Planet Zebes is no more and the Metroid threat has been neutralised but Samus Aran is about to discover why the Metroids were created by the Chozo in the first place.
Whilst escorting Galactic Federation researchers on Planet SR388 Samus encounters another parasite, an airborne virus that infects her body and Power Suit. The virus almost kills Samus, infecting both her nervous system and her Chozo armour which has to be surgically moved. Just as it looks like she is doomed, a cure concocted from Metroid DNA is discovered and Samus is reborn. It turns out that the Chozo created the Metroid parasites in a successful effort to destroy this virus threat. The mysterious virus is given the name X and undergoes Galactic Federation study at the Biologic Space Laboratories. Later Samus is sent to B.S.L. to investigate a reported explosion in the space station and, like Ceres before, she arrives to find the place in turmoil and the X virus has got loose.
Despite the massive critical success of Super Metroid the series’ continuing fortunes are governed more strongly by money and Super Metroid didn’t make a whole lot of it. Eight years passed following the SNES masterpiece and the next game in the series. Nintendo wanted to bring Samus to the Nintendo 64 but couldn’t lock down any effective ideas. As the sixth console generation came along Retro Studios stepped up to the plate to make the masterful Metroid Prime but Nintendo themselves actually beat them to it by revisiting Samus’ continuing saga on handhelds with this fantastic title, Metroid Fusion, on the Game Boy Advance.
Metroid Fusion, the last game chronologically in the series, takes the superb gameplay of Super Metroid and translates it to the small screen. The controls are almost entirely the same, adapted to fit the smaller button count of the handheld console. The sprint button is no longer needed, the Speed Booster upgrade coming into effect after running at normal speed continuously. The R trigger has been commandeered for weapons selection, holding it will enable missiles or Power Bombs whilst in Morph Ball mode. Its left-sided brother still controls diagonal aiming but must now by accompanied with a tap of the D-Pad to direct your fire downwards. Otherwise it’s the same beautifully balanced sidescrolling run n game gameplay as before, the only significant new addition being Samus’ ability to grab on to the edge of platforms to pull herself up.
This was the most story driven game in the series (at the time of release at least) and Samus shares her thoughts with the player on numerous occasions but more significantly you are guided through your mission by a computer AI Samus names Adam after a former Commanding Officer of hers. Adam is your navigator on this mission as you explore the B.S.L. station attempting to find a way to negate the considerable threat of the X parasite. You will receive new mission objectives from him at Navigation Rooms where he will frequently point out your target on the map. This structure makes the game quite episodic and removes a great deal of the freedom and sense of isolated exploration that was so engrossing in previous games. However it’s not a bad thing, the more accessible approach was intended for a generation of newcomers that might not have played any previous installments in the eight years since Super Metroid and the structure is better suited to handheld play on the go. Yes some of that trademarked atmosphere is missing but in its place is an exciting and unpredictable series of scripted events and the B.S.L. ship and its many and varied artificially engineered environments is still full of secrets and surprises.
Like most Metroid games you begin this one with minimum capabilities but more than this Samus’ Power Suit itself is incomplete. Instead she is protected by the under layer that is connected to her central nervous system leaving her far more vulnerable to enemy attack than usual. The trade-off to this is the fact that every enemy you kill will leave health pick-ups in the form of X parasites. Having been cured of the X virus and her DNA infused with that of the infant Metroid Samus is now immune to the effects of the parasite and will instead regain health by absorbing them. Every enemy creature you encounter is an X host and will release its pulsating gelatinous parasite into the air upon defeat. If you catch and absorb the parasite it will either heal you or replenish your missiles. Of course you have to catch it first and therein lies another layer to the gameplay as sometimes your health pickups will run away and even infect creatures lurking in the background to create new enemies or combine to give life to extra powerful foes. Your relationship with the X infestation throughout the game is an example of an interesting way in which the plot describes aspects of the gameplay and is carried through the game with aplomb.
But it goes deeper than that. The X parasite that first infected Samus’ suit gained sentience and harnessed the power of her armour and weapons. What this means is that a fully powered version of Samus is stalking around the corridors of B.S.L. This creature, which Adam names the SA-X is an example of the dark version of the hero that shows up in so many Nintendo games, such as Dark Link, Shadow Mario, and, yes, Dark Samus from the Metroid Prime trilogy. But the SA-X is a different prospect from Dark Samus, a constant threat that could appear at any moment. Your encounters with this powerful doppelganger come at regular intervals and are terrifying. You are hopelessly outgunned and stand no chance of success in combat against this foe, especially in your weakened state. Instead you have two choices, run or hide and whichever you choose any moment when the SA-X appears on screen is tense and memorable.
Most of your objectives through the game involve recovering your latent suit abilities. With no Chozo Statues hidden on B.S.L you must instead download abilities from Data Rooms throughout the ship so many of your missions will involve tracking down said rooms. In some cases a Data Room may be located behind a locked security hatch so you must instead locate the necessary Security Room, which will not be marked on the map to unlock the appropriately coloured hatches. Doing so invariably allows the spread of the X further throughout the ship which can make your mission feel like trying to contain a cascade of water with your bare hands. However this repeating structure is broken up by a number of unforeseen events that divert Samus and Adam’s attention from renewing her abilities. You might be asked to track down an escaped creature specimen infected with X and take it down or perhaps the power in the station will go down leaving you stranded with hatches in permanent lockdown necessitating exploring through hidden areas of the ship. As you go you fight against numerous bosses, such as the superfast Serris or the fairly disturbing Nightmare and many of the bigger, more aggressive X parasites, which have infected them, will also restore you various upgrades. The usual structure of exploration, picking up upgrades and tracking down weapon and energy expansions is intact and as compelling as ever. The latter of these objectives is made more manageable than before thanks to the marking of upgrade locations on the map but of course you’ll still have to work out how to reach them.
Most of the usual weapons upgrades return but there are some notable exceptions. Instead of the Ice Beam you will get Ice Missiles which can be further upgraded to Diffusion Missiles. These can be charged up by holding R and explode with an expanding area of effect that will freeze anything it touches. For the most part your arsenal is familiar, and that’s no bad thing at all.
The vibrant, colourful graphics are among the very best on the Game Boy Advance. Borrowing the style of Super Metroid and sharpening up the edges the game looks fabulous. Sprites are detailed and well-animated and environments are varied and realistic. Again, much of the sense of place is found in the backgrounds which convey jungles and laboratory situations. It’s a stunning looking game for its home platform, one that uses lighting brilliantly and is a pleasure to look upon. But this time round the sound gets the top honours. The excellent music, though not particularly catchy, sets the atmosphere well and serves the story perfectly in various moments of drama. However the sound effects are absolutely fantastic, every single blast of your arm cannon, every crunch and crackle of explosions, every scream of boss characters resonates with fabulous clarity and the limited voice work sound just as good. It really is a wonderful game to listen to, one that makes the best use possible of its hardware’s capabilities.
It should be obvious by now that Metroid Fusion is a sublime handheld experience, one that takes the best of Super Metroid and shrinks it down. The gameplay, graphics and sound are perfect, all owing a strong legacy to the earlier classic but it is the way in which the game carves out its own identity that makes it so special. The story develops the Metroid universe far beyond anything we’d seen before, introducing the ethical issues surrounding experimenting on lethal parasitic organisms (another way in which the series mirrors the Alien franchise), and weaving its world and scenarios with imagination and flair. The game goes way beyond what would normally be expected from a handheld game and can stand alongside the various NES and SNES ports that provide the console’s best experiences. The game towers above anything on DS or, so far at least, 3DS, and I would go as far to say that the only game created for a handheld console to better it is The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening.
Design – 10
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 10
Sound – 10
Longevity – 8
Based on sublime foundations of gameplay and immersion Metroid Fusion is the best follow-up to Super Metroid imaginable. It may be on the short side and the structure isn’t quite in keeping with the Metroid tradition but the action is exhilarating, the self-contained world compelling and every aspect of its design brimming with confidence. Just brilliant.