Updated: Aug 25
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."
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.