Metroid Fusion: A relic of a bygone era?

I cannot criticize old games in a vacuum. That is, I cannot play a game from five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years ago without looking at it from a modern perspective. When writing a summary of my thoughts on any given game, then, I am judging the game from a modern standpoint: how does this game hold up today, and is it playable today? Has it aged terribly, or has it aged well? I have played through Metroid Fusion once before this most recent instance. While I am certainly no Metroid connoisseur -- I must admit that the only other encounter I have had with the franchise is with Super Metroid -- I once thought highly of Fusion, and I am well aware that it is well regarded by fans of the franchise. Unfortunately, I have to say that playing through it now with a critical eye, Fusion hardly holds up as well as I thought it did. From this modern peak, Fusion seems to have chosen unusual paths to clop through. It comes across to me as severely difficult, certainly to the extent where it would unsettle those uninitiated to this particular genre, those unfamiliar with this style of games, and those without a generous patience.

Design


 The game world is quite sizable.

Metroid-vania

The large scale of Metroid-vania games has always appealed to me: the many rooms to explore, the many paths to take, the seemingly infinite course. Metroid Fusion is no different. Setting out with the knowledge that there is an expansive realm ahead is a good feeling.

Security rooms

Finding the hidden security rooms is an interesting experience. By in large the path is reasonably hinted at. There are instances where something goes terribly awry, and it’s possible to head in a tangential direction. That is, in fact, the point of having the rooms hidden, so it’s by no means unwelcome. Anxious players may find themselves turning to a walkthrough, however.

 For the most part, any time the SA-X appears is a bad thing.

Fear the SA-X

Perhaps the best designed part of Metroid Fusion is Samus’ clone, labeled ‘SA-X’ by the computer CO. The strong force of the SA-X and the massive threat posed by it creates for a very terrifying atmosphere every time the SA-X appears on screen. The game does a very good job of making the player fear the SA-X, and conveying the message that one should fear this menace. That fear is palpable.

The boss battles are very one-dimensional

I was struck by how one-dimensional every boss battle in this game is. It’s quite bizarre; even jarring from a modern perspective. Each battle essentially boils down to this: fire the most powerful weapon at each boss’ vulnerable point. There’s no variation, and the conclusion of each battle sees the player fights a spine-covered globe in order to earn another power. To be quite honest, the environments are more testing than the boss fights. Some of the boss fights are frustrating, but once the patterns are learned and the solution is found, the door opens itself.

Good sound effects

I cannot speak as to what the high watermark is for sound effects for Game Boy Advance games, but I found Fusion’s sound effects to be quite acceptable. The depth of noise is impressive. Each action on screen, whether carried out by Samus or by the full bestiary of enemies, seems to have its own sound effect assigned to it. I was surprised (maybe naively) by the fact that footsteps have sound effects. There are plenty of modern games that don’t have good footstep noises and plenty which should but don’t have any at all, but this game does well.

The music is okay

A wisp of a bad taste mars my appreciation of the music. I largely find that about a quarter or a third of the tracks are listenable to, and the rest don’t convince me. They seem to be composed of pops, hisses, and bleeps; the tracks bring to mind ill-fated Game Boy Color compositions. Though the composers here, Minako Hamano and Akira Fujiwara, have made valiant attempts to appropriate Super Metroid tunes and others from the franchise, not everything turns out well, and that’s regrettable. Some of it is quite fitting, but as a whole the music seems to me dominated by mediocre tunes. I am somewhat amazed this game saw the release of a CD soundtrack. Nevertheless, here are three tracks I think notable:

6. Environmental Tension

  
 
‘Environmental Tension’ prompts me to think of Japanese film scores from the mid 1900s, in particular scores for jidai-geki (period pieces). It’s the heavy drums that evoke this. In particular I’m thinking of the title music for Seven Samurai.
 

18. Sector 1 (SRX)

   
 
The heavy drum motif recurs throughout the soundtrack. This is one of the cases where the lengthy run of gameplay music works for the game. I particularly like the crescendo midway through and then the subsequent return. The buzzing and fuzziness I dislike from the soundtrack in general are present in this song -- the bass didn’t turn out right across the game -- but I think it works well for this track.

28. Sector 4 (AQA)

   
 
I like ‘Sector 4 (AQA)’, because I think it’s the progeny of those fantastic new wave NES and SNES soundtracks I adored some time ago (and still adore). The original track has been well appropriated in this case, and the bass isn’t quite the nemesis it is in other tracks.

Graphics and animation


 Metroid Fusion looks like an 80s fever dream...

 ...but at least it doesn't resemble the early builds for the game, which bore graphics more deserving of a Game Boy Color game.

The bright aesthetic is irritating

The bright aesthetic of Metroid Fusion has likely carved channels in many people’s retinas. The game generally looks like an array of different Duplo blocks amassed together. It is scarcely one of the best-looking Game Boy Advance games. Samus’ suit alone looks like something well entrenched in the mid-80s. The elemental environments contrast with the rest of the game, for the ice and the fire areas are quite attractive. Everything else requires some work. It’s not the sprites or the graphics themselves which I find offensive; it’s the actual aesthetic. It’s much too bright and much too flashy, and it doesn’t quite work from a modern standpoint.


Gameplay


Jumping is heavy

The jumping is heavy, which will not surprise veterans of the franchise, but I found it rather unsettling for the first thirty minutes. However, I was relatively accustomed with Samus’ weight after that thirty minute mark. Despite still having some difficultly in consistently hitting rolling jumps (as opposed to normal jumps) in high pressure moments, I was not at all nonplussed by the jumping at the conclusion of the game.

 There is a lot of dying in this game.

Learn to die

I found the frequency at which I was dying to be quite jarring, at least until I built up enough health to pose some resistance against enemies. My expectations have been morphed by games today in that I won’t die, and in that health, whether through pickups or regeneration, will be easy to come by, but that is not at all the case in Metroid Fusion. I find it hard to speak to this with regards to this game. Many would say that this is precisely the point of the game, and that it is meant to be hard in this manner. But I would be lying if I was to say that I was fully enjoying the game 100% of the time, or even 75% of the time. The game can be a pleasant experience, but there are certainly infuriating moments which left me somewhat soured. The average 2010 game player is not accustomed to such difficulty. Can Metroid Fusion justly be criticized because facets of it are products of a bygone era? Perhaps not fundamentally, but from a 2010 lens it most assuredly can. This game’s difficulty curve (what it expects the player to achieve) is frighteningly steep, and it comes off worse for wear because of it.

There are things the player will never work out

I’m not sure how the player is expected to guess some of the different tasks in the game, such as killing some enemies and not collecting their Xs so that the Xs form other enemies, or waiting around for a set time in an area, or killing some enemies but sparing others. None of that is ever explicitly defined in-game, and while much of that is implemented where taking the path is optional, in at least two instances these ‘puzzles’ are used to block the main path.

The ability to change the environment plays well

This is a staple of platformers, but Metroid provides such a variety of weapons, and such a variety of different things to affect, that it leads this particular gameplay mechanic to stand out, even in modern times.

The screw attack is a fine weapon

The screw attack is a fine weapon; it always has been. I found it to be a tremendous relief as soon as I regained it, because no enemy can oppose it, and the screw attack makes the game significantly simpler.

Story


Both the story and the writing are okay

The Metroid franchise seats much more focus on the experience and the refined gameplay than either the story that justifies the game or the writing which communicates that story. For this reason, the developer could be forgiven for not dedicating development time or gameplay time to the story, but in this case Nintendo R&D1 vested both in Fusion, and the results are positive. The story that is present is largely utilitarian but interesting nonetheless. The writing is surprisingly cogent and, while by no means astonishing, has much better phrasing than I expected to meet.

The CO

The idea behind the computer Commanding Officer is sound. Although it may seem quite helpful at first, the CO is always malevolent. Through the course of the game the realization dawns on the player that something is not quite right with the machine and this suspicion is solidified mid-way through when its traitorous nature is revealed. It is of course a played plot twist, a story point that has been very much reused over time, let alone by video games so far this century. Perhaps the dull blow is softened by the fact that the twist is visible almost from the outset.


Metroid Fusion ends up being a canny and satisfactory game for me. Unfortunately, I cannot repress the feeling that its time is limited. It was a fine game in 2002, but the eight years that have elapsed since have hardly played in the game’s favor. I do not wish to damn it to an inert fate, but I expect that it will be all but forgotten by the mid-point of this decade.
14 Comments
15 Comments
Edited by ZanzibarBreeze

I cannot criticize old games in a vacuum. That is, I cannot play a game from five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years ago without looking at it from a modern perspective. When writing a summary of my thoughts on any given game, then, I am judging the game from a modern standpoint: how does this game hold up today, and is it playable today? Has it aged terribly, or has it aged well? I have played through Metroid Fusion once before this most recent instance. While I am certainly no Metroid connoisseur -- I must admit that the only other encounter I have had with the franchise is with Super Metroid -- I once thought highly of Fusion, and I am well aware that it is well regarded by fans of the franchise. Unfortunately, I have to say that playing through it now with a critical eye, Fusion hardly holds up as well as I thought it did. From this modern peak, Fusion seems to have chosen unusual paths to clop through. It comes across to me as severely difficult, certainly to the extent where it would unsettle those uninitiated to this particular genre, those unfamiliar with this style of games, and those without a generous patience.

Design


 The game world is quite sizable.

Metroid-vania

The large scale of Metroid-vania games has always appealed to me: the many rooms to explore, the many paths to take, the seemingly infinite course. Metroid Fusion is no different. Setting out with the knowledge that there is an expansive realm ahead is a good feeling.

Security rooms

Finding the hidden security rooms is an interesting experience. By in large the path is reasonably hinted at. There are instances where something goes terribly awry, and it’s possible to head in a tangential direction. That is, in fact, the point of having the rooms hidden, so it’s by no means unwelcome. Anxious players may find themselves turning to a walkthrough, however.

 For the most part, any time the SA-X appears is a bad thing.

Fear the SA-X

Perhaps the best designed part of Metroid Fusion is Samus’ clone, labeled ‘SA-X’ by the computer CO. The strong force of the SA-X and the massive threat posed by it creates for a very terrifying atmosphere every time the SA-X appears on screen. The game does a very good job of making the player fear the SA-X, and conveying the message that one should fear this menace. That fear is palpable.

The boss battles are very one-dimensional

I was struck by how one-dimensional every boss battle in this game is. It’s quite bizarre; even jarring from a modern perspective. Each battle essentially boils down to this: fire the most powerful weapon at each boss’ vulnerable point. There’s no variation, and the conclusion of each battle sees the player fights a spine-covered globe in order to earn another power. To be quite honest, the environments are more testing than the boss fights. Some of the boss fights are frustrating, but once the patterns are learned and the solution is found, the door opens itself.

Good sound effects

I cannot speak as to what the high watermark is for sound effects for Game Boy Advance games, but I found Fusion’s sound effects to be quite acceptable. The depth of noise is impressive. Each action on screen, whether carried out by Samus or by the full bestiary of enemies, seems to have its own sound effect assigned to it. I was surprised (maybe naively) by the fact that footsteps have sound effects. There are plenty of modern games that don’t have good footstep noises and plenty which should but don’t have any at all, but this game does well.

The music is okay

A wisp of a bad taste mars my appreciation of the music. I largely find that about a quarter or a third of the tracks are listenable to, and the rest don’t convince me. They seem to be composed of pops, hisses, and bleeps; the tracks bring to mind ill-fated Game Boy Color compositions. Though the composers here, Minako Hamano and Akira Fujiwara, have made valiant attempts to appropriate Super Metroid tunes and others from the franchise, not everything turns out well, and that’s regrettable. Some of it is quite fitting, but as a whole the music seems to me dominated by mediocre tunes. I am somewhat amazed this game saw the release of a CD soundtrack. Nevertheless, here are three tracks I think notable:

6. Environmental Tension

  
 
‘Environmental Tension’ prompts me to think of Japanese film scores from the mid 1900s, in particular scores for jidai-geki (period pieces). It’s the heavy drums that evoke this. In particular I’m thinking of the title music for Seven Samurai.
 

18. Sector 1 (SRX)

   
 
The heavy drum motif recurs throughout the soundtrack. This is one of the cases where the lengthy run of gameplay music works for the game. I particularly like the crescendo midway through and then the subsequent return. The buzzing and fuzziness I dislike from the soundtrack in general are present in this song -- the bass didn’t turn out right across the game -- but I think it works well for this track.

28. Sector 4 (AQA)

   
 
I like ‘Sector 4 (AQA)’, because I think it’s the progeny of those fantastic new wave NES and SNES soundtracks I adored some time ago (and still adore). The original track has been well appropriated in this case, and the bass isn’t quite the nemesis it is in other tracks.

Graphics and animation


 Metroid Fusion looks like an 80s fever dream...

 ...but at least it doesn't resemble the early builds for the game, which bore graphics more deserving of a Game Boy Color game.

The bright aesthetic is irritating

The bright aesthetic of Metroid Fusion has likely carved channels in many people’s retinas. The game generally looks like an array of different Duplo blocks amassed together. It is scarcely one of the best-looking Game Boy Advance games. Samus’ suit alone looks like something well entrenched in the mid-80s. The elemental environments contrast with the rest of the game, for the ice and the fire areas are quite attractive. Everything else requires some work. It’s not the sprites or the graphics themselves which I find offensive; it’s the actual aesthetic. It’s much too bright and much too flashy, and it doesn’t quite work from a modern standpoint.


Gameplay


Jumping is heavy

The jumping is heavy, which will not surprise veterans of the franchise, but I found it rather unsettling for the first thirty minutes. However, I was relatively accustomed with Samus’ weight after that thirty minute mark. Despite still having some difficultly in consistently hitting rolling jumps (as opposed to normal jumps) in high pressure moments, I was not at all nonplussed by the jumping at the conclusion of the game.

 There is a lot of dying in this game.

Learn to die

I found the frequency at which I was dying to be quite jarring, at least until I built up enough health to pose some resistance against enemies. My expectations have been morphed by games today in that I won’t die, and in that health, whether through pickups or regeneration, will be easy to come by, but that is not at all the case in Metroid Fusion. I find it hard to speak to this with regards to this game. Many would say that this is precisely the point of the game, and that it is meant to be hard in this manner. But I would be lying if I was to say that I was fully enjoying the game 100% of the time, or even 75% of the time. The game can be a pleasant experience, but there are certainly infuriating moments which left me somewhat soured. The average 2010 game player is not accustomed to such difficulty. Can Metroid Fusion justly be criticized because facets of it are products of a bygone era? Perhaps not fundamentally, but from a 2010 lens it most assuredly can. This game’s difficulty curve (what it expects the player to achieve) is frighteningly steep, and it comes off worse for wear because of it.

There are things the player will never work out

I’m not sure how the player is expected to guess some of the different tasks in the game, such as killing some enemies and not collecting their Xs so that the Xs form other enemies, or waiting around for a set time in an area, or killing some enemies but sparing others. None of that is ever explicitly defined in-game, and while much of that is implemented where taking the path is optional, in at least two instances these ‘puzzles’ are used to block the main path.

The ability to change the environment plays well

This is a staple of platformers, but Metroid provides such a variety of weapons, and such a variety of different things to affect, that it leads this particular gameplay mechanic to stand out, even in modern times.

The screw attack is a fine weapon

The screw attack is a fine weapon; it always has been. I found it to be a tremendous relief as soon as I regained it, because no enemy can oppose it, and the screw attack makes the game significantly simpler.

Story


Both the story and the writing are okay

The Metroid franchise seats much more focus on the experience and the refined gameplay than either the story that justifies the game or the writing which communicates that story. For this reason, the developer could be forgiven for not dedicating development time or gameplay time to the story, but in this case Nintendo R&D1 vested both in Fusion, and the results are positive. The story that is present is largely utilitarian but interesting nonetheless. The writing is surprisingly cogent and, while by no means astonishing, has much better phrasing than I expected to meet.

The CO

The idea behind the computer Commanding Officer is sound. Although it may seem quite helpful at first, the CO is always malevolent. Through the course of the game the realization dawns on the player that something is not quite right with the machine and this suspicion is solidified mid-way through when its traitorous nature is revealed. It is of course a played plot twist, a story point that has been very much reused over time, let alone by video games so far this century. Perhaps the dull blow is softened by the fact that the twist is visible almost from the outset.


Metroid Fusion ends up being a canny and satisfactory game for me. Unfortunately, I cannot repress the feeling that its time is limited. It was a fine game in 2002, but the eight years that have elapsed since have hardly played in the game’s favor. I do not wish to damn it to an inert fate, but I expect that it will be all but forgotten by the mid-point of this decade.
Posted by Video_Game_King

I'll have to check out the game again, but I remember it being kinda maligned amongst Metroid games, probably due to the heavy focus on a direct plot. I hope that Other M can avoid falling prey to that.

Posted by ZanzibarBreeze

I just noticed that y'all can vote for the "Doorlocking CO" in 1UP.com's Least Popular Character Tournament. I will be.
 

Posted by Video_Game_King

Seems like a touch of Annoying Character got in there.

Posted by ZanzibarBreeze
@Video_Game_King said:
" Seems like a touch of Annoying Character got in there. "
Yeah, I think so.
Posted by Torrim

The story was thankfully thin.  I didn't really want any at all to be in my Metroid game, but it did serve to give some sense of urgency for better or worlse.  I always felt like half the appeal of Metroid games were their unfettered exploration, but was willing to give Fusion a pass because it did many other things quite well.  In retrospect, it was nice to have a difficult and challenging Metroid game if at the time I wanted to toss my brand new GBA halfway across the room. 
 
Nice post by the way, but I don't think it makes me excited for the new Metroid game though :(

Posted by FunExplosions

Man, where do you get the time to play these games and write these blogs? It's a good thing, but I'm nevertheless astounded.
 
I remember playing this game when it came out. I must have been 12 then, and don't remember much, but I definitely remember the annoying plot, strange x things, and that damn computer. Once again, nice write-up.
 
One thing, though. Did you feel this game lacked a little bit in the metroidvania department? I thought it did.

Posted by ZanzibarBreeze
@FunExplosions said:
" Man, where do you get the time to play these games and write these blogs? "
The secret is that I don't. I game maybe an hour on a good day. There's a lot of other stuff to do, as we can all appreciate. And it takes time to write these things. I think I've been playing Half-Life for a week now and I'm only about a quarter way through. Doesn't bother me that much.

" Did you feel this game lacked a little bit in the metroidvania department? I thought it did. "
 
I don't feel I'm really qualified to talk to either the Metroid or Castlevania franchises a whole lot. Fusion reminds me of the GBA Castlevania games, especially Circle of the Moon, in the way it's designed. I think Fusion stuck fairly close to what people expect from a Metroidvania game, but, again, I'm not hella knowledgeable about these games. What gave you the feeling that it's a bit lacking?
Posted by Skullo

Loved your blog post. But honest to god, not being able to beat Nightmare ruined the game for me. Absolutely ruined it. Yes I know, ladder on the right.  But goddamn, it just seems like I don't enough Energy tanks to fight him. Honest to god, one day I will beat him and I will celebrate. Asshole of a boss. Also @FunExplosions said:

\  One thing, though. Did you feel this game lacked a little bit in the metroidvania department? I thought it did. "

The freedom to explore in Super Metroid spoiled me ( I played both Super and Fusion around the same times. By like a year) But yeah it seemed to me that the sense of exploration and discovery was compromised for story's sake.
Posted by Hailinel

Metroid Fusion is easily my least favorite of the Metroid series, and it all had to do with what I perceived to be a difficulty curve that was more like a rollercoaster.  Some areas would be fairly easy to clear, while others felt too difficult for their placement in the game, then the game would get easier again.  I also felt that minor enemies dealt more damage than they really should.  Metroid:  Zero Mission, which was actually made after Fusion, had a more balanced difficulty curve.
 
However, for all of the issues I had with Fusion's difficulty spikes, I enjoyed the presentation of the story.  More than any other of Nintendo's primary franchises, the others being Mario and Zelda, Metroid's always felt like the most mature in terms of its storytelling potential, yet that potential was rarely utilized.  Mario is, of course, Mario, and is largely plotless save for the fact that we can always count on Bowser to kidnap Peach and Mario rushing off to save the day.  And for that series, I don't need it any other way.  The Zelda series has always had more in terms of storytelling than Mario, but the plots generally repeat (Link beats Ganon(dorf) and rescues Zelda, with notable exceptions like Link's Awakening and Majora's Mask.  However, the supposed series timeline and chronology is a complete mess.
 
Metroid's timeline, by contrast, moves forward.  The plot never feels like its repeating itself, save for when that repetition is intentional (the callbacks that Super Metroid makes to the original game, for example).  Yet, Samus herself was never really given that much definition as a character unless you referenced the instruction manuals for each game and official manga published only in Japan.  While others may not agree, kicking and screaming as they fear that their beloved isolation is being taken away by introducing and detailing characters other than Samus and her traditional enemies, I feel that at least in terms of storytelling, Fusion was a step forward for the series; that desire to provide a deeper narrative and more characterization has continued to show in both Zero Mission and Other M, which I am anxious to get my hands on next week.  I'm hoping that it will be able to replace Zero Mission as my favorite Metroid game.

Online
Posted by Video_Game_King
@Hailinel said:
Metroid's always felt like the most mature in terms of its storytelling potential
As a Fire Emblem fan, did you really expect me to ignore that nugget :P?
Posted by Hailinel
@Video_Game_King said:
" @Hailinel said:
Metroid's always felt like the most mature in terms of its storytelling potential
As a Fire Emblem fan, did you really expect me to ignore that nugget :P? "
I'm not ignoring Fire Emblem.  Even you would have to admit that Fire Emblem isn't one of Nintendo's most recognizable core franchises.  I'm speaking only in terms of the top three from an international standpoint.
Online
Edited by JackSukeru

I think I played though Metroid Fusion like three times back in the day, and one of the things I didn't notice until later playthroughs is how the linarity of it removes much of the exploration. The game gives you missions and is always pointing you where to go next so I didn't even think about going back to explore previously visited areas until after I'd finished it.
 
Then there was that wierd "tackle in any direction" manoeuvre that you could pull of with the speed booster but that the game never taught you, and that you never needed unless you were going for some specific hidden Missile Expansions etc. That sure gave you an edge for playing Super Metroid, though I can't remember if I had actually played any at the time, or if I had finished Fusion first.
 
The game does have it's share of memorable moments, like that one boss, face like a TV with a baseball inside(?), frickin thoughest boss in the game and I hated it soo much. Impossible to avoid attacks and you had to hit it in the face from a wall jump >_< Edit: Nightmare was it's name, thanks Skullo, glad to see I wasn't the only one hating that boss. Another one would be the Spider Robot Boss that messes crap up, gets away, and then returns!
  
Perhaps my favorite part, is late in the game SPOILERS!! where Samus actually starts talking back, after being a silent protagonist for the majority of the game (Not counting narrating a few of the elevator rides of course :P ) That was just such a unexpected and welcome twist, especially looking at most other Nintendo characters. 
SPOILERS!! END (I can never get the frikkin spoiler tags to work nowadays >:/ )
 
Ultimately I have to say that with it's focused structure and nice attempt at storytelling it is probably my favorite in the Metroid series. Kinda rare for a Metroid fan to say so I guess, but I was never a huge fan of the exploration part of the Metroid games, that so many seem to praise. I would probably put Prime in second place for its truly challenging bosses and for not getting old quite as quick as its sequels. If these games would still be any fun if I were to pop them in today though I can't say, but I do have Fusion laying around here somewhere, so I might just give it a whirl.

Posted by Video_Game_King
@Hailinel: 
 
As hard as it is to admit, I will admit it. Hell, the only reason Rekka no Ken came to America was because Nintendo got tired of people asking who Marth and Roy are (the former took a few games, and the latter was indirect at best).
Posted by Hailinel
@Video_Game_King said:
" @Hailinel:   As hard as it is to admit, I will admit it. Hell, the only reason Rekka no Ken came to America was because Nintendo got tired of people asking who Marth and Roy are (the former took a few games, and the latter was indirect at best). "
Another thing about Fire Emblem is that, while the storytelling can be complex in the series (particularly in the later entries), the world and storyline changes on average every couple of games.  There's no consistency from one end of the franchise to the other.  Metroid is Samus's story; it always was and probably always will be.
Online