30 years ago, Nintendo was already dominating the platforming and adventure genres with Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. However, other companies had made strides to capitalize on the action genre, leaving Nintendo scrambling to fill in the gap.
Then on Aug. 6, 1986, it found a winner in a Famicom Disk System game called Metroid. Both Nintendo and fans were gifted a much darker sci-fi outing than the company’s usual projects, corrupted by disturbing music, horrific alien designs, and the looming pressure of dread that the plumber and the elf-boy never had to encounter. Not even a place as vile as Death Mountain could top the catacombs of Samus’ first horrible mission.
I wonder how many people at Nintendo saw Metroid as something we’d be celebrating 30 years from now. I also wonder how many people at Nintendo now are somewhat disappointed that the company doesn’t have anything ready for fans to celebrate along side them. With the NX just around the corner, I’m more convinced than ever that a new Metroid Prime is in the works. While my blind optimism points me in the direction of it just being matter of time, others are pretty dead set that Nintendo has forgotten about the franchise or has left it in the hands of people who don’t understand what made it special.
I don’t subscribe this this narrative one bit due in part to Federation Force having the same producer as the classic Prime games. Kensuke Tanabe has been with Nintendo since the 80s, has seen the company through its best and worst times, and revolutionized the franchise by branching out to Western studios to make it viable in the modern world.
But we’re not here today to talk about the future! We’re here to talk about the past. Metroid has always been the most niche of Nintendo’s “main three” franchises, and it clearly speaks to the smallest audience. That audience is, by far, the most vocal in their support, and they have an entire library of timeless classics to back their claims.
This leads to the obvious, simple question: “What are your favorite Metroid games?” I don’t want to set a number on it, just what are the best?
We’ll start with the most obvious. Super Metroid’s dominance over the franchise, and pretty much over all video games, helps it solidify itself as a legend. Every idea that the original Metroid came up with finds itself perfected in this game, and every indie game on the market from the past several years is still lifting ideas straight from its pages. Perfect pacing, excellent power-ups, intuitive progression that give you just enough hints of where to go without holding your hand.
This game does it all, from creating the feeling of isolation on a dangerous alien world to telling a story without a shred of dialogue. Not only does it do these things, it does it perfectly in every way possible through brilliant visuals, tight controls, and pitch perfect music. There are few games which I think are genuinely flawless, but this is one, especially since any flaws players have found only helped solidify its legacy further on the speed-running scene.
In all honesty, I’m wondering how much The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is going to help Nintendo get back to this level of genius game design. If the company starts trusting players to test gaming worlds and let them experiment at their own leisure, only then can we ever reach the peaks of Super Metroid again.
It might be a little blasphemous for some fans, but I only ever really liked the first Metroid Prime. It was the only one of the three main games that was able to capture the spirit of Super Metroid in a 3D world, and it left such a huge impact on both myself and many in the gaming world that too many expectations from the sequels remained unfulfilled.
But still, Metroid Prime really is the best at what this sub-franchise attempted to do: make a 3D Metroid. Samus is alone and isolated on a dangerous alien world, and only through visual hints and the graces of her equipment can she hope to make any progress. In between the main objectives, she can find cracks in the wall that lead to important secrets, and hints of the game’s lore lay all over the place for those eager to start digging.
The fact that these hints come through text in the scans defeats the purpose of pure visual storytelling, but I see the need for some sacrifices given the age of gaming at which Metroid Prime came out. And besides, there are plenty of visual throwbacks and story moments as well.
For what this game did so perfectly though, I always felt its sequels failed at. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes complicated the formula too much by adding ammo for special weapons, a dark and light world, and overly needless backtracking. Retro Studios leaned on Halo a little too much for inspiration here. And the Wii game,Metroid Prime 3: Corruption turned more to Ratchet & Clank, creating an overly colorful game with hip allies and shallow, repetitive worlds that Samus could travel between on a whim.
Neither of them did it for me, and if Retro Studios were to ever make another Prime game, it should focus its attention solely on the first one for inspiration.
Metroid Fusion/Metroid Zero Mission
Both Game Boy Advance games are stellar, even though the first one tends to get a little too much hate. Admittedly, Metroid Fusion is a very different experience than its predecessors, and it relies a little too much on waypoints and dialogue to get its point across. It’s somewhat genius in a way as Samus starts the game at her absolute weakest and relies so heavily on an established path.
However, as she becomes stronger and starts to resemble her normal butt-kicking self, that’s when the secrets and the map start to open themselves up like a classic Metroid. The suit is on, the rails come off, ans Samus learns how to explore once again. Think of it as a learning curve rather than a handicap.
Let’s not forget the Sa X either. Metroid Fusion is unique in that it stars a dangerous enemy tracking down Samus’ every move. No other game in the series creates tension so well with an enemy like that. You know that when the Sa X enters the room, you hide.
And Zero Mission is just the most refined form of Metroid’s most basic ideas ever put into a package. If I wasn’t so in love with Super Metroid, I might objectively say that this is the best game in the series based solely on how much tighter it controls and how much more limber Samus’ moves are. Storytelling and atmosphere are nowhere near the same levels, but when it comes to just mechanics, Metroid Zero Mission is kind of hard to beat.
Plus, the secret ending is one of gaming’s greatest presents of all time. We cynically say something that substantial would be DLC in this day and age, but I tend to agree here. Nintendo padded an entire extra mission onto the end of the classic adventure, and it is just stellar.
Metroid/Metroid 2 Return of Samus
I need to give these games a nod. They aren’t my favorite, but my appreciation for them is increasing much more rapidly than the Prime sequels ever will. I entered the series with Super Metroid, so understanding why it was hard for my younger self to go back and appreciate them isn’t all that complicated.
However, I appreciate both now for their presentation in the context of the age they came out in, and I find them so much more tolerable thanks to the Internet. The NES original only creates temporary maps based on the surrounding area, and the Game Boy sequel frustrates even more by not creating a map at all!
It might seem like weak-sauce to have to depend on outside resources, but fan-made maps make these two classics so much more enjoyable in the end.