Metroid: Zero Mission: A Screw Attack to the Cerebral Cortex

Go immediately left from at the start of Metroid: Zero Mission and you’ll find the Morph Ball upgrade exactly where it was in the original Metroid. This is the first in a series of discoveries that shows how the remake beautifully modernizes galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran’s first adventure that celebrates the past while recognizing the journey her series embarked on following it, rebuilding the original release in the structure of influential classic Super Metroid.

It makes sense to rework the open-ended NES game to feature the naturally expanding level design structure of its legendary SNES sequel, as both games had taken place on the same hostile alien planet years apart, and the reworked map was a chance to make their layout more geographically consistent. As before, Samus explores the cavernous depths, tearing through the Space Pirate armada before discovering the parasitic metroid life forms the evil Mother Brain is trying to harness as biological weapons.

True to the series’ structure, you’ll be systematically collecting items and abilities, but this time acquiring ones unavailable in the first game including Super Missiles, Power Bombs and Speed Shoes. The design fleshes out a game that was more ambitious than the tech of the time would allow, implementing enough new content to ramp up the pace without padding the adventure.

With Metroid Fusion, series lead Yoshio Sakamoto and team tightened up Super Metroid’s controls. Where Super Metroid dedicated the shoulder buttons for diagonal shooting, Fusion used them to switch to secondary modes. It mapped the diagonal aiming completely to the L button, relying on up and down on the D-Pad to change its direction. Doing so freed the R button to activate missile and Power Bombs, which before had to be toggled between with Select, allowing player’s to quickly trigger them on command. The result is flexible, accessible and intuitive. But Samus’ agility in Fusion was still somewhat hindered by floaty movements.

Zero Mission corrects that. The animation makes every move from running to jumping and rolling in the Morph Ball snappy, precise, and lend it a clear sense of weight. Zero Mission absolutely nails the moveset from the tuned jumping to smooth morph ball transition which creates a responsive and snappy physics system. The excellent control is coupled with meaningful abilities that make traversal fast and easy. From the Speed Booster to the Space Jump + Screw Attack combo, Samus’ tools build on themselves and strengthen each other to provide a deep set of options that don’t require much thought. In Zero Mission, the act of moving is pure joy.

And Zebes is a beautiful world to explore. The fantastic sprite work is appropriately minimalist to accentuate the eerie, haunting tone of the alien planet that is unrivaled in videogames. Samus is well detailed, coming off as both sleek and strong. The environments are dripping with atmosphere and reveal the unfolding story. With the improved sprite work, the background images gave the environments new depth and painted a world with a diverse set of natural environments and architecture.

The latter allows Zebes to be integrated with a grander sense of culture, and Zero Mission explores the ancient Chozo race’s presence on the planet more than it had been even in Super Metroid. This further fleshes out the old story dynamics between the Chozo, Metroids, and Space pirates, while underpinning Samus’ relationships to them all. Through this, we are given a more personal look into Aran’s past and her connection to the wise old species, revealing elements in game only ever been mentioned outside it.

To further the narrative, animated cutscenes accompany key story beats including Ridley’s arrival on the planet and the introduction of the metroids. The simple movies lend decent context to the implicit story without being intrusive, quickly enhancing the story without detracting too much from the ambiance, maintaining that important Metroid balance between game world and player that had too often been interrupted by Metroid Fusion’s elevator ride internal monologues.

That story ends with a new epilogue. After she destroys Mother Brain and escapes Zebes, Samus finds herself stripped of her power armor and forced to sneak through a Space Pirate frigate and Chozo ruins. In concept, the gameplay works within the traditional level structure and reframes the idea of a vulnerable Samus entering unknown territory, but in practice feels disjointed from what the game had been to that point. While it’s a bit misguided, it’s a short and ultimately important transitional sequence for the larger Metroid fiction.

Despite Zero Mission being a loving remake, it retcons the original game’s place in the series, setting up Metroid Prime to become the defacto first story for Metroid’s overall narrative arc. Considering how Prime perfectly translated Super Metroid’s design into a polygonal, three-dimensional world, it’s fitting that Zero Mission would perfect it in its sprite-based, side scrolling form. But even though Super Metroid’s DNA radically evolves the first Metroid game’s shape, the remake preserves its ancestry in its cell, unlocking the original NES ROM so you can explore its wonder for yourself.


DEVELOPER: Nintendo R&D1
PLATFORM: Game Boy Advance

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