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Metroid: Zero Mission is the Ideal Video Game Remake

Released eighteen years after the 1986 original, Metroid: Zero Mission is one of the finest remakes in the medium and a prime example of how you can reimagine a game while still respecting it on a fundamental level.



Zero Mission Wallpaper Clean - image courtesy of Tumbex

A game like the original Metroid can be difficult to play without putting yourself in the right state of mind. It is very much a game of its era, which is not to say that Metroid has aged poorly, but its approach to game design is no longer contemporary. Metroid is an exploration-based video game where you have no map, no sense of direction, and nothing in the way of “quality of life.” Samus starts with 30 Health every time you Game Over, checkpoints are scarce enough to hardly matter, and repeating backgrounds all but guarantee you were getting lost on the regular. All of this adds to Metroid’s uniquely oppressive atmosphere, making it one of Nintendo’s least accessible NES games. 

Zero Mission Power Suit - image courtesy of wikitroid

Released eighteen years after the 1986 original, Metroid: Zero Mission is one of the finest remakes in the medium and a prime example of how you can reimagine a game while still respecting it on a fundamental level. Zero Mission keeps the best qualities of the original Metroid, reinterprets the worst, and rounds out the edges by taking cues from both Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. In that respect, Zero Mission feels just as much like a remake as it does an evolution of the series thus far. Zero Mission turns the least accessible Metroid into the most accessible. 

This, in a way, goes against the spirit of the original, but Zero Mission finds intelligent ways of modernizing its source material while never straying far enough to become unrecognizable. Level design is as faithful as can be without translating Metroid I’s nuisances. Zebes’ general layout stays the same but is greatly expanded upon. Upgrades and bosses are exactly where they were in the NES original. Repeated settings and dead ends are replaced with some of the most creative rooms in the series. Added shortcuts connect major areas, and there are even new maps to expand the adventure. 

Zero Mission’s depiction of Zebes is steeped in two layers of homage. Super Metroid references are abundant, but they were Metroid I references, to begin with. An active effort is made to ensure consistency between Samus’ two adventures. Little details linking to Super lend a passage of time to the planet — vibrant backdrops and a peaceful skyline make it clear that this is a younger Zebes. Visuals are distinct enough to prevent the setting from coming off as derivative. Zero Mission is atmospherically more colorful and energetic than Super. Samus is in a dangerous setting, but she has the means to fight back. Zebes is livelier thanks to a greater enemy and visual variety. You can still get the classic Metroid hostility by playing on Hard Mode, but difficulty no longer stems from the obtuse level design. 

Zero Mission Map - image courtesy of Wikitroid

Brinstar and Norfair take notable cues from Super while remaining wholly unique. The Brinstar caverns connected to Crateria maintain their rocky blue hue, but the background is now a mix of black and green, alluding to the lush jungles of Upper Brinstar. Rocks and crumbled pillars sit in the distance, replacing the NES’ empty voids with detailed scenery. Bugs roam in large numbers, with little purple parasites actually latching onto Samus and dealing damage if you let them sit. What looked like sand in the original turns out to be golden pools of acid.

Norfair is as hellacious as ever. Blood red caves in the background and boiling lava keep the lowest part of Zebes intimidating. Norfair is home to ancient ruins and strange bubble-like geography that crop up the deeper in you go. Red caverns are replaced with pink pillars while sickly crimson centers appear on bubbles. The hottest rooms are tinted in a wave of orange that clouds the entire screen. More natural rooms are overgrown with red vines, untouched by anything but the raging elements. Adventuring through Norfair feels like a vivid nightmare. 

ZEro Mission Zipline - image courtesy of The Anomalous Host

Boss lairs, in particular, are heavily revamped. Kraid’s Hideout was unremarkable in the original Metroid but became one of the most memorable areas in Zero Mission. The path to Kraid now feels like a proper dungeon with navigational puzzles to solve instead of a stitched-together maze lacking direction. Acid lurks everywhere, including a lethal waterfall by Kraid’s boss room. Where you would run into dead ends because of unfriendly level design, you now have actual problems to solve. Ziplines safely carry Samus across rivers of acid, but you need to figure out how to activate them first. Morph Ball Launchers fire Samus into the air — destroying everything in your path to give you access to the upper floors — but are regularly hidden behind breakable blocks. 

Ridley’s Hideout sits in complete contrast to Kraid’s. Cracked walls and overgrown bushes are a staple of Kraid’s Hideout, but the ruins in Ridley’s are in considerably better shape. The area has clearly been abandoned for some time, but whatever weathered Brinstar never reached Lower Norfair. Backdrops show natural wear instead of harsh destruction. Arches in the background give the impression that Ridley has invaded formerly holy ground, which lines up with his hideout’s depiction in Super. There are even Roman Doric columns in the boss arena. Strong art direction coupled with elaborate level design makes Ridley’s Hideout almost epic in scope. 

Tourian Metroids - image courtesy of the anomalous host

Tourian goes from the weakest area in the original Metroid to one of Zero Mission’s best. The level builds a heart-pounding sense of tension that follows you straight to the final boss. Tourian has a darker color palette that clashes with Zebes’ vibrancy. All-natural life is replaced with harsh technology. The room leading to Mother Brain is tinted in a soft, ominous blue that channels Space Station Ceres from Super Metroid. Space Pirate corpses litter the ground as Metroids rush at you out of the background — giving you mere moments to process their incoming assault. Zero Mission’s Tourian captures a level of horror comparable to Fusion

Two extra areas round out M1’s recreated Zebes: Crateria, which returns from Super, and Chozodia, an entirely new setting with lore implications. The planet’s surface, Crateria is not as elaborate or expansive as it was in SM, but helps add some connective tissue to M1’s map. Brinstar, Norfair, and Chozodia all have paths connected to Crateria, giving level design an almost essential hub that makes backtracking feel natural. Crateria also looks healthier than it did in Super. Clear skies, glowing mushrooms, and nothing to fight assert safety on Zebes’ surface.

 Chozodia is home to the best-preserved temples on Zebes and shows off Chozo culture’s spiritual side. Hieroglyphics, beautiful murals, and statues built in their image depict the Chozo as an artistic culture of warriors. Fusion’s different ending screens showed off Samus’ backstory — from Ridley killing her parents to the Chozo adopted her. Zero Mission is the first time a Metroid game explicitly acknowledges Samus’ connection to the Chozo through the story. She was trained in Chozodia, and the level design reflects an obstacle course of sorts. You need most upgrades to explore the area. Chozodia also stands out as one of the safest settings in Zebes, showing how Samus could have possibly grown up in such an aggressive environment. From hostile planets to an abandoned spaceship and now holy ground, Chozodia is one of Metroid’s most unique levels. 

Chozo Statue - image courtesy of Wikitroid

Chozo Statues have been a Metroid staple since the very beginning, but Zero Mission makes them a regular part of the level design. While Samus still gets her upgrades from Chozo Statues, a few lesser statues are scattered throughout Zebes to help you on your quest. These statues fully restore Samus’ health and ammunition, fill in your area map, and direct you towards your next upgrade. They are essentially a better version of Adam from Fusion. Chozo Statues never talk, they give you a task, and a few can be outright ignored if you don’t want direction. 

It’s worth discussing how Chozo Statues add a layer of linearity to Zero Mission’s game design. The original Metroid was open-ended to the point of being alienating. This lends the game a uniquely oppressive atmosphere but makes it challenging (if not stressful) to actually complete. Between repeated room patterns and looping layouts, M1 will have you running in circles. Zero Mission’s map design is faithful enough to the original Metroid, where Chozo Statues are necessary to keep gameplay’s pace moving. Super’s map is intricately woven together where players are being directed even if they never realize it. Zero Mission’s it not, at least not on the same scale. Chozo Statues are a compromise to ensure you never feel stuck — because otherwise, you would. 

Zero Mission Shinespark - image courtesy of Gogglebob

Zero Mission’s linearity is also something of an illusion. Chozo Statues show you your next intended upgrade, but you rarely need to commit to waypoints like in Fusion. While not on the same scale as Super, ZM lets you pull off a fair bit of sequence breaking. Skilled Bomb Jumping can get Samus the Varia Suit extremely early. Careful Shinespark chaining in Norfair brute forces a path to the Screw Attack long before you should have it. The Long Beam can be skipped, the Wave Beam can be unlocked before the Ice Beam (or simply ignored), and you can even find Super Missiles early by Ballsparking — an advanced form of Shinesparking that involves the Morph Ball. 

Tweaking Fusion’s gameplay engine to allow for more flexibility makes Zero Mission one of the most mechanically rewarding games in the series. Single Wall Jumping is back, no longer locking Samus in a single direction. Morph Bombs are faster than ever, and you can chain them into a near-infinite jump with the right rhythm. The Power Grip that let Samus hang onto ledges in Fusion is now an upgrade instead of an inherent part of her kit. This injects an added sense of progression to vertical platforming while keeping one of Fusion’s better quality of life features intact. The Speed Booster still breaks into a Shinespark automatically on account of the no Dash button, albeit with some refinements. Not only are Shinespark puzzles simply more sophisticated, but Ballsparking via the Morph Ball’s jump mechanic also lets you crash through tight spaces. 

Samus shooting - image courtesy of Wikitroid

Samus’ actions are snappy, enemy patterns are erratic, and her tool kit is carefully tailored to counter everything ZM plans on throwing at you. Metroid 1’s slow, floaty controls are replaced with responsive actions you can make on the fly. Jumping is fast, shooting is faster, and the level design balances an equal mix of classic platforming with straight combat. All three original Beams — Long, Ice, and Wave — return, but they actually stack this time. Not just that, the Charge and Plasma Beams are included as early- and late-game upgrades, respectively. 

Missiles no longer upgrade as they did in Fusion, with Super’s equipment menu making a comeback. Where it was slightly clunky in Super, Zero Mission’s equipment menu benefits from some serious streamlining. You press Select to swap between Missiles and Super Missiles, and then you simply hold down R to equip them. Only needing to swap between two weapons instead of five mitigates the menu’s worst qualities. Power Bombs also show up as an upgrade before the final boss, giving you one last tool to play with at the eleventh hour. 

A unique way Zero Mission builds tension through gameplay is by including three “Unknown Items” as upgrades. These are actually the Plasma Beam, Space Jump, and Gravity Suit — all of which are obtained relatively early into the game but cannot actually be used until the final level. Unknown Items allow you to break Chozo Blocks that serve as ZM’s main form of gating progression. These Blocks are almost always added to brand new rooms, ensuring that the original Metroid’s level design is not needlessly tampered with. 

Samus vs Ridley - image courtesy of ResetEra

Bosses are a constant highlight that juggles a mix of pure spectacle and clever patterns to overcome. Kraid and Ridley are both on the easier side, but their frantic battles keep them exciting while draining your resources. The Mua Acid Worm and ensnared Kiru Giru make clever use of their boss arenas to keep you on your toes. The Mua requires you to bait it and then escape damage with a Zipline before firing back. Kiru Giru demands that you either freeze the arena’s sole Ripper into a platform so you can reach the boss’ weak point or carefully Wall Jump if you skipped the Ice Beam. Bosses can even be fought in just about any order. 

Best of all, Zero Mission is fully polished when it comes to quality of life. Chozo Statue offers enough guidance without being restrictive — especially for a handheld game. Zebetite Doors now only require a single Missile to break instead of five. The map has been updated to show you everything you could possibly want to see without going overboard and directing you. ZM’s map shows different doors, how rooms connect, which upgrades you already picked up, color codes hot rooms in orange, and labels Chozo Statues. More important than anything, though, you can finally swap between different area maps in the menu to see how everything connects. This makes planning long-term routes convenient, letting you know which areas you need to explore while halfway across Zebes. 

Samus Zero Mission - image courtesy of Pinterest

As far as presentation goes, Zero Mission is one of the best looking and sounding titles on the Game Boy Advance — which is saying something considering Fusion was no slouch in that department. Intimately detailed sprite work only heightens immersion. Every area has its own form of unique plant life. Parasites are purple little pixels at the end of the day, but you can see the green of their body under their shell. Samus has never looked better in 2D. Her Power Suit is detailed to the point where you can see the insignia glowing on her chest and all the joints in her armor. Bosses look positively stunning and are incredibly animated. Kraid is a larger-than-life giant whose shockingly fluid movements tower above anything seen in Super Metroid. From the flora to the fauna, Zebes is alive. 

One of the biggest ways Zero Mission differentiates itself from Super Metroid is through music. Series composers Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano team up yet again following their collaboration on Super. SM’s soundtrack mainly leaned into Zebes’ atmospheric qualities — building emotion through somber and passive tracks. Super has its share of energetic music, but they are not the norm. Zero Mission is the complete opposite. Most of the soundtrack is bombastic and action-packed. Rather than being derivative of their work on Super, Yamamoto and Hamano’s score plays to the sense of heroic adventure virtually all Nintendo games carried in the late 80s. Atmospheric songs are still present but now take a backseat to toe-tappingly catchy music. 

Pivoting from Fusion’s heavy emphasis on narrative, Zero Mission features next to no text. The title reel clarifies your mission to defeat Mother Brain, but there is zero dialogue beyond two short monologues from Samus near the start and end of the game, respectively. Samus specifically frames ZM as a reflection of her first mission, which is just enough to be compelling while lending a personal flair to a title that previously had little in the way of plot. In this respect, Zero Mission continues Fusion’s trend of fleshing out Samus as a character. The key difference being that cutscenes here follow a strict “show, don’t tell” philosophy. 

Samus vs Ridley - image courtesy of Tumbex (Funghost23)

Samus’ opening monologue reveals that she actually grew up on Zebes, which recontextualizes the entire mission. Zebes is no longer a totally alien planet to Samus, but her once home was invaded by Space Pirates. In-game cutscenes exist solely to build tension or offer context. Mother Brain watches Samus the first time she descends an elevator, setting up the final confrontation. Ridley is not actually on Zebes at the start of the story but arrives with his Pirates after Kraid is killed. Entering Kraid’s boss room triggers a short scene where he looms over Samus and roars with fury. It’s a nice change of pace after Fusion and helps keep gameplay introspective in spite of how action-packed Zebes has become. 

The diminished script helps put Metroid’s focus back on environmental storytelling, which serves Zebes as a setting better than Samus and Adam’s routine on BSL would. Zero Mission shows you Zebes not only as it was, but how Samus herself remembers it. The planet is so alive because this was her earliest mission as a bounty hunter. She has her whole future ahead of her, which was true for Metroid when the NES original was released in 1986. The planet looks cleaner, still years away from whatever cataclysms wear it down by Super. All the different glimpses of Chozo culture offer insight into Samus’ past and the people who used to walk on Zebes. The Chozo are still a race shrouded in mystery, but ZM offers tangible gameplay proof that they existed and crossed paths with Samus. 

Chozo Mural - image courtesy of Samus Aran x Solid Snake (Tumblr)

Framing Zero Mission as an account of Samus’ first mission also allows for some discrepancies. Kraid was not a giant the first time Samus fought him, but a detail inherited from Super. Samus specifically says in Fusion that she did not learn the Shinespark or Wall Jump until Zebesian animals taught her during the events of Super. These are both techniques Samus can pull off in ZM, turning her into an unreliable narrator without necessarily being a plot hole. Clever framing allows the developers mechanical flexibility while remaining faithful to the NES original where it counts. That said, this is likely the reason Nintendo considers the original Metroid canon over Zero Mission in the series’ official timeline.

Zero Mission is an amazing remake as is, but what really pushes the game over the edge is how it expands M1’s finale. Following Samus’ escape from Tourian, Ridley’s Space Pirates immediately intercept her, and she crash lands back down on Zebes without access to her Power Suit. From here, Samus is forced to stealth away from Space Pirates who are actively hunting her. You have a pistol that can briefly stun the pirates when fully charged, but you have no means of killing them, and all your upgrades are gone. 

Zero Suit Crawl - image courtesy of Wikitroid

This stretch of gameplay reduces Samus down to her now-iconic Zero Suit — a skin-tight jumpsuit Samus wears under her armor. While Samus has virtually zero defense in her Zero Suit, she can fit through tight spaces and still wall jump. This allows you some wiggle room in escaping as Space Pirates follow you from room to room. You either need to be fast enough to lose them, trick them into killing each other, or hide somewhere in the level design. Shadowed alcoves keep Samus hidden in plain sight, but the Chozodian ruins you find shelter in are poorly maintained, and platforms are prone to crumbling during a heated pursuit.

ZEro Suit Samus Escape - image courtesy of Gogglebob

What helps sell Zero Mission’s stealth section is that this level of in-game tension is not unprecedented for Metroid. Stealthing by the Space Pirates in Chozodia is just the logical evolution of Fusion’s SA-X mechanic — a stalker who followed Samus throughout the BSL. Where most of SA-X’s encounters are scripted, the Space Pirates do not let up until they physically lose sight of you. While Samus is obviously limited in gameplay, the level design offers you a fair amount of freedom in approaching things. You can let the pirates chase you head-on, hoping to outmaneuver them along the way (a valid strategy), or you can carefully sneak by without triggering their notice. Both are fun, both are tense, and both portray Samus as nothing short of a bonafide badass. 

It’s easy to take for granted just how well Zero Mission carves out a quiet but poignant arc for Samus Aran. This is a doubly personal story because she was raised on Zebes and Ridley killed her parents. Gameplay up to the fight against Mother Brain is Samus reclaiming her home from invaders, while everything after is her finding the will to fight back against the monsters who ripped her life away. Samus begins the stealth segment powerless in the face of the Space Pirates who killed her parents, but gameplay forces you to confront them and press deeper into Chozodia. Samus cannot reclaim what she lost, but she can overcome what hurt her.

Samus Gravity Suit - image courtesy of wikitroid

Samus has to fight her way to a ceremonial holy ground implied to be where the Chozo originally trained her. It’s here where all your Unknown Items finally activate into three of the most overpowered upgrades in Metroid: the Gravity Suit that lets you tank damage while wading through water, the Space Jump that lets you jump continuously without stopping, and the Plasma Beam that rips through everything in its path. Ending the stealth segment by upgrading Samus threefold is a stroke of genius and stands out as the best use of player interconnectivity in Metroid. You are forced to endure Samus’ helplessness for an entire dungeon’s worth of level design before you can finally fight back. At which point, the Space Pirates run away from you. This is an incredible way of conveying power — both its absence and presence — through pure gameplay—nothing else. 

Zero Mission’s epilogue does mean a mechanized Ridley ends up serving as the final boss instead of Mother Brain. While there’s certainly an element of fan service to it, having Ridley act as the last major obstacle in Samus’ inaugural mission makes sense, given what Fusion revealed. This is the pirate who killed her parents, invading her adoptive family’s home. Ridley’s presence is overdone in the greater scope of Metroid, but it makes sense to make him the final boss. He has the deepest connection to Samus, is legitimately threatening, and makes for a fun last battle that ends the game on a higher note than Mother Brain. 

Ridley is actually much stronger if you obtain 100% completion as a means of encouraging replay value even more than usual, offering completionists a tangible gameplay reward for the first time in 2D Metroid. Power Bombs being such a late upgrade means Zebes only fully opens up right before the final boss, allowing proper endgame rooms to explore. Easily, the best post-game reward ZM offers is Metroid itself: a fully playable version of the NES classic. 

Samus Helmetless - image courtesy of Renan Fontes

The single most important detail about Zero Mission as a remake is that it goes out of its way to include the original Metroid for reference. Zero Mission is ultimately a companion piece; it does not want or attempt to replace the original. It is a celebration of the foundation that Metroid was built on, showing off how far the franchise has come by returning to the series’ roots. Zero Mission eases you in and helps you both admire and see the original Metroid for what it is — primitive but not lacking in quality. Metroid, just like Zero Mission, plays to its strengths. In a sense, both games are meant to be played side by side. You beat Zero Mission and then start up Metroid to see just how much things have changed. They’re two sides of the same coin. 

Zero Mission is not concerned with simply fixing Metroid, but celebrating it. Taking advantage of the series’ evolution since Super and Fusion is a form of modernization, but it also has the effect of highlighting the things the original Metroid always excelled at: a fast pace, the thrill of adventure, and a one of a kind atmosphere you simply will not find anywhere else. Zero Mission captures the spirit of Metroid I where it matters most. While this does not suddenly make the original more accessible, it does make it easier to appreciate. Improving Metroid without ever undermining it, Zero Mission is the gold standard for video game remakes. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Andres

    July 30, 2021 at 1:36 am

    I just beat Zero Mission today and I wholeheartedly agree with this very well written piece! What a pleasure to read.

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