The Vibrant Rebirth of a Classic Game
Until I borrowed a copy of Metroid: Zero Mission, the only Metroid game I'd ever played in any great detail was Metroid Prime on the Gamecube. Even before Prime I knew Metroid well by reputation, though: its use of special items to gain access to new areas previously inaccessible wasn't the first such design, but its platformer accessibility helped make the name Metroid itself synonymous with that idea.
Watching someone do a run-through of Super Metroid I had the urge to see where the franchise started, but I was reticent to hunt down a copy of the original game. Rather, since I'd read that Zero Mission basically retold the old story I tracked it down instead-- and when I got around to playing it, I managed to play through it quickly. I'm pretty sure if the game had been a bit more grueling, or had even more content than it already has, It would have been longer, but I'm not sure I would have been any more satisfied.
Metroid: Zero Mission may be a retelling of the oldest game in the franchise, but it modernizes the layout dramatically and makes the game a blast to play, whereas if they'd just pasted on new graphics I'm pretty sure it would have been a prettily clothed slog. The layout for many of the areas is much tighter, and the secrets more concentrated; I made it a point to find as many secrets as I could, and every time I found one I was pleasantly surprised by how it was hidden.
The game has a love for the genre it helped to create, and it makes sure that curious players trying to break sequence will have escape routes if they get stuck in areas they had no right being in so early, even if they don't manage to get things out of order. I imagine there was a fairly clear plan behind the game's progression, so maybe I'd find upon repeat plays that there would only be a few ways to vary Samus' build-up, but the point is that the game made me feel like I was getting away with something, which is a high compliment.
The controls are solid, the graphics are smooth, and there are little touches which reward careful observation, in addition to all the secrets. As a bonus there's a mode after the main game that is like a whole additional chapter, which has a distinctly different feel than the main game and makes for some tense moments. And like the rest of the series, you get different rewards based upon your performance during the game. I got the most basic of accomplishment levels and managed to unlock the original Metroid (emulated through the GBA, so don't expect as much detail due the smaller screen), and playing through a bit of this only made me appreciate more what Zero Mission managed to do, since Metroid's hallways are long and punishing, while Zero Mission only punishes you if you choose to be challenged (usually), and is a tighter, and thus sweeter, experience.
I also unlocked a gallery, which will have more pics should I manage to beat the game in a better time I suppose. Given that I didn't get 100% of the scans in Metroid Prime, I was expecting that, but I'm not sure how much better I could play without skipping tons of stuff.
There were some fiddly moments where I had to jockey Samus in a way that would make her do what I wanted, so it's not perfect. It also suffers from what I feel is an oversight in this style of game, that backtracking can be a bit of a pain if you can't note for yourself where you saw that certain symbol before on a block that you can now break through. It can be a bit frustrating once the level maps get bigger and bigger to remember where everything you passed by was-- maybe my memory's not so good, but requiring players who want to find everything to make paper notes seems a bit archaic. I think it'd be cool if players could make in-game notes, that way it would be up to them to notice the clues, but at the same time giving the in-game engine a way for you to keep track of everything.
There was also the issue of getting a handle on your new powers. I can see why Super Metroid gave you the option to turn powers off now; once I got the screw attack, I wound up killing enemies I was trying to stand on to reach new areas, which was mad frustrating in one secret area, and made me regret getting that power since I couldn't turn it off. I eventually figured out how not to activate the screw attack power, but it would have been nice to have an off switch.
One thing that may bother some people is that Samus is definitely more fleshed out as a character than she used to be, even if the cutscenes showing these insights are few. I used to be one of those people, but now I'm actually happy they managed to breathe some personality into her, even if most of it is left up to player imagination. I'm not ready to give the thumb's down to The Other M anymore because of this, and I think the games actually manage to gain a new layer if you allow the game to tell a bit more story. Sure, I liked the idea that you could make up what you wanted, that tends to be preferable, but they manage to hint at an unconventional and interesting bizarro space opera universe that is the perfect background for Metroid.
The main problem I'd say is that the game feels a bit short, but as I said above, the hours that I played that game were some of the better gaming hours I've spent. The music is evocative with its familiar themes, there are huge areas which were never in the original game which are about as awe-inspiring as you can get in a GBA platformer, the sound production is excellent (especially the ice beam sound when it freezes enemies; I've seen a lot of games that give you the ability to freeze, but I've never heard that ice sound better done than in Zero Mission), and the gameplay is strongly varied, even for the usual Metroid standard, with its bonus final chapter and engaging puzzles.
While the issues I had with the game are all but forgotten now, the enjoyment I had still sticks with me, as it did for Metroid Prime. Metroid: Zero Mission is a strong accomplishment that only helps to strengthen my faith in the franchise.