Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Original Release Date(s): Feb. 9, 2004 (NA); March 19, 2004 (AU); April 8, 2004 (EU); May 27, 2004 (JP)
Systems: GameBoy Advance / 3DS Virtual Console (TBA)
Moving Forward by Going Backwards
About two weeks ago, we kicked off what will be an intermittent celebration here at TNE: the tenth anniversary of Metroid’s triumphant return to Nintendo consoles. In 2002, both Fusion and Prime were released, a double-barreled shot of Samus Aran in both home console and handheld forms. Last week, we retro reviewed Metroid Fusion to kick things off proper. However, an interesting question was posed in the comments section: Fusion or Zero Mission? Well, even though the 3DS Virtual Console has yet to see its release, we can’t just leave that inquiry hanging in the air, can we?
It would be easy to simply label Zero Mission as a remake of the original Metroid, but it’s much more than that. It elaborates upon the events that transpired in the series’ eponymous 1986 debut, expands – and twists – the labyrinthine map of the planet Zebes (Samus’ adopted home), and adds in the gameplay innovations ushered in by Fusion (the ledge grab mechanic, most noticeably).
In a tip of the cap to the game it updated, the GameBoy Advance cartridge for ZM even included a pixel-perfect recreation of the original Metroid. So then, content and value accounted for, does it top Fusion?
Sight and Sound
Zero Mission’s graphics are an interesting middle ground between Fusion and Super Metroid; it is brighter and more colorful than Super, but it doesn’t quite go for broke with the same pastel gusto of Fusion. Thankfully, Samus is back to her usual golden armor, too. Without having to worry about abusing darker hues (this game was clearly designed with the GBA’s back-lit SP revision in mind), ZM partially abandoned the brighter, more sterile style of Fusion. It allows Zebes to look like the dark, dank, cavernous underground you remember from Super. However, the background detail is the true star of the show. The original Metroid was easy to get lost in by virtue of so many rooms looking so similar, but that’s never a problem here. Overall, the graphics aren’t much of a leap over Fusion; your taste in color palettes will most likely decide which visual presentation you prefer.
The music retains much of the compositional fidelity of the original Metroid, if not the same foreboding. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything wrong with the sounds here, but there is something haunting about the 8-bit original’s soundtrack. This is a more tuneful batch, which fits in with the upgraded visuals.
It’s that timeless ‘ol tale: girl goes to alien homeworld, finds artifacts of her benefactors, does battle with hostile lifeforms and duels to the death with a giant, squishy artificial intelligence. Yep, it’s Metroid. This is a loving recreation, after all.
There is one main surprise, though, and it is held off until the very end of the game. If you have not yet played it, I won’t ruin the epilogue, but suffice to say that it’s…different. If you aren’t a fan of what Zero Mission immediately throws at you after escaping Zebes, don’t worry, the conclusion makes it all worthwhile.
Gameplay and Conclusion
Like Fusion, this Metroid was also tailor made for the GBA’s layout: run with the D-pad, jump and shoot with the A and B face buttons, use missiles and shoot diagonally with the shoulder triggers. It’s an intuitive set-up, one that lends itself to pick-up-and-play simplicity. The tight, responsive controls are married to a forgiving (although fair) difficulty level. You can tell the designers created this game with portability in mind – save rooms are never far off, meaning this is a fantastic title to play on the go. Like Fusion, this game isn’t long, but it’s so fun that it warrants replaying (you’ll only be out two hours, less if you’re a Metroid pro).
Zero Mission accomplished its goal of shining up the original Metroid, fixing the debut title’s issues and making it into the game it was always meant to be. It manages to be more focused than its 1986 inspiration, but less rigid than Fusion in doling out time to explore. It’s a pretty, if dated, little 2D game, with gameplay that has stood the test of time. Plus, the original GBA version was a superlative value, with the inclusion of the original Metroid. In that respect, it deserves a higher score than Fusion, and I’m going to give it one.
But here’s the catch: that’s my objective judgment of this game. Subjectively? I’d take Fusion any day of the week – it’s a game with more flaws, but I’ve had more fun with it.
That isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed Zero Mission over the years; far from it, actually. It’s simply that, from my point of view, ZM precariously straddles a line between the original (as well as Super) and Fusion. It does this expertly. But if I want to play a 2D Metroid with open exploration, I’ll play Super; if I want to play a more focused/mission-based 2D Metroid, I’ll play Fusion.
Where does that leave Zero Mission? Squarely in the middle. Perhaps that’s where you will find yourself, too.