Mercurysteam + Metroid: An Opportunity Lost? Or a Bullet Dodged?

Mercurysteam + Metroid: An Opportunity Lost? Or a Bullet Dodged?

The studio behind Castlevania: Lords of Shadow had its sights set on rebooting Nintendo's flagging sci-fi flagship. Did we miss out on potential greatness?

Late last week, fellow Gamer Network site Nintendo Life reported on an intriguing rumor, one that seems well-sourced and strongly rooted in fact: Spanish developer MercurySteam (of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow fame) has been angling for a chance to develop a Metroid game for Nintendo.

This doesn't mean a MercurySteam-developed Metroid is in the works, or that such a thing was ever truly in the cards; merely that the studio attempted to sell Nintendo on the fact that they should be given the opportunity to work with the franchise, which has gone almost completely untouched since 2010's Metroid: Other M. The timing of this news couldn't be more provocative; fans have been less than kind about what they've seen of the first new Metroid release in half a decade (Metroid Prime: Federation Force). For those disillusioned with the direction Next Level Games and producer Kensuke Tanabe are taking with Federation Force, being teased by the prospect of a high-end console Metroid title from MercurySeam is simply salt in an open wound.

Some people say Lords of Shadow isn't really Castlevania, but look! There's a castle, and he's in... Pennsylvania, I think? Totally legit.

Especially given that this concept is almost certainly one that will never come to fruition. Japanese developers, especially Nintendo, don't typically jump on pitches from outside studios. Then again, anything is possible: This sort of pitch is reportedly how MercurySteam ended up developing its breakout Lords of Shadow trilogy, the Castlevania equivalent of their purported Metroid concept. From what I've been told, they came to Konami with a proposal for a new Castlevania game; while Konami initially said no, they greenlit the game as a standalone property. Soon after, Koji Igarashi's 3D Castlevania project — a sequel to PlayStation classic Symphony of the Night — failed to come together, and Konami simply gave MercurySteam's project the blessing to become the legitimate Castlevania creation the studio had originally proposed.

While some details of that account may not be completely accurate — I cobbled it together based on several conversations with different people, so who knows? — the important takeaway here is that MercurySteam had negotiated their way into working on one dream project by working on spec, and it's certainly not hard to imagine that they'd hoped to pull it off a second time. Nintendo, however, clearly had other plans in place for the Metroid franchise, so even if the publisher had been open to pitches for reinventing one of its oldest brands, the timing didn't work out.

Unsurprisingly, reactions to this news have been mixed. Some have lamented the loss of this opportunity for a "proper" Metroid game on consoles — Federation Force obviously not being "proper" between its portable format, lack of emphasis on Samus Aran, and cartoon-like character proportions — while others have breathed a sigh of relief that MercurySteam won't have the opportunity to mangle a beloved franchise the way they did Castlevania. Reactions in the middle, however, have proven decidedly few and far between; evidently, topics like the future of Metroid (and the merits of MercurySteam) don't leave much room for lukewarm opinions.

Classic Samus, a towering powerhouse who could smash beer cans on her forehead and render you into a thin red paste with nothing more than a mean look.

Would MercurySteam have done Metroid justice by way of a reboot or alternate storyline? If Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is anything to go by, the game would at least have played well and looked great. The first Lords in particular boasted graphics that stood alongside just about any contemporary release, and its mechanics — while derivative — made better use of the series' traditional emphasis on whip-based combat that any 3D iteration of the franchise to that point.

On the other hand, Other M made it quite clear that mere visuals and play controls alone don't a true Metroid make. Team Ninja did an excellent job of bringing brisk mechanics and polished graphics into the Metroid universe, yet Other M remains almost universally reviled. For everything that the game did right in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of play, it fumbled the ball when it came to pacing, storytelling, connecting the narrative to the action, and most of all with everything involving the main character's, well, character. Other M destroyed Samus Aran for many fans, undermining nearly a quarter-century's worth of canonical strength of will and imagined self-sufficiency alike in order to turn her into a bratty, cowardly child.

There, MercurySteam's track record becomes much less defensible. Their reimagining of the Castlevania saga felt less like an attempt to retell a tale and more like a convoluted generational soap opera onto which they tacked a handful of familiar names. The plot beats ranged from mediocre to downright awful, and not even Patrick Stewart could redeem the pretentious, stilted dialogue. By the third and final entry in the Lords of Shadow series, MercurySteam had basically jettisoned any sense of fidelity to the source material in favor of some unconventional plot twists (Dracula in modern-day Europe!) which they then completely squandered.

This is one of MercurySteam's more modestly dressed female characters. Just don't ask how she dies!

Could they have fared better with Metroid? Obviously, we'll never know, but the supposed premise of their pitch — Samus battling alongside seven other bounty hunters — already puts it off to a poor start. The weakest and least popular games in the Metroid series have been the ones that feature Samus battling alongside her peers: Other M, Metroid Prime: Hunters, and Metroid Prime 3. Federation Force, for all the complaints it's inspired, at least is treating Samus with an air of deference lacking in nearly every Metroid title released after 2004's franchise swan song, Metroid: Zero Mission. Rather than presenting Samus as a warrior among equals, Federation Force will reportedly present her as a sort of legend, an unmatched heroine seen only through the awed perspective of outsiders.

Samus has always been at her best in isolation, working alone to overcome the challenges of her latest mission. Solitude was the defining trait of the earliest Metroid games, all the way through Metroid Prime, but that began to erode with Metroid Fusion and its chatty computer Adam. Challenges from peers and orders from unreliable commanders diminish Samus; they turn her into just another soldier rather than the swift, silent force of nature she was presented as in the NES game's manual; before her first adventure even began, Samus was held aloft as an unparalleled adventurer. Inexplicably, every Metroid game over the past decade has done its level best to undermine that.

While it's hard to imagine anyone doing worse by Samus than Other M did, it admittedly seems within the realm of possibility for MercurySteam. Their storytelling sensibilities fall very definitely within the "generic badass" school of video game narrative design. Their men are manly men, while their women mainly exist as evil seductresses or to be grist for the man-pain mill. The evil women in Lords of Shadow were bosomy, barely clad vixens, while the good women invariably ended up dead — for example, classic character Sypha Belnades, recast as Simon Belmont's deceased mother, who hovered over him as a ghostly apparition and could shield him from harm by spreading her cloak above him. Under the cloak, of course, she was naked, thus achieving the MercurySteam female hat trick of being bosomy, barely clad, and dead.

That thousand-yard stare? Yeah, Samus forgot to turn on "safe search" when she did a Google vanity search on herself.

That's not exactly a great track record with which to approach a series centered around one of gaming's earliest female protagonists. Sure, Samus' strip-tease reveal at the end of the original Metroid was there to act as titillation by way of a reward, but at the same time it had a certain meaningful shock value as well. Oh, you thought the galaxy's greatest bounty hunter was a man? it seemed to be saying. Well, think again. Nintendo hasn't really done well by her in recent years, infantilizing her in Other M while hyper-sexualizing her in Smash Bros., but MercurySteam definitely doesn't strike me as the studio to reverse that trend.

Maybe the failure of this game pitch to launch really is a true loss to gaming, and the medium is poorer for its absence. But my instinct tells me that it probably would have resulted in the sort of callow, superficial, and above all juvenile "reimagining" that does no favors to the property being rebooted — or its fans. I can certainly understand the desire to play around in someone else's toybox, but when it comes to classic game properties that usually results in nothing more than a bunch of broken toys....

What do you think? Would MercurySteam's Metroid have been the kick to the pants the aging series needs? Or would it have made us long for the fidelity and excellence of Federation Force?

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