Retro Review: Metroid: Zero Mission

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By Juno Stump on November 2nd, 2021


Metroid is an iconic franchise but it’s also among Nintendo’s oldest, original digital worlds. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda came first but Metroid was still one of Nintendo’s biggest early first-party efforts for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Metroid is a 2D sidescroller like Super Mario Bros. but it features the larger world and exploration of The Legend of Zelda. Although Metroid’s exploration and gameplay loop differ greatly from Zelda’s style, both games are centered around exploration-powered progression. But Metroid’s adventure is also fear-inducing and fueled by fear and desperation.

A miserable pile of Metroids

The first Metroid follows Samus across a mysterious base belonging to Space Pirates, a group of terrorists working to develop dangerous technology through the use of Metroid DNA that was stolen from the Galactic Federation. The mission is simple, or at least it is for Samus Aran. She’s a bounty hunter and one of the best, which is why she’s chosen by the Galactic Federation to infiltrate the base, destroy the evil within, and escape with the valuable Metroid DNA.

The exploration-driven gameplay and iconic science-fiction story are timeless. Metroid’s legacy and influence have literally never left the video game landscape since the first appearance of the series, but the first title is also a product of its time. The ideas and broad strokes of Metroid are intact but the moments are tightly tied to 1987.

Metroid, Nintendo Entertainment System (1987)

Samus changed everything when she landed on the screen but the Nintendo Entertainment System’s technology couldn’t keep her contained forever. Super Metroid brought smooth refinements and much more detailed graphics, which were made possible by the Super Nintendo, the company’s second major home console. And while the ingredients of Metroid may never expire, the actual flavors did grow bitter as time passed.

Metroid Zero Mission was released nearly 20 years after the original version, and it changed everything. Zero Mission utilizes the gameplay engine of Metroid Fusion, which was released just two years earlier on the Game Boy Advance. The increased hardware power of Nintendo’s 16-bit handheld provided the necessary canvas to recreate Metroid. Zero Mission easily could have been a great remake but instead, Nintendo chose to develop one of the greatest remakes of all time.

Remakes Remade

Metroid Zero Mission remains an essential example of how a remake should be handled. Zero Mission echoes the plot of the original Metroid with supporting details added along the way through additional cutscenes and gameplay. The original classic feels like a proof of concept when compared to Zero Mission. It’s the definitive way to experience the beginning of Metroid and the action exploration genre.

Zero Mission brought gameplay changes too. Samus runs, jumps, and aims her missiles with precision and grace. Her move arsenal is expanded some from the original as well, but even just Samus’ basic movements feel better here. Many of the same maneuvers in the original game feel stiff and incomplete by comparison. Zero Mission brings confidence and control to Samus’ first mission. The original game is unlocked upon hitting Zero Mission’s credits but it’s difficult to imagine anyone choosing it over the GBA version.

Metroid is an unnerving experience. It’s uncomfortable. And the music makes it so. The colors and pixels may tell a story but it’s the noise that connects Metroid’s sprawling walkways. Players need to explore and survive while destroying enemies that fill many of the game’s rooms. It can be difficult to keep Samus’ health full in many of the areas, making frequent backtracking necessary. Players can search for resources and grind enemies for small amounts of health but backtracking without a map is very difficult.

Metroid Zero Mission brings many welcome changes but Nintendo’s best change was introducing a map. The original game missing a map makes it harder to recommend. Metroid’s map is a joy to explore. Running through it is exciting, especially as Samus becomes more powerful and can access additional areas, but it’s frustrating without a map. You can beat the game without a map, but you shouldn’t. Nintendo didn’t expect anyone to play Metroid without a map either. Nintendo wanted everyone to buy Nintendo Power, which often contained crucial hints, maps, and more.

Art grows alongside technology

Metroid is an essential game for its influence but the remake restarted the game’s countdown. As art grows and changes, people do as well, including their expectations. The first Metroid still rules but video games kept growing. Developers leveled up Metroid’s template, added ideas, and continued what it started. Zero Mission is Nintendo doing the same thing, all while carefully retaining everything that can be left untouched.

Zero Mission is a much clearer look at Samus’s start and her very first adventure. The new details brought from Game Boy Advance graphics bring players closer to Samus. She’s easier to see as are her actions, reducing the distance between player and character. The original game’s near-perfect pacing is completely fixed too. The increased capabilities of the Game Boy Advance gave Nintendo more language and words to communicate with the player.

And it’s with these extra capabilities that Nintendo was able to transform one of the best NES games into one of the greatest games of all time. Zero Mission is the only way to play Metroid and it’s something everyone should watch or play.

It’s mesmerizing feeling the power of Samus grow as you guide her through the space station. Before the game’s end, Samus is unstoppable and this was communicated effectively within the original game as well. It’s part of what makes Samus, Metroid, and the franchise so special. Starting each entry weak before making your way through every twist and turn before once again containing the full power and might of the greatest bounty hunter of all time.

Juno really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but she also likes other stuff.


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