Dreadline: A 2D Metroid Retrospective, Chapter 4

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

(Chapter 2 Excursus)

Chapter 3

This is it, folks, the final Metroid Monday of Dreadline. Thanks to everyone who has been reading! I hope you've enjoyed my little excursion through the world of 2D Metroid. If this got you even a little bit more excited for Dread in October, then I'm happy. You can bet on my thoughts on Dread being posted here as well, so stay tuned for that.


Let's wrap it up with what has become perhaps the most polarizing entry in the Metroid canon.


Chapter 4: Metroid Fusion

After the release of Super Metroid, the series lay fallow for a bit. While Nintendo's other tentpole franchises saw their protagonists make the jump to 3D on the N64, the team behind Metroid couldn't quite figure out how to make it work. No doubt series godfather Gunpei Yokoi's unfortunate departure from Nintendo, and especially his tragic death in 1997, contributed to the hiatus. The underwhelming sales of Super Metroid probably didn't help either, as the game only shipped about 1.4 million--for reference, Super Mario All-Stars is the highest selling non-pack-in game at 10.5 million, followed by 9.3 for Donkey Kong Country. It's a sad realization from hindsight that one of the most influential games in gaming history was a relative low point for Nintendo in terms of sales. That doesn't diminish its importance, of course--MinnMax's Kyle Hilliard, formerly of GameInformer, made a great comparison recently when observing Metroid's consistently weak sales in contrast with its astonishing impact on the industry. There's a well-known quote about the band The Velvet Underground, whose name belies the fact that they weren't the most mainstream band in terms of sales--yet, while "the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records . . . everyone who bought one went out and started a band."


But this is only the year 2000-ish. The glut of indie games styled after Super Metroid was yet to come. Heck, indie games were barely a thing. The people who would eventually go out and make games christened "Metroidvanias" weren't making games at all yet at this point--they were still sitting in their parents' homes, making their way through school, and hoping for Nintendo to give us more.


Thankfully, Nintendo did just that. In fact, they did it twice over, on back-to-back days.


Nintendo had outsourced Metroid's jump to 3D, entrusting the keys of the kingdom to Retro Studios, operating out of Texas. If anyone could make Samus jump to the First Person perspective, certainly it's the guys who live down the street from the makers of Doom, right? But while they gave Retro that amount of trust, Nintendo also hedged their bets. On their own, they began development on the new 2D installment of the series for the Game Boy Advance. The first-person Prime released on November 17, 2002. The 2D Fusion released the very next day.


In the end, I do believe Prime is the better game. As a matter of fact, I recently called it my 20th favorite game ever, only a few spots behind the masterpiece Super. My love of Prime has led to an unfortunate side-effect though. For most of my Metroid-loving days, and along with many Metroid fans, I've neglected Fusion.


That's stupid, though. This game is great, and I need to remember that more.

In the previous chapters, I've been able to bring in a chunk of manual text or in-game monologue to introduce or spell out the game's story. If you know anything about Fusion, though, you know that's...not a good idea. This game has more dialogue than any of the previous Metroid games combined--except, unless you would count the scan logs in Prime. It has since been outdone in that regard by Other M, but it still stands as an outlier in the series for just how much in-game text there is.


The game's prologue sees Samus and the Federation research team, Biologic Space Labs, are tasked with returning to the Metroid homeworld SR-388. Since the Metroids had obviously been the planet's apex predators, the Federation was interested in monitoring the new ecosystem hierarchy. Well, they found what they were looking for: the new apex predator of SR-388, the parasitic lifeform christened "X." Samus, on the front line of the research team, was quickly infected. Unaware of the power of X, Samus and the BSL team return to their ships to report their findings. That's when the X takes over Samus's body, crashing her ship into an asteroid belt.


Though she was able to eject from her ship and be rescued by her BSL escort, Samus's chance of surival was slim. The X had infected her body completely, even infiltrating the organic portions of her power suit. That's when there was a breakthrough: the Metroid vaccine. (Timely!) Since the Metroids had been the X's natural predator, a BSL scientist had the stroke of genius to use cell cultures from the Baby Metroid, may they rest in peace, to innoculate Samus against the parasite. Sure enough, the Metroid vaccine directly targeted the X parasite in Samus's body. Samus reflects afterward, "I realized that I owe my life to the infant Metroid twice over."


Surviving the X's power suit infiltration forced Samus into a new look.

Now, the newly reborn Samus is tasked with returning to the BSL station orbiting SR-388 to investigate an issue. The containment unit of SR-388 bio-samples has experienced a breach. Given Samus's recent experience with the X and the revelation of the threat the parasite poses, she is the clear choice to take care of things. However, as she is working directly with Federation property, she takes on the mission only under the condition that she follow orders from a computerized Commanding Officer. It's not her favorite arrangement.


Turns out, it's not the favorite arrangement of Metroid fans, either. This CO-ordered mission is a far cry from all the previous games in this series. Each stage of the game has the mission outlined for you, sometimes multiple times along the way. You are told very clearly where to go and what to do. Much like Samus, players weren't used to this. Over the course of the past two decades, the perception of this mechanic has only gotten worse in retrospect, almost entirely thanks to Other M, a game whose story is universally maligned, even by the game's apologists. Fusion is seen in hindsight as the predecessor to what most consider the worst core game in the series.


However, I don't think that's entirely fair. While it's true that the game is presented in the "go-here-do-this" format, they immediately start tampering with that rigid outline. The map has areas that are all pre-revealed, but much of the map is comprised of secret rooms that won't show up until you get into them. These rooms aren't just bonus rooms, either; for much of the game, you must traverse through the more unknown sectors of the map. Early on in the game, an elevator breaks, forcing you to backtrack a different way, blazing a trail through the space station's walls and emergency shafts. People who oppose the new direction of the game might call that a contrivance; I think it's a fun twist on the setup that still puts you in a position to do traditional Metroid exploration. The game wastes no time toying with its own structure.


This subversion develops beautifully over the course of the game. About halfway through the game, you as the player see a conversation between the computer CO "Adam" and a shadowy, unseen figure. "Does Samus suspect anything?" Well, that's interesting.

Then, as you grow more powerful and gather more weapon upgrades, Adam seems a little taken aback. "You recovered the plasma beam? ...Interesting." Then as you get unintentionally re-routed off-course in Sector 6, you stumble into a zone in which you unlock the station's red doors and gather yet another unplanned upgrade, the Diffusion Missiles. While you were following orders at the beginning of the game, you have now progressed past the point that the computer, or the Federation, expected you to get to. "I never authorized that. From now on, you'll use more discretion." Oh, will I, now?


Fusion presents Metroid players with a different, more guided experience, it's true. However, I want to stress the fact that all games in this series are intensely focused on their mood. How they accomplish that mood is different from game to game, but they are all going for it. The first three games in the 2D series create their mood by solitude and open exploration. Prime creates its mood through scan logs and first-person discovery. Fusion creates its mood by making you follow, and then eventually ignore, the orders of a computer. I can understand if fans are turned off by the guided experience, but I simply can't be mad about it because it's just done, and then undone, so well. Especially when you enter the restricted laboratory, only to find that the Federation has been cloning Metroids under your nose this whole time.


The reason for the SR-388 research station is now clear. The Federation wasn't monitoring the planet's new ecosystem; they were trying to create new Metroids for their own personal use. "For peaceful purposes, of course," the computer assures you...well past the point of you being able to trust this thing. The Federation ends up showing themselves to be every bit as bad as the Space Pirates, simply trying to clone Metroids as weapons. Isn't that what you were trying to prevent for the past 3 games? Now they are trying to use you to neutralize the X threat while keeping you in the dark on their own ulterior motives. It's a story told with much more dialogue than before, but the sinister mood is undeniable. While Samus may have much more interaction here than in any previous game, it turns out that she is just as alone as she has ever been.

Fusion also contains a persistent threat which only helps solidify the game's mood. The X are not just an infectious parasite; they take organic material, copy it, and clone it. The result of Samus's infection is the SA-X, a threatening copy of Samus--and not just regular ol' Samus, but endgame, invincible, space jump-screw attack Samus. In your weakened state, your only method of surviving encounters with the SA-X throughout the game is simply to run and hide. Its footsteps alone are terrifying. She destroys your escape routes and forces you to find new parts of the map, further sending you into sequences of that Metroid exploration that we know and love. You get to see the terrifying power of the SA-X on several occasions, so it's no wonder that Samus reacts so viscerally when she discovers the Federation wants to capture and control SA-X as much as they want to


Let me tell you--it's amazing how threatening and terrifying they are able to make the SA-X on a Game Boy Advance. Following in the footsteps of Metroid II, the game's developers refuse to see the handheld platform as a weakness or liability. They once again seek to stretch the boundaries of what was previously thought possible on a Game Boy. Most GBA games are hampered by the sound quality of the system, but Fusion uses that distortion and murkiness in a way that contributes to the overall mood. Even the rudimentary sampling capabilities are put on display better than ever before; no longer are voices limited to the obnoxious "Just What I Needed!" of Super Mario Advance, but now are utilized for terrifying sequences like "Emergency in Sector 3," or "Warning: No access without proper authorization." Even though this game was released relatively early in the GBA lifespan, I think it's one of the best examples of what this system was capable of.


And let's not ignore the fact that Fusion, though dialogue-heavy, still sports the series calling card of environmental storytelling. As you make your way through the space station's walls, you find a freezer unit. Scroll one screen only to find Ridley himself, encased in ice, standing imposing but harmless in front of you. This is perhaps the first thing that the Federation wasn't ready for you to see. Or another occasion as you are hunting the super-speedy sea serpent Serris, you first come upon its bones. Clearly the SA-X got to it first. But...what does the X do? Clones and copies. In the next room, you find the X's interpretation of Serris, armed and dangerous.


I've already mentioned some spiritual connections from Metroid II to Fusion, but obviously being set in orbit around SR-388 makes the links more explicit, too. Sector 1 was made to mimic the environment of the planet below. The very existence of the X was a side-effect of the Metroid II genocide. Even the one non-Metroid boss from II, Arachnus, returns. I didn't catch all of these nods the first time I played Fusion as a kid because, well, I never beat Metroid II. In fact, I'm not sure I made it more than an hour into the game back then. So now that I've played Metroid II in both its original and remade (and fan-remade) forms, and even developing a soft spot for this oft-overlooked chapter of the franchise, I was able to appreciate the connections much more. The biggest nod of all is in the Restricted Lab, where you find not only the baby Metroid clones, but also test tubes containing Alpha, Gamma, and Zeta Metroids. I would have completely missed that in 2004. I also would have missed the fact that there is no Omega Metroid in the lab...and would eventually be he final boss of the game. Fusion is as much a revisiting of the themes of Return of Samus as Super Metroid is of the NES original. I'm happy to see that connection now.


Samus goes rogue. She ruins any and all weaponization plans of the Federation, destroying the remaining Metroids on board, crashing the BSL station into the surface of SR-388, and escaping as the only survivor yet again. I enjoyed this game far more than I thought I would, which is funny, because I remember having that same feeling when I re-played it 6 or 7 years ago. Complaints of its linearity wormed their way into my head, and I'm happy to have gone back to the game and decided that I just simply don't agree with this game's detractors. The methods might be different, but the mood is the same. This game is more than worthy of the title Metroid.


That brings us to the present. Fusion, released 19 years ago, is going to lead us directly into Dread in a number of ways. Just listen to this preview paragraph lifted from Wikitroid's page on the new game's new planet, ZDR: "A mysterious transmission from an unknown source is received by the Galactic Federation and traced to this planet. The message indicated that the X Parasites had not been entirely destroyed when Samus Aran crashed the BSL Station into SR388. The Federation sends a team of E.M.M.I. robots to investigate and loses contact with them. Samus, who has immunity to the X Parasites due to her Metroid vaccination, travels to ZDR to confirm for herself if the X have survived."


So, uh, yeah, I don't buy that cover story for a second.


Metroid Dread starts out with the Federation sending Samus on an anonymous tip to a remote planet infested with "rogue" Federation robots. In other words, get Samus far enough away from civilization where we can finally kill her off in solitude so she stops getting in our way and finally lets us weaponize Metroids, or the X, or the next galactic threat to harness "for peaceful purposes, of course." I'm excited to see how this plays out, and to see the relationship between Samus and the Federation further deteriorate.


The connections aren't only going to be narrative-based, either. The SA-X is one of the most memorable parts of Fusion, turning your humble GBA into a paranoia machine with those echoing footsteps and terrifying power. Now, with the E.M.M.I. robots, it's pretty clear that Nintendo is chasing that same terrifying overtone. With new hardware and processing power, I'm interested to see if they can turn the scripted SA-X sequences into a more game-wide persistent threat, allowing you to encounter the E.M.M.I.s as emergent gameplay. That would certainly be taking the Fusion mood and running with it. My daughter might not enjoy watching this game quite as much as she's enjoyed watching me play the others, if that's the case...


 

Thanks again to everyone who has followed along with Dreadline. If you can't tell, I am absolutely pumped for the new release, and I hope that I've gotten you in that space as well. Nintendo has been marketing this game more than I've ever seen them market a Metroid game before, too. Maybe that's just by virtue of the fact that there aren't any other major Switch releases on the horizon, but hey, I don't care what the circumstances are: if Metroid is getting love from Daddy N, I will by no means complain.


2021 is turning into My Year Of The Metroidvania. Thanks to Hollow Knight and the announcement of Dread, I've been on a binge. I've gone on to play Axiom Verge, I'm about halfway through Axiom Verge 2, and I might even hop into the Prime trilogy if I'm feeling up to it. I also recently purchased Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night if I want to go more in the -vania direction of the genre...though I told myself I want to play the actual Symphony of the Night before going there. So maybe that's next? Who knows. Whatever the case, I'm thoroughly enjoying my exploratory platformer kick, and I'm happy to have reached my goal of reflecting on the whole 2D Metroid series. And I managed to get it all done under the Dreadline.


ML

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