Second in a maybe-series of Metroid analyses, today I’d like to talk about one of the most unusual titles in the series, Metroid Fusion.
The Space Pirates have been wiped out and their leader annihilated. The last metroid is dead, its life given to save its surrogate mother Samus. The kerfluffle on the Bottle Ship has been resolved, and for it Federation C.O. Adam Malkovich lost his life. I think we can close the chapter on the story arc that took us through Metroid II, Super Metroid and sure, let’s say Other M for convenience’s sake. Fusion endeavors to be no mere ‘epilogue installment’; this is the start of a whole new chapter in the Metroid saga.
And from the jump, it reinforces Metroid as the one first-party series that Nintendo genuinely seems to treat with respect as a cohesive story with very real plot advancement. Before I get dogpiled, I’ll explain: just compare this to Mario, which has never really cared about plot advancement beyond the RPG/Paper titles. Or Zelda where, while we now have an official timeline, I don’t think anyone is under the impression that most of the games in the series were built from the ground up with a grand, over-arching timeline in mind.
And before you even gain player control, Samus gets infected by a new breed of creature, the X virus, and she loses both her classic suit and ship, and is only saved from death by a vaccine from the DNA of the metroid hatchling.
This is an interesting moment of world-building, because the lore surrounding the game directly implies that the Chozo created the metroids as a way of fostering a natural predator for the X, whom they believed would otherwise wipe out galactic life. Imagine that: the most dangerous organism in the Metroid universe (so far), the one that the resident ‘transcended to a higher plane because they’re just that pro’ alien race had to literally fall back on the “We’ll put in snakes to eat the birds, and then gorillas to kill the snakes” strategy from that one Simpsons episode to eliminate, is a virus. And that might be the most realistic aspect of the Metroid saga: just look at the billions of lives taken by plagues throughout human history.
It’s a fascinating concept that I started thinking about in terms of real life: what if the first alien life forms we find are something as simple as a viral strain? Just on Earth alone, there are viruses that cause almost zombie-like symptoms, and that nasty African virus that causes you to [REDACTED] your intestines out your [REDACTED]. Just imagine what the galaxy at large could hold in terms of germs.
But now that Samus has eliminated the metroids, the X are able to roam free and expand. Uh well whoops. It’s an effective and practical look into a digital food-chain, and again is quite a realistic depiction of what might happen if you completely remove a predator from a native environment. Nature knows what it’s doing, people; we might hate wasps, but they serve a purpose in the ecosystem.
From a gameplay perspective, I really like Metroid Fusion. It feels like classic Metroid but with a stronger focus on the narrative. It offers an interesting “in between” approach to Metroid’s explorative style: more regimented than the completely dialogue-less Super Metroid, yet not as rigid as Corruption. The last act of the game sort of forces the player to think outside the box if they want to get as many pickups as they can before the endgame, and – say, looking at the Metroid speedrunning and sequence breaking community would make for an interesting follow-up, but I digress.
For players of the game, I’ve a piece of advice: go out of your way to seek energy tanks, because the enemies in Fusion seem to do more damage than in any other Metroid title. And the reason I mention this is because it actually makes sense from a story perspective: Samus is essentially just wearing the weakened, stripped-down inner shell of her power suit, so it stands to reason.
Speaking of story and gameplay being integrated in a skillful way-
Metroid, for all its virtues, has always sort of lived up to the trope of the ‘Exceptional’ individual, right down to the traumatic past (See: Ridley going all face-eaty on her biological family). Samus is ostensibly a bounty hunter, but to paraphrase one person on TVtropes, Nintendo seems to have conflated the term ‘bounty hunter’ with ‘cool space hero’. Samus regularly saunters into enemy territory while the Federation just sort of sits on its laurels and says, “Oh, hmm…I hope she doesn’t die so that the Pirates can stop killing us offscreen.” In Corruption, it’s nice to see Samus as a cog in a larger machine (The Federation fights Pirates with its own standing armies, as well as outsources missions to bounty hunters other than Samus), but in games like Super and Zero Mission, she’s a lone wolf that fits nicely into the Western tradition of the ‘Exceptional Hero’.
But Fusion actually justifies and deconstructs that very trope: Samus is alone but for her AI Commanding Officer, and that is the only way the mission could succeed: with her being injected with the metroid vaccine, she is the only one who could possibly go up against a station full of X and not be dead within five minutes. Effectively, the Federation made her exceptional.
And, of course, one of the main elements of suspense in the game is that while the Federation made Samus exceptional against the X, the game works to deflate as well as venerate her ‘exceptional’ status at the same time: meet the SA-X, the monster made from the X that possessed the pieces of her old power suit.
Essentially, this thing (or, as the game progresses, those things – it reproduces asexually) is Samus at full power, but a point is made by Samus: “The X hunger for form, knowledge and power. They mimic these perfectly. But they cannot copy the soul.” Essentially, it is the good nature of both Samus and Adam, her willingness to self-sacrifice, that allows the X threat to be stopped, or at least quelled. In a way, it feels like the existence of the SA-X – basically a psychotic infant with a rocket launcher – reaffirms Samus’s exceptional nature, a hero with the nobility to match the weaponry, even if the SA-X can destroy you with barely a thought if you slow down during the chase sequences.
It’s just a really good game that I think holds up well, even if I wish there was an option to just skip Adam’s dialogue when I’ve played through it a whole bunch. I’ve even named an area in Architects ‘Nok’ in honour of the Fusion area NOC, a place where one of the game’s major twists rears its head.
But on that note, let’s talk about the Galactic Federation.
I’m sorry, Samus, I can’t let you do that
All through the series they’d been in the background, up until Corruption where they played a major role. But we’ve built them up as a protector of sorts, a stable government in the wild-west of deep space. In fact, it’s the Federation that saves Samus’s life by making the decision to inject her with the metroid vaccine.
All through the game, you become increasingly aware that something is ‘not quite right’ with the BSL. The breeding environments meant to simulate the metroids’ home planet, the frozen-over Ridley clone…it all leads to the revelation that the Federation has been using the BSL to breed metroids. “For peaceful application”, Adam insists.
But this is the same station that, shortly beforehand, saw the release of the Nightmare, a biomechanical monstrosity that could manipulate gravity, for “military applications.”
What the Christ, Galactic Federation. Good guys do not name things that they’ve created The Nightmare.
Atrocities of science for military application? That is Space Pirate-caliber stuff right there. Between the metroid breeding and the dangerous experiments, the lines have begun to seriously blur between the Federation and the seemingly extinct Space Pirates.
The Metroid series has always worn its Alien influence proudly on its sleeves, and now we see the Federation finally coming full circle and essentially becoming the Weyland-Yutani Company from Alien, the evil corporation who considers capturing Xenomorphs for its own ends more important than human life. But the thing is, we know from the very first Alien movie that the Company is a scuzzbag operation; with the Federation, it turns the rest of the series on its head. How long has this been going on? Just since the demise of the Space Pirates, or longer? What were the Federation scientists planning to do with that final infant metroid that Ridley stole at the start of Super Metroid, anyhow?
The ‘corrupt corporation’ or ‘corrupt government’ is one of the most widespread sci-fi tropes, because hey, even in deep space you go with what you know. (Remember: even in Star Wars, the Empire is basically the government for all intents and purposes) But the reason I think this twist transcends that old trope is simply because it’s a legitimate turn that forces you to re-think all the times Samus trusted her employers: before Super, did they really do all they could to help Rundas, Gandrayda and Ghor? Does Admiral Dane know about this? All through the Metroid series, the player implicitly trusts the Federation simply because 1: we’re not given a reason not to, and 2: we’re focusing our efforts on the clear and present dangers elsewhere. They’ve betrayed Samus’s trust, and by extension the player’s.
And it’s a turn that must naturally shake how Samus will interact with the Federation from here on out. The ending of Fusion, in which Samus sends the station rocketing to its demise down on SR388 to eliminate her psychotic X-borne clones that the Federation wants to capture for study, has her mention tribunals that she will surely undergo, but she believes there has to be at least one person who will understand. She speaks of the power of the human spirit to endure.
But let me remind you that this is the same Federation who deliberately made a gigantic murder robot called the Nightmare, and who cloned Ridley. Let me rephrase what I said earlier: there is no practical difference between the Federation and the Space Pirates now. You guys crossed that line the moment you said, “Right, you know that giant dragon that eats people to regain flesh tissue and who is an utterly psychotic loose cannon in any circumstance except when not reined in by Mother Brain? Let’s bring him back to life!”
(Yes, it’s not straight-up cloning, because Ridley was turned into a lifeless husk in Other M and it can be inferred that this is the Federation just flash-freezing the big meanie. But same concept applies: don’t keep Dragon Himmler on life support!)
Detour time! At the risk of undercutting a future episode of Game Theory, I have a pondering on why Ridley in this game is blue instead of his traditional hues on the other side of the colour wheel. (He was blue-purple in the NES Metroid, but I don’t know about including that, because it was overwritten in the timeline by Zero Mission)
The X copied the form of the frozen husk on board the BSL (a copy of the clone that was raised from the ground up in Other M’s Bottle Ship; this copy has access to Ridley’s memories but is no more Ridley’s “true self” than a picture of a picture is the picture itself.), but all they had to work with was the physical form frozen within the ice, seen here.
So maybe something went wrong with the flash-freezing process, and Ridley’s husk ended up horribly frostbitten. (The jury’s out on whether the Federation wanted his husk from the Bottle Ship as a point of study or to outright attempt cloning or reanimation, but if something HAD gone awry with the freezing process, the latter wouldn’t have been successful unless you’re in the market for a brain-damaged dragon flailing around trying to die.) Metroid bosses gradually changing colour as they take damage is old hat, but notice that Ridley goes from blue to red when he’s near death.
So maybe Samus’s superheated charge beam and missiles are literally warming up the reanimated husk’s skin?
I should pause here to say that I got something like a D in high school biology, so…let’s move on.
At any rate: on the Federation and their (possibly) newfound less-than-saintliness.
So this is just me extrapolating as a fan, but I think that if there is one good-hearted soul who understands Samus when she pleads her case before the Federation, the G.F. isn’t going to let them stay around long enough to do anything about it. Because they may be under the impression that they’ve sunken into the Space Pirates’ classic modus operandi as a ‘greater good’ sort of deal (as opposed to the straight-up galactic domination the Space Pirates were after), but if that includes keeping Ridley alive, then that includes silencing anyone who will speak for the woman who not only knows way too much, but has proven that she will do what it takes to bring these things crashing to the ground. And it stands to reason that they’re gunning for Samus next, either to send her sleeping with the space-whales or to lock her behind enough layers of bars that she can’t Snowden the information she’s gleaned from the events of Fusion.
I’ll stop myself before I start rambling out a full fanfic outline or something, but that’s the thing: Fusion was released in 2002, and is still the last chronological entry in the series. And boy howdy, it had cahones in terms of plot development: the Big Good organization had become the very thing that they teamed with Samus to bring down once upon a time. A conspiracy was uncovered, and now Samus must face the consequences of her actions.
Yeah, I know that certain things were included by the designers as a matter of gameplay and tradition: they had the Federation keep a Ridley clone on ice because it would make for a great penultimate encounter, the Federation gradually withholding your upgrades gives the game an excuse to venture beyond the “go to a download room and get your item” format of the first few acts, et cetera. But they did such a job of it that it feeds brilliantly into the twist. (Developers could take a cue or two from Fusion on how to intertwine gameplay and story/theme without segregating them.)
And what a great twist that is: now that the Space Pirates are dead (all the ‘Space Pirates’ you fought in Fusion are X-parasites that simply take on the form; in fact, the only enemies in the entire game who aren’t X are a rogue security robot that does eventually get taken over by X, and the very last boss, an Omega Metroid from the breeding program), the new Big Bad of the series is not only the Federation you thought you trusted, but who has the means and resources to provide a fantastic follow-up story arc with great setpieces and challenges to face.
It’s been since 2002, and we’ve had the Phazon arc completed in the Prime trilogy (which took place after Zero Mission and before Metroid II), Hunters (which took place in between the Primes), a pinball game, Other M which takes place before Fusion, and…nothing after Fusion. Essentially, the Metroid series has ended with, if not a straight-up cliffhanger, then an ending that has a serious “to be continued” vibe to it.
I barely know where to begin with the possibilities here. More hunter-on-hunter action as the Federation hires guns to bring Samus in? The computerized soul of Adam in conflict with Dane, who must consider his life-long loyalties with the Federation’s new direction? Certainly Samus as a hunted outlaw would give reason for the kinds of isolated locales that Metroid fans are so fond of. Sure, nobody wants Metroid to turn into a straight-up shooter and that might be what you would get if you pitted Samus against waves of Federation troopers, but there would be ways around that scenario (stealth gameplay?).
I’m just spitballing. The point is, there’s a wellspring of potential here that Nintendo seems utterly uninterested in tapping. By making so many interquels in the intervening time, it almost feels as though the big N is purposefully weaving themselves outs so that they don’t have to tackle this challenge quite yet.
And it would be a challenge, simply by dent that it’s a change. Samus’s iconic suit and gunship were both destroyed in Fusion’s intro. Hell, guys, that’s like if they blew up the Millennium Falcon in the first scene of those new Star Wars movies they’re gonna be making. But the core of what makes Metroid tick – that sense of exploration, of delving into deep catacombs and places where science has taken a bad turn or where ancient civilizations have fallen to ruin – can still be there as strong as ever.
But this highlights a distinct issue I have with Nintendo’s ideology towards plot progression. I recall an interview where one of the higher-ups at Nintendo said, in defense of Mario’s continued excuse-plots and tropes repeated so heavily that you swear the Mario universe takes place in some kind of karmic loop, that they want the younger generations to be able to obtain the same nostalgia through their games as the older generations, or something like that. But that presents a problem when they’re dealing with a series where plot actually does matter to a certain extent.
At the risk of Inceptioning a mini-article into this one, take Star Fox. Better yet, take Krystal, a character who Rare introduced with Star Fox Adventures as being the last survivor of her home planet, who is seeking answers and is drawing closer to the truth. Awesome! Here comes a chance for a story arc that would give this new character some much needed emotional development, as well as introduce a potential planetkiller into the series, both of which are perfectly welcome in this space-opera setting.
Well, nothing of the sort happened. It was as though they saw the potential awesomeness of that idea, and decided that awesome wasn’t what they were going for. The next two games didn’t even attempt to touch it. As a result, the potential this character had just languishes.
While this is probably something better touched on in a later article, I also can’t help but notice that the character used to have her own story arc in said game before it was decided she was better off as a damsel in distress. Of course, this is bad because it once again ‘normalizes’ the female as being weak and helpless, thereby promoting the male presence as the only one with agency and Come on guys, do I really need to keep quoting those YouTube feminism buzzwords to get across why they took a perfect decent character and made her un-decent by standing her for everything opposite of Samus?
Let Krystal’s fate be a representation of Nintendo’s gunshy, “err, maybe later” philosophy on advancing and progressing the experiences given in their star franchises. What did the next two Star Fox games touch on? Oh, alien invasions with as much personality as a kumquat. Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but they really had to try to take the wellspring of potential that series had, and say “Nah, we’re gonna go this way.” I could devote a whole article to the ways in which the Star Fox series is emblematic of how to squander potential (and what can be done to turn it around, because who likes constant negativity?), and I want to, but not until 2014.
The most recent canonical game in the series did have multiple endings that each strained in a different direction and promised change, but with that many multiple endings, we’re left with no concrete direction in which to take the series, as though the game was too tentative to commit to a singular vision for the series’ future. It seems developers have noticed: that was seven years ago. That’s long enough for Link to have done his Rip Van Winkle thing in the Temple of Time already.
Speaking of which, how about Zelda, where it becomes exceedingly easy to “see the seams”? The story and aesthetic tropes are heavily repeated across almost every Zelda game, and it feels like the timeline in Hyrule Historia was written to fit the games rather than the other way around. There’s always a princess, always a green-clad hero, always a villain who kidnaps the princess (with very rare exceptions, I say, weaving myself an out as I have not played every single Zelda game). I’m starting to sound like Bioshock Infinite here (“There’s always a lighthouse…”), and that game’s major twist is a deconstruction of the concept of “the sequel”.
And Mario. Oh my, Mario.
I’ve become increasingly disenfranchised with the “mandatory” damsel-in-distress plotline in the Mario games for a number of reasons. From a social theorist perspective, if the “black guy always dies first in horror movies” trope is racist, then how is this particular trope not sexist when applied so unilaterally like this?
But from a storytelling perspective, I’ve come to realize that Nintendo doesn’t care. Never mind that most of the plots are the same; even the gameplay in Mario (exempting the great line of RPGs) has become afraid of innovation, to the extent that adding a cat suit seems to be as far as they’re willing to go on some titles. Super Mario Galaxy 2, fun as it is, is essentially the same game as Mario Galaxy but with Yoshi. The new 3D Bros game on WiiU is, what, a sequel of a remake of a remake of a remake? This franchise is no longer interested in pushing authentically new experiences to players, so much as crafting the illusion of freshness by way of motion controllers and touchscreens. I want to love you, Nintendo, but at this point I still need a rock-solid reason to buy a WiiU.
And Reggie, you say that “differentiated experiences” will drive the future of gaming, but then why do I feel like your camp is not only feeding us the same old song and dance, but that it actually passes for innovation to you now?
I really was planning on devoting a whole other article to why I became so ideologically divided from Nintendo, but I included it here because it demonstrates how hesitant Nintendo is to fulfill the potential of its plots the moment they would involve pushing the narrative beyond their comfort zone. While Metroid is an exception in that Retro pushed the Phazon arc to a smashing conclusion that I think fulfilled what the series was building towards, the demi-conclusion of Fusion lingers as the series’ elephant in the corner.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a comfort zone as much as anyone else. When I enter a music store, I gravitate right for the metal aisle, because I know it in and out and it’s where I feel at-ease and comfortable. And it seems that Nintendo has sunk so far into their own comfort zone that it’s hurting their franchises and their own sales, if you care to take a look at the WiiU numbers.
But challenging our perceptions and flowing to places we didn’t expect, taking us along for the ride and developing characters in powerful new directions, is simply what good stories do. These are the stories that matter.
Ultimately, that was what led to my ideological divide from Nintendo’s products. I was hungering for games that satisfied my need for compelling, ongoing narrative, and there are still major factions high at Nintendo who don’t necessarily view games in the same regard. I still have a deep appreciation for all the franchises I’ve just taken a critical axe to, don’t get me wrong; they’re all immensely fun to play. But I’m talking about plot progression here, and that is the point where Nintendo and I walk two roads diverged (yellow wood not necessary).
I was at a writer’s breakfast with author Guy Gavriel Kay a month ago, and during his speech he said, “It’s okay to kill the dog.” Because in other words, stories that move us to places we didn’t expect are the ones that stay with us. So in that spirit, I say this: “It’s okay to surprise your audience and take them to places that stun, scare, intrigue or otherwise play with their expectations.”
Retro did it in the Prime trilogy, being able to turn wondrous exploration through alien catacombs into grimy space horror at the drop of a hat. Zero Mission did it when all of a sudden you suddenly have to face down a legion of Space Pirates with the futuristic equivalent of long underwear instead of the magitek killsuit you’ve gotten so accustomed to.
Maybe Nintendo needs to learn that, because there’s no reason great gameplay can’t be balanced with the desire to tell a great story that challenges its own expectations.
I think Metroid deserves to be treated with the same respect. Don’t you?