prime trilogy, and the series’ debut on the Wii. People were expecting a lot from this third visit, not only as far as the game’s quality was concerned, but also as it was the great white hope for the Wii’s ability to ‘do’ an FPS. With Retro Studios’ track record being so good, hopes were understandably high.

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Luckily, the developers managed to pull that proverbial rabbit out of the hat, and Corruption turned out to be a damn fine game. This time, the Phazon scourge, and in turn, Metroid Prime, threatened the Galactic Federation directly, with Phazon meteors heading towards several planets determined to corrupt each with their taint.

As usual it’s up to Samus, and a few of her bounty hunting friends to engage the threat. During the course of the game, Samus travels to a number of locations, and acquires a host of power-ups. And, this time she can also call upon her trusty ship for help, and can find abilities to boost its usefulness (such as a tractor beam to move objects and missiles to attack fortified locations).

The major power of the game however, is the ‘Hyper-mode’. Early in the game Samus, and the other bounty hunters are infected with Phazon by Metroid Prime. Using a modified power suit created for her by the Federation, Samus is able to channel this Phazon energy into a powerful beam weapon. But, the suit can also be overloaded, and Samus has to quickly drain the energy, or risk being fully corrupted by the Phazon infection.

The control system developed for the game using the Wiimote and nunchuck is excellent, and really does bode well for future Wii FPS titles. Both movement, and the all-important aiming work perfectly, and eliminated the crazy view rotation people often experienced with the likes of Red Steel when moving the Wiimote away from the screen.

The actual gameplay is true to the Metroid series too, with open worlds, plenty of power-ups to find to allow progression, and some impressive boss fights. The difficulty level is certainly much lower than either Prime or Echoes though, and so hardcore fans will streak through it with no problems.

A major criticism of Corruption is the lack of any multiplayer, especially as the humble DS managed it so well. With the Wii’s connectivity options, it would have been very interesting, and logical to see a multiplayer mode or two, and so it does lose some marks for omitting this feature.

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But, despite the lack of multiplayer and a reduced difficulty level, the joy of using the motion controls, and the bevy of enchantments makes this a definite must have, and the story ties the trilogy up nicely. Metroid Prime is still the best of the three though.