Updated: Aug 23, 2021
My jaw nearly hit the floor during Nintendo's 2021 E3 presentation when I saw my screen flash the words "Metroid 5." It has been almost 20 years since Metroid 4, the lovely GBA gem Metroid Fusion. Not only is the upcoming October release the official continuation of the Metroid timeline, but the game's title Metroid Dread is the make-good on the infamously cancelled DS Fusion followup rumored as early as 2005. It's finally here. Metroid fans have waited a long time for this.
You might think I'm exagerrating a bit. Haven't there been other Metroid games released between Fusion and Dread? The answer is yes--Zero Mission, Prime 2 and 3, Samus Returns, the constantly-maligned Other M, and a slew of side-games and spinoffs like Prime Hunters and...*sigh*...Federation Force. Two things are important to note, though.
This is the first brand new, non-remake installment of classic, Two-Dimensional Metroid. There's a reason that they're calling this Metroid 5, an epithet no game made since 2002 has received. As great as the Prime series is, and as awesome as the NES and Game Boy remakes have been, they're not Metroid 5. Dread is.
This is the first real continuation of the Metroid storyline since Fusion. Every non-remake game released in the interim has been an interquel of some kind--in fact, the entire Prime trilogy nestles between Metroid and Metroid II. For 19 years, the story has been wrapped. No longer!
So yes, 19 years later, Metroid moves forward both narratively and two-dimensionally. What does that mean for you? Maybe you're a hardcore Metroid fan who plays a different game near-annually, like me. Maybe you're a more passive fan, playing the games as they come out and appreciating them at the time before they inevitably fade into the background of your gaming tapestry. Maybe you've never touched a 2D Metroid game before, or not a single game in the whole series. No matter who you are, if you've read this far, there will be something in this blog series for you as you continue.
My goals here are to 1. Play and reflect on the four games in the 2D Metroid series, 2. Recap the narrative of the series leading up to the release of Metroid Dread, and 3. Predict what I think may happen in Dread both mechanically and narratively.
Metroid 1: Metroid and Metroid: Zero Mission
I'm pretty sure I haven't touched Zero Mission since playing it near its launch in 2004, and I absolutely jumped at the opportunity to play it again when I set out to write Dreadline. This is the GBA remake of the original Metroid, a game that was desperately in need of a remake almost immediately after its original 1986 release. Metroid for NES was inventive, innovative, immersive, isolating, and probably some other words that start with the letter i, too. One of those words is not "immortal," though, because as groundbreaking as the game is, it is hard to go back to. For kids in the late 80's with seemingly infinite hours to play video games, Metroid was an opportunity to dive more deeply into a game world than perhaps ever before. The lack of map allowed--necessitated, even--you to make your own hand-crafted map on graph paper. The copious amount of secrets made for great sessions of note-comparison at the playground. Metroid is inscrutible, but that's a feature, not a flaw. However, it's a feature that has not aged well. More games are competing for our attention. Many gamers are adults with jobs and responsibilities. Very few people possess any longer the raw amount of time and energy that Metroid demands. That has been true for a long time, and it's especially true now.
The announcement of Zero Mission, built on the software groundwork of Fusion and the structural groundwork of Metroid, was therefore received with unanimous approval from the entire Metroid community. Well, except for Dai Grepher, an infamous and disturbingly sincere forum troll who posted across half-a-dozen or more video game forums to vociferously deny the idea that Zero Mission was somehow a remake of Metroid. His keystone argument was that certain elevators don't line up like they did in the original. Good times.
Narratively, the original Metroid was about as bare-bones as it could possibly be. The only text in the game is either on the menu or in the credits. Not even the items are explained in-game, neither their function nor how to control them. All of this information is found in the almost 50-page instruction manual. Remember those? They actually used to be pretty important! They were far more than just extra pieces of glossy paper that said to press SELECT to use your missiles,
featuring delightfully off-model art of misgendered Samus holding an NES controller. Though, don't get me wrong, they were certainly that, too. (The male pronouns for Samus are, I think, intentional. The final reveal of "Metroid is a girl?!?" was a deliberate shocker reserved for those elite enough to reach the credits. Go fast and you get to see her in an 8-bit bikini! Truly the greatest prize.)
If you're interested in the Metroid series or, honestly, gaming history at all, I think the original Metroid manual is great to read or skim. It's a window into this era of gaming and a case study in how game design has evolved. You mean you want all of the relevant information to actually be in the game? What do you mean people will somehow play this game and not have the manual on hand? Crazy, I know! The whole manual is officially scanned and posted in PDF format by Nintendo, in an uncharacteristic display of accessibility on their part.
At the very least, here is text for the 1986 inauguration of the Metroid canon, courtesy the wonderful Metroid-database.
The METROID Story In the year 2000 of the history of the cosmos, representatives from the many different planets in the galaxy established a congress called the Galactic Federation, and an age of prosperity began. A successful exchange of cultures and civilization resulted, and thousands of interstellar spaceships ferried back and forth between planets. But space pirates also appeared to attack the spaceships. The Federation Bureau created the Galactic Federation Police, but the pirates' attacks were powerful and it was not easy to catch them in the vastness of space. The Federation Bureau and the Federation Police called together warriors known for their great courage and sent them to do battle with the pirates. These great warriors were called "space hunters." They received large rewards when they captured pirates, and made their living as space bounty hunters. It is now year 20X5 of the history of the cosmos, and something terrible has happened. Space pirates have attacked a deep-space research spaceship and seized a capsule containing an unknown life-form that had just been discovered on Planet SR388. This life-form is in a state of suspended animation, but can be reactivated and will multiply when exposed to beta rays for 24 hours. It is suspected that the entire civilization of Planet SR388 was destroyed by some unknown person or thing, and there is a strong possibility that the life-form just discovered was the cause of the planet's destruction. To carelessly let it multiply would be extremely dangerous. The Federation researchers had named it "Metroid" and were bringing it back to Earth-- when it was stolen by the space pirates! If Metroid is multiplied by the space pirates and then used as a weapon, the entire galactic civilization will be destroyed. After a desperate search, the Federation Police have at last found the pirates' headquarters, the fortress planet Zebes, and launched a general attack. But the pirates' resistance is strong, and the Police have been unable to take the planet. Meanwhile, in a room hidden deep within the center of the fortress, the preparations for multiplying the Metroid are progressing steadily. As a last resort, the Federation Police have decided on this strategy: to send a space hunter to penetrate the center of the fortress and destroy Mother Brain. The space hunter chosen for this mission is Samus Aran. He is the greatest of all the space hunters and has successfully completed numerous missions that everybody thought were absolutely impossible. He is a cyborg: his entire body has been surgically strengthened with robotics, giving him superpowers. Even the space pirates fear his space suit, which can absorb any enemy's power. But his true form is shrouded in mystery. The planet Zebes is a natural fortress. Its sides are covered with a special kind of stone, and its interior is a complicat ed maze. On top of that, the pirates have planted devices and booby traps in the maze, and the pirates' eery [sic] followers lie in wait around every corner. Samus has now succeeded in penetrating Zebes. But time is running out. Will he be able to destroy the Metroid and save the galaxy?
When I opened this up to read it in the year of our Lord 2021, I was expecting to find a now-retconned mess of typos and nonsense, not unlike the Super Mario Bros. English manual and its stupidly infamous paragraph of Bowser turning Mushroom Kingdom citizens into blocks and cattails. (Did you know MARIO is MURDERING PEOPLE every time he HITS A BLOCK!?) To my pleasant surprise, though, the Metroid manual holds up to the modern story. The broad strokes of the story as written here are still canon, including the Metroid home world of SR-388 and the nature of Mother Brain. Even the iffy details about Samus's character appear to be deliberate obfuscation, building the mystery of the bounty hunter that is literally unmasked at the end of this very cartridge and then further explored for the next 35 years.
The NES Manual still jibes with the in-game text for Zero Mission, frantically scrawled across the screen and interspersed with shots of Samus's intense entry into Zebes' atmosphere:
EMERGENCY ORDER EXTERMINATE ALL METROD ORGANISMS ON PLANET ZEBES... AND DEFEAT THE MECHANICAL LIFE-FORM, MOTHER BRAIN.
And Samus's opening salvo upon file start:
Planet Zebes... I called this place home once, in peaceful times, long before evil haunted the caverns below. Now, I shall finally tell the tale of my first battle here... My so-called Zero Mission. -Samus Aran-
The original canon is surprisingly intact. Obviously, Zero Mission has injected some of the lore introduced since 1986. Samus's "unexpected" gender is no longer the hallmark twist, it's a well-known feature of the character. Metroid's simple seek-and-destroy mission has grown into a full-fledged sci-fi world between these releases, so for the remake to be narratively interesting, it has to explore some of the unanswered questions of Samus's so-called Zero Mission.
The main way that Zero Mission differentiates itself from its source material is by giving you more visual and environmental insight into the world of the Chozo. The original game featured mysterious statues holding items, but they were just window dressing, bearing no name--not even in the manual. Since then, those avian statues have been clarified as the Chozo, the shamanistic race that took the orphan Samus in and raised her...and, you know, gave her a cybernetic power suit. You get to re-live this well-established story beat for the first time, too, in the new postgame content. By the end, the NES seek-and-destroy gains a more personal touch for Samus and her former people.
For the most part, the map of the remake mirrors the contours the original game's map, save for Dai Grepher's elevators. However, there are plenty of additions and divergences, all of which are absolutely in the spirit of the game and honoring the continued history. My favorite divergence from the original map is the room with the broken Chozo statue, a subversion of all the other item rooms in the game, a visual story cue that something is very much not right on Zebes. (To be fair, this is not the first time the series has employed this visual cue, but it is effective every time.)
Zero Mission is the consummate remake. It honors the original and then builds upon it, moving it forward. The storytelling is still subtle and often environmental, true to the spirit of 2D Metroid. The postgame escape from the Space Pirate ship is a welcome addition, not too long and not overreaching.
And mechanically? I mean...let's face it, I'm burying the lede here. The mechanical upgrades are the star of the show.
Originally, I was going to only play the remakes for this Dreadline project, but then I sat down to play Zero Mission one evening, and...I, uh, finished the game in one sitting. (Well, I slept, but I finished first thing the next morning, so, I'm counting it.)
So I decided to go back and play the original, too. This was actually something of a gaming blind spot for me. NES Metroid was the only game in the series I hadn't beaten. Using a detailed map I found online, I cruised through it. I think this is definitely the way to play the original game in 2021, unless you want to make a deliberate choice to bust out the graph paper and the original manual. Which would be awesome, if you chose to do it.
Playing the games back-to-back really highlighted just how great of a remake Zero Mission is. The original Metroid is so basic that you can't even crouch or aim your gun down when you jump--the only way to hit enemies below knee-height is to get the bombs. Meanwhile, Zero Mission honors the mechanical developments of the series, making everything buttery smooth and satisfying. The map has been re-tooled to include the use of weapons introduced later in the series like the Speed Booster and Super Missiles. Oh, and missile doors only take one missile now instead of five. That's just pleasant.
This series “power creep” unfortunately results in a few negative, but highly qualified side effects. First, there’s quite a bit more backtracking in Zero Mission. This is ultimately a very small complaint because the map still remains scaled for the NES, and Samus moves quite fast through the world, unlike on the original hardware. Additionally, the game also ends up being a bit too easy, because those advanced weapons just weren't meant to be used in this space. But, you know, I like an easy game every now and again, and I was a bit more in the mood for easy this time around. Both of these “negatives” can be spun as positives, though: the simple, fast-paced backtracking and the lower difficulty mean that the game will serve as an excellent introduction or re-introduction to the series, or even the entire exploratory genre, for anyone who is interested in jumping in.
Having now beaten NES Metroid, I respect it a lot more. It was worth going back to, even though I had convinced myself for years that it wasn't necessary to play as long as Zero Mission existed. But to see the roots of the series was valuable, plumbing the depths of Zebes both in-game and in the glossy pages of an instruction manual. The story is still a simple seek-and-destroy, even in remake form, but the seeds of something great are sown right from the beginning. If you're new to the series, I still would say that Zero Mission is where you start, only returning to the NES original if you become a die-hard fan, or if you happen to like historical gaming.
Chapter 1 sees Samus eradicate the Metroid threat on Zebes, defeat the Space Pirate leader Mother Brain, and fly off to the next mission. ZM adds a postgame scene where you navigate a space pirate frigate without your power suit, stealthily slinking around in the newly designed Zero Suit, made most famous by Smash Bros. The ship is on Chozo ruins, which is convenient for Samus, as she is able to retrieve her Chozo-technology power suit and blast her way out. The next stop for her is Talon IV and the Metroid Prime trilogy.
As for how Metroid 1 in its two forms will impact Dread? Well, this is the groundwork. It all starts with Samus being hired by the Federation to hunt a parasitic life force. It was a solitary job, and it's a solitary gaming experience. I hope that Dread remembers how impactful that solitude is for this series. Metroid, especially on the 2D plane, is at its best when the storytelling is environmental and incidental. From what I can tell, Metroid 5 is heading in that direction. Maybe I'm being too hopeful, but I think they're going to hit the tone--and that tone is the pedal point established in 1986 on the NES, sustained through 2004 on the GBA, and hopefully resonating all the way into 2021 on the Switch.