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Metroid: Zero Mission Review

By Jeff Buckland, 2/16/2004

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Nintendo has done an excellent job in keeping the Metroid franchise alive and successful. While some consider the very 3D Metroid Prime to be an unnecessary departure in style for the traditionally 2D series, others say it breathes new life into the games. Either way, Metroid: Zero Mission is most definitely a 2D affair with great controls and classic gameplay. This time, though, a few new surprises have been thrown in for those that think they know what's coming.

On that point, many gamers do have a pretty good idea of what this game offers, as it's a retelling of the original NES Metroid. Many of the powerups introduced in later games are now here, but at the same time we get a bit more of a background behind how those abilities came about. The classic bosses like Kraid, Ridley, and the unforgettable Motherbrain are of course included, feeding that retro need that many Metroid fans have.

Metroid Fusion was the last game in the series to be released, and its controls were more limiting than they could have been - although it took some players a little while to understand how. Basically, the game's highly structured, linear design required that the player do things in order, which kind of screwed up the fun that many players had after mastering previous games in the series. The idea was that you could break the order that the game required the player do things in, like collect items or kill bosses. Metroid Fusion's too-structured design had little room for this kind of tomfoolery. To this end, Nintendo limited bomb-jumping and wall-jumping, two of the series' most useful maneuvers, down to where they were really only barely useful.

Some of the Metroid Fusion conventions have made it into Zero Mission, like holding the R trigger as a "shift" key for firing missiles. But this time, bomb- and wall-jumping are back in their original forms, and these can be used to great effect throughout the game. Those who want to put together some creative speed runs can go crazy with these abilities here, and this has been expanded even further by allowing you to dash while in the morph ball form.

The original Metroid still stands up a good-looking NES game in my opinion, at least for its time. So many rooms looked the same, but its strange half-natural-formation, half-alien-built style made for an interesting, mysterious landscape that I still find to be unique. Nintendo has kept that in mind for this remake, and while every single pixel has been redrawn for Zero Mission, the classic feel is alive.

Sure, this isn't near as visually impressive as Metroid Prime, and it's even shown up in some ways by Super Metroid on the SNES, but Zero Mission has the visuals where they count. The bosses look excellent, Samus is animated even better than ever (at least compared to her other 2D forms), and the enemies show that original style but with a bit more detail this time around.

We also see some of the reworked yet classic style in Zero Mission's many environments. Quite a few areas will be familiar to those that remember the NES original, right down to the placement of items and enemies. At the same time, they've enhanced some areas and changed around many locations for a new visual flair. On top of this, the bosses are big and look great - those who think 2D gaming is dead should definitely consider what Nintendo has done with Metroid: Zero Mission (and graphics aren't the only reason why).

The best way to describe how Metroid: Zero Mission plays would be to say that it's the original game done in a Super Metroid style. That still doesn't get all of it, though, as the game has a fairly long section that's really unique to the series, and many of the items are now much more difficult to get to.

One of my favorite things about this game is simply that we get a story without a lot of typed-out narrative. Fusion held your hand through every objective, and while some story elements were only possible through some text describing them, it certainly wasn't necessary for Zero Mission's relatively simple narrative. The Chozo statues lying around of course offer up items just like they have in every Metroid game, but they also now point you to your next major objective. Note that they do not actually tell you what's down there; they point you in the direction and that's it. It works well, too, as it leaves in some ambiguity and mystery while giving you a real direction to head in - without making you feel lost like the first three games in the series did.

There are basically only a few screens of text in the whole game, and everything else is communicated either during the standard gameplay or in hand-drawn cutscenes. As a Nintendo rep said in an interview, it allows some of that mysterious feel of the original game to come through while they manage to add something new at the same time. We even get some new story behind some of the strange areas you find in Super Metroid, which may not be a big deal for many players - but us self-confessed Metroid fanboys just eat it up.

The ability to wall- and bomb-jump to gain access to places you're not supposed to be really adds to gameplay as well. You can fight Ridley before Kraid if you want, and even finish the game with less than 15% of items collected - there's a specific reward (albeit small) for doing so. On top of all this, Zero Mission is the first Metroid game to include difficulty levels. Easy mode is basically for kids, while Normal will challenge newcomers to the series. Those of us hardened veterans of the series won't be happy until they beat the game and try Hard mode, though, as that's the mode that will really make some of the boss fights tough. Not only do the monsters dish out more damage, but the upgrades you get aren't near as good - energy tanks raise your maximum health by 50 rather than 100, missile upgrades increase your capacity by two rather than five, and so on.

Those who are looking for 100% item collection are going to find that the old Super Metroid tricks are all here, but you'll need to learn some new ones as well. The ability to dash was an excellent addition when it was first introduced, and its full functionality is here - but you can now also dash while in morph ball form. This allows you to fit into tight spots while zooming through rooms, and it also allows you to cancel a dash and restart it in a different direction if you hit an incline. All this adds up to some replayability that goes far beyond the several hours it takes to beat the game the first time.

But that's just the thing; how many people will buy Metroid: Zero Mission after reading the glowing reviews, beat it once in four to five hours, and then consider it a waste of money for being so short? Sadly, I think this number might be too many. The original games were released during a time when replay value meant beating the same game over and over, with no changes other than stupid handicaps we would put on ourselves to make it tougher. The ability to do speed runs or purposely skip powerups made Metroid different, though, and Nintendo has tried to keep that alive here. With two- to five-day rentals being such a big part of gaming nowadays, many publishers push a dynamite six-to-eight hour gameplay experience and give us little motivation to ever pop the game in again.

Metroid: Zero Mission looks a bit like this at first, but you can dig deeper to get some very rewarding gameplay after you beat it once. I do hope many players find this as well, but it simply might not happen.

Nintendo included the ability to play the original Metroid (yes, emulated perfectly on the GBA) as well as unlock Hard mode once you beat it the first time, but I think that either Hard mode should have been available immediately or Normal should have been harder. Most of the bosses, which otherwise would require you to learn a pattern and use some exacting control, could lose to a barrage of button-mashed missiles and only a teeny bit of decent timing. This all changes on Hard, of course, but my first time through the game was hardly a challenge. The only exception to that is the section of the game that's totally new to the series, but it's really tough to talk about that without spoiling it.

Even though the GBA is considered a portable SNES by many, it's actually quite a bit more powerful than the decade-plus-old console. Despite this, Nintendo didn't see fit to put decent music hardware into the thing, so many GBA ports of classic SNES games wind up with worse music than the originals. It's with a certain amount of satisfaction that I have to say that Metroid: Zero Mission has some pretty respectable music compared to what I expected from a GBA. It still doesn't sound as good as the SNES game, but considering what the developers had to work with, they did a great job.

No Metroid game yet has had any more than a couple of lines of actual speech, and it's no different here. Instead, we get tons of brand new sound effects as well as some modernizations of the classic tunes. We even hear a couple of tracks from Metroid Prime and Super Metroid in a re-orchestrated form, and again, while they don't really do the originals justice, they sound pretty damn good for a GBA.

Metroid: Zero Mission offers a perfect balance of retro gameplay with new graphics, sounds, story, and a few surprises. Throw in great controls, three difficulties, and the ability to do all kinds of "speed runs", and you can go through the game many ways with a totally different feel each time. Not everyone will appreciate this Metroid-style replay value, but those who do will find an excellent value in Zero Mission.

Overall: 93%



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