Review by Rottenwood

Reviewed: 12/17/04

The First Lady's First Mission

I don't normally comment on other people's reviews. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, and my views on a game are no more valid than the next man's. As the old saying goes: "that's why they make chocolate AND vanilla - because you like crappy ice cream." But after seeing a fair number of mediocre-to-nasty scores for Metroid: Zero Mission, I decided it was time to add my two cents. We're very fortunate to be gamers in a time where little handheld systems get software of this quality, and maybe we forget that sometimes. Sure, Zero Mission is pretty short, and it features a fair bit of rehashed content from its 'sequel,' the original Metroid. But these are hardly glaring flaws in a fun, clever action game with terrific production values and a wealth of nostalgic pleasure.

Before I get into the heart of my review, I want to put Metroid: Zero Mission into perspective. While it's not quite as good as the legendary Super Metroid, it's still good enough to be mentioned in the same league. And many people consider Super Metroid to be one of the greatest games ever made, if not THE greatest. So you've got a game that fits in snugly in one of the top gaming series of all time, AND it's portable. Add in the fact that you can unlock the original Metroid in its entirety, and you've got one sweet little cartridge on your hands. Like I said earlier, you're more than welcome to feel that this entire package is 'blah.' I just have no idea where you're coming from, that's all.

As everyone knows by now, Zero Mission is the story-before-the story: the prequel to the original Metroid, for the NES. It's listed as Samus Aran's first mission, but if this game sells well, I'm sure Nintendo can find some other quests in her past to create for us. Companies are clever that way. Making a prequel to the original game after so many sequels creates some continuity problems, as you might expect, but it's a fun concept if you just relax and enjoy yourself. The story will be quite familiar to fans of the series, of course. The wicked Mother Brain and her space pirate goons are running amock on Planet Zebes, and it's your job to give them the boot. Kraid and Ridley are hanging around as well, serving as the game's two main 'boss' battles. As far as Metroid goes, it's 'the usual,' and there are only minimal cinema scenes included to flesh out the narrative. However, this is the first game to focus more on Samus Aran rather than the Metroids themselves, and it's a nice change of pace. The little bits and pieces relating to Samus Aran's origins and the Chozo race seem to stem from similar explorations in Metroid Prime for the GameCube, and die-hard fans of the series will enjoy connecting all of the dots.

Zero Mission's gameplay continues the fine Metroid tradition. Samus starts out with just her power armor and basic arm cannon, and will be dependent on upgrades to advance in the game. And with this being her first mission, it's the only time where her lack of power-ups at the beginning makes any kind of sense. (How does Samus always manage to lose all of her hard-earned upgrades between games? That silly little bounty hunter: got to love her.) The power-ups you uncover are basically the exact same ones featured in Super Metroid, from those reliable missiles to the beloved space jump. How anyone can dislike a game featuring a technique called the 'screw attack' is beyond me.

In any case, the game uses the traditional Metroid 'linear-but-not-linear' design style. You can go anywhere you want, but you'll need certain upgrades to reach new areas. For example, you'll need the Varia armor upgrade to survive the hotter parts of Norfair. But you'll need the high-jump boots to reach the area where the Varia resides. And to get the high-jump boots, you'll need... and so on, and so forth. Special Chozo statues will point you to the next upgrade you'll need, which can save a lot of aimless walking and back-tracking. Some players will resent this sort of hand-holding, no doubt. But if it is random item-hunting you seek, fear not: there are plenty of extra missile pick-ups, energy tanks, and other random goodies for you to search for without any real assistance. You could beat the game without finding many of the random power-ups, but dedicated players could try to score every last bonus item and have a grand time of it. Each area map tells you how many power-ups you have left to find in that region, which simplifies your item-hunting without really giving anything away.

Metroid: Zero Mission isn't very challenging, although you can unlock the game's hard difficulty setting to give yourself more of a workout. The bosses can be defeated pretty easily by just pummeling them with missiles, so if you're diligent about collecting the bonus missile upgrades, you won't have many problems. And once you've upgraded your arm cannon with the ice beam and wave beam boosts, you'll mow through the regular enemies with little trouble. I don't mind a reduced difficulty level for a portable game, since I don't really want a grueling challenge while I'm taking the subway to work. But some people seem pretty disappointed, so if you might be one of them, you've been warned. As I said, though, there's a harder difficulty setting to unlock, and if you want some unforgiving Metroid madness, just unlock the original NES game and play that. There's not a single ounce of cuddliness in that old gem.

The game's 'hard mode' is handled in quite an interesting fashion. Rather than simply making the enemies more punishing, the designers trim the number of missile upgrades you can collect. All of the power-ups are still in play, of course - it's just that each missile bonus gives you two missiles more, instead of five. Super missile bonuses give you one extra missile, rather than two. This makes the bosses much more difficult, and you'll actually have to aim your missiles so you don't waste too many. (This is in sharp contrast to the game on normal, where you've got so many missiles that you can fire them wildly and still have enough to finish the job.) It's a bit annoying that you have to 'unlock' the harder difficulty setting by beating the game on normal, but what can you do? There's also an easy setting for those who are completely hopeless. (No offense.)

As always, the game's ending changes a bit depending on how fast you beat it, and how much stuff you collect. The better you do, the less Samus is wearing in the final cinema scene - not exactly a majorly compelling reason to rush through the game, but hey, different strokes for different folks, right? Some of the game's best players can finish Zero Mission with almost no bonus power-ups, which is a nifty little feat.

Challenging or not, Zero Mission looks fantastic. It's really quite amazing how far portable gaming has come along in recent times. Everything from the backgrounds to the cinema scenes looks just right, and Samus is very well-animated. Nintendo knows how to treat their oldest and most beloved brands - kudos, gentlemen.

Amazingly enough, the game sounds even better than it looks. Most of the music is remixed versions of the traditional Metroid songs, of course - and they feature the same melodies. But hey, they're classic video game tunes for a reason, so I can't really complain. Old-school Metroid fans will be in audio nostalgia heaven, and newbies will get to hear these great tracks for the first time. The sound effects, of course, are also straight from the Metroid catalog. (Does it get any better than the 'you just got a new upgrade' song? I wish they played that every time I got a paycheck - it's just so perfect.)

While the game holds fast to Metroid convention, there's a bit of a twist towards the end that changes things up nicely for a while. Just when you think the game is over, you enter a new and interesting portion of the mission. I won't give it away here, but it's a clever little twist that is implemented well.

Yes, Zero Mission is pretty short, and indeed, it creates even more continuity problems than usual. But it's absolutely splendid while it lasts, and to have a top-notch Metroid game that's portable is a good thing indeed. Add in quality unlockables like the original Metroid and a Metroid Fusion photo gallery, and you can't go wrong. (The Fusion photo gallery features some surprisingly cheesecake-ish shots of Samus Aran - man, even bounty hunters get the T & A treatment these days.) To have games this good on a Game Boy handheld is really quite amazing. I'm not saying that we shouldn't hold handheld games to a high standard, but at the same time, I don't think a game needs to be 30 hours long if it's meant to be played in small increments when you're on the go. Remember, portable systems are portable for a reason - if you're sitting there on the couch playing your GBA for six hours straight and comparing handheld games to home console software, you're sort of missing the point. A must-play for Metroid fans and highly recommended for everyone else, Zero Mission serves as a terrific prequel to the Metroid saga.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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