Does Metroid Have a Future?

Does Metroid Have a Future?

One of gaming's defining works has been without a sequel for five years. Has the series run out of steam?

Originally published May 2015.

Over the years I have written (at probably annoying length) about my love for the Metroid series. That doesn't make me unique, of course; the Metroid games have touched many people the way they have me.

Just look at the sheer number of indie game developers whose mission statement boils down to, "I want to make my own Metroid game." We've seen two of those in the past month or so: Ori and the Blind Forest, which took its cues from 1994's Super Metroid, and Axiom Verge, which feels almost a parallel universe's 16-bit sequel to the original Metroid. Consider the enthusiastic responses to any claim that Super Metroid is one of the greatest games ever made. I cut my teeth playing Metroid, and it shaped my taste in video games for the next 25 years — and the same is true for countless other gamers.

You wouldn't know that the series is regarded as an all-time classic by the way Nintendo treats it, though. Metroid has essentially been abandoned since 2010's badly misaimed Metroid: Other M, which attempted to bring the franchise in line with last gen's game design and narrative trends but missed the mark while simultaneously abandoning the essential mystery and sense of empowerment that had defined Metroid for a quarter-century. Fans like to make sardonic remarks about how a Texas-based studio (Retro) managed to do a better job of making Metroid games than Nintendo's original creators, but even Retro's Metroid Prime games called it a day at a trilogy.

With all these people clamoring for a new Metroid game, and with so many developers making their own Metroid-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off creations, you'd think Nintendo would be highly motivated to give the masses what they want. This year's E3 seems like the perfect time to announce a new Metroid, right? Well, yeah, but this is Nintendo we're talking about. They never do things they way you'd expect. But even beyond the company's inherent, persnickety tendencies, the reality is that Nintendo would have to sort through quite a few challenges that currently sit in the way of the Metroid continuation the fans demand. It's not impossible, but a proper follow-up would require considerably more effort than assembling a new Mario adventure.

There's no profit in it

This is the big one, really. Nintendo may be happy to let Metroid lie fallow simply because there's no money in it. I know, that seems counterintuitive — so many people keep asking for more Metroid! Surely they'd buy a new game! And yeah, they would. But how many? Remember that any Nintendo-published game is going to be exclusive to Wii U (a system that has fared poorly, to put it lightly) or 3DS (a system on the wane). A new Metroid would be a hefty investment for development, and the series doesn't have the cachet of Mario or even Zelda — and even those franchises have been slipping in popularity of late. Exclusivity is the big selling point for Nintendo consoles, but it's also a heavy albatross around their necks.

Is there a fix? Well, Nintendo could cut corners and make a low-budget Metroid, but I don't think anyone wants that. Really, I'd love to see Nintendo shake off its jealous approach to publishing and start cross-publishing games on Steam. Pundits are always screaming about how Nintendo should go third-party or go mobile, but why do that when they could reach a much wider audience — and one likely not to intersect much with the Wii U install base — by putting their games on PC? Everyone else publishes console "exclusives" that also show up on Steam, so why not Nintendo? It would give them much wider reach without forcing a fundamental change of their business model the way abandoning hardware or going all-in on iOS would. And the Steam audience would love Metroid.

Fusion's storyline would be too difficult to follow up

Looking at the more creative side of the equation, a major obstacle in Metroid's future is that the most recent game in the series' timeline — 2002's Metroid Fusion — painted the tale of Samus Aran into a corner. She had wiped the very last of the metroids from the galaxy (one would assume the fourth time is the charm), exposed a massive government conspiracy, and evolved into a physical form in which all her cool powers had become a part of her body. Where do you go from there and still create a game that feels "Metroid-ish"?

Is there a fix? The simple solution is: You don't. Let Metroid V be its own thing — the further adventures of Samus that have nothing whatsoever to do with actual metroids. Her actions during Fusion put her at odds with both the Galactic Federation's government (her long-time employer) and Biologic Space Labs, the powerful corporation whose space station she wrecked. Let Samus' tale now be one of evasion, or of fighting corruption. Take a cue from the title of the series' infamous canceled-before-it-was-announced DS sequel, Metroid: Dread, and create a sense of fear and tension. Samus is powerful, but more powerful than an entire platoon of space marines? And what about her crazy new biology? She's half-metroid now, and such a radical change to her very nature seems ripe with narrative and mechanical possibilities.

Would it feel like Metroid without collecting a chain of power-ups?

Perhaps even more than a tough lady in yellow armor running around blowing up space parasites and pirates, Metroid has always been defined by its mechanics: The sense of empowerment you experience as you gather up new abilities. Metroid's weapons and power-ups don't simply make Samus stronger, they unlock new areas of the game world. Missile destroy monsters but also destroy doors. Super Bombs clear a room of enemies but also of fragile blocks obstructing the path forward. That's great — but now that Samus has all those abilities biologically wired into her system, it's kind of hard to hit the reset button. Besides, after all the different ways Samus has been stripped of her powers (including some decidedly flimsy excuses in the Prime games), it would be hard to roll her powers back without feeling forced. Contrived, even.

Is there a fix? What if Samus began a game with all of her powers intact? What if she could already space jump and roll into a ball from the outset? What if the crux of a new Metroid's games revolved around other challenges, instead? New abilities, new obstacles to unlock? It wouldn't necessarily feel like classic Metroid... but given how many indie games have lifted Samus' skill set and the world design of the Metroid series, the series needs to evolve lest it feel like a simple reiteration of itself and all its imitators.

Samus' lost dignity may be impossible to restore

In the beginning, Samus Aran was a mysterious bounty hunter; we didn't even know she was a woman until we managed to get a good ending in the original Metroid. She never spoke a word until the prologue of Super Metroid, where she set up the game's backstory and never uttered a single word after. But with Fusion, she began inner-monologuing a great deal. And with Other M, her inner monologue painted her not as a tough, name-taking bounty hunter but rather as a whimpering, petulant child with daddy issues and a paralyzing fear of a recurring foe she had already canonically defeated many times over. If players resent any one thing about Other M, it's the fact that the game rendered her weak and helpless after a quarter-century of Samus standing as one of the first and strongest female leads in games.

Is there a fix? One solution might be to simply reboot Metroid and start from the beginning. That would solve a lot of issues confronting the series, and reboots are all the rage in the industry. But I don't think Samus is irreparably broken, not even after Other M. All I really think Nintendo would need to do in order to giver her old mojo back would be to... let her go about her adventure in silence. Metroid: Zero Mission demonstrated how to walk a fine balance between minimalist presentation (the secret of Samus' coolness) and accessibility (hints for progression), and all it would take to restore that to the series would be (1) some restraint by the developers and (2) a way to get rid of that stupid jabbering computer Adam. A single game filled with stoic, powerful silence is all we'd need to stand in awe of Samus again.

It might be difficult to know how best to treat the series

Perhaps the biggest question facing Metroid may be: What the heck should the series be? In its decades of life, it's been a 2D platformer, a first-person shooter emphasizing slow-paced discovery, a first-person shooter entirely about shooting, and, um, a pinball game. Other M represented a pretty earnest attempt to bring all of the series' different identities together into a unified whole (except maybe the pinball part), and while smartly designed it didn't quite feel right. The FPS titles tended to drag on with all the backtracking; the 2D games have been devalued by the sheer number of imitations (some very good!) currently on the market. How could a new Metroid game stand out for something besides its name?

Is there a fix? I can see two possible approaches here. One, Nintendo tries the Other M approach again, learning from that game's failings as they work with an outside studio to reinvent the entire concept of Metroid. Or, two, they just make the best possible classic Metroid game imaginable and brazen it out. Walk on in with a confident stride, like, "You imitators can copy us all you like, but this is the real deal. Check it out." I'd be OK with either approach as long as the resulting game is good.

Maybe we don't need a sequel

But really, do we have to have a sequel? Is it not enough to let super-Samus ride off into whatever passes for a sunset in outer space? Series lead designer Yoshio Sakamoto is in his mid-50s, and his career has been defined from the beginning by a tendency to dabble in wildly different game styles — Metroid, yes, but also things like WarioWare and Tomodachi Life. Maybe he's said all that needs to be said in this little universe. And wouldn't it be interesting if for once a game publisher put a series to rest once its central creative lead decided to call it a day? Every conversation about Metroid revolves around the same central assumption: There needs to be a sequel. But what if that's not true? What if the world would be a better place without another attempt to milk new ideas from a nearly 30-year-old concept?

Is there a fix? Just take it as it comes. Maybe E3 2015 will offer Metroid fans a happy surprise. But if not, so it goes. It's not like there's a shortage of great Metroid-inspired experiences to enjoy out there.

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