“Now I shall finally tell the tale of my first battle here …”
Back in 1986, Nintendo sent shockwaves like Wave Beams through the living rooms of many gamers with its revolutionary video game, Metroid. Not only did Metroid thrust you into an isolated, unique, and creepy alien expedition, but it dropped a Power Bomb-sized surprise twist at the end when players discovered the game’s brave, tough, and all-around awesome protagonist inside the Power Suit was a girl all along. Metroid was a great game of its age, but its status as a pioneer of the genre meant it was definitely not perfect.
In 2004, Nintendo upgraded Metroid in a remake, titled Metroid: Zero Mission, for Game Boy Advance, vastly improving the game with a contemporary story, visuals, and gameplay. And now, Nintendo has once again released this fantastic game for the Wii U Virtual Console.
The premise of Zero Mission is deceptively simple: as space bounty hunter Samus Aran, you jump around in a Power Suit of armor on the mysterious and dark Planet Zebes, hunting down Metroids and Mother Brain for the safety of the Galactic Federation while blasting away the hazardous local wildlife and anything trying to stop you. As you progress in your mission, you discover upgrades to your weapons and Power Suit, which in turn opens up new avenues of exploration. On the surface, Zero Mission might sound like any generic 2D shooter, but at its cavern-riddled core, it is a deeply engaging and satisfying experience.
Before ever firing a single shot out of Samus’s arm cannon, Metroid: Zero Mission makes it very clear it is not a simple remake of the NES classic, but rather a complete retelling. In the original Metroid, the only story element for the game was a brief order from the Federation to basically destroy everything on the planet. In Zero Mission, however, players are treated to a more contextual and relevant story through cutscenes narrated by Samus herself, in which she provides a brief glimpse into her past and her connection to the planet. These cut-scenes, while displayed via simple cartoon style art and animation similar to those of Super Metroid, effectively convey the story to the player and do a remarkable job of balancing a satisfying narrative while maintaining Metroid’s iconic style of isolation and mystery.
One of my biggest personal complaints about the original Metroid was the lack of pertinent information provided to the player, such as a map or what each new power up was and how to use them. These issues were finally addressed in Super Metroid and, thankfully, the same mechanics were applied to Zero Mission. Newly collected abilities are named, shown to the player on the Status screen, and their use is properly explained. Further, as players venture deeper into the planet, the Map Screen is updated to reflect their progress and a small portion of the map is visible on the upper-right corner of the screen during normal gameplay to keep the player oriented.
Metroid: Zero Mission also benefits from several other gameplay enhancements gamers have likely begun to take for granted as Metroid staples, such as Save Rooms to save their progress and Map Rooms to reveal a designated region’s map. Additionally, players can crouch and shoot diagonally, whereas the original Metroid lacked such functionality. It is worth noting, however, that aiming diagonally downward can be clumsy at times, and certain Power Suit upgrade maneuvers are helpful but their awkward controls can be frustrating during hectic moments in an otherwise smooth-controlling game.
The most striking upgrade Zero Mission makes to the original is in its presentation. The art style is directly lifted from Super Metroid and reproduced to the best of the GBA’s ability, resulting in a visually pleasing experience. It might lack the more intricate details of Super Metroid, but the graphics of Metroid: Zero Mission are more polished and crisp than its inspirational ancestor’s and still look as great on a 47-inch LCD as they did on Game Boy Advance.
Every aspect of Zero Mission is superior to the original Metroid, but the soundtrack is where I feel more could have been done to really bolster the mood. The more dramatic or chaotic sequences, such as boss fights, cutscenes, and escapes, are mostly well-realized through powerful, chorus-infused themes, but the new renditions of many of the original tunes seem to be held back due to their primitive blueprints. Although the theme songs of Zero Mission are easily recognizable and frequently melodic, too much time spent exploring some regions begins to transform the once-hummable song loops into slightly annoying jingles. The Metroid series is generally renown for its fantastic atmosphere achieved through the combination of the world and the music — a feat mastered by Super Metroid and refined further with Metroid Prime. The music of Zero Mission is not bad by any stretch and maintains the series’ familiar trademark tunes, but refrains from achieving the level of perfection and mood that many gamers have come to expect.
Even with all the fantastic upgrades added in Zero Mission, the gameplay is still where Samus’s first quest really shines.
Upon touching down on Planet Zebes, players reach their first upgrade within seconds and are rapidly introduced to the game’s exploration and upgrades-driven format. Zero Mission masterfully grabs the player’s attention with its precision shooting and platforming, piques their interest with its upgrade system, then sinks its hooks in with the wonderfully mysterious planet ripe for exploration — all within just a handful of minutes.
On par with other Metroid games, each new upgrade blasts open new gameplay mechanics and areas to traverse. As soon as you happily get used to using a certain weapon, you surely find another upgrade that ramps up your enjoyment. I also found that the pacing of the game was quite brisk — you hit the ground running, shooting and Morph Balling before you know it. The promise of new abilities and places to explore keeps the GamePad glued to your hands in a constant crescendo of gaming bliss from the opening cutscene to the final credits.
Since the game vastly relies on exploration to progress the action, Zero Mission encourages the player’s curiosity and desire to locate hidden areas and items by strategically placing the world’s contents and anomalies in such suspicious manner to catch eagle-eyed players’ attention without being too obvious. Players are frequently faced with an apparent problem in need of a solution to advance, but thankfully, the game offers little advice; it is up to the player to figure out if a new upgrade is needed, a hidden route needs discovered, or perhaps part of the room is just an illusion.
Although most of the upgrades — missiles and energy tank expansions — are shrouded in hidden areas and are largely not essential to beat the game, the player is still required to experiment with their arsenal and the world in order to find secret areas to drive the progression. Also, for players who wish for a slightly more guided experience, Chozo statues sparingly peppered throughout Zebes can be activated to set vague rally points on the map. Most of these statues are optional and, once activated, their guidance is ambiguous enough to provide more of a push in the right direction, rather than an overbearing “easy mode.” Likewise, Map Rooms can be located and used to fill out large segments of a region’s map, but hidden rooms are left unrevealed for the player to discover on their own. As with almost every Metroid game, players can expect the series’ signature freedom of exploration to present a non-linear experience that captures the feeling of discovery right along with Samus as she traverses deeper and deeper into the various regions of the strange planet.
One of my only issues with the Metroid series has always been the vast majority of enemies in the game are slightly boring, which is still the case with Zero Mission. Most of the combat involves blasting spiky blobs, flying spike creatures, insect-looking things, and other lower life forms. I understand how these types of enemies align to the alien planetary exploration aspect of the series — they could just be a little more imaginative and interesting. To be clear, the enemies are fun and engaging, they are just heavily recycled throughout the game and their design is generally a little bland. Additionally, the more interesting enemies, such as Metroids and Space Pirates, are only encountered very sparingly. For those familiar with enemies in the series, you already have a good idea of what to expect and your opinion on the matter will be the same as always.
The boss battles, on the other hand, are an area where I believe the Metroid series has always triumphed. Although the key to beating them is usually as simple as shooting a weak spot several times with missiles, actually managing to do so is generally not so easy. In a drastic contrast to the regular enemies, the designs of the bosses are imaginative, extravagant, and complex, delivering boss battle sequences that trump most other games. As a little icing on the boss-fighting cake, Nintendo added a few extra bosses to Zero Mission.
Gamers familiar with the original Metroid will be happy to find that the end of the game is extended in Zero Mission. After the original ending sequence, players find more to explore as Samus completely loses her Power Suit in a turn of events during a visit to a significant region and encounter with a bevy of Space Pirates. While equipped with only her Zero Suit and a useless blaster, Samus must then negotiate the region in a stealth-based gameplay twist until she regains her equipment once again. While some players may welcome this segment’s brief change of pace, I found it to be the least amusing portion of the game, although still enjoyable. Fortunately, the final additional segment after the Zero Suit part proved to be one of the most amusing portions, resulting in a new closing chapter that ends on a very high note.
The extended ending of Zero Mission is not the only supplemental addition to the original’s core game. Throughout their journey, players will encounter some slight tweaks to the previously existing world: additional regions, mini-bosses, and upgrades that were not present in Samus’s 1986 expedition on Zebes. All additional content of Zero Mission fits seamlessly into the structure of the original and makes for an exponentially more delightful game. Also, I am happy to report with all of the additional features and upgrades in Zero Mission, it does not necessarily feel like a remake of the original. It actually feels like a new game that is more akin to Super Metroid.
Thankfully, you don’t have to take my word for it, because once you beat Zero Mission, you unlock the entire, unaltered original NES Metroid, leaving you free to romp through Zebes in its original 8-bit gloomy glory.
Finally, I will add that most Virtual Console games are generally a straight port of the original, and Zero Mission is no different. However, the added functionality of Wii U VC’s ability to create Restore Points is something I found to be useful in Zero Mission. Although this feature could be abused and used to circumvent the game’s essential built-in saving system, I found it handy to use a Restore Point right before bosses or other difficult parts. In doing so, players can avoid the trouble of being forced to repeatedly endure the monotonous trek back from the last Save Room and then rewatch any cutscenes or animations that might play before getting straight to the battle. This tiny feature is enough to make the Virtual Console version of Zero Mission the definitive version to play.
Although most fans of 2D Metroid games agree that Super Metroid is the pinnacle of the series, Metroid: Zero Mission definitely gives it a run for its money. The game design is expertly planned and executed, and the balance of Zero Mission’s difficulty level is delicately and splendidly crafted in a manner that is frequently challenging and highly rewarding for various accomplishments, yet never frustrating. Even with the additional content, Zero Mission is relatively short and can be easily completed within four to six hours on a first playthrough. Gamers who insist on scouring the planet for 100 percent of the upgrades could naturally expect that number to be a little higher, of course.
I can earnestly recommend Zero Mission as the first game to experience for newcomers to the series, as well as to anybody looking for a fantastic prequel follow-up to Super Metroid. And for anybody avoiding the game due to its nature of being a remake: don’t. You should play this game.