Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Metroid Retrospective - Twenty-five Years of Samus

As Metroid has turned twenty-five, I've decided to do a bit of retrospective on the franchise. As much as I do love the series, there are a few games I have yet to play, so Metroid: Other M, Metroid II: Return of Samus, and Metroid Prime Hunters will not be included. This will not focus so much on the history of the series to present day, rather it will be a look back at what Metroid meant for me personally.

The first console I ever owned was the N64, and because of that the bulk of my early gaming experiences came from 1990s Nintendo titles. My first introduction to Samus Aran was through the original Super Smash Bros., and most of my friends were too young to have played any of the previous Metroid titles when they were first released. Thus, my knowledge of Samus was rather limited - I knew she was a bounty hunter, and that she had to have some game of her own, but I never saw a Metroid title on the N64 and kind of forgot about Samus for a while.

Not long after I purchased my Gamecube, I heard about a new Metroid title slated for release on the console. At this point I had a little more to base my judgment off, as I'd played portions of the original Metroid. From what I could gather from my Nintendo Power magazine, Metroid Prime was going to be a whole different style of game from its side-scrolling predecessors. At that time, I wasn't particularly skilled at any games that took on the first-person perspective, and I decided to rent it first. I fell in love with the game - the graphical stylings, the soundtrack, the boss fights, and the gameplay were some of coolest I'd seen in years. Needless to say, I forked out the cash and bought myself a copy, which I played through multiple times in hopes of achieving a 100% completion rate.

When the sequel was announced, I counted down the days to its release. I decorated my bedroom walls with every Metroid Prime 2: Echoes poster that Nintendo Power included with their magazine. At the same time, a friend of mine owned a copy of Metroid Fusion, and while I didn't play much of it, I got enough of a feel for the two different schools of design that the Metroid series followed. Between Fusion and Prime 2: Echoes, I also got a feel for how dark the stories could be and how challenging the games could get. Don't get me wrong, I love Prime 2: Echoes. But it has some of the most challenging boss fights in the series, and the fact that the air in Aether's Dark World harms Samus when she isn't protected by the Luminoth's crystals can get to be a bit annoying. Thankfully the Dark Suit and Light Suit counteracted this, but Prime 2: Echoes required so much backtracking and had some less-than-ideally placed save stations that I wasn't as keen to replay it as I had been with the first Prime title. At the same time, the minor issues I did have with Echoes made me realize what elements of the Metroid games I preferred.

Before Prime 3 was released, I decided to work backwards, replaying Samus' first mission to Zebes over again. Only this time it was in the form of Metroid: Zero Mission, an updated and (I would argue) improved version of the original Metroid. There's certainly no replacing what the original did in launching the series, but not only did Zero Mission look prettier and control more smoothly, it made me feel more of a connection to Samus through the narrative. Zero Mission quickly became one of my favorite Gameboy games, and my second favorite Metroid title behind Prime.

I picked up a copy of Metroid Prime Pinball not long afterwards, looking for a quick casual handheld gaming fix. While it isn't anything mind-blowing, I found Prime Pinball to be a very interesting spin on the pinball formula, combining boss fights and iconic locations from the first Prime title. The different paths the game presented made for a unique experience each time I played, with an increasing level of difficulty that was not expected but - at the same time - very much welcome.

I'd heard overwhelmingly positive responses toward Super Metroid, and decided to download it to the Wii's Virtual Console. Having played through about half the title thus far, I can see some obvious influences the gameplay style had on the design of Zero Mission. The dark and moody atmosphere also seems to have had an impact of the latter two Prime titles, as well as Fusion. And while I've always known the Metroid games to have a notable degree of difficulty to them, Super Metroid is easily one of the most challenging in the series.

Eventually I got around to picking up Prime 3: Corruption - a little later than most people, but I was still plenty excited to cap off the trilogy. One of my major concerns was the shift to motion controls. Thankfully, these were quickly put to rest following a mini-tutorial early in the game. Prime 3: Corruption felt more akin to the first Prime than it did to Prime 2: Echoes. Corruption spanned multiple planets, and though no single planet was as vast as Tallon IV or Aether, each presented beautiful and alien environments that just begged to be explored. Some voice acting was brought in - a first for the series - though this was only applicable to NPCs, and both Samus and Dark Samus remain silent for the duration of the game. The boss fights had great variety, and were as much a challenging to beat as they were a treat to play through. Some unnecessary weapons and abilities from Echoes were shaved off, and Samus' arsenal was keep to a more manageable level. That said, new inclusions were weighed more on their practicality with the gameplay, and all of that added up to an 'everything old is new again' feel about Corruption.

While I do enjoy sci-fi games like Halo, such games aim for a grand 'space battle' scenario, whereas Metroid is more focused on the solo approach of exploring mysterious alien worlds. Prime 3: Corruption and Other M are, at least to some extent, each a breakaway from the traditional Metroid formula, as they both deal with the Galactic Federation and the history of the Space Pirates. But most Metroid games tend to keep the spotlight on Samus and her personal history with the Space Pirates and the Chozo. I feel the storytelling is strongest in three games - Super Metroid, Zero Mission, and Metroid Prime. Super Metroid and Zero Mission take a similar approach to one another, revealing the narrative in cutscenes at certain points during the gameplay, though the majority of the story is meant to be tackled firsthand as players progress to each new area. Prime, on the other hand, requires players to scan the various Space Pirate computers and Chozo lore, which reveals to players not only information relevant to the story of Prime, but also ties things together with the other games in the series. Though it does require players to go out of their way if they wish to find all of the lore, the payoff is well worth it for Metroid fans.

Despite a large gap between Super Metroid and Prime/Fusion's dual release, the series has stood the test of time. Each game offers enough new features to change the game style, but never forgets it roots. Congratulations on twenty-five years, Metroid.

Some of my favorite boss fights from the series include:
- The Kraid boss fight from Metroid: Zero Mission
- The final Dark Samus boss fight at the end of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
- The Gandrayda boss fight from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Some of my favorite songs from the various soundtracks include:
- Kraid's area from the original Metroid/Metroid: Zero Mission
- The Tunnel from Metroid II: Return of Samus
- Lower Brinstar from Super Metroid
- Hive Totem/Incinerator Drone from Metroid Prime
- Phendrana Drifts from Metroid Prime
- Submerged Frigate from Metroid Prime
- The Title theme from Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
- The Title theme from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
- Rundas battle theme from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
- Skytown from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Character I use most often (and win the most matches with) in Super Smash Bros., Melee, and Brawl:
- Samus Aran

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