Zero Mission gives the original Metroid the biggest gift it possibly could: it makes that title’s legacy reverberate loud and clear through the gaming universe
There is little to no doubt that the original Metroid is a classic. Its revered status, however, is far more closely related to the masterful series it would spawn and to its concept than to its execution. Like its generational peer – The Legend of Zelda, also released in 1986 – it was a game that carried an intriguing and wall-tumbling idea: in its case, taking the left-to-right sidescrolling gameplay and placing it inside a maze that had to be traversed back and forth numerous times in order to be cleared. As it was the case with Link’s first quest, Samus’ debut mission had ambition whose weight could not be handled by the available hardware at the time; unlike it, though, Metroid, due to the incompatibility between its overwhelming grandeur and the NES, sank far more often than it found ways to stay afloat.
Consequently, if there was a game in the Nintendo lore that claimed for a remake, that game was Metroid. In 2004, amidst a rather bountiful period that saw the franchise gain four new installments in the span of just two years, Nintendo delivered that overhaul under the appropriate moniker of Metroid: Zero Mission. Metroid, then, supported by hardware whose strength was more than appropriate to house an undertaking of its stature, got its second chance to prove itself. The opportunity was not forfeited: the series got one of its strongest and purest outings, and the Game Boy Advance became the home to one of Nintendo’s greatest portable titles.
As the reinterpretation of Metroid’s inception, Zero Mission naturally stands alongside Super Metroid as the titles that feature the franchise’s signature gameplay at its most unaltered state. Samus is dropped on Zebes with nothing but a mission to exterminate the planet’s Metroids and Space Pirates, a pat on the back by the Galactic Federation, and a suit that allows her to perform simple jumps and shoot beams that only travel a short distance. In order to achieve her goal, she must, alone, explore locations that are brimming with dangers, both in the form of enemies and environmental hazards, and slowly acquire new equipment that will allow her to get to previously unreachable places.
That basic Metroid recipe, which was finely established by the original title as far as level design intricacies go, works astoundingly well. Samus’ journey from a limited soldier to a bounty hunter capable of dealing with the universe’s greatest threats, which will appear in the form of great action-packed boss battles, is thoroughly engaging. There are no dull moments to be found here. Zero Mission is a constant stream of exploration and puzzle solving where the fully connected maze-like world map is the greatest riddle. It is a relentless immersive act of finding a new piece of equipment – such as the classic Morph Ball, the fire resistant Varia Suit, or the arsenal-enhancing Power Bombs, missiles, Screw Attack, and beams – and figuring out where that new power can be used to open the path to an undiscovered place.
Zero Mission takes the bases and the world built by Metroid, paints them with beautiful art, and improves them in every aspect. It is clear that Super Metroid served as a great source of inspiration in numerous areas: the visuals, which are as involving and alluring as the Game Boy Advance allows; the color palette, which is somber and alien; the controls, as Samus’ movements – including the much needed crouching that the original game surprisingly lacked – behave and are the same as those of the Super Nintendo classic; and the rather efficient map system, the greatest absence felt by the brave souls that tackled the NES title, which marks important locations, hides secret spots, and is easy to navigate.
From Super Metroid, Zero Mission also borrows its minimalistic storytelling approach. Within seconds from starting the game, following a brief text message coming from the Galactic Federation explaining her task on Zebes, Samus will have landed and started her exploration. Zero Mission, however, takes things one step further in that regard by adorning a handful of the adventure’s major moments with short, but sweet, cutscenes carried by gorgeous pixel art, adding hints of modern gaming to a classic structure.
Zero Mission certainly benefits from the natural evolution of hardware that transpired in the eighteen years that passed since the debut of its source material. Its interface is rich, including tutorials explaining how each of the pieces of equipment works and what their benefits are; its visuals and music are magnanimous, with classic Metroid tunes being smartly reused; and assets such as maps, save points, and even Chozo Statues that when activated make a glowing orb appear on the map to indicate to players where to go next – which does not ruin the fun given getting to the locations is still quite puzzling – all conspire to make an experience that was originally brutal turn into an accessible, yet still challenging, game. Zero Mission makes a further commendable effort to welcome all kinds of players by offering three difficulty settings, including a hard mode that is unlocked when the game is beaten.
Zero Mission’s best new features, however, run far deeper than that. Brand new items and mini-bosses have been included. Moreover, and most importantly, besides the classic locations of Norfair, Brinstar, and Tourian, the game adds a whopping three new full-fledged settings that come into play and must be explored during the quest. Such additions are responsible for turning the game into a masterful remake, one that is not merely satisfied with unearthing the greatness of the original Metroid, as it also looks to reinterpret and extend it – thereby creating a fresh adventure that should last six hours, or even more if players decide to look for the dozens of missile, bomb, and energy tank expansions scattered around Zebes.
Nintendo, in fact, tackles the quest of implementing punctual changes to the game with so much dedication that one particular new area offers an intriguing brand new take on the Metroid universe. In it, due to a series of unfortunate events, Samus becomes so vulnerable she is forced to use stealth to avoid her enemies and desperately run and hide whenever she is seen. Undeniably, the setup is well-done, as is its integration into the Metroid fabric, and the engaging segment produces moments of absolute thrill and tension. However, the fact that some specific portions lean too closely on trial-and-error, forcing players to go back to the last save point only to try numerous different strategies again and again until something works, is a tiny smudge on a game that has, otherwise, flawless level design. The same applies to some rare, but existing, poor save point placements, which incur the replaying of relatively lengthy segments when Samus dies.
With these two exceptions, Metroid: Zero Mission is a perfect and ideal remake. It reveals, and makes accessible to many, the flooring intricacy in level design that the minds at Nintendo were able to put together in 1986, one that is perhaps only paralleled – as far as 2-D games go – by the giant that is Super Metroid. More than that, it dares to build upon that recipe with numerous additions and comes out of it almost unscathed and with plenty of well-deserved accolades. Consequently, it creates the definitive narrative of the events that transpired on Samus’ first quest on Zebes, and turns the original Metroid – a game that deserves utter respect and admiration for the formula it coined, and that is charmingly included in the package as an extra – into an item for collectors and avid fans. Upon taking that throne, though, Zero Mission is kind enough to give the original game the biggest gift it possibly could: it makes Metroid’s legacy reverberate loud and clear through the gaming universe.