When writing a review of a game that bills itself as a remake, the last thing I thought I’d find myself complaining about was that it was too familiar. The twist here, though, is that Metroid: Zero Mission‘s similarities to the 1986 classic Metroid didn’t faze me at all. Rather, M:ZM felt so hauntingly similar to some more recent entries in the series (Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion) that I found myself exposing secrets I had no previous knowledge of out of habit.
Now, Metroid games have always had a formula. Our heroine, Samus Aran, starts on an alien planet in her power suit which, while strong compared to the native life forms, isn’t all that versatile. You explore until you find an area you can’t pass, then you keep exploring until you find the appropriate power-up for your suit that will let you through the previously impassable area. For instance, a small tunnel might require Samus’ patented “Morph Ball” power-up to let her roll under the obstacles. Repeat this until the suit is very strong and you face-off with some big-bad boss monster, ending the game.
But there’s a difference between sticking to the formula and adhering to it as dogma. Super Metroid greatly expanded the breadth and depth of both the original setting (Planet Zebes) and Samus herself. Metroid Fusion gave us some actual character interaction and a few new power-ups which led to at least slightly different “puzzles.” M: ZM, on the other hand, feels like a very short expansion to either of these games.
To be fair, there is a section of M: ZM which breaks from the formula fairly significantly. After the point where the 1986 Metroid ended, Zero Mission continues to find Samus crash landing. She decides, without her suit, to infiltrate the Space Pirate mothership, leaving you, as the player, to figure out how to do so. Using only a weak pistol (which can only stun, not kill, enemies) and none of the fancy power-ups you’ve acquired, it’s actually refreshing to be afraid of enemies in a Metroid game. This whole segment plays much more like a stealth-oriented game, ala Rainbow Six or Commandoes. Unfortunately, instead of developing rich challenges to accompany the new style of play, the game requires you to repeat the same tricks until you grow entirely sick of them: this is the one portion of the game which I actually wished could be shorter.
It took me over two years from the day I first started the original Metroid until the day I beat it. Somewhere between then and now, things got a lot easier, because it took me under 4 hours (both real and “game” time) to beat a remake of the same game. And I’m not even particularly good at these titles.
Granted, the day I started playing Metroid was also my seventh birthday. I’m sure if I applied myself today, I could beat it in significantly less time. And much of the ease of Zero Mission comes from improvements in the interface, which are more than welcome: save points instead of an awkward password system, an automapping feature, more forgiving controls and our protagonist’s ability to aim in other directions besides the horizontal. Although it’s difficult to judge such things, many accounts hold that there’s more content in the remake, and it is simply the ease of access which allows us to fly through it with so much haste.
Which brings us to the crux of the thing — isn’t difficulty, especially in a game, sometimes a good thing? Now, I’ll be the last person to advocate a return to the days of passwords instead of cartridge saves. But Metroid games have always been about Samus Aran alone on an alien world exploring while she tries to save the day. Alone. Exploring. On an alien world. Do we really need a beacon telling us where we need to go at all times? As much as I might have wanted that sometimes in the original Metroid, it destroys the very aesthetic the series was founded on.
Sometimes in a work of art, you actually have to deny the audience the thing it thinks it wants the most. It would make for awful drama if Shakespeare had actually let Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after. Similarly, if designers give players every last feature they want to ease the interface, we’re going to end up with “games” that play themselves. Most of us, I’m sure, do want to win, but we want to be pushed to the edge of our ability before we do. After all, if Rome were built in a day, it probably wouldn’t be worth seeing.