Metroid Fusion overcame the series revival challenge by taking it head on

Metroid Fusion overcame the series revival challenge by taking it head on

Samus Aran has one of the most striking outfits around. Her Power Suit, with its bright colors and massive spherical shoulder pads (how does she manage to get anything off the top shelf?), is iconic. It makes it an even bigger surprise when, in the first moments of Metroid Fusion, she has to be cut out of it. Samus, on an expedition to the planet SR388, the setting of Metroid II, is infected by a mysterious parasite known as X, which mutates her body and her suit and leaves her near death. Galactic Federation doctors are able to save Samus with the help of a serum derived from research on the Metroid creatures of SR388, but the results of that procedure are…different. In order to save Samus, they have to surgically remove parts of her suit, leaving her bonded with a mutant costume, one made partially out of the remnants of the X parasite. Her new armor is form-fitting and organic, all light blue and speckled yellow, with spikes protruding from the arms. With the exception of the helmet, it’s entirely alien. Within minutes of starting Metroid Fusion, we’re introduced to a Samus we’re not sure we recognize anymore.

Released in 2002 on the Game Boy Advance, Metroid Fusion was developed by Nintendo Research and Development 1, the same team that developed a lot of Nintendo’s earliest hits, including the much-lauded Super Metroid, to which Fusion functions as a belated direct sequel. As the first 2-D Metroid game in eight years, Fusion had a lot to live up to. Reviving a classic property is always a challenge, and reviving one as influential and beloved as Metroid—it has a genre named after it, after all—is even harder still. How do you make a game that satisfies the fans and doesn’t feel like a nostalgia trip? Nintendo R&D 1’s answer was to use the framework of the past to make a different style of game, deliberately stripping away and rearranging elements of Metroid’s history to create a new experience within the context of the old.

Our hero’s change of clothes is the first (and most literal) sign of this stripping, an immediate recalibrating of expectations. The rest of the game continues apace: Metroid Fusion retains an updated version of the core shooting and jumping from the older games but jettisons much of the open-ended exploration that characterized them. Instead, the game doles out objectives and tells the player where to go, all of the paths branching out from a central hub. It’s a structure that owes more to System Shock 2 than it does to Super Metroid. And like System Shock 2, it uses that design to focus on storytelling, delivering bits of story through internal narration from Samus and orders received from an AI called Adam—named such by Samus for its similarities to her old CO, Adam Malkovich.

That story finds Samus and Adam investigating an X outbreak on a research station, and from here on out the nods to Samus’ past only get more blatant. The research station contains simulated and contained pockets of the environments from Samus’ earlier adventures, lava pits and rock formations juxtaposed with security stations and sterile metal corridors. What’s more, the X parasite has a penchant for imitating other life forms, populating these simulated environments with hostile facsimiles of their familiar native fauna—monsters from past Metroid games. And to Samus’ horror, the X somehow seems to remember her from their previous encounter, and she soon finds herself face-to-face with her own copy, the SA-X, a dead-eyed doppelganger clad in Samus’ old suit and wielding all her classic abilities.

These recontextualized environmental and narrative elements, along with the game’s more linear focus, turn Metroid Fusion into a claustrophobic psychological thriller, as a transformed Samus fights through shadows of her past, hunted relentlessly by her former self. The SA-X is the old Samus at her best and most deadly. It stalks you throughout the ship, sabotaging your efforts to stop the X from spreading. It cuts power and destroys critical pathways. You’re virtually defenseless during the first few encounters, with no means to damage it and no recourse but to run. These confrontations are interspersed every so often through the game, and they break up the action with a real sense of terror and helplessness. At one point it cuts the power to an elevator shaft, leaving you stranded and disoriented during what typically functions as an uneventful glorified loading screen. It’s unnerving. This must be how her enemies view Samus: remorseless and implacable, a Terminator with an ice beam.

The SA-X and the other X imitations are series-revival anxiety made flesh, the specter of Super Metroid following the player around. It’s a coy decision, forcing players to wade through and run from flimsy forms of Metroid nostalgia. It allows the developers to have it both ways, capitalizing on the strong memories attached to the series while also suggesting that simply evoking nostalgia would have been transparent and dull. A game that simply tried to copy Super Metroid’s successes after so much time had passed would have been as obvious an impostor as SA-X. By populating the game with pale imitations and simulated memories, the developers force the player to feel the weight of Samus’s legacy bear down on them.

For Samus and her creators alike, then, Metroid Fusion feels like a sifting project, a journey to build something new out of the body of the old. Because she’s still an action hero, Samus eventually beats SA-X and regains most of her old abilities. Her suit even gets its classic color scheme back, although it retains its alien contours and texturing. These gains don’t feel like a return, however, but a reintegration. Samus has been irrevocably transformed by what she’s been through—part-X, part-metroid, and not the same person she used to be. The game follows the same path, blending the classic structure in its DNA with fresh ideas and creating a Metroid sequel that’s faithful but wholly distinct. Samus steps out of the shadow of the Power Suit, and is all the stronger for it.

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