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Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Fusion

Metroid's fourth entry may have painted the saga into a corner, but those brushstrokes present a better picture than many want to admit.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

In military tactics, there exists a concept known as a fallback position: A tactical location to which an army can retreat if the tide of battle goes poorly. A fallback position allows one side to regroup and return to battle rather than abandon the fight altogether and accept defeat. When Nintendo returned to the Metroid franchise after nearly a decade of radio silence following Super Metroid, their fallback position took the form of Metroid Fusion.

Despite bearing the subtitle "Metroid IV," it's difficult not to see Fusion as a safe retreat in the event Metroid Prime didn't turn out as planned. Had fans rejected Prime, Nintendo could point to Fusion and say, "OK, you hate that one — but look, here's the proper Metroid sequel." The two games launched simultaneously in November 2002, each on a separate platform. Prime advanced the franchise's technological elements, daring to take Metroid into a three-dimensional, first-person perspective; Fusion, on the other hand, stuck with tried-and-true tech in an attempt to push the series' narrative forward. It might be the most unconventional franchise revival effort ever seen, giving fans two different games on the same day, each presenting its own vision of what "progress" meant in the context of Metroid.

Prime may have been where Nintendo invested the lion's share of technical resources, but one gets the impression Fusion was the more important project to the company's own talent. Fusion saw the return of Metroid and Super Metroid designer Yoshio Sakamoto and the creative efforts of the Nintendo R&D1 internal division, whereas the Prime project belonged to Super Mario Bros. 2 USA designer Kensuke Tanabe and an external team at Retro Studios. If the Prime gambit hadn't paid off, Fusion would be there to make up for its failure.

Prime didn't turn out to be a disaster, of course — far from it. And the irony of the situation was that Prime's excellence ultimately overshadowed Fusion. Prime felt progressive, forward-thinking. Fusion felt to many players like a step backward. The fourth Metroid fell victim of Nintendo's new, hand-holding creative direction, carefully walking players through each and every step of the journey. That overly solicitous approach to design had begun in earnest with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's Navi ("Hey! Listen!") and would reach its peak (or, perhaps, its nadir) with 2011's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. But you can certainly make a case that no single game suffered more from Nintendo's fear of allowing players to become lost (even for a moment) than Metroid Fusion, a core chapter in a series where the point had always been to get lost.

As such, Metroid Fusion rubbed many long-time fans the wrong way. With this entry, Metroid's creators set aside their long-running commitment to creating a sense of isolation and uncertainty through environmental design and game flow. In place of that solitary vibe, Samus Aran suddenly found herself on the receiving end of a seemingly endless stream of commands and objectives. As the direct successor to Super Metroid, a game that used its sound, visuals, world structure, and zero dialogue in concert to create a hostile alien world and depict a plot with genuine twists and emotional resonance, Fusion betrayed a fundamental Metroid tenet: Show, don't tell.

Without question, the single most controversial —even detested — element of Metroid Fusion comes in the form of its new character: Adam. In an enormous break from series tradition, Adam hovers over Samus like a brooding hen from start the finish. He issues orders, explains objectives, hints at hazards to come, and provides detailed maps of Samus's route. Adam's presence doesn't simply change the tenor of Fusion from what had come before, it completely reshapes the entire flow of the game.

While Fusion's Game Boy Advance sprite work makes it look most like Super Metroid for Super NES, the game itself heavily references Metroid II. Understandably so: Both games debuted on portable systems. If Super Metroid was Metroid for NES perfected, you could see Fusion as an attempt to do the same for Metroid II. Even so, Nintendo didn't settle for revisiting the world of the second Metroid adventure and building on it, despite a bit of a head-fake in the intro. Instead, it leans into the artifice of Metroid II's design; in fact, it takes a literal approach to that artifice by presenting its recreation of Metroid II's world as a simulation.

But there's no getting past the fact that Adam's constant intrusions change the entire flow of the game. Fusion takes place entirely in a space station — Biologic Space Laboratories — and Samus's quest leads her throughout the six self-contained sectors of B.S.L. On its surface, this might not sound entirely different from Super Metroid's take on Zebes, a planet whose internal structure spans discrete regions. Fusion even presents its own take on the "glass tube" gag from Super Metroid, where late in the game you open an undocumented connection between the individual zones.

Where Fusion differs from Super Metroid is in its refusal to let you explore even a square meter of the station without being guided or chastised by Adam. The entrance to every sector of B.S.L. funnels you through what's called a "navigation room" — a computer station that locks you into or out of a sector as Adam dispenses commands and forces you to undertake a mission. These dialogue sequences invariably go to great lengths to explain to Samus her precise goals and the methods through which she must achieve them, along with a rundown of the hazards along the way. In doing so, the game developers (through Adam) drain the game of much of its sense of surprise and discovery.

If that were the beginning and end of Fusion's approach to progression, it would stand as an unmitigated disaster. It's not enough that Adam robs Metroid of the exploration at its heart; he does so in a didactic, tedious way.

But in fact, that's the whole point. You're meant to resent Adam, to chafe at his constant demands, to resent his constant and tiresome briefings. Adam makes the player feel powerless to control their actions because that's precisely Samus's condition throughout Fusion.

As Fusion begins, Samus returns to SR-388, the setting of Metroid II. The game doesn't take place there, though, because her actions during the course of Metroid II have had consequences: Her mission to wipe the metroid species from its native habitat has unbalanced SR-388's ecosystem and allowed an even greater threat to take root on the planet. A deadly organism known only as the X parasite, normally kept in check by metroids, has consumed life across the planet; Samus unwittingly becomes infected by it. The only thing that saves her life is a transfusion of metroid DNA.

This setup changes the stakes for Metroid Fusion, and with it a fundamental element of the series. From the very beginning, the Metroid saga presented Samus as an efficient, capable warrior: The top bounty hunter in the galaxy, the NES manual called her. While the games could occasionally pose a challenge in places, the power-up process that went hand-in-hand with progression in each adventure had the side effect of giving players the sensation of building Samus (and themselves) into an indestructible ball of death.

Fusion, however, begins by reducing Samus down to a weakling. Her power armor has largely been lost; most of it had to be surgically removed during her metroid DNA infusion, and the lightweight suit that remains is weak, and permanently bonded to her body. As a result, Samus begins the game with little firepower, and enemies hit harder than ever before. In previous Metroid entries, the monsters that roamed the environments generally posed a threat through attrition, slowly whittling down Samus's health. In Fusion, death can come quickly and unexpectedly — especially when bosses come into play. Samus slowly, agonizingly builds herself back up to her previous power levels, but Adam is quick to remind you how far below par you're fighting at every opportunity. Unlike most of Adam's nagging monologues, his warnings about Samus's disempowerment are both authentic and quite necessary.

Fusion's designers put a lot of thought into the process of rebuilding Samus back to her old fighting form. While you more or less recover her powers in the usual order, the game offers a few surprises along the way: Abilities unaccounted for by Adam. It also allows the designers to reinvent the control interface to reflect the portable nature of Fusion and the limited number of face buttons on the GBA hardware versus the Super NES. The power-up system adopts a streamlined design, with players toggling attack modes by holding a shoulder button rather than cycling with the Select button. Weapon upgrades replace rather than complement one another: The missile becomes the super missile, which even gains a freeze component to replace the traditional ice beam... eventually.

Samus's new metroid-based biology definitely has benefits; when you inevitably encounter a new batch of metroids in a laboratory breeding program, the deadly creatures will happily ignore her, because she's one of "them." Yet it has a logical drawback as well: Samus can now be rendered inert by cold, just like actual metroids. In previous Metroid games, the only way to fight the eponymous creatures was to freeze them solid with Samus's ice beam, and here you find that tactic used against Samus herself. B.S.L.'s cold storage and ice-based research areas are completely inaccessible until you figure out a way to shield her from the low temperatures, and eventually the X parasites that have spread throughout B.S.L. learn to use her weakness to cold against her as well, having absorbed all of her combat knowledge by infecting her on SR-388.

It's here that we come to the single most thrilling element of Metroid Fusion: Samus-X. See, the X parasite has the ability to assume the form and capabilities of any living creature it infects... and Samus begins her adventure by being afflicted. Eventually, the biological components of her contaminated suit take on a life of their own and begin stalking her throughout the station. Samus-X serves as a devastating contrast to our powerless heroine. The alien doppelgänger resembles Samus in peak condition from the end of Super Metroid (minus the temporary hyper beam): It possesses her full array of beam weapons, super missiles, power bombs, even the screw attack. And it constantly roams the station, hunting for the original version of itself which, by comparison, amounts to nothing more than a weak echo.

Samus-X may sound reminiscent of Resident Evil's Nemesis, and in fact Samus-X works much the same way here as the Nemesis did. The player will bump into the parasite at predetermined points in the station, and each encounter is heavily scripted and deliberately designed to force you to run for your life. You can stand and fight, but any such efforts invariably prove to be short-lived; Samus-X can destroy the real Samus in seconds flat. Instead, you have to escape through semi-scripted chase sequences. These require you to perform a variety of tasks, from hiding in a duct beneath the floor until the parasite passes through the room to surviving a volley of charged shots while clearing a path through a wall.

In many ways, Fusion's didactic text and intrusive story are as experimental as anything about Prime: A new direction for the series. Samus's skill reset symbolizes a sort of reboot for the franchise, and in any case her disempowerment proves to be merely a temporary situation. As she defeats the X parasite bosses throughout B.S.L., Samus absorbs and recovers her skills one by one. Once she finally defeats Samus-X, she returns to her old self — and the process of reaching that point, of at last being able to stand and fight this indestructible roving menace, gives your eventual triumph over Samus's clone the profound satisfaction that comes with a hard-earned victory. And even then, the game manages to throw in a few last-minute twists, including an omega metroid that no longer recognizes the fully restored Samus as one of its own species…

And there's one last important thing to note about Adam's constant intrusions: They become less and less frequent as the game goes on. Samus begins to take lengthier excursions on her own, repeatedly achieving tasks outside of Adam's proscribed mission log. Late in the game, you break outside the bounds of the station's environmental simulations and sneak around through the structure of the installation; despite being as carefully laid out as the rest of the game, slipping away from the computer's instructions and finding a different path forward creates a real thrill. Valve would recapture this same spirit a few years later with Portal, but Metroid Fusion did it first.

Unfortunately, we've never had the opportunity to see where Nintendo would take Samus's story next. Metroid Fusion is the final game in the series' timeline, at least so far. Every chapter of the series since then has muddled about in the past, falling into various points of the saga between the original Metroid and Fusion. Maybe the series' forward march was arrested by enormous popularity of Prime; or, perhaps, Sakamoto and crew simply don't know where to go with a Samus whose powers have been permanently restored, who has conclusively defeated the space pirates, the metroids, and the X parasites, and who has fallen out of favor with the Galactic Federation. At this point, the Metroid saga has literally been stalled out for half of its existence. And while Fusion may be better than many fans give it credit for, it doesn't make for a satisfying conclusion to Samus's story. Here's hoping that the dream of Metroid V — perhaps the never-announced Metroid Dread for DS — will surface someday soon.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to this Super Metroid follow-up, but time has been kind to the game. Though it breaks from established Metroid design dogma, it does so in a meaningful way. The compromises Fusion inflicts on game mechanics underscore its narrative, and Samus's road to recovery simultaneously becomes a journey to reclaim the "proper" workings of a Metroid game. Although Yoshio Sakamoto would double down on Fusion's most frustrating elements for Other M, that doesn't damage Fusion's own integrity in the least. Uneven, but nevertheless excellent — and by far the single most challenging 2D Metroid game Nintendo has ever made.

4 /5

Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Fusion Jeremy Parish Metroid's fourth entry may have painted the saga into a corner, but those brushstrokes present a better picture than many want to admit. 2017-08-30T15:00:00-04:00 4 5

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Comments 22

  • Avatar for PsychicPumpkin #1 PsychicPumpkin 26 days ago
    I really enjoyed Metroid Fusion and had hoped for a sequel. I liked the creepy weirdness of Samus being part metroid. I would've liked to see her dealing with the affects of that in the long term in a new installment in the franchise.Edited 4 weeks ago by PsychicPumpkin
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #2 Roto13 26 days ago
    When people complained about how guided Metroid Fusion was, I thought "Hey, that's great for me, someone who constantly gets lost in Metroidvania games. Maybe this will be the one I make it through?"

    It wasn't.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #3 SargeSmash 26 days ago
    I very much enjoyed Metroid Fusion. I can understand why some would chafe at the overt walling off of areas, but you're absolutely right that it makes the narrative that much stronger. And those SA-X sequences! Scary stuff, and pulled off with aplomb.
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  • Avatar for Lonecow #4 Lonecow 26 days ago
    Space Prison! I've said it a million times, but the logical follow up to Fusion is having Samus arrested for destroying the space colony and all their research and have her escape from a Space Prison, where she has to fight through other inmates and pirates who are also held on the planet. Her gear has been confiscated, so she has to get that back as well. Free her ship from being impounded and clear her name in the process.

    It writes itself. Why won't Nintendo make this game.

    They could even have a giant Metroid living at the center of the planet that feeds off the energy of the prisoners to keep their moral low.

    Hell you could even introduce new ally characters that would have moral ambiguity to them, as they seem to be stuck in this cycle of only having boring stiff lifeless space marines being introduced as forgettable side characters.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #5 Flipsider99 26 days ago
    Definitely a very underrated Metroid game, with some really cool stuff in it. I love everything to do with the SA-X! The only real flaw is that I think the soundtrack is a bit weak compared to the first 3 Metroid games.
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  • Avatar for InexactQuotient #6 InexactQuotient 26 days ago
    Metroid Fusion is my favorite game in the series. I've always found it strange that people complained about the greater emphasis on narrative and structure in it - I felt it made it a much stronger game.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #7 chaoticBeat 26 days ago
    I am playing through this right now in anticipation for Samus Returns and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I just got to zone 6 (NOC). I don't know how far I am but judging the rate it's given me abilities upgrades I feel like I've made decent progress. I will come back and read this when I finish it.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #8 NiceGuyNeon 26 days ago
    This is one of the greatest Metroid/Metroidvania games I've played even if you can't get lost, it's more than made up for with excellent level design (better level design than most games period), excellent gameplay mechanics, and fun boss battles and the absolutely tense Samus X encounters. I'd love for a Metroid 5 just to see what comes next.

    Yes, there's more structure and narrative to it, but I think that experimentation led to a game with its own unique sense of identity within the series. I love Zero Mission too, and I hesitate to say it isn't as good as Fusion, because by design they're very different games with different goals (and I love Zero Mission), but I think Fusion actually stuck with me more despite Zero Mission leaving more to be explored and more opportunities to get lost. Fusion was just cool. It tried something different, more in your face, spookier upfront, and it made sure you knew you were powerless up until the point you could fight back, and that makes it stand out to me.

    The Metroid games of the early to mid-2000's (Prime, Fusion, Echoes, and Zero Mission) were all A+ efforts and i wish we lived in a time where Nintendo put that much effort into this series again. Hopefully Samus Returns and Prime 4 are a sign of good things to come.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #9 yuberus 26 days ago
    The structure of Fusion and Metroid II both strike me as attempts at compromising for a portable platform. Someone wandering around for hours would drain out their battery for little progress; some structure on where to go can keep them moving and keep them from considering the game a waste of batteries and money.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #10 hiptanaka 25 days ago
    Fusion is great. The gameplay is perfected, and it has the best boss fights in the series.

    The more restrictive structure is a bit of a bummer, but it should be alright to try different things with a series, and the tension building narrative really works.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #11 hiptanaka 25 days ago
    @Lonecow Metroid 5 right there.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #12 Kuni-Nino 25 days ago
    Ahh, it's nice to read a Metroid Fusion review that discusses its merits and its flaws with such accuracy. Fusion gets a ton of hate, and while some of it is understandable, none of it should add up to a bad game when Fusion has so many other things to offer like a cool story and interesting twists on the Metroid formula.

    Sure, it's not Super Metroid. But that just means Fusion is less than great which can also be good.

    Onto Metroid Prime 2 and Zero Mission. I have a feeling the Prime 2 review is going trigger me lol.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #13 Vonlenska 25 days ago
    I think Fusion is my favorite Metroid. I mean, I loved Super Metroid, but I may actually prefer the goal-oriented structure of Fusion to the more open but sometimes aimless Super. They're both good games and I understand why they get compared so much, but I think they both stand on their own as strong titles with almost opposite intentions.

    I also liked how much newness there is to Fusion. Samus' redesign; Samus' new ship; the X; SA-X. It really expanded the setting and aesthetic, which sort of sets it apart from other Nintendo franchises which have never really followed anything like a continuity despite what wild-eyed Zelda fans may tell you.

    Also: I still find the X zombies endearingly goofy looking.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #14 LBD_Nytetrayn 25 days ago
    Never much liked the Fusion suit. It looks like a combination of Samus being covered in blue snot and having runs in her everything-- and getting her Classic color scheme back on it just makes it look worse.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #15 NiceGuyNeon 25 days ago
    @Kuni-Nino Prime 2 gets a lot of hate these days, and almost all of it unwarranted in my opinion.

    It is a significantly more hostile game than Metroid Prime, and it is by far, the most ALIEN game I've ever played. Metroid Prime is the best of the series for me, but it's also clear that falls into tropes of jungle level, desert level, water level, etc just in a very seamless and natural way, where as Prime 2 has larger areas that aren't necessarily as interconnected as they were in the original. They're distinct locales each shooting in one direction, actually kind of similar to Fusion in that sense.

    But the Torvus Bog is still one of the most bizarre, interesting, foreign, and dangerous places I've visited in a game. The dark world mechanic doesn't feel very sci-fi, but the puzzles shine because of it, and the limited ammo may not immediately feel like Metroid for the light and dark weapons, but it also boosts the tension and the strategy you need to have for combat.

    It was a very different experience from the first Prime, but it's still a knock-out adventure. HATERS GONNA HATE, BUT I'MMA SMACK 'EM RIGHT BACK.

    They can hate on Prime 3 though. That game wasn't very good lol

    EDIT- I don't mean to make it out like Prime 2 doesn't have flaws, but I think it has the strongest sense of identity of the 3D games as a whole. It is you spelunking into a very hostile alien world. The training wheels are off.Edited 4 weeks ago by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for not_themilkybarkid #16 not_themilkybarkid 25 days ago
    I'd be curious to see a plot about a Samus who no longer has any support from the Federation, and whose Metroid mutation is progressing further, fighting to take down the corrupt Federation. Though to be honest she might work better as an antagonist than as a protagonist.
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #17 chiptoon 25 days ago
    @Lonecow So the Metroid version of Alien 3?
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #18 chiptoon 25 days ago
    @NiceGuyNeon Prime 3 is a gem. Get off my lawn you hater!
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #19 NiceGuyNeon 24 days ago
    @chiptoon lol sorry! I know people like it a lot, I seem to be in the minority.

    I think I have to replay it since it's been some time since I last touched it (good luck to me with my lack of free time these days), but I didn't like that shooting was so much more emphasized over larger, sprawling exploration. It all felt bite-sized to me and had too much jumping around from point to point rather than letting me dive deep into an area, and the story was too childish and had really tropey characters.

    I was disappointed, but it's also kind of different. I don't know if different is what I wanted from the (at the time) conclusion to the series. I'm hoping Prime 4 is closer to the first or second in style.
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #20 chiptoon 24 days ago
    @NiceGuyNeon It was actually my first Metroid ever, so it completely blew me away. I replayed it fairly recently and was much more aware of its shortcomings. But I think they are more a result of the ambition of creating a bigger narrative and environment. So it becomes a wider and less deep experience.
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  • Avatar for BlazeHedgehog #21 BlazeHedgehog 22 days ago
    I actually tried going back and starting a new game in Fusion a couple months ago after having not played it since it originally came out. I suppose it's not terrible; it controls well, levels aren't necessarily poorly laid out, but I really loathe the game's hand holding nature and the constant reminders of Metroid Other M make me groan. One of those things where I guess it's not a bad game but I just can't stomach it anymore.
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  • Avatar for Outrider #22 Outrider 20 days ago
    @NiceGuyNeon I don't think you're wrong about Prime 3's bite-sized nature, but I think it's an interesting evolution of the Prime series. I always looked at it as: what if Retro tried to turn Metroid Prime into Nintendo's answer to a big AAA shooter like Halo? Honestly, the only thing it was missing was a big multiplayer mode (which I genuinely think would have been a good addition to MP3 more than MP2's bizarre deathmatch mode).

    In a lot of ways it doesn't work. Like you said: the levels are small and isolated from each other and the emphasis on additional characters and big action pieces don't really fit well with the Metroid series. But I still enjoy it quite a bit and think it works really well. Yeah, it's probably my least favorite of the Prime Trilogy, but I like a lot of what they do: I like how they expand upon the setting even more than any earlier Prime game (outside of the more overt attempts to like the many cutscenes with the Federation, which are hit or miss). Even things as small as showing a Federation Base that's still in tact or allowing the player to manipulate the controls of Samus' ship were genuinely intriguing to me. The increase focus on action wasn't perfect but redesigning Prime's combat to use the trinity of Arm Cannon / Missiles / Grappling Hook gave it a satisfying flow that the earlier games didn't have (and the way they give each combat tool a different elemental affinity is kinda wonderful).

    So... yeah, I think Prime 3 is a good game, even if it's weird and only feels like it's part of the Prime series 50% of the time. I want Prime 4 to be closer to the first two games, but I still have a fond place in my heart for the weird Wii game.
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