Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.
Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.
Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.
This week, I'm taking a look at...
Released way back in 2002 for the Gameboy Advance, Metroid Fusion falls right at the end of the Metroid chronology, occurring just after Other M. In terms of development, however, it is the fourth Metroid game, coming in after the highly-esteemed Super Metroid.
Every Metroid game sees Samus building her arsenal of weapons and suit upgrades in order to progress. A key feature of the Metroid series has always been this theme of gradual empowerment.
But in Fusion, Samus doesn't just start out weak, she starts out vulnerable. Stripped of her original Power Suit by a parasitic organism called "X", Samus is left with only the barest bones of her armour. I'm honestly not sure if Samus takes damage more easily in Fusion, or if it just feels that way, but throughout the game, the player is made to feel far more wary of the enemies they must defeat.
This constant vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with the less bulky appearance Samus takes on in her Fusion suit. Those thick layers of metal that kept you safe in Super Metroid? They're gone. The Fusion suit looks more like artificial skin. Samus is "naked" here, exposed to the dangers around her. She's not on a mission to eradicate Metroids or take down Space Pirates, she's fighting for survival in an alien situation that she (by design) does not fully comprehend.
Which makes the threat of her nemesis - the SA-X - all the more brilliant.
The SA-X is her previous, superior Power Suit under the control of the X parasite. Throughout the game the SA-X hunts Samus, appearing at certain moments and forcing the player to hide (often just inches from it) or flee while it attacks with its more powerful weapons. Every time the SA-X is encountered, every time you hear its signature music, you will feel fear.
And not only does it exploit Samus' innate weakness by dealing massive damage, but it emphasizes that weakness to the extreme. There is nothing you can do to fight back (save freeze it, once ice missiles are acquired.) Until the very end of the game, no matter how many upgrades you gain, you are powerless.
But the real genius of the SA-X is that it is a reversal of how the player perceives the Metroid franchise. If they've played a previous Metroid title, the player will know the sense of empowerment that comes from achieving a fully upgraded Power Suit. Suddenly, all the difficulties in the game are as nothing. You can blast through walls and flesh, space jump up sheer cliffs, obliterate obstacles with the screw attack, freeze your target where they stand... and all this destruction comes so easily. Foes that once posed a challenge can be taken down without a second thought.
The SA-X takes that sense of smug superiority, and turns it on the player. You are the prey this time, running and hiding in order to achieve your objective.
This vulnerability is at the core of Metroid Fusion, and is what makes it stand apart from the rest of the series. However, in terms of gameplay, Metroid fans will find plenty of the familiar. As heir to the "original" titles, Fusion builds on the 2D platformer roots of its predecessors. It takes everything that worked in Super Metroid and improves it. Samus' movements are much snappier. She breaks into a run faster. The momentum of her jumps is more easily controlled. The angle of her arm cannon is controlled with just one shoulder button, leaving the other to activate missiles (rather than requiring the player to scroll through her extended arsenal with the Select button.)
Everything about Fusion's control scheme has been streamlined. In my review of Super Metroid, I commented on how sluggish Samus felt. That's all gone, leaving behind a control system that I would argue is absolutely perfect. If you make a mistake in this game, it is entirely your fault. Nothing can be blamed on the design.
By comparison to its fore-bearers, Fusion is a much more story-driven addition to the series. Previous titles have seen Samus dumped in a hostile environment and told to explore and shoot her way to the last boss. Simple but effective. In Fusion, her objective develops over the course of the game. At first you're just investigating unusual occurrences, then you're adapting your plan of action in response to the X's actions.
Driving this ever-changing story is Samus' commanding officer, an AI named Adam. The introduction of a secondary character is an interesting change of pace for the usually isolationist Metroid series, but the dialogue with Adam - and Samus' monologues during lift transportations - both develops the plot and assists in character development. By the end of the game, Samus and Adam alike have genuinely come alive as individuals. It's striking that Fusion achieves a level of character development and relatability with a few lines of written text, while Other M attempted the same thing with big cut-scenes and failed.
For some Metroid fans, the plot-driven, slightly more linear nature of Fusion has been a point of contention. Certainly, what makes Metroid so distinctive is its "barest of hints" style of open exploration. But the reduction of this element isn't, in my opinion, a mark against Fusion's success. It is good that the title went for a different feel to its predecessors. Staying the same over long periods of time leads only to stagnation. Fusion tried something different, both in tone and plot presentation, and it pulled it off. For that, it deserves nothing but praise.
If the Snes and Super Metroid embody the Golden Age of pixel gaming, then the GBA and Metroid Fusion is pixel gaming in its maturity. Fusion is a stunning example not only of how to craft a tight, perfectly balanced game, but how to take an established formula in an intriguing new direction. I literally cannot find fault with this game, and the sheer number of times I have replayed Fusion since its release are a testament to how much I have enjoyed it.
Fusion is an important, but often overlooked, landmark in not only Nintendo's history, but the history of gaming as a whole. In an age where bigger budgets and better graphics are looked to by the larger developers as an answer to any and all of gaming's issues, many a lesson could be learned from simply playing Fusion and appreciating just how much it achieves, and how little it needs to do it.