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Metroid – The franchise Nintendo doesn’t know how to handle

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It’s E3 2015 and Nintendo are midway through their online presentation when a new game in the beloved Metroid series is revealed, Metroid Prime: Federation Force. The game is shown to be a first-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on online co-op, a cutesy art-style and also featuring the mini-game Blast Ball, which is basically sci-fi soccer. The fans hated this. The trailer for the game to this day features an overwhelming majority of dislikes, and there was even a petition to get the game cancelled, decrying it to be an insult to the great franchise. But the fact is that this is not the first time Metroid has been handled questionably by Nintendo, as they have never known what do with the franchise throughout its illustrious history.

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The original Metroid was designed as hybrid of two of Nintendo’s most popular games: the side-scrolling platforming of Super Mario Bros and the non-linear exploration the Legend Of Zelda. The game was set in this dark, atmospheric sci-fi world inspired by the Alien series and was in many ways an oddity when compared to the more happy-go-lucky franchises that Nintendo had made its name with. Metroid was a hit and gained itself a sequel on the Game Boy in Metroid II: Return of Samus, a game which has actually aged much better than its predecessor. The limitations of the system actually worked to the games favour, with the lack of colour adding to the haunting atmosphere of SR388, and while the smaller screen meant the game had to be more linear due to less of the world being visible to the player, the zoomed-in angle on Samus added to the sense of claustrophobia.

So far, so good. Metroid wasn’t a run away hit, but in a time when Nintendo dominated the industry they could certainly afford to pursue this franchise to serve a more niche community of gamers. Super Metroid was released eight years after the original, and would be the last game in series for another eight years. Super Metroid as we all know, was a masterpiece. In its design it was largely a remake of the original game, taking place on the rebuilt Zebes with Samus facing off against many of the same enemies and exploring the same areas. But the game simply did it so much better; the brooding atmosphere was intoxicating and the way the planets many caverns and corridors looped round on each other was masterful world design. Exploring deeper into the bowels of Zebes with the world slowly playing more and more into your mental well-being is unparalleled. But the game didn’t sell. Partly due to being released at the end of the SNES lifecycle, partly due to the unfriendly nature of the game, this masterpiece didn’t find it’s audience when it was first released. The franchise was quietly put to bed.

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After many years and a whole console generation coming and going, eventually Nintendo sought to bring back Samus Aran from cryosleep and onto the Gamecube. But Nintendo didn’t know how to make Samus work in 3D. So, in what becomes a running theme, they palmed it off to another studio. The developer was Retro Studios, based in Texas, a company in absolute anarchy. Despite some of the best talent in the business, they had failed to release a game, at one stage working at four different titles simultaneously, including the now infamous Raven Blade. One by one these games were cancelled by Nintendo, who told Retro to just concentrate on this new Metroid game. If the signs were not good already, the studio made the decision to put the game into first-person, something that at the time seemed like sacrilege. Fans worried that this would turn the game into an action game rather than being about the exploration they loved. If all this wasn’t enough, Nintendo was also working on Metroid Fusion, a 2D game for the GBA that would release on the same day, which seemed like Nintendo was trying hedge their bets and clearly didn’t fully trust in Metroid Prime delivering the game fans wanted. It seemed like Nintendo had left Metroid as a lamb to the slaughter. Who would have thought Metroid Prime would have been a masterpiece?

The game managed capture the core of the series perfectly, with the first-person perspective and the scan visor making the exploration of Tallon IV truly immersive. The planet was a picture of ruined beauty and the art-direction was second to none, with every little spore feeling crafted and logical in this worlds ecosystem. The game managed create a 3D Metroid game authentically. Rather than just slapping familiar Metroid tropes into a first-person shooter, it played like a Metroid game and felt like a Metroid game. Not only was Prime a success critically but it also sold pretty well, and Retro went on to make two sequels, the darker and more challenging Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and the more action focused Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Nintendo Wii. Both of these games were excellent in their own way, and Retro even packaged up all three as part of the Metroid Prime Trilogy before moving onto to creating the fantastic Donkey Kong Country Returns.

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Metroid Fusion, the game that was made to appease fans, was left fairly forgotten. Made by Nintendo’s R&D1 team back in Japan, it was much more linear than previous games in the series, with Samus talking for the first time and the computerised Adam Malkovich guiding the player through where to go. The game felt more like a 2D action game than a strictly traditional Metroid experience. While the atmosphere is certainly repressive with a palpable sense of tension and weakness throughout, it felt like Nintendo didn’t understand what they had created in the Metroid series and why people loved it. This would only get more apparent in the coming years.

The success of Metroid Prime made Nintendo believe that there was finally a market for the franchise and they tried to take full advantage. After the joint release of Prime and Fusion in 2002, Nintendo went on to release six new games in the series between 2004 and 2010, as well as the Metroid Prime Trilogy compilation. Metroid: Zero Mission was the first of these, a remake of the original game for the GBA. It was superb, doing what all the best remakes do in taking the original game’s core concept and fleshing out more than could be done on the old console. But this was the last game to be made by the R&D1 team, not just in this series, but in general, due to internal restructuring by Nintendo. It is also the last game in the series to be made by a Japanese Nintendo studio. This marks a turning point, as from here on in we see a chronic mishandling and misunderstanding of the series and what makes it so unique.

As the DS launched, Nintendo wanted to showcase how the new touch screen could function, and Metroid Prime Hunters was made to showcase how the bottom screen could be used for aiming in a first-person shooter. In many ways, to judge Metroid Prime Hunters as a Metroid game is rather missing the point, because it isn’t a Metroid game but a first-person shooter tech demo with the license pasted on to make fans of the series buy it. Hunters was serviceable but nothing special, mainly constituting of jumping from nondescript planet to shooting up nondescript generic enemies. There was no real exploration or potent atmosphere, and it even had an online deathmatch mode, clearly being aimed at the shooter crowd over the Metroid fans. This was coming at a time when online first-person shooters were peaking in popularity, and in a desperate attempt to lure in this market Nintendo tried to turn the franchise that looked most like an FPS into an online shooter, even forcing Retro into putting an uninspired deathmatch mode into Prime 2. This seemed a basically misunderstanding about what the Metroid series is about.

Nintendo continued the pimping of the franchise with Metroid Prime Pinball, which is…errrr…a…pinball game. It is the only game on this list that I personally haven’t played, so I cannot comment on the quality of the game, but from what I gather it is essentially a pinball game based loosely around the events of the original Metroid Prime. It seems an odd choice to piggy-back pinball onto Metroid, a series which is so distant from the arcade. Using Mario or Pokemon seems a more logical choice given that those series lend themselves to be versatile, with characters who are far more like mascots than the solitary intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran. And moreover, Metroid isn’t nearly as big a franchise as the other two. The logic of making this game seems bizarre, and the only real reason for it’s existence appears to be that Samus can roll up into a ball. It seems like a joke, playing pinball with Samus Aran, that somehow got taken seriously. But ultimately it’s not that damaging to the franchise, more a bizarre spin-off choice like the Japan-only Tingle-based games are to the Legend Of Zelda series.

And then there was Other M

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Now let’s make something clear: Metroid Other M is not a bad game. It is a perfectly enjoyable action romp with a suitably melodramatic and silly story. However, it is a bad Metroid game. The decision from Nintendo to give the project to Team Ninja, the team behind the Ninja Gaiden and the Dead Or Alive series, was a questionable one straight away. None of their previous work suggested they would have the faintest idea how to make exploration-based adventure, but also because of having to deal with a central female character. Team Ninja are not a studio known for their positive displays of women in their games. The character designs in Dead Or Alive are evidence of this, as well the fact that in the PS3 release of Ninja Gaiden 2: Sigma they actual allowed you to control a character’s breasts using motion controls. Giving the previously silent and mysterious female character to this studio was clearly a misstep, as the results were horrible. The script and voice acting were terrible, and while she wasn’t sexualised as much as you would expect, she had all of her independence as a character taken from her with her bizarre daddy-issues relationship with the not-dead-yet Adam Malkovich.

The game overall felt more like a 3D version of Metroid Fusion than anything else, not least because of the inclusion of Malkovich. It borrowed many of the same cloning plot lines as Fusion (as of course does Alien: Resurrection, which is a terrible film). The way it plays also ends up feeling similar in that there are regimented ‘sections’ on the ship which act similar to the areas in a standard Metroid would. Ice level, lava level etc. As I said previously, the game works as a fun little action game, the combat works pretty well and some of the boss fights are particularly impressive, but whereas Fusion at least had the atmosphere of dread that keeps you engaged with the world, Metroid: Other M fails miserably at trying to make you care about anything going on.

But to be honest, it is not Team Ninja’s fault. They were totally the wrong people to give this game to, and the baffling decision highlights how confused Nintendo are with this franchise. The tone and atmosphere of the series doesn’t lend itself well to being a Nintendo franchise and this is the reason they keeping giving the license to other developers. They seem to be saying, “here, you try to figure this game out, because we can’t!” Federation Force is just latest in a series of attempts by Nintendo to try and change the franchise into something they can understand and therefore market to their typical audience. Next Level games, the team working on it, are a good studio; they made the brilliant Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and what they will make in Federation Force may be a fun, if disposable game. They are are not the ones to blame for the series going the in a direction undesired by fans, but it is simply a case of Nintendo not knowing what to do with a franchise they simply do not understand.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    March 4, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    It’s funny because often Nintendo is criticized for having too much control over their products but when they don’t stand there hovering over the shoulders of the developers, we get stuff like Federation Force.

    I could care less if the game exists or not but I think they are making a huge mistake by calling it canon. Who knows though, it might be fun.

    Metroid Pinball was a pinball game and pinball games are RAD!!!!

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