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Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Zero Mission

The golden standard of remakes.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

Early word on the street - including both Kat's and my own - says that Metroid: Samus Returns offers an excellent adaptation of the rockiest of old-school Metroid games, Metroid II. As a return to form for the series, I'm comfortable declaring it "mission accomplished." As a redemptive effort for co-developer MercurySteam after the frankly abysmal Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, Samus Returns might prove to be an even greater success.

There's one other bar it needs to clear before we can go all-in on the Samus Returns hyperbole, however, and that's the "Metroid remake" bar. The trouble is, the standard for that category was set ridiculously high back in 2004 by Metroid: Zero Mission for Game Boy Advance.

At the time of its debut, Zero Mission redefined what players should expect from remakes of classic games. It was no mere facelift, though it certainly looked nice; Nintendo took the framework of the original Metroid for NES and rebuilt every inch of planet Zebes to conform to contemporary 2004 standards. Not only did Zero Mission hammer out all the design grievances of a game published early in the NES era - everything from restarting a new playthrough with only 30 points of health to the tedious vertical shafts scattered around the labyrinth - it added in a number of new features and ideas gathered from Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion.

The balancing act becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that Super Metroid had, in many ways, already taken a swing at redoing the original Metroid and connected with a home run. Yet despite literally covering much of the same ground as Super Metroid, Zero Mission feels wholly distinct, with no redundancy. What repetition you encounter here appears thematic rather than uninspired.

Crucially, Zero Mission manages to retain the exploratory spirit of the original Metroid. That's no small consideration given that it shared much of its development team with the didactic Metroid Fusion, a game that alienated many fans with its endless chatter and suffocating constraints. Fusion's dev staff had not, as some less charitable players speculated, forgotten how to make a good Metroid game. Rather, the entire of crux of Fusion hung on the premise of Samus having been greatly reduced in strength while being stalked by a shadow of her full-power self. The game's design simply extended that sensation of helplessness to players. Zero Mission, on the other hand, featured Samus in her prime, and those same designers were happy to let her (and, by extension, players) find their own way.

That's not to say Zero Mission doesn't offer any guidance at all. You'll encounter Chozo waypoint statues throughout the game that point you to your next key objective. This doesn't diminish the game or turn it into a rote jaunt from points A to B. The waypoints are the equivalent of a local villager pointing an explorer to a distant mountain or valley; the explorer may know where they're heading, but they still have to find the path on their own. That much becomes clear early on, when the goal marker directs you to a seemingly simple goal... only to have your progress interrupted by an unexpected side excursion to a portion of Zebes' surface that never appeared in the original Metroid at all, well out of the way from the direct route to your goal.

Therein we find one of Zero Mission's greatest strengths: It isn't afraid to mess with the structure of the original game when it suits the developers' purposes. While Zero Mission first and foremost exists to bring the NES game up to the technical standards of its sequels, it also presents the story of Samus Aran coming into her own as the legendary warrior foretold by the vanished Chozo race. It does this almost entirely through pantomime, as in Super Metroid, but there's no ambiguity about the purpose and outcome of the new material Nintendo added here. Samus gains abilities that never appeared in the NES game, such as the ledge grip she commanded by default in Fusion, and many of the new powers she acquires don't initially register with her combat suit. It's only after she undertakes what amount to coming-of-age trials that the Chozo artifacts she collects become available to her.

For the most part, Zero Mission's map overlays neatly atop the original game's. Sure, some areas have been compacted or expanded, but each area feels much the same as it did the first time around. Norfair is sprawling, complex, and soaked in deadly magma; Ridley's lair offers few navigational puzzles but compensates with profoundly dangerous wildlife; and the rocky Brinstar zone plays the part of the connective tissue binding the entire world together. At the same time, Zebes contains many new intricacies absent from Samus's 8-bit journey. Kraid's lair contains puzzles and mechanisms that turn pointless dead-ends into complex tests of observation. Norfair includes a new boss whose defeat opens a large portion of the game world. And then there's Chozodia and Crateria, the new additions to the original Metroid's world.

You find these areas woven into the fabric of the game throughout the course of Zero Mission; they're where Samus picks up most of her mystery artifacts. You don't properly have the chance to explore these zones until the game's epilogue, a sequence that ties the first and third Metroid chapters together in a new and convincing way. That epilogue, as it happens, is also one of the more controversial portions of the game.

Where the original Metroid ended promptly upon the defeat of the Mother Brain - provided you could navigate a lengthy vertical escape shaft filled with tiny platforms before time ran out, that is - Zero Mission adds a sort of extended denoument in which the Space Pirates shoot down Samus's ship as she leaves Zebes, forcing her to find her way through a pirate vessel armed only with a harmless stun gun. This most likely began as a clever nod to the original game, which allowed you to play in a sort of New Game+ mode as Samus without armor if you could complete the adventure quickly enough. Rather than simply repeating that option here, where it wouldn't make sense (given how heavily Samus's acquisition of abilities for her Power Suit factors into the plot), Zero Mission's designers instead created a post-game sequence in which her lack of armor - her Zero Suit, as it became known - changes the overall game experience.

Zero Mission's epilogue takes the form of an extended stealth sequence as Samus sneaks around the ducts and corridors of a Space Pirate mothership. Being spotted by a pirate or a security system almost certainly results in Samus's death, forcing you to move with caution.

Ultimately, though, the stealth sequence serves the same function here that Adam's oppressive mission orders did in Fusion, or Mother Brain's withering eye beam assault in Super Metroid: It creates a sense of helplessness that makes Samus's eventual reclamation of her customary strength all the more satisfying. After creeping through a starship's ventilation system for 15 minutes, acquiring Samus's proper power suit from the Chozo ruins and tearing through the pirates feels like sweet revenge.

It doesn't hurt that Zero Mission radically rethinks how Samus controls to begin with. The floaty jumps and deliberate movement of the older Metroid games becomes a zippy, responsive style here - it's not unlike Fusion, but without the sluggishness. Zero Mission adopts Fusion's streamlined control scheme, of course, but underlying that you'll find a fundamental reconsideration of how Samus moves and fights. This is still no twitchy, run-and-gun Contra or Gunstar Heroes, but Zero Mission demands more raw skill than previous chapters of the series... especially when you play the unlockable hard mode, in which enemies hit with devastating ferocity.

The one significant oddity of Zero Mission has to do with its visual style. The graphics are a sort of odd mishmash of traditional sprite art and bold, comic-book-inspired visuals. In its first public showing, Nintendo presented Zero Mission as a sort of "Metroid for kids," with an odd super-deformed art style that saw the heroine drawn with a head the size of her entire body. Somewhere along the way that changed into a more buttoned-down traditional approach, but little vestiges of the preschool visual style stuck around in the backgrounds of certain areas. But honestly, if the worst you can say about Zero Mission is that some of the backgrounds are a bit off, or that some people disliked a portion of the new epilogue, that's high praise indeed.

(Screenshots from Metroid Recon.)

Zero Mission has stood as Nintendo's final statement on the classic Metroid style for more than a decade, and it's as definitive a statement as you could hope for. A comprehensive reworking of the landmark original game that incorporates the best elements of its sequels, hammers out a new place in the saga's narrative, and sets the ground for a large chunk of Super Metroid's tale, Zero Mission came every bit as close to perfection as Super Metroid had — albeit with a very different overall play style. An essential work that set an incredibly high bar for the series' upcoming second remake to clear.

5 /5

Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid Zero Mission Jeremy Parish The golden standard of remakes. 2017-09-05T22:00:00-04:00 5 5

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for Mooglepies #1 Mooglepies 19 days ago
    While this is a good analysis of the game and a comparison with the original, I think it misses a very important part of Zero Mission's lasting appeal.

    Zero Mission is the best designed game in its series, possibly the best designed game in its entire genre. The reason I say that is down to its pretty much peerless map design, which allows for an insane amount of replayability and optimisation of time/item collection. Unlike previous games in the series which had non-linear progression by accident (Super) or outright prevented it (Fusion), the designers embraced sequence breaking by putting hidden paths and destroyable blocks out of the way to move around or even entirely bypass item requirements. What previously would have required glitches or other incredibly execution-heavy and unintended tricks was now purposefully designed into the game; see this diagram that shows it in flowchart form . This greatly increases the incentive to replay the game and is something that that, ultimately, Nintendo haven't done before or since with any other game in the series.

    Their dedication to this particular ethos was great enough that they went back for the final release of the game (the PAL version) to make an incredibly small change at the very end of the game that meant you could beat the game on hard difficulty with one missile pack instead of having to pick up two.Edited 2 times. Last edited 3 weeks ago by Mooglepies
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #2 Vonlenska 19 days ago
    I always forget about this one. I missed it when it was new, have been told to play it, always meant to and...always forget about it. Maybe this will be the year. It looks really good! Just gotta remember it exists for more than a week.

    Anyway, I really like the art style. The bright primary colors plus thick black outlines and prominent negative space reminds me of Mike Mignola. Majora's Mask did something similar, and I liked it there, too.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #3 chaoticBeat 19 days ago
    Nintendo needs to put Zero Mission on the 3DS. It's the only 2D Metroid that is missing and it's such a classic.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #4 LBD_Nytetrayn 19 days ago
    The one and only part of the game I hate playing and dread every time is the Zero Suit portion. I know the deck is supposed to be stacked against you, but the enemy behavior seems to change to the point it feels like the computer is cheating. =P
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  • Avatar for greenwichlee #5 greenwichlee 19 days ago
    While I appreciate the arguments about Zero Mission's refined structure, I prefer Fusion. I just think it's much more memorable, especially the encounters with the Samus clone.

    I actually replayed Zero Mission recently but the only thing that sticks in my head is the Zero suit section and that isn't entirely fondly.

    Super is superior to both in my mind. Might just be nostalgia but I think the slightly cruder mechanics are made up for by better atmosphere, music and variation.
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #6 chiptoon 19 days ago
    I finally played this on Wii U. I was completely blown away. I think it's my favorite of all the Metroids. Its certainly the one I'm most keen to play again.
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  • Avatar for jmsebastian #7 jmsebastian 19 days ago
    I think I'm definitely in the minority on this, but I was not all that impressed with Zero Mission. The superficial changes to the art style and sound design were definitely a step down from even Fusion (although I know the GBA had sound issues in general), but the changes in physics really threw me off. Super Metroid felt so good to play because the jump arcs were big and predictable, wall jumping was efficient, there was just the right amount of gravity. Zero Mission made Samus feel like a cement brick by comparison, and it just never sat right with me.

    The most disappointing thing was the shift in musical tone. The faked orchestral sound to certain tracks really took away the eerie atmosphere from the original, especially with Kraid's lair. What was an isolating, sci-fi horror theme that truly stood out turned into a more grand standard adventure theme with some sci-fi elements that blended in with the rest of the score.

    I get the feeling that if the original Metroid released in North America had featured a save battery that put it on par with the Disk System version, and the game had a map, Nintendo never would have bothered remaking it. But as it is now, the original game and Zero Mission serve two different goals. Metroid was a game about side scrolling exploration, and Zero Mission was about overwriting the original game. Metroid was far more successful in what it tried to do, in that regard.
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  • Avatar for jmsebastian #8 jmsebastian 19 days ago
    @greenwichlee While I definitely disliked the story aspects of Fusion, from a playing perspective, I also liked it a lot more than Zero Mission. They didn't do quite enough with the Samus clone idea, but it was a lot more compelling that going back to Zebes for the third time, essentially.

    I also disagree that Super Metroid had more crude mechanics. They feel a lot more refined to me that either Fusion or Zero Mission. Sure, you can't grab on to ledges, but the environments aren't designed with that in mind. I think the GBA games included that due to screen size limitations, which makes sense, but it made traversing the world a lot clunkier.
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  • Avatar for BulkSlash #9 BulkSlash 18 days ago
    I love Zero Mission, it constantly switches with Super as my favourite Metroid game. I even enjoy the Zero Suit stuff! Fusion is then a very close second, I'm not bothered by its linearity but I do find a few sections overly difficult which stops it tying with Super and Zero Mission.

    Now if only Nintendo would hurry up and release these on a Virtual Console for Switch.
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #10 DrCorndog 18 days ago
    Great as it is, I hold that Zero Mission is the most overrated title in the series. It's basically Super Metroid Lite. The bonus mission at the end adds some meat to the package, but it's fatty ground beef compared to the prime cut of the main game.Edited 3 weeks ago by DrCorndog
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  • Avatar for camchow #11 camchow 18 days ago
    I don't think I could pick a fav between Fusion and Zero Mission. Both have their pros and cons obviously. I can definitely agree with a 5/5 though. I mean, it's high praise but damn if that game just isn't a blast to play through every time.

    Idk, I'm a weird Metroid fan in that Fusion was the first game I really played, then Zero Mission really cemented my love for the series. I like Super Metroid too but would chose to play Fusion or Zero Mission over it any day. I think it's mostly just the controls.

    Random side note but man, Metroid GBA games were really good at making those monster screams loud and intimidating. Those games really worked those tiny speakers to their limit.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #12 Flipsider99 18 days ago
    It's an excellent remake! It's not necessarily my favorite in the series, and honestly I don't think it replaces the first game, which is still essential. But it's a very good remake and it's well worth playing!
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  • Avatar for TernBird #13 TernBird 18 days ago
    The cutscenes and music in Metroid Zero Mission still make my eyes misty to this very day. Nothing has ever done Samus so much justice as the sight of Ridley reflected in her visor as it swoops in on her.

    And then Other M flushed it all down the toilet.

    What amuses me most is that ZM explored the paternal aspects of Samus' childhood way better than Other M; Other M tried establishing Adam as Samus' father figure, but they just made him boorish and patriarchal and downright chauvanistic. Samus cowing to him made her seem less like a capable mercenary with a lot to learn and more like a teenaged girl with a bizarre Electra complex, desperate for approval. But Samus had a family with Gray Voice and Old Bird. She probably identifies more as a Chozo than as a human. (Heck, having been raised by aliens, potentially suffering from PTSD vis-a-vis Ridley's attack as a baby and countless hours spent alone spelunking cavernous planets probably means Samus is just plain weird around people. Anyone not intimidated by her Amazonian six-foot-three height would probably just be too intimidated by her lack of anything resembling recognizable human social graces. She's my first pick for a partner in a bar-fight, though!)

    Other M's hours of trying to mine Samus's paternal connection to Adam were already redundant upon creation via a less-than-ten-second shot of crayon-esque scrawls she drew as a child on an ancient Chozo mural depicting her as the mighty warrior she would become, where she's holding hands with her Chozo parents. That is the Metroid game I want to see. Samus' relationship to the Federation can go boil itself, I want to see Samus's life growing up with the Chozo, honing her someday-legendary skills by exploring Zebes as the ultimate free-range child. Also, who wants to play a game where you have a military-jerk dad when you could have a game where you have two alien-Bird-dads?
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  • Avatar for yuberus #14 yuberus 18 days ago
    I'm surprised by the hate at the zero suit portion! I thought it was a great subversion and probably wholly unintentional shout out to Zillion on the Master System. It was tricky, I remember that much, but not insurmountably so.

    And geez, Metroid needed the remake. Visiting that game after having never played it as a kid was rough. Zero Mission is so much friendlier a way for experiencing it.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #15 NiceGuyNeon 17 days ago
    This was my first 2D Metroid, and I think it's one of the top 4 games in the series. I think Super Metroid is at the top, but the battle for second place between this, Fusion, and Prime is unreal. I can never settle on one.

    I don't get the hate for the epilogue, I felt like it all tied in really well with the game and culminated in a cool boss battle.
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  • Avatar for Pojo86 #16 Pojo86 12 days ago
    @Mooglepies I'm just going to agree with whatever this guy says.
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