Well, it’s about time.
That was the first thought that crossed through my mind when I saw that Metroid: Zero Mission had finally come to the Wii U eShop. As far as perfect remakes go, Zero Mission is right up there with the likes of Resident Evil on GameCube and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. Where Zero Mission stands out from those two titles, however, is that the game is a pretty big departure from its source material. Ocarina of Time 3D and Resident Evil both (though Resident Evil to a lesser extent) largely cling to the original titles from which they’re based. Not completely, of course, but for fans who played those games on Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, respectively, the duo will have felt a lot like slipping on an old pair of gloves.
Zero Mission is different. The game takes the basic open-world exploration of the first Metroid, but ramps it up to the next level with tighter controls, deeper play mechanics, and new areas to discover. For purists, any change can be seen as detrimental; alter too many elements, and some will argue that the spirit of the original is lost, or that it’s a pseudo-condemnation of perceived flaws in the original. While that’s a whole argument in and of itself, what’s key to understand about Zero Mission and why it’s able to get away with so much tinkering is that it’s more of a reimagining than a true remake. It takes the core framework of Metroid and truly fleshes it out for the first time.
Looking back at Metroid on NES, there’s no denying how groundbreaking a piece of software it is. Thrown into the hostile environment of planet Zebes, players are left with their wits and skill alone to traverse its labyrinthine tunnels and corridors to seek out and end the threat of the evil Mother Brain. Gamers of the era had never experienced a title that was so free-form and unrestricted. Finding new power-ups for Samus unlocked abilities that would grant her access to previously unreachable segments of the game world, compelling players to venture back and forth until they finally reached the end of the adventure. From a pure game design perspective, Metroid is textbook stuff, setting the stage for future innovations that simply wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t laid the foundation from which others could build upon.
Which is all lovely and historically important, but with Zero Mission Nintendo saw an opportunity to elaborate on and improve upon Metroid in a number of ways. The most obvious upgrade is Zero Mission’s visuals; this game remains one of the most impressive 2D platformers on any system, anywhere, based on graphics alone. The environments, enemies, and Samus herself are detailed and realized in ways that NES simply wasn’t capable of, and it’s a better experience for it. That’s not to say Metroid’s original looks are awful, but it’s impossible to not appreciate what Zero Mission was able to get out of Game Boy Advance. Playing it again on Wii U, the game is as vibrant and striking today as when it launched back in 2004.
More importantly, though, are the additions to gameplay that Nintendo implemented. The controls are much more in line with Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion than the original game, resulting in silky-smooth run-and-gun action. What’s more, Zero Mission brings along a ton of additional upgrades that were never in Metroid, including Samus’s Gravity Suit and Speed Booster. To accommodate her extra firepower, Nintendo also had to tweak the game world, adding in entire regions that weren’t present on NES, including Crateria, Chozodia, and the Space Pirate Mothership. These areas and extra abilities become accessible after completing the main game, which was a nice way of preserving as much of the feel of the original title as possible before introducing the new mechanics later.
Zero Mission also saw a bigger focus on narrative, though not by a lot. Which is a good thing! Thankfully, the design team was able to intersperse just enough of its gorgeous cutscenes to provide a little more context to the story without sacrificing the sense of isolation and player freedom that the first game pioneered. The biggest chunk of storyline that was added to Zero Mission also comes along with one of its most memorable segments of new gameplay, and that’s when Samus is stripped of her armor and left in her famous Zero Suit. This was the first time fans ever got to see the iconic outfit, which was introduced during a very tense game of cat and mouse between Samus and the Space Pirates.
With nothing but her Paralyzer in tow, Samus has to hunt for her Power Suit while avoiding the tenacious Space Pirates, whose weaponry had become exponentially more deadly to the bounty hunter. For most fans it was a completely unexpected and pleasing segue, showing Samus in a different light while also showcasing how it’s the woman inside the armor that makes her such a capable warrior, and not the other way around. Metroid Fusion might continue to prove divisive among series fans, but Zero Mission was, is, and likely will always be seen as one of the very high points of the franchise. Nintendo’s remakes tend to be more conservative these days, but this remains a pristine example of how to take a classic and update it for a modern audience without sacrificing what made the original so special.