Dear Metroid fans,
I’m afraid I have some bad news for you: there will never be another Metroid game that lives up to the original. You’ll never have a sequel that does it justice. No matter how much you protest, no matter how hard Nintendo tries to meet your expectations, you’ll be disappointed with whatever shallow imitation comes out and tries to reinvent the series with next-gen graphics.
This isn’t because Nintendo hates you, it isn’t because they won’t invest the time or money needed, and it isn’t because the talent is wanting.
It’s because Metroid belonged to a different era of gaming
Those Halcyon Days Of Youth
While I can’t claim to be part of Metroid fandom, I have a deep respect for the original games in the series. Metroid was only a two-day rental in my house (barely enough to wet the whistle), but I finished Metroid II: Return of Samus multiple times on my sister’s Game Boy. These games were amongst the high-water mark of 90’s gaming, and I’d even go so far as to say that the second was flawless in its execution. It built upon and improved the gameplay of the first one: more of the same, but even better, the way a sequel should be…
… and we shan’t see its like again.
While I don’t share your outrage, I do understand it. I felt the same way when they dug up the corpse of my favourite game series and paraded it around in a grotesque re-enactment of Weekend at Bernie’s. I’m speaking, of course, of Bethesda’s Fallout 3.
Much as Nintendo did with the Metroid series, Interplay established a game mechanic and universe unlike anything else in gaming at the time. Fallout offered a degree freedom only present in PnP RPGs up until that point, it was set in a grim world where there were no right answers—merely the best out of a lot of bad options—and it further established the mood with its darkly ironic humor. Just like Metroid, its sequel—Fallout 2—expanded upon and improved the original without changing the game’s core concepts or style.
And then Bethesda got a hold of the franchise. They replaced the irony with wackiness and changed it from a complex and in-depth RPG into an FPS with poorly implemented RPG elements. The follow-up Fallout: New Vegas was a good attempt at a spiritual successor to the originals, but even its at its best in the add-ons, where it dropped the pretense of being an RPG and focused on the running-and-gunning aspects, in which it excelled.
The Fallout I once loved is no more.
Cutting Apart The Seams
As the good folks over at RedLetterMedia once noted, nothing ruins a game or a movie like noticing the seams in the background: realizing that the stone wall is made out of cardboard, or that the enemy AI has a simple, exploitable pattern. Film makers and game developers seek to evoke your suspension of disbelief—your immersion—to distract you from the fact that it’s just a bunch of ones and zeroes, that it’s just a guy in a monster costume.
It’s easier to enjoy these forms of media if you don’t know where the seams are, but if you want to understand them you need to understand the seams, and to understand the seams, you need to look at the technology.
Art and technology go hand-in-hand in these industries, but what separates good art from bad isn’t the quality of the technology, but the art with which it’s employed. The technology imposes these capabilities and those limitations: how can we maximize the former and duck around the latter?
1979’s Alien is a prime example of this. Despite H.R. Giger’s brilliant design, at the end of the day the Xenomorph was nothing but a man in a latex suit. In 1958 this would have been enough—It! The Terror From Beyond Space managed to wow audiences through novelty—but for Ridley Scott, something more was demanded.
Bolaji Badejo, the graphic artist who wore the suit, studied with a mime and a karate expert, sculpting out a body language which was subtly off-putting, and for his part, Scott employed tricks such as playing out scenes backwards and then reversing the film. The results speak for themselves: Alien has more than earned its place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
With 2009’s Star Trek we see the opposite: reliance upon CGI to imitate yesteryear’s technology. The original Star Trek was about a “wagon train to the stars,” exploring science fiction concepts with a 60’s television budget. Most aliens were just guys with shaved eyebrows and the transporter was introduced to save money on shuttle-launch miniatures.
Star Trek: The Next Generation upped the ante by ushering in the era of “rubber-forehead aliens,” along with composite shots and early CGI for creatures like the Crystalline Entity. Both shows were doing more with less, designing the narrative around their limitations, and then Star Trek 2009 decided to do less with more. Instead of exploring the possibilities offered by CGI, we get digital rubber foreheads.
The technology is the movie, the game mechanics are the game. It is incumbent upon the creators to do the most with what they have.
This isn’t to say that every game or movie needs to use the latest technology, merely that it must use its technology to its fullest extent. Shovel Knight is a call-back to old NES games, even restricting itself to the same colour palette, but it embraces modern computing power, and steals the ideas learns from the successes of that era. The result is something that’s both authentic as well as superior to what was possible back in the 90’s.
Games designed with the RPG Maker platform—essentially a remake of the NES Final Fantasy engine—restrict themselves to 2D environments and pixel art, and yet the Ao Oni series manages to be downright terrifying despite these limitations.
Contrast this to Gone Home, which uses the Unity engine but does nothing with it. There’s no reason that it couldn’t have been made with RPG Maker; the player does nothing but wander around the house finding keys for different areas and the pages of a journal which have been inexplicably scattered about the place. The 3D engine actually harms the game, first by increasing development costs, as well as by the poor optimization which pulls the player out of the experience.
So why did Fullbright, the publisher/developer, hamstring their artistic vision (what little of it there was)? Because they were aping the mechanics of successful AAA titles without understanding what the mechanics meant. They’re not artists; they’re activists.
Who Is John Galt Samus Aran?
Forget the setting, forget the characters: let’s ask ourselves what Metroid is really all about.
The short answer? It’s about being trapped in the Minotaur’s Maze.
While there are obvious similarities to Megaman, Castlevania, and Kid Icarus, Metroid contains an element that all of them lack: the backtracking. Like the others, improvement and growth is an important element, but in Metroid a major aspect of this growth is the ability to open up new passageways. The backtracking is not only—somehow—fun, it also provides the function of refilling your health and missiles.
The core of the game is about finding yourself trapped in the underworld, full of creatures inimical to your existence, and yet the forgotten knowledge of the Ancient Ones the Chozo is there for those who possess the wisdom and courage to find it.
The reason Metroid was great was because it was a realization (in NES form) of what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey”: Samus Aran is Jesus in Purgatory.
The things that matter least to the Metroid games are the set decorations. It doesn’t matter that:
- Samus is wearing a bikini under her power armour.
- That she’s a bounty hunter commissioned by the Galactic Federation.
- That the Space Pirates walk around in circles.
- That she flies a space ship instead of riding on a Pegasus.
Just look at the power-ups: the sticky ball doesn’t make sense from any sort of science fiction perspective, it’s part of the level design.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Let’s get the bad news out of the way: the gameplay elements most strongly associated with Metroid simply don’t transfer into a 3D FPS with professional voice actors. The change in perspective demands greater realism and a complete rethinking of the most basic elements; it demands an entirely new game with a new title. You simply can’t make a Metroid game with modern technology.
Next, the ugly news: they’re going to keep making Metroid games so long as they sell. So long as there’s an audience who prefers nostalgia over innovation, they’ll keep pumping-out disappointing sequel after disappointing sequel.
And yet there is a bit of good news out there: the core concept of the Metroid series can still be captured. If you are willing to grow with the medium and explore new worlds rather than revisiting the worlds of your youth, you’ll find that there are games out there which contain the same compelling elements as the original.
And if that’s not enough for you, here’s the best news of all: the sequel you’ve all been waiting for is already on the market. It’s called Axiom Verge, and from all accounts it gives you the same thing, only better… just as a sequel should.
You Can’t Go Home Again
Part of maturing and aging is nostalgia for the good old days; back during our youths, we were less cynical and more easily impressed. The games and cartoons of our childhood are remembered in vivid colours, while the world we find ourselves in today is nothing but samey, brown FPS clones with some grumpy guy as the lead.
To a certain extent this is because the entertainment industry is going through a creative slump. The complaints about the over-use of CGI in movies doesn’t stem from the fact that CGI is bad, but because it’s being used sloppily, and it’s a demonstrable fact that there are too many grey/brown FPS snooze fests being released. Production studios have taken over both industries, and a studio’s little more than a bank that hires artists. When millions of dollars are invested in something, it had better be earning a return, and the best way to do that is to make something generic, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.
But the solution isn’t to return to the past, demanding a new Metroid, Doom, or Duke Nukem—or a new Transformers, Star Wars, or Alien—that only guarantees a poor imitation, a cynical cash-grab. The solution is for us, as an audience, to seek out new IPs, to mature with the times, and demand that creators employ the advances in technology to advance the art of storytelling.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Demanding remakes of old games with new technology results in stagnation, both within the industry and within ourselves. Growth requires change, and the technology has changed: it’s offering unforeseen possibilities, and yet we’re demanding a return to the past. Instead of pining for the Metroid of yore, we should be looking forward to the next game that allows us to explore the abyss, a game that doesn’t use 3D modelling to build a better horse-and-buggy, but one which does things that Metroid never could.
It’s incumbent upon us as gamers to let go of the things of the past… and part of that letting go is saying goodbye to the Metroid series.
Rest in peace, Samus; you fought, lived, and died well. Your memory will always be cherished.