Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 25, Metroid Fusion, and No. 24, Metroid: Zero Mission

An excellent way to update a franchise as well as the perfect way to modernize a classic, and without losing what made either worked in the process, either.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

The most stark reminder out there about what works and doesn’t work in Metroid came in the form of 2010’s Other M. The Wii game, developed by Team Ninja and Nintendo SPD, let protagonist Samus Aran speak, which in a vacuum would be fine: after all, Samus “speaks” constantly in the Metroid Prime series in the form of scanning analysis and data entries, and she even introduced us all to the plot of Super Metroid before you took control of her. It’s what they had her saying in Other M that caused problems. The game is full of chatty NPCs, extremely independent bounty hunter Samus is uncharacteristically taking direct, nonsensical orders from an officer that limit what weapons and tools she can utilize, the gameplay is linear — “a linear Metroid” is a phrase that shouldn’t exist — and the story isn’t just mostly bad, but is also delivered in the form of unskippable, lengthy cutscenes.

You can blame Team Ninja, known for the action-heavy Ninja Gaiden series, all you want for the problems with Other M, but there is no denying that Metroid mainstay and primary series writer Yoshio Sakamoto is credited as its lead writer and director. That’s his game, those were his mistakes, as out of character as they might have seemed. The best parts of Other M are likely the influence of Team Ninja, even, as it added some elements, like the melee attacks, that have thankfully persisted in games like Samus Returns (number 54 on this list).

Other M is kind of like Skyward Sword, in that there’s a good enough game in there all things considered, but the quality expected from Metroid, as with Zelda, is too high for the game to be anything but derided. You won’t find either on this list in any form other than being an occasional punching bag that helps with explaining why other, better games did work. Games like, say, Metroid Fusion, which also injected personality and Samus’ thoughts into the mix, but handled those moments, her characterization, and the reason why she had to build up her arsenal again in far more sensible and enjoyable ways. The Game Boy Advance’s Metroid Fusion was Sakamoto and the Nintendo R&D1 team trying to add some more modern touches to the franchise, removing a little bit of the loneliness and guesswork from the experience in the process but not at the expense of, for lack of a better word, the game’s overall vibes.

Samus has conversations with a computer that tells her what’s going on in the ship she’s trapped on and where she should be heading next, and directly or indirectly, impacts what parts of her arsenal she has access to. However, whereas there is no justification for this kind off thing in Other M and the gameplay similarly fails to allow you to excuse it, in Fusion, some of the loneliness and accompanying dread it causes you to feel is replaced by outright, high-adrenaline horror. Like I said: vibes intact. Fusion is more linear than Super Metroid or the original Metroid, sure, but it hides that much better than Other M does. It’s got kind of an Ocarina of Time thing going on, where you can travel to different places and scope out what’s what even if you can’t fully dive in to those areas just yet, giving you a feeling of freedom that’s stronger than what you actually have to work with. It’s a nifty magic trick, the existence of which makes it slightly worse than Super Metroid, but there’s nothing wrong with being “slightly worse” than an all-time classic, either. There are also far more hidden areas to discover, a better variety of locales to explore: Fusion got everything right that Other M got wrong, basically.

The story of Fusion is easily told: Samus has been infected by a parasitic virus, X, on the surface of Metroid homeworld SR-388. It turns out that all of those Metroids she was sent to slaughter back in Metroid II/Samus Returns were potential weapons of war for aggressors like the Space Pirates, yes, but they were also the primary predator for this parasite, and now the entire galaxy is at risk. Good going, Galactic Federation! More seriously, though, this helps build on Super Metroid’s idea that Metroids could be utilized for good, but the galaxy only seems intent on turning them into weapons, or, in the case of the Galactic Federation by the time the Prime trilogy is concluded, depriving everyone of their potential for good because the Space Pirates are a problem.

The parasite kills and takes control of its host, after learning all of the knowledge contained within them and drastically increasing their strength. X can merge with technology, as well, meaning Samus is often fighting massive creatures controlled by parasites that have been augmented by some dangerous technology stolen from her own suit. It also reproduces at an alarming rate: the little bit of the parasite brought on board this space station multiplied enough to take over the entire station and kill almost everything within it. It doesn’t just replicate as more of the parasite, though, but can also replicate into the forms of beings and items it has infected. The only reason Samus isn’t counted among the dead is because she was injected with a vaccine made from the cells of the baby Metroid she took from SR-388 in Metroid II, and then was saved by in Super Metroid. Those Metroid cells attacked the virus, saving Samus, and putting her in a position to rid the station of X before rescue crews can reach it and then spread it throughout the galaxy.

Samus is in a weakened state. She is now susceptible to cold just like Metroids, which is a problem given the X infected her and was then able to replicate her fully powered suited form, which is equipped with an ice beam. Basically, the most powerful bounty hunter going, one that was capable of taking out an entire planet of Space Pirates by herself, has to face a stronger, more ruthless version of herself that is equipped with her greatest weakness. And also that thing wearing a Samus suit follows her around the ship, and you cannot win in a fight against it. You have to hide, you have to run, and if you did not do a good enough job on the former, you will not manage the latter. You just hear footsteps when SA-X is near, and it is looking for Samus to put an end to her. And it will do so the same way you always took care of Metroids: ice beam, missile.

The changes to the game’s sound, the music when Samus is discovered by SA-X, how quickly she will be ended by the parasite if she doesn’t get away… it all adds up to give the game some horror elements that are not out of place in this franchise, and help to balance out that Fusion is more mission-based and less free-range than past Metroids. If you’ve got time, there is an entire video series dedicated to how Metroid creates tension and fear in its games; here’s the Fusion entry. Spoilers, obviously:

Speaking of those missions, Samus is working with a computer integrated into her ship, which she nicknames “Adam” after the former commanding officer from Other M that we all now dislike. Adam, in this role, is far superior: “he” works as something of a mission guide and info prepper for Samus, letting her know where it is safe to go and where she shouldn’t be headed. Story-wise, Adam is Samus’ link to the Galactic Federation and, eventually, what they don’t want her to know they’re up to. It’s good stuff that builds, both in the story and for Samus’ characterization that R&D1 was intent on growing with this game.

On top of those more present story elements, Fusion succeeds at what Other M failed to do, which is to make Samus vulnerable while showing that, even with all of her power and smarts and ability, she is capable of making mistakes, too. Fusion allows Samus to show off her humanity, allows her both physical and emotional vulnerability, and does so without making her seem like a lost little child who needs someone to tell her what to do, as Other M did. Fusion’s Samus remains a badass: she’s just one with layers, a character who is more than just “woman does violence, is strong,” without over-correcting and treading into “woman is strong because it might make her father figure pat her on the head” territory.

And all of this done through text! There is not one cutscene, skippable or otherwise, to be found. Can you imagine. My only real issue with Fusion is that it’s 19 years later, and this is still the current canonical end of the line of Metroid games. I don’t mean it’s the end of the story: it’s that Nintendo hasn’t written anything beyond this yet. We’ve got a Samus “fused” with Metroid DNA, one who is a little more open and vulnerable and able to be explored, and a whole galaxy of possibility in front of us with that starting point, but still, nearly two decades have gone by without doing anything with it. As with most things, I blame Other M.

Metroid: Zero Mission released after Fusion, in 2004. Whereas Fusion is the end of Metroid’s canon for now, Zero Mission, as implied by the title, is the beginning. It’s not a prequel, but is instead a remake of the original NES release, Metroid, utilizing a modified engine originally used for Metroid Fusion, but with elements from the SNES’ Super Metroid included.

The original release of Metroid, now 35 years old in 2021, didn’t make this list because Zero Mission exists and space is cramped as is. I probably would have had it towards the back of things if I included both: it’s really still a great game, even if some elements of the gameplay didn’t even survive to its first two sequels on the Game Boy and SNES. It’s a difficult game, made more difficult by decisions like the early inability to fire long distance, Samus for some reason not even starting off with full health, a password system for “saves,” and the lack of mapping that requires you to essentially memorize the entire layout of the game if you plan on finding enough hidden goodies to take down Mother Brain.

While it’s certainly still good enough in that context — the mapping isn’t really a problem for me, but I’m also the same age as this franchise, so at this point I’m used to that experience — it’s also missing some of the kinds of upgrades and gameplay elements that Super Metroid popularized, and that does make the game a bit lesser. While the sound and music are excellent — Hirokazu Tanaka really showed off what he and the NES’ sound chip were capable of with Metroid’s beautiful, haunting, and yet still catchy score — the more iconic visual elements of the series belong to Metroid’s successors. Or did, anyway, until Zero Mission came along and brought both the gameplay and visuals more in line with what games like Super Metroid and Fusion got us all used to. The sound also got a respectful update of Tanaka’s work, which should not be a surprise considering that Kenji Yamamoto, who scored Super Metroid as well as the Prime trilogy, took the lead on this remake: he had already spent time updating some of the original Metroid score for the larger instrument palette of the SNES.

Here’s the original title theme, which hits you with isolated notes before diving into some of the most beautiful sounds the NES would produce 30 seconds in…

…and the updated title theme for Zero Mission, which is lovely in its own right, but missing the build up of the original in exchange for a wider array of instrumentation, both earlier and in general.

Luckily, other elements of the remaster treat updates a similar way: even when there are overt changes to the original, the results are positive. It’s not exactly like the original Metroid, but it’s a reinterpretation of it. If you preferred (or prefer) the original version of Metroid to Zero Mission, lucky you: that was also available on the GBA as part of Nintendo’s NES Classics line, and it’s been given multiple Virtual Console releases and a Nintendo Switch Online release, too. More remasters should exist like this, where the past is not buried in favor of the present, but coexists with it instead. All of that being said, my preference is for the one inspired by Super Metroid, rather than the one that inspired Super Metroid. I love them both — I even have an actual Metroid cartridge for my NES and bother with the passwords for it — but Zero Mission is right here in the top 25 things Nintendo has ever made.

The music and environment are still lonely and haunting, despite the quality-of-life enhancements to the core experience. Samus still needs to build herself up from her extremely basic power suit into the fully armed menace that gives the Space Pirates nightmares and has them hurriedly typing alerts into the computer logs of Metroid Prime whenever she shows up at their bases, and that takes a lot of exploration and work. The real differences between the original and the remaster are in things like map stations letting you get a sense of the world and alerting you to generally which area you should head to next in order to progress the story, the visuals, and that Samus can use some abilities that didn’t exist back when the original released, but had become series’ staples by 2004. The core sensibilities of Metroid, both the game and the franchise, are intact: the loneliness, the isolation, the dread, the constant back-and-forth between feeling all-powerful and as if you’re one misstep away from dying alone.

There are also some cinematics and text building out the story in a way the original Metroid didn’t, but they were intentionally done in a way that wouldn’t clash with the Metroid you already knew. It’s real basic stuff that mostly leaves the player space to imagine on their own more about Samus’ past, but is also more background than we would have gotten if this was, I don’t know, a Miyamoto-led game instead.

Zero Mission did make one massive change to the original game, however, and that was in the introduction of the eponymous “Zero Mission.” It’s named thus because Samus’ power suit is damaged, and she is forced to wear her “Zero” suit as she goes through a Space Pirate vessel that is on planet Zebes, after defeating Mother Brain and escaping the exploding base on the planet’s surface. It’s a fun add-on that emphasizes, like Fusion, what life is like for the bounty hunter when all of her powerful toys aren’t working for her: you spend most of the Zero Mission running and hiding from Space Pirates with much more at their disposal than Samus. This is one of the elements where the remake fleshes out some story — the Space Pirate vessel that is the focus of the Zero Mission is the same one that is found downed on Zebes, with no explanation at the time, in Super Metroid. I’m not sure the gameplay of the Zero Suit segment is quite great enough to merit its own game in that form, but as the kind of add-on to make even people who still owned and loved the original want to give Zero Mission a shot, it’s a welcome addition.

Plus, if it helped stop even one reviewer from complaining that the remake of an NES game that judges you based on how long it took you to complete a run is too short, then it was worth putting in there. Because hoo boy, did reviewers complain that Zero Mission was too short. Real missing the point hours in the game reviews of the past, I tell you.

If you struggled to get into the original version of Metroid, Zero Mission is the solution for you. It’s not “dumbed down” as some fans who can only feel happiness if they feel special have said, so much as it’s brought more in line with the games that it inspired, with the iterations to the original that were proven to be excellent in their own right. It’s a genuine classic, a vast improvement to a game that was still great both in 2004 and now in 2021, but had room to be even better. I wish more remakes were half as respectful to the source material and to potential new fans of long-running series as Zero Mission is, instead of mostly being focused on re-selling you a game you’ve already bought and maybe even still have, except now it’s even more HD than before.

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