a review of Metroid Fusion
a videogame developed by nintendo r&d1
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo 3ds virtual console and the nintendo gameboy advance
text by Ario Barzan
When a series establishes some sort of successful inner-continuity, it seems like a natural enough response to at first be, if not repelled by, cautious of an inversion or rearrangement of those principles. The game in question comes out: we play it, and we might like it as a momentary deviation. We might want it to be the way the series defines itself from then on. We might hate it, or be indifferent because we didn’t care in the first place, and this thing isn’t changing our minds. Somewhere along the line of reactions, the “It’s a good video game, but not a good (insert name of series) game” comment appears, and everyone takes a moment to hold their chin and ponder this clear, fair perspective. Seven years after Super Mario Sunshine was released on the Gamecube, it’s still criticized for giving Mario an “un-Mario” water-powered jetpack (meanwhile, jetpack-less Super Mario Galaxy comes out, and is praised for being the true successor of Super Mario 64 (which is about the strangest praise you can give)).
I think, ultimately, the context of a video game will tell whether or not “good game/bad X game” is an applicable statement – though, usually, it’s a clingy, weird situation, where the consumers are a father who is disheartened by the sons that choose alternate careers, happy only when a new boy is born who carries on the traditional craft. And – I might be backing myself into a corner, here – if a game is so beholden to its thing that any deviation or alternative molding spells certain doom, there might be a fundamental problem to begin with. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” isn’t really an applicable adage – a video game isn’t a thing of objective function. Expression implies creative boundaries, and, sooner or later, revision becomes a valid pursuit.
I’d first like to say that for all the good things Metroid: Zero Mission does, it is kind of dumb. I bring it up because when Metroid Fusion comes up, so, inevitably, does Zero Mission, as a “purer” counter-example. Zero Mission is kind of dumb because it’s a remake of the original Metroid, even though Super Metroid did that first – not literally, but practically. Zero Mission is a fine game, a good game: an explosive, little celebration of an old NES title, featuring bombastic music, gaudy graphics, and comic-book cutscenes, yet a little inexplicable, unnecessary, even with the compact stealth segment addition at the end. Fusion is a better (Metroid) game because it tries newer things, and succeeds at most of them.
An easy way to describe Fusion would be to call it “The Best Post-Symphony Castlevania” for the way it feels more direct, frontal, action-y, than Super Metroid (please note that I am also suggesting that the level design is not terrible). This isn’t to say that Super Metroid is at fault for being what it is, even a little: it is to say that Fusion is Nintendo trying to make a linear Metroid game. The masses scream in terror. “Linear”, even outside Metroid, has become synonymous with a nostril-enlarging, head-titling Ehhh: reviewers will place the word in a review and let it, alone, stand as a critique of said game. The thing about Fusion’s linearity isn’t that it’s for the sake of itself, though – it’s informed by the narrative, and the narrative, reciprocally, is informed by it. What you end up with is a nice two-way dynamic that drives the game along.
It doesn’t make me angry when people get all up in arms about Fusion’s attitude – just perplexed. Certainly, yes, “lonely game” and all that. But Fusion’s approach is a modern reinvestigation of what Metroid could’ve been like during its baby days. Samus Aran, video games’ equivalent of Alien’s Ripley, is put through the same anticipatory fear present in that movie series. With a game like the original Metroid, there is no cinematic, event-specific tension to speak of: the conflict arises out of labyrinthine, hyper-repetitive level design and indifferent enemies chipping away at your health. The same could be said of the Gameboy sequel, or Super Metroid (whose level design is more labyrinthine than hyper-repetitive). Metroid‘s initial brand of tension came from the ever-present isolation players experienced.
In Fusion, however, anything can happen (according to the game’s script, at least). The space station’s save rooms may shut down. Monsters can break free of their containment and wreak havoc on locales. All the while, a terror is lurking about, a parasitic doppelganger – modeling itself off of Samus – dubbed the SA-X. The Prime series would borrow this idea and use it to weak effect, turning Dark Samus into a goofy weed of an enemy that wore out its welcome. Fusion’s “dark Samus” has just enough screen-time, is put in just the right situations, to become a figure of terror. In a dead-end room, you might jump up into a ceiling shaft and then watch as the SA-X enters, halts, breathes, and exits. In another spot, it might crash through a wall and chase you down a hallway, devouring your health like a monster if you let it catch up to you. The tension in Fusion is one of man versus the grotesquery of the ultimate enemy: his (her) shadow.
Sequence breaking is fun — it’s just that, were it present in Fusion, the urgency and dread of the adventure would be undermined (and, well, you can always go back to Super Metroid, anyway). Lack of that “freedom” notwithstanding, you can still go out of your way to explore for health and ammunition power-ups. What I don’t like is how the game puts a barrier between you and the exploration that is present, only allowing certain portions to be accessed post-completion. There doesn’t seem to have been much logic to this decision, besides a deliriously weird notion of “replay value.” Really, we’ll play the game again if we like it — just let us have what’s there. And, standing in as the implied Final Entry in the Metroid canon, Fusion has an absence of resolve or import in its ending. For what it is, it’s the most interesting story the series has to tell, but it’s a story that feels unfinished.
Samus carries a nice physical clarity to her movements, using a hand to clasp onto the edge of platforms with a satisfying tack, leaping through the air with a palpable weight. Also, since weapon upgrades override previous ones (and simply take possession of Samus’ normal beam, rather than being separate missiles), the mechanics avoid what could’ve been clutter. The graphics are bold — not as much as Zero Mission, but enough so that they vaguely resemble the thick sheen of Mega Man X3. I happen to like how it looks. The worst thing, here, is probably — and sadly — the music, whose effect on atmosphere is more negative, or absent, than positive. All I can remember is that the “tropical” environment has “tropical” drums. It’s also one of those Game Boy Advance soundtracks that, if turned down even a bit, makes the speakers crackle. Unless you enjoy feeling as if your handheld’s sound capability is, somehow, slowly dismembering itself, you’ll need to listen to Fusion with no sound, or at a heightened volume.
On another devious note: Metroid games, speaking in a traditional sense, haven’t been noted for their toughness, and Fusion, in its conversions, has bosses and placements of enemies that will have your fingers spreading a fine film of sweat on the D-pad and buttons. It’s good, on both an immediate and indirect sense — this is Samus’ last mission, and it is her most vicious. Next to titles like Mother 3 and Ninja Five-O, Metroid Fusion is one of the best things you can get on the Game Boy Advance. That it can manage and elicit the emotions it does through a small screen, that outweigh more recent Shit Your Pants in Space games, says something about the kind of know-how that went into its development.