Sunday, May 31, 2009

Metroid Geek

Huzzah! In a couple of months, they're releasing "Metroid Prime Trilogy" for the Wii! All three MP games, on one disc, updated with Wii controls! I'm a huge fan of the Metroid series, but I never owned a Gamecube, so I missed the first two MP games. Yes, I know the Wii can play GC games, but I'm glad I waited anyway, because I love MP3's control scheme.

The original Metroid for the 8-bit NES was one of my first true loves. The first thing I ever heard about the game was the ending. Um... spoiler alert... the main character turns out to be a woman. That would have been enough to sell me in itself - I always like female leads, and Mulan-type plot devices. But then the game threw in dozens of other cool features. You have a cannon for an arm. You can turn into a ball. Exploration. Multiple weapons. Sci-fi setting. I simply had to own the game.

I remember being very into the game's plot. Now, we're talking about a time when some games actually did have well-developed plots, but those plots were only told through the instruction manual. With Metroid, there's a paragraph of text in the opening splash screen, and another paragraph when you beat it. Everything else is up to you to figure out. But the manual had several pages worth of exposition, explaining where the Metroids came from, and why Samus was hired to defeat the pirates. I won't lie, it was fairly cheesy. But I liked it so much at the time that drew my own comic books based on it.

*old geezer mode* Kids these days just don't know how easy they have it. I don't know why they even keep printing those gall-darn instruction booklets, nobody reads them any more. Nowadays the plot is laid out in front of you as you play, and even the controls are taught to you one button at a time in the annoying tutorial mode. Why, the first time I played "The Legend of Zelda", I didn't know who Zelda was, what I was looking for, or how to bomb rocks to find secret entrances. And I didn't have no newfangled internet to look it up, either. I had to make do with my intellect, perseverance, intuition, patience, skills, and several hundred dollars worth of Nintendo Power magazines and strategy guides.

Another thing I liked about Metroid's plot was that it reminded me of the Alien movies. (There's a pretty good comparison at this site.) Alien has long been my favorite horror movie, and Aliens my favorite action flick, and of course they never made an Alien 3... seriously, they didn't... don't make me get the hammer... *ahem* Where was I? Okay, so cosmic jellyfish aren't anything like the creations of HR Giger, but there were a few plot similarities that I found entertaining at the time.

It was also one of the first games I played where the sequels formed a coherent storyline. Okay, there was the issue of, "Why doesn't Samus still have all the weapons she gained in the last game?" But I really enjoyed how the first game's ending led to Samus Aran's Metroid extinction mission in the second game, and how the one surviving Metroid at the end of Metroid II set up the plot for Super Metroid. The three make up a perfect trilogy, and any games after that are just a bonus.

Compare to Zelda - the second game was clearly a direct sequel, but what was with the third? The SNES Zelda was an incredible game, but when did it take place? Was it a sequel or a prequel or a remake? There are dozens of Zelda games now, and some of them are sequels to each other, but it seems like they reboot the franchise every third game or so. I hate it when the sequels screw up continuity like that. Like in Tetris - the pieces used to be called Tetrads, but now they're called Tetrominos. I mean, I can't even keep up with the storyline any more. Did the L-piece survive the war? Did the square-shaped piece ever avenge his father's death? For a while there was even a rumor that the straight piece wasn't really straight, but who can keep track any more?

...but anyway...

My take on the Metroid series, in not-quite chronological order:

Metroid (NES) - The game that started it all was really impressive back when it was released. It practically invented a lot of elements that are still being used in games today. It was one of the first side-scrollers to feature exploration instead of just moving to the right. It was one of the first console games made with the intention of NOT beating it in one sitting, instead giving you a password feature for continuing. The idea of a woman in a power-armor spacesuit with arm-cannon... well, the concept screams "Anime", but this was before Japanese animation was really flooding the States, so to me it was a brand new concept. Really, just having a female protagaonist was pretty new to me. Samus is by no means the first female game character, but she was one the earliest female video game badasses. (And I strongly suspect that Ms Pac-Man was actually Pac-Man in drag.)

However, the game itself hasn't really aged well. I love classic side-scrollers, but for me things really took off around 16-bit. I very much appreciate this game for starting the beloved series, but I will probably never play it again without updated graphics. I hate to say it, but the game's universe is better than the game itself. It's fairly damning to admit that I'd rather re-read the instruction booklet than to play the game.

Metroid II (Gameboy) - In many ways better than the first game, but I wish it hadn't been on the Gameboy. It had better play control than the first, and even had improved graphics (which is surprising, considering the system). But with the black & white screen, it was hard to navigate. You couldn't always tell what area you were in, making it difficult to know where to go next. This problem was compounded by the lack of visible screen area. Even playing it in color didn't improve things much.

Super Metroid (SNES) - IMO, the best video game of all time. Spot-on-perfect play control. The best graphics 16-bit had to offer. Lots of areas to explore, tons of weapons and items to find, and most importantly it was FUN. I do have one complaint, however... there was one special move, where you could bounce off of walls, that was too difficult to pull off. It was made worse by the fact that there was one area you could not pass without using this move. With enough tries you will make it, and once you do, you never have to do it again. But it's tedious, and is an unfortunate black mark on what could have been history's only 100% perfect game.

Metroid Fusion (GBA) - This didn't wow me, but it was nice after all this time to play another side-scrolling Metroid game. Regarding graphics and play control, it's probably every bit as good as Super Metroid, but I didn't really care for the set-up. The way it herds you around different sections of the space station make the areas feel too much like levels, giving the whole game a more "video-gamey" feel. The exploration is still there, but it's just a little too controlled. Enjoyable, if forgettable.

Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA) - This did wow me, but only because I'm such a Metroid geek. Zero Mission is a remake of the first Metroid game, but with SNES-style graphics, better play control, and actual exposition. I thought it was a little short, but a lot of handheld games feel too short to me. My only real regret is that with the release of the DSi (which no longer plays GBA games), that Zero Mission is effectively off the market. I hope it turns up again for another system, perhaps as a two-pack with Fusion. Or maybe they could alter the graphics enough to look good on a TV, and release it for Wii's Virtual Console.

Metroid Prime Pinball (DS) - I'm going to pretend this did not happen.

Metroid Prime Hunters (DS) - A beautiful game considering it's on a handheld system, but unfortunately marred by a complicated play control system. The game actually gives you two completely different control setup options, probably because they realized neither one was very good. Hunters is intended to be played online against other players, so the 1-player mode feels tacked on. However, the online mode is rough on beginners, since you will undoubtedly find yourself in a deathmatch against a pro. So you have to play through the bland single player mode just to learn the controls, in the hopes that you won't get creamed quite as quickly in the deathmatches.

Metroid Prime 1 & 2 (Gamecube) - I'll know in a couple of months.

Metroid Prime 3 (Wii) - A truly wonderful game that makes me wish I was still a kid. The controls feel complicated at first, but within 30 minutes you're Samus Aran. Your right hand is your arm cannon, and you use it just like she does. The nunchuck moves you, and the setup works so well, I never again want to play a First-Person Shooter using two joysticks. Even mouse/keyboard pales in comparison. There is simply no FPS control setup that works more intuitively than the Wiimote/Nunchuk combo. It's like your right hand is playing a "Duck Hunt"-style light gun game, while your left hand is exploring 3D worlds. It might take a little more practice for the stubborn, but it really pays off.

That said, Metroid Prime 3 is not a perfect game. It has some long (but creatitively-disguised) load times here and there, and some of the puzzles are too difficult, and sometimes you feel really lost if you get off track. Some of its features are designed for anal-retentive collectors, those who are determined to probe every square inch of the game. (I used to be one of those people.) And, towards the end, it actually features an escort mission. What idiots put that in? Don't they know that gamers got together a couple of years ago and officially declared escort missions to be the worst thing in the history of the universe?

But despite the flaws, it's still an incredible gaming experience. My nostalgic side still prefers Super Metroid, but the games are so different it's apples-and-oranges.

Related games - Metroids also appeared in Kid Icarus (under the name Komayto), while Samus has had cameos in games like Tetris (NES version), Super Mario RPG, and the Smash Bros series. I mention this only to show off my geekiness.

Minor rant, I was a bit disappointed when Nintendo finally settled on a design for Samus Aran's out-of-suit appearance. They'd featured the occasional unhelmeted drawing before, in places like Nintendo Power or the "Captain N" comic books, but it wasn't until much later that they seemed to pick one version and stick with it. What they picked - a blonde bombshell who looks like a Playboy model - is disturbing to me. She looks more like a "Dead Or Alive" fighter than a space bounty hunter. Is this the most creative they could get? Did they have to make her every 15-year-old's sterotypical vision of perfect beauty? Shouldn't she look tougher? Did she even have to be human? At least they could have made her a cyborg. Don't those watermelon-sized bosoms make it difficult to squeeze into that armor?

In the original game's instruction booklet, they say, "...but his true form is shrouded in mystery." Of course this is foreshadowing that she turns out to be female, but couldn't they have played with that a little? Given her a reason to be mysterious? Sure, her second-quest appearance in the original game looked like a normal human, but the sprite didn't have a lot of detail; they still had the leeway to make her more interesting. I don't hate her because she's beautiful. I just wish Nintendo understood she didn't have to be.

But whatever. I still love the series, even if I don't agree with every decision or play every game. It's going to be a long wait till August.

Update: Shortly after posting this blog, I learned of "Metroid: Other M" that was previewed at E3. Looks awesome, and I can't wait to find out more. I am a little worried about the play control, but I'm sure they'll pull it off.

Update 2: My early impressions of Metroid: Other M are here.  I'm no longer sure they pulled it off.

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