I cannot adequately express to you how excited I was to hear that Nintendo will be releasing not one, but two Metroid games in the near future. This year, we are getting Metroid: Samus Returns, a 3DS remake of the Gameboy Advance title Metroid II: Return of Samus. At some point, gamers will also be getting Metroid Prime 4 for the Switch. The franchise is one of my favorites. My first was Metroid Fusion for the Gameboy Advance, but I have since gone back and played almost all of the games to completion. I started playing Metroid Prime: Hunters and Metroid Prime: Federation Force but have never actually finished either one.
I am drawn to Metroid more than most of Nintendo’s other franchises because I have an overwhelming love for story driven games. Unlike the convoluted narratives of Legend of Zelda and Mario, or the loose cannons of Pokémon or Kirby, Metroid has a definitive, easy to follow timeline.
So while I would love to dive into Metroid’s lore and explain why I think that Metroid Prime 4 will most likely take place in the massive narrative hole between Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Metroid II: Return of Samus (based on a combination of clues from the Metroid Prime 4 E3 teaser, the fact that Metroid II is all of a sudden getting a remake, and considering that every Metroid Prime game has occurred between Metroid and Metroid II), there is a much more pressing topic that needs to be discussed.
The last two Metroid games, Federation Force and Other M, did not receive as much public approval as Nintendo probably wanted. Why not? More importantly, can the issue that plagued both of those games be overcome? I do not want to see either Metroid: Samus Returns or Metroid Prime 4 turn out to be disappointments.
The Dread of Being Samus
I think a lot of the disappointment for Federation Force and Other M has to do with the two games’ lack of any sort of dread. Contrary to popular belief, dread is not solely attached to the horror genre. Dread transcends horror. It is the feeling that, at any time, something bad is going to happen. Those bad things are usually a surprise as well, even when you know they are coming and can feel the mounting weight of your situation. That feeling does lend itself very well to horror, but it can just as easily be associated to drama or adventure.
Adventuring into Dread
A lot of people equate Metroid with exploration and discovery. It is why we have the term “Metroidvania” to describe games with interconnected worlds that players are required to explore to find new abilities or weapons that can then be used to explore even further and challenge more powerful opponents. Both Metroid and Castlevania created this style of gameplay.
However, I would argue that there is a bit more to this subgenre. Metroid feels fundamentally different in comparison to a lot of Nintendo’s other large properties. There is a sharp difference in difficulty, tone, and narrative elements when you compare Metroid to Mario, Pokémon, Yoshi, Kirby, or Legend of Zelda. While most of Nintendo’s games aim at capturing that child-like sense of wonder, adventure, and overcoming adversity to become the hero, Metroid is focused on something deeper: conveying dread.
Samus is not adventuring because she wants to, nor is she trying to save the world or protect the ones she loves. She is a battle-hardened mercenary, getting paid to go to a place that no one else wants to go to, in order to do a job (usually killing something) that no one wants to do. This focus is also present in most of the Castlevania games, and can be found in pretty much any Metroidvania game.
In Metroid, exploration does not equate wondrous discovery. Sure, the player may find a brand new weapon or fancy new way of navigating the world, but they just as easily might stumble upon a boss they were not expecting, or fall into lava without the Varia suit, or even get locked in a room containing a bunch of powerful enemies without enough missiles or energy tanks. Plus, unlike Nintendo’s other franchises, with their generous checkpoints and ability to save from pretty much anywhere, Metroid forces players to find specific save points that dot the world. So when you die in a Metroid game, you typically lose a lot of your progress. Samus is struggling to survive and complete her mission in her games, which is nothing like the protagonists of Nintendo’s other big franchises.
You Cannot Expect the Unexpected
There is a genuine fear while playing a new Metroid game. Players worry that they might encounter something that they are not at all prepared for. Then it becomes an internal battle of whether or not to go back or continue forward. Most games assist players in making these types of decisions by including patterns that help the player recognize what they are about to face.
For example, enter one of Breath of Wild’s Divine Beasts? Time to fight a Blight Ganon. Walk into some tall grass or a cave in Pokémon? Wild Pokémon are coming at you. But Metroid? The first time you play a Metroid game, you have no idea what the next room holds even if you have been in that room before, as the game is always throwing seemingly random new enemies and challenges your way that you constantly have to adapt to, and the freedom to choose your path means that your death is entirely your fault for being so ill prepared. When you walk through a door and find a save room, you are absolutely giddy with excitement. The dread falls away, and you are rejuvenated with a sense of security to keep going forward.
This feeling of dread is never felt in Federation Force or Other M (other than the mounting dread that you have made a poor purchasing decision). Federation Force has very little exploration that could lead to a mounting sense of dread, and the ability to play with up to three friends means the player never has to survive on their own.
Other M is never challenging to begin with. I know that people usually say that the story of Other M and Samus’ immature portrayal are what drag that game down. However, after stepping away from the game for a few years and recently trying it again, I have to admit that Other M does a decent job of filling in some plot holes in Samus’ story that needed to be filled. Samus having all of her abilities from the start and choosing just not to use them until she is told, however, is inexcusable. The player always knows that they will never encounter an enemy that they cannot fight, as Samus’ supervisor will give her permission to use the abilities she needs when she needs them. There is no dread if you can safely know you will always be prepared for your next battle.
Straight to the Dread
How do I know that it is the sense of dread, and not the aspects of exploration that gamers like in Metroid? Because Fusion and the entire Prime trilogy are fan favorites (I would go so far as to say that all four fall in the top 5 games of the franchise, just behind Super Metroid), and all four of those games are very linear in comparison to their counterparts. However, they implement new mechanics to maintain the franchise’s sense of dread.
An Unrelenting Monster
Fusion’s main antagonist, the SA-X, is a carbon copy of Samus at full power. That means that it is stronger than the player all the way up to the final moments of the game. When confronted by the SA-X, the player’s only chance of survival is to hide or run. The SA-X appears at seemingly random points in the game, always stalking Samus, and pushing her into situations that are harder and harder to escape from.
Until it is played a second time, Fusion does a phenomenal job at convincing the player that these encounters are random. It is incredibly nerve-wracking to know that the game’s chosen path could be setting the player up for another “chance” encounter with the monster that exists solely to hunt and consume Samus. The echoes of those feelings stick with you, even on subsequent play-throughs. To this day, my hands get a little sweaty whenever I know I am about to approach a meeting with the SA-X. My brain recalls the frustrated fear of my earliest attempts to survive the SA-X’s onslaught, and just cannot rationalize that I should now know better. Yet here I am, back for more.
The game plays off this dread and provides a ton of small jump scares throughout the game that abuse the player’s heightened senses as they frantically scan the screen and listen intently for the thudding footsteps of the SA-X. The first time the ghostly apparition of Nightmare roared across my screen, I practically threw my Gameboy Advance against the wall. That scare is there for no other purpose than to mess with the player, as the game pushes them to travel to an entirely separate area and play for another two hours before returning to Sector 5 to challenge Nightmare.
These small scares are everywhere in Fusion, and they interrupt the player’s mounting dread every time. This forces the player to experience the release prior to reaching the safety of a save room. The dread then begins to build up again, and the player is left to tensely continue onward, unable to latch on to the comfort of any recognizable cycle of emotions.
Out of Sight, but Not Out of Mind
The Prime trilogy creates a sense of dread by forcing the player to experience the world via first-person, as opposed to the customary side-scroller third-person view. Back when Prime initially released, players had never experienced Metroid via first-person before, and the FPS genre had yet to take off and become as mainstream as it is now. The Prime trilogy released pretty much between Halo 2 and Halo 3 (2002-2007) when most gamers were still learning to adapt to gameplay where they could not see anything behind or above them without turning in that direction. Hardcore or experienced gamers had no problem with the new perspective, but it was a brand new world for the general gaming community.
Moments of combat or escape were suddenly much more stressful. Even if there was only one definitive way to go or a logical order to which enemies to engage, the first-person view meant that the player no longer had all the information at their fingertips. It was now much harder to make an objective, split-second decision. It suddenly did not matter that the dread of exploring the unknown was lost to the trilogy’s linear nature. The fear of an ambush coming from behind, or missing out on a key piece of information that would assist in escape, if the need arose, created all the discomforting dread that those games needed to thrive. This was especially true in both Echoes and Corruption, where this fear of missing something was combined with criminally difficult instances of combat.
Separating the Good from the Bad
Look at the Metroid games that are considered good. Metroid, Super Metroid, Fusion, the Prime trilogy, and Zero Mission are all either hard or crushingly difficult. They also all have very few places where players can save the game, ominous music, very few allies (if any), and worlds that are so convoluted and difficult to navigate, that it is almost absurd that Samus is able to survive them at all. Samus is also almost always at a disadvantage throughout these games (when it comes to combat), until the games’ final moments. They all convey dread remarkably well.
Now look at the games that are considered on the weaker half of the franchise. Return of Samus, Metroid Prime Pinball, Hunters, Other M, and Federation Force are all much easier games. They are not nearly as stressful to play. Some of them have stressful parts, but playing these games, as a whole, feels no different than Mario or Legend of Zelda. Those games have stressful parts too, but they are not promoting that stress throughout the entire experience to convey a sense of dread.
So where does that leave the upcoming Metroid: Samus Returns and Metroid Prime 4?
Metroid: Samus Returns
I was initially a little worried when I saw that is was Metroid II that was getting the remake. Although the game is not bad, Metroid II does fall within the weaker half of the Metroid franchise. Metroid II puts players into a hunter role. Although Samus is a bounty hunter, her role in most Metroid games is that of a survivor. She’s sent on a mission, everything goes wrong (usually immediately), and then she has to prove her mental fortitude and ingenuity to succeed. That is not the case for Metroid II, where Samus is told to go on a murderous rampage of extermination, and she succeeds with flying colors. The player never truly feels like they are the ones that are being hunted, even when confronted with more powerful Metroids in the later parts of the game.
It also does not help that the game keeps track of how many Metroids are left for Samus to hunt. A big aspect of dread is the unknown. I think Metroid II would have been much more effective at conveying dread if the player had no idea how close they were to the end of their quest. By just getting closer to the end, players instinctively knew to expect harder enemies, and to thus prepare accordingly.
However, the trailer for Metroid: Samus Returns reveals that this remake is implementing the best parts of Other M: the acrobatics and precision aiming. This makes me hopeful. Mega Man X gave Mega Man increased speed and versatility when fighting or interacting with the world. So the developers were able to implement harder enemies that required more strategy and battle awareness to fight.
I can totally see Nintendo doing the same thing in Samus Returns. Quicker, more powerful enemies puts Samus back into a position of being at a disadvantage. Players will have to think faster and play smarter, juggling the pros and cons of either using Samus’ quick acrobatics or careful aim to take on the overwhelming odds before her. This, combined with Metroid II’s already vast and (now hopefully) dangerous world, has me convinced that Samus Returns will be a much more stressful experience this time around. Hopefully that helps convey a healthy sense of dread. It is disappointing to see that the Metroid counter returns with Samus though.
Metroid Prime 4
I cannot make as positive an assumption about Metroid Prime 4 because I do not know enough information about the game. I can only surmise where it takes place in the Metroid timeline. However, without gameplay, my hands are tied.
I am worried though. The original Prime trilogy’s greatest strength was that those three games were hard FPS experiences that released at a time when most gamers were not even used to playing video games in first-person. That is no longer the case. Games like Dishonored, Bioshock, Outlast, and Alien Isolation have made most gamers much more comfortable with, and adept at, dealing with stressful situations via first-person. The kids and teenagers that were just getting used to first-person games back in the early 2000s are now full grown adults with years of experience playing in that perspective.
Also, since 2007, video games have experienced an explosion of shooters. In comparison to the early 2000s, it is now much harder to find a gamer who has never touched a shooter of any kind. Without the ability to rely on a customer pool that is inexperienced with both first-person perspectives and shooter mechanics, I am not sure what Metroid Prime 4 has going for it to convey a sense of dread. It still might be a good game regardless. However, without dread, Metroid Prime 4 will be like Metroid II, a solid video game that never truly captures the essence of what makes a Metroid game a Metroid game.
Frankly, my biggest fear is that the game will be another Other M, and be a game that Nintendo is making to simply fill in a plot hole. Sure, gamers should be told how exactly the events of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption lead to Metroid II, but that should not come at the cost of the gameplay.
Any Objections, Lady?
I cannot find it in my heart to admit that I have serious doubts about a Metroid game, so I am looking forward to Metroid Prime 4 with the same excited expectations as Samus Returns. In prep for Samus Returns (I already have the Special Edition pre-ordered), I am replaying Fusion and Zero Mission. I also plan on revisiting the Prime trilogy after the holiday season. I am hoping that I can find some clue that I missed that may hint towards something more concrete as to where the upcoming game may fall in the timeline. Who knows, maybe I am wrong and Metroid Prime 4 will actually take place after the events of Fusion. Other M showed players how Samus’ adventures began, but we still do not know how exactly her story will come to an end.