How to catch up on Metroid, the classic series shunned by Nintendo
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By Gene Park
If last week's "Metroid Dread" announcement didn't shake you to the core, you probably haven't played a Metroid game before. That's not your fault.
The fault probably lies with Nintendo, a company that curiously guards its rich archive of content. A long-standing and ongoing complaint with the otherwise phenomenal Switch console is its inability to tap into that catalogue. And among the company's major first-party series, Metroid has been its most ignored.
It's why that title splash of "Metroid 5" at E3 confused and shocked even longtime fans. It's been so long, I forgot that the Game Boy Advance 2002 title "Metroid Fusion" was technically "Metroid 4." And that's not to be confused with "Metroid Prime 4," the upcoming fourth game in the spinoff first-person series that started on the GameCube.
The Metroid series has a decades-long, convoluted history with a lot of gaps in between. So let's take a step back, and assess the landscape. Here are our recommendations if you want to get into Metroid.
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"Metroid" was released for the first Nintendo console in 1986. It was a landmark game that laid out the template for exploring a game with a continuous map, not broken up by levels like Mario games. It's also one of the first games to star a woman, the armored bounty hunter Samus Aran. The first three games revolve around the Metroid species, a life-sapping parasitical lifeform that acts as a bioweapon of sorts.
If you've been playing games for a while, you've likely heard the term "Metroidvania." It refers to a genre, games that follow the Metroid template. However the "-vania" suffix was added after Konami released "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" for PlayStation in 1997. Metroid is the original source of inspiration, but Castlevania expanded upon the formula in ways so significant - including turning its entire world upside down just when you think the game is over - that it continues to inspire developers today.
Games like "Hollow Knight" and the Xbox franchise "Ori" are descendants of the Metroid series. But many other recent 3D titles also owe a debt to the formula, most notably From Software's "Dark Souls" and "Batman: Arkham Asylum" by Rocksteady Games, both of which rely on exploration to access previously locked-out areas.
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The Metroid series struggles with consumer awareness in large part because many of the games aren't available on modern platforms due to Nintendo's befuddling decision to not tap into its archive.
If you're new to the series, I would not recommend playing the Nintendo original, available free as long as you're a paying Nintendo Switch online subscriber. While it was a milestone, it hasn't aged as well as Nintendo's other titles, like the first Mario or Zelda games. If you insist on starting in chronological order, then you should hunt down the 2004 remake for the Game Boy Advance, "Metroid: Zero Mission." Without a Game Boy Advance, you can buy the game off the Wii U shop. "Zero Mission" is a reimagining and streamlining of the first game, and has become a staple in speedrunning competitions over the years, thanks to many deliberate new design changes.
"Metroid 2: Return of Samus" was remade in 2017 as "Metroid: Samus Returns" for the Nintendo 3DS. Both versions are available to download on the 3DS. However, I again recommend going for the remake, as it offers many quality-of-life changes that improve the genre, not just the series. It's also the first Metroid game by developer MercurySteam, who's handling the upcoming "Dread." Many of the ideas in the 3DS remake, including a melee counterattack, are being implemented in "Dread." It is hands down the best way to acclimate to the formula and the play style.
Fortunately, "Super Metroid" (1994) remains the best introduction to the series and to the genre, and is readily available on all Nintendo platforms, including the Switch's Super Nintendo app. It's a title often discussed as one of the finest ever made in the medium, alongside "Ocarina of Time" and "Dark Souls." Some of the game's old-school design still requires hitting everything just to find a secret, but it's an otherwise exceptionally paced game, and was a milestone in environmental storytelling. The first hour will leave little doubt in your mind: No matter what kind of gamer you are, "Super Metroid" will always come highly recommended.
Then there's "Metroid Fusion," the 2002 Game Boy Advance game that also shares the title, "Metroid 4." This is the first game that doesn't center on the titular alien, but instead around a new parasite called X. Again, you'll either need a Game Boy Advance or a Wii U with online access to easily buy and download this title. It's the only game in the series I haven't played, in small part thanks to this scarcity.
But it's also in large part due to the near-simultaneous release of "Metroid Prime" in 2002 for the GameCube console. "Prime" is a spinoff series that took the Metroid formula into the 3D first-person arena. Once again, it was a landmark when it came to game design and environmental storytelling. Today, games as recent as the PlayStation 5 exclusive "Returnal" still evoke that same feeling of empty isolation that "Prime" first gave us.
"Prime" was followed by two more sequels; Nintendo has refused to rerelease these games in any format outside of a trilogy collection for the now-defunct Wii console. (Are you sensing a theme, yet?) Metroid fans have been screaming for a Switch release of the trilogy for years. Nintendo still has no answer.
To sum it all up: If you can find it, try to play "Metroid: Zero Mission" first, either on the Wii U or an old Advance system. You can then either hop to the 3DS remake of "Metroid 2" or jump straight into "Super Metroid" on the Switch. For everything else: Good luck finding the equipment and software necessary on the used market. Alternatively, happy hunting for a PC emulation solution.
Fans can only hope that Nintendo will give these classic titles the respect they've always deserved. Until then, we await "Dread."
The Washington Post