Metroid Fusion Review

Commonly known as Metroid 4 and less commonly known as Metroid Foursion.

Following the release of Super Metroid back in 1994, the series underwent a prolonged hiatus as Nintendo became preoccupied with other projects for the Nintendo 64, redefining how their marquee titles like Mario and Zelda would work in 3D, but when it came to Metroid, the company could never settle on any concrete ideas, thus causing the series to go a generation without an iteration. That is until Nintendo helped found Retro Studios back in 1998, who were tasked with revolutionizing the series the same way Nintendo did. Which, ultimately, led to the creation of Metroid Prime, one of the most celebrated games of its era.

While Retro toiled away at Prime, Nintendo was internally developing its own direct sequel to Super Metroid for GameBoy Advance. A title that, in theory, should have been a sort of safe sequel that was released to help ensure the future of the series in case Prime crashed and burned critically and commercially. But instead, the fine folks at Nintendo R&D1 decided right from the get-go that they weren’t going to make a safe and iterative installment that only marginally built off the foundation of Super Metroid. Instead, they sought to do something considerably different from the series, break away from conventions, and fuse Metroid with something… a bit more palpable to the GBA audience. Or at least that’s the gist I got from reading between the lines in developer interviews.

Samus’s design was changed from her iconic orange Varia suit to this slick and slimy blue thing that makes Samus look like an alien instead of a cool action dude. Exploration was restrained through the introduction of a linear narrative that restricted where the player could go and when. The more imposing rich atmosphere was changed to something more colorful and vibrant. And while the core tenants of action, exploration, and upgrading were all retained, their balance most certainly was not. But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself and should begin the review proper.

Metroid Fusion Review
Platforms: GBA(Emulated), Nintendo 3DS, Wii U
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo

Taking yet another considerable cue towards continuity in the beginning, Metroid Fusion begins sometime after the events of Super Metroid, with Samus aiding a group of Galactic Federation scientists to extract wildlife samples from SR388. A homeworld of the people who raised her, the birthplace of Metroids, and the planet she previously visited in Metroid II in order to genocide all (or at least most) of the Metroids in order to save the galaxy. A pursuit that ultimately led Samus to destroy Zebes in order to exterminate the little buggers once and for all. Which, as it turns out, wasn’t the brightest of ideas.

Samus quickly comes to learn, the Metroids actually played a vital role in the ecosystem of SR388, being the manufactured predators of the X-Parasite, which is basically the creature from The Thing, in that it can assimilate the form and knowledge of any being it absorbs and multiplies rapidly. This poses a massive problem when Samus is infected and nearly killed by the parasite, with the scientists she was escorting needing to take drastic measures in order to ensure her survival, disposing of much of her armor, injecting her with Metroid DNA, and causing lasting damage to her biology. Traumatized, weakened, and with all her power-ups gone, Samus is immediately called upon to stop the X-Parasite menace while it is still contained in an isolated research base (the BSL station) full of powerful alien life forms for the X-Parasite to absorb, mutate, and use to antagonize the experienced bounty hunter.

If the length of my explanation isn’t enough of an indication, the story and overall premise is a bit of a walk, being considerably more front-loaded than any prior game in the series, while also packing a lot more pathos and references to unpack. However, most of the story can be passively brushed away in favor of ‘explore the space station, shoot the little baddies to progress, shoot the big baddies to get new powers, and use said powers to explore more of the space station’. You know, the typical game flow of the Metroidvania genre, but in a slightly more linear presentation.

Areas are clearly segmented into numbered sectors connected through a primary hub environment, and rather than leaving players to explore and experiment their way to progress, most of the time they’re led by the guiding hand of an AI operator assigned to oversee her on this mission. A figure who serves as the first fully developed character in the Metroid series, and while his development, motives, and ultimate twist are all rather predictable, they make for a more than serviceable framing device, and one who helps to establish an undercurrent of a conspiratorial mystery.

A mystery that is mixed with semi-regular encounters with an X-Parasite that absorbed Samus Aran’s DNA, power suit, and abilities, known as SA-X. A figure who is immediately imposing through their actions, effortlessly using abilities seen in Super Metroid while Samus is still running around without so much as a charge beam. They are used to great effect, instilling the adventure with a hint of horror and dread whenever the SA-X appears on-screen, as they can, and will, decimate Samus in a matter of seconds.

If the fact that I’ve gone on about the story for so long isn’t enough of an indication, I really admire the more direct narrative endeavors of Metroid Fusion. It uses words to craft a more digestible and richer plot, while still delivering on the small environmental details and overall atmosphere that is emblematic to the series. It allows the player to get a more substantive insight into Samus as a person, both by giving her room to muse about her situation in tightly told single screen monologues and by giving her another character to play off of. It’s a detail that I would actually like to see expanded on with another entry that dove more into Samus’s character and gave her an entire cast of other characters to play off of. …But that’s a story for another time.

Moving on, from a broader perspective, it is easy to view Metroid Fusion as yet another iteration in the mold of Super Metroid with the core explore, exterminate, and enhance gameplay loop being largely repeated here, as the game is divided into a series of exploratory segments punctuated by regular boss encounters, with some required backtracking woven in. When focusing on the more finite details, however, the game does bear a notably different feel, and not just with regards to how everything is a bit punchier, lighter, and more accustomed to bombast than the more subdued ambiance of its predecessor.

The planet Zebes was… a planet. A naturalistic environment that, even during its brief interludes into more technologically-based locales, felt like a place that was teeming with hostile life, and like a place where one could easily get lost. In contrast, the BSL station is made up of a lot of metallic corridors and inorganic structures broken up by the occasional colorful organic biome with these very clear stopping points and floor layouts that are, at least to some degree, made clear to the player right as they enter each new sector.

Samus in this game is not a scavenger or explorer as much as she is a mercenary sent in to clean up a mess before it becomes a greater threat. A change in the role that is reflected in the ebb and flow of the game, which shies away from something more freeform and methodical into a clearly structured and segmented action game with small-stage-like exploration segments that culminate in regularly distributed battles against imposing bosses. It is a predictable structure and one that I actually think was something of a wise decision to take with this project, as Fusion was envisioned around the playing habits of the handheld game-liker circa the early 2000s. So separating things into smaller digestible 20-30 minute chunks, and ditching the dark color palette for something more visually engaging to a younger audience, was very much a calculated move, and one that went to infuse Metroid with more actiony elements, thereby offering different, refreshing, and informative to the series’ identity as a whole.

And do I think this different take is good? Yes. Yes, I do quite like the game’s visuals, think the stark design change given to Samus is quite fetching, and enjoy the more reliable structure, as it makes the game incredibly digestible as a title that can be breezed through in a day or two. The game’s more comic-book-inspired art-style has caused its visuals to age gracefully. The energy beam sound effect and fire rate give combat a very expedient and punchy feel, making it satisfying to kill enemies just for the hell of it. And the overall level design is top-notch, barring some especially elusive secrets that make playing with a map on hand preferable to bashing one’s head into every nook and cranny.

There is no shortage of things to like about the game, and I can easily see why it has garnered a passionate fanbase of people who grew up with this title. But if Super Metroid was kind of an asshole whose more negative qualities could be attributed to dated design standards, Fusion is just kind of a bastard, and I think the designers knew it. It is a game that, while admirable in many regards, did a lot of little things that caused my 100% playthrough to climax with a deluge of frustrations that built up over the span of my entire playthrough.

What were these frustrations? Well, the first one was the damage numbers. Enemies deal a lot of damage as time goes on, but the health pickups they drop upon being defeated do not scale for the bulk of the game. Combine this with enemies growing more hostile, being able to hit like dump trucks and a discernable lack of the health foundations that were abundant in Super Metroid, and it becomes quite difficult to recover health outside of a recovery room.

Bosses are frequently these large, imposing, and frantically moving figures confined into small rooms, and while they do all have patterns to avoid, manipulate, and understand, it’s very easy to be intimidated by them and adopt an aggressive stance. Which causes the player, or at least players like me, to panic and start shooting missiles haphazardly at the thing until they die. It’s a strategy that proved to be wildly effective for the most part, which winds up cheapening the whole encounter, as what should have been a strategic bout is instead an exercise in chipping away at the invisible boss health bar faster than the boss can chip away at Samus’s.

This strategy does have the downside of frequently leaving Samus’s health reserves slashed, but rather than fully replenishing the player after a tough encounter, the game only restores a set amount of Samus’s health and missiles, which is an odd decision that can lead to some awkward struggles if the player did not do particularly well in a boss battle. Such as after the battle with Yakuza, the spider boss, where Samus is directed down to Sector 2 without coming across a recovery room, down a shaft, and thrust into an encounter where the player is expected to lose a significant amount of health. Now extra weakened, the player must traverse around frantically moving flying enemies before reaching another boss, and one who can prove to be a ripe pain in the tuchus if the player is feeling reckless or anxious. Oh, and as I figured out after the boss battle, there is actually a recovery room before this boss, it’s just in a needlessly obscure secret room.

That section, in particular, served as something of a prelude to the frustrations of the endgame, where the BSL station opens up to Samus, allowing her to access new obscure secret areas, find bridges between sectors, and do a final clean up round across the station. But if the player so much as dares to return to the hub area, then they are locked out of returning to the sectors, and must proceed to the final boss, with little room for dilly-dallying. It’s a move that shocked me in how much it disregards the freeform and explorative nature of the series by openly locking the player out of backtracking without any clear warning, but that’s not my biggest complaint.

When cleaning up Sector 2, there are two challenges that necessitate a mastery of two of the game’s higher-level mechanics, the shinespark and the space jump. Both of which require tricky timing, precise inputs, and offer an incredibly small amount of margin for error, while requiring players to either walk their lumbering buttocks back to the starting point upon each failure.

As somebody who struggles with more complex inputs in games, pulling off a successful shinespark— that is to say, running, pressing down to hold a charge, and jumping while holding a specific direction— neither comes naturally nor comfortably to me, and I never liked the more deliberate or specific puzzles because of that. The same can be said for the space jump, a mechanic I never fully understood with regards to its flow or how it responded to directional inputs, so you can imagine how shocked I was when I came across a room full of disintegrating bricks that required damn near pixel-perfect precision to avoid falling through. It took me over 40 minutes just to get through this one room, (with the use of save states) and completely offset whatever sense of satisfaction I felt for getting 100% of all items.

While I am fully aware that my quibbles may air on the more minor end of things, and are especially personal, they make it very difficult for me to love Metroid Fusion, even though I very much want to. It has a lot of ambition in its design, is trying to push the Metroid series into a different direction, and when viewing it from a broader perspective, it has the makings of a vibrant, punchy, and inventive exploration-driven action game. However, it does just enough to push me in the wrong direction that I don’t see myself ever returning to this game again.

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