It may dilute some of the franchise’s key elements, but Metroid Fusion more than makes up for that by cleverly building its own character
Sometimes, the enduring of a whole lot of suffering can yield glorious rewards, and by 2002 Metroid fans had certainly gone through more than enough bad times to earn some sort of jubilation. Super Metroid had come to the Super Nintendo in 1994 and not only did it present the peak of the franchise, but also one of the finest gaming experiences Nintendo had ever delivered. A critical and commercial success that could have been used as some sort of trampoline to keep the franchise moving forward at a good pace turned out to actually be a title that preceded a lengthy drought, for Samus – due to Nintendo’s difficulty to figure out how to exactly put the character in a 3-D environment – had skipped the Nintendo 64 altogether.
Eight years into that lull, as if repaying a huge debt with a good deal of interest rates, Nintendo gave fans of the space bounty hunter not one, but two reasons to celebrate. While Metroid Prime succeeded spectacularly in translating the lonely and eerie Metroid universe to a tridimensional realm, Metroid Fusion literally picked up where Super Metroid had left off and kept the legacy of the series’ sidescrolling non-linear exploration very much alive.
After saving the Metroid hatchling from the evil clutches of the Space Pirates, Samus heads onto another mission that leads her to SR-388, the planet that serves as the lair of the Metroids. While exploring the place, she encounters a parasite called “X” and is inadvertently infected by the virus. While returning to a space station, she loses consciousness and her ship hits an asteroid belt, nearly killing her. During a very dramatic surgery, doctors discover that she is deeply infected and choose to inject her with a vaccine created with the cells of the infant Metroid she had rescued during Super Metroid, given those creatures are natural predators of the X parasite.
The procedure works, but the hunter is affected by it. Her suit fuses with the cells, and not only does she gain the ability to absorb X parasites – like a preying Metroid, but she also acquires the creature’s vulnerability to cold. Not one to lay in recovery for too long, upon reawakening, Samus discovers that a big explosion has happened on the nearby B.S.L. Laboratory, a space station that perfectly recreates the different environments of SR-388, and Samus is sent there to investigate. That’s when Metroid Fusion takes off.
When going through the game, it is probable that the first remarkable feature players will notice is how, differently from Super Metroid, this sequel is far more colorful. While that game tended to use a very sober palette of colors, even in its more organic environments, Fusion is not afraid to employ shades that would be right at home in some of Nintendo’s more accessible franchises. Even Samus herself, who now dons a suit that is mostly bright blue with light yellow spots, has gone through that transformation.
That graphical change is completely positive. The art style serves the game well for it makes it stand on its own among the other installments of the space saga. Moreover, the different natural settings that exist inside the massive lab spring to life thanks to that design approach, with their colors and lines making each of them impressively remarkable and unique inside the Metroid canon.
A lighter and brighter visual tonality does, however, have the potential to act against Metroid’s key feature: that ominous and lonely vibe the games of the series exhale so effectively. Metroid Fusion, thankfully, does not suffer one bit from that issue. In fact, it is arguable that when it comes to tension it tops all of its peers. Samus is the sole human presence inside the whole facility, a location in which an obscure dangerous situation is taking place and that emits a haunting air from every one of its set-pieces, rooms, enemies, shafts, and settings; a feeling made even stronger by a minimalistic soundtrack composed of simple beeps, low hums, and a whole lot of silence.
This time around, however, she is not exactly alone. Firstly, there is her new ship’s computer, an impressive artificial intelligence that helps her by pointing out locations of interest that need to be visited or where suspicious activity is happening, which makes the hunter nickname it “Adam”, after her former officer. Secondly, there is the point from which most of the tension comes from: a sentient Samus doppelganger, formed by the X virus’ ability to copy those it infects, that roams the facility.
The presence of “Adam” makes the game far more linear than Super Metroid: a relief to those who have a problem with backtracking, and a potential source of disappointment for more traditional fans of the saga. Samus will still traverse a huge map broken up into different environments looking for equipment upgrades that will allow her to reach new locations, and extra missile and energy tanks to increase her firepower and resistance. However, given the computer’s omnipresence, she will always be directed to the room she needs to get to, with a marker highlighting the target location on the map.
Surely, there is still the thrill and amusement of figuring out how in the world to navigate to that location, but that guidance, along with a level design that is brilliant but far more straightforward, transforms the experience into something that is far more linear, focused, and concise. If on one hand such features cause Metroid Fusion to be thoroughly enthralling in every one of its seconds; on the other hand they produce a relatively short game, one that can be cleared within eight hours.
The presence of the Samus doppelganger, named SA-X, meanwhile, is by far Metroid Fusion’s most amazing, distinctive, and thrill-inducing feature. As it turns out, the entity is far more powerful than Samus, which makes encounters with it positively deadly, and the computer will occasionally warn the hunter that the SA-X is roaming around the area she is about to explore.
Truthfully, meetings with the creature are scripted; they happen in specific rooms during specific portions of the game’s plot development, when Samus is forced to quickly find cover somewhere so that she is not seen by the walking juggernaut, moments that will send all players to the very edge of their seats trying to figure out just exactly where to hide. Still, the fact that the creature is always around and it is possible to hear it opening doors and walking, and even to see it in adjacent rooms, makes exploring the facility all the more exciting and going into dark places an action that is worthy of being featured in a good horror movie.
If Metroid Prime is a masterpiece of the first-person genre, Metroid Fusion is its equal on the sidescrolling universe, making the eight-year wait fans had to endure for the next installments of the franchise almost seem worth it. Although the depth of exploration and environmental puzzle-solving of Super Metroid is diluted by a more prominent linearity, Metroid Fusion more than makes up for that, for it builds its own character through very sensible additions and shifts. Its colorful visuals are glorious, and both “Adam” and the Samus doppelganger make the title the most tense and storyline focused entry in the franchise’s history. Metroid Fusion was not merely a rebirth of 2-D Metroid, it was also a very positive reinvention.