Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review - Metroid

I played the original Metroid a lot when it was fairly new. Along with the first Castlevania, Metroid is one of my earliest gaming memories. I had fond memories of it from back then, when I'd play for an hour, die, record my password incorrectly, and start over from the beginning. Back then, I didn't really know what I was doing, so I'd just wander the endlessly similar corridors shooting aliens and not really caring that I wasn't getting anywhere. Nowadays, that doesn't really cut it.

Metroid was recently re-relased on the 3DS Virtual Console. I figured that with the ability to suspend my game and download a map to occasionally spot check through the system's browser I finally had an excuse to try getting through this game (mostly) legitimately. I had only beaten it previously by abusing Game Genie codes on a physical NES, so this sounded fun! Turns out, it wasn't much fun.

The basic premise of Metroid is that you're all alone on an alien world hunting down boss monsters through labyrinthine environments. It's a shooter/platformer that places the player at a huge disadvantage, and that can work great, but the way in which Metroid tries to do so adds nothing but tedium and a whole lot of wasted time.

It's always fun  to start a game weak and become gradually more powerful, but Metroid's balance leaves a lot to be desired. When you begin the game, your laser beam has an almost uselessly short range and you have no way to attack enemies crawling on the ground. This is fine in the initial screens, but it becomes annoying pretty quickly. Later in the game, you get the Screw Attack, an item that damages enemies by touching them while you're mid jump, and the combat difficulty pretty much disappears instantly.

I could overlook that if the rest of the game's issues didn't drive me nuts. I know everyone likes to praise the feeling of being lost that this game gives you, and it's one of the reasons you still see it on Best Games of All Time lists, but honestly? I'd rather not trek through dozens of identical corridors. By identical I don't even just mean the room, even the enemy layout doesn't change in a lot of them. There's really no way to figure out where you've already been unless you're drawing your own map as you go, or if you have one handy. I know some people like that! I personally don't like drawing my own map in a game, and I can't imagine that all of the thousands of people who sing this game's praises do either.

The challenge of the game is, with the exception of one boss, entirely its tedium. Whether it's drawing a map or jumping up incredibly long vertical platforming sequences, you're going to be spending a lot of time in this game doing repetitive tasks. None of them, however, come close to being as irritating as its health system. Every time you die, the game allows you to continue with a minuscule 30 points of health. Bigger enemies will take that all out of you in one or two hits.

So, how do you recover? You stand next to pipes and wait for bugs to crawl out, shoot them, pick up a health ball, wait for the next one. You recover so little health from each ball that you're going to be doing this for at least five minutes at a time. There's no difficulty in this, it's entirely padding to lengthen the game. Nothing about the game's atmosphere would be changed if you started over with full health after dying.

Dying is something I got used to pretty fast when I reached the game's first boss, Kraid. This is the only time in the whole game that I abused the 3DS's save state system to reload my progress. He takes a long time to get to, recovering your health before fighting him is a chore, and he's by far the most difficult enemy in the game. I used the system's save states so that I could restart at the entrance of his room with full health after dying and he still managed to drive me nuts. There are a lot of projectiles on screen during this fight, which slows the game to a crawl if you're shooting at the same time. If you fall off of the platform he's on, good luck getting out of the lava below! Timing your jump perfectly to get out is incredibly frustrating. Looking online, it seems the best strategy for beating him is to just run next to him, mash your bomb button, and hope to win through attrition. Great.
Once you're done with Kraid, you go after the second boss and wonder why you didn't go there first instead. Metroid's level design is mostly non-linear, so there's no reason to not go to Hideout II first, but the name kind of told me I should go there second. After an hour of frustration with Kraid, the second boss, Ridley, didn't even hit me. Throw this in the "This game is terribly balanced" category.

I'm being pretty down on it, but I don't think this game's all bad. The music's great, the character designs are fantastic (especially the Metroids themselves), and the final zone of the game is actually really good from start to finish. I just feel that it should have been much better than it is, and without any huge changes. If you revived from death with more health, had an in-game mapping feature, and swapped the location of the first two bosses, the game would be substantially smoother. Ditching the horrible password system would be nice too! I don't think these are unreasonable ideas. Nintendo had already released The Legend of Zelda, which had a battery-backup save system rather than passwords and an automapping feature in dungeons. Recovering health was a lot less awful in Zelda, too.

In spite of nostalgia and the well executed final zone, Metroid really hasn't held up well. Its repetitive nature that I ignored when I was a kid is intolerable as an adult. Besides, Super Metroid is practically a full remake of this game, and it fixes every one of the original's problems and improves on it in every way. If you're going to play a 2D Metroid game, go with Super Metroid on the SNES or Zero Mission on the GBA. I feel that nostalgia is the reason the original Metroid is still thought of so fondly, but later games in the Metroid series really surpass it in every way.

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