Nintendo prioritizes releasing new Mario and Zelda games. They manage to push out a new Mario Kart for every system they make. Even Kirby and Yoshi get time to shine on a regular basis. But for supposedly being part of Nintendo’s big three franchises, Metroid (and its subseries Metroid Prime) sure does seem to get the short end of the stick an awful lot.
With two major periods of inactivity for the IP and more recent games disappointing critically and commercially, it’s surprising that this E3 we were gifted with the announcement of two (mostly) new Metroid games.
With Metroid: Samus Returns and Metroid Prime 4 on their way, we decided to take a look back at the seminal franchise. In reflecting, seeing how Nintendo often couples games together, we’ve grouped the games in six general eras. Here’s a peek into Metroid’s unique release history, and what it says about Nintendo’s upcoming entries into the series.
The Early Years: Metroid, Return of Samus, and Super Metroid (1986-1994)
The original Metroid released in August 1986 on the Famicom Disk System in Japan and came to America the following year. Directed by Satoru Okada and Yoshio Sakamoto, and produced by Game and Watch guru Gunpei Yokoi as part of Nintendo Research and Development Team 1, Metroid became the company’s staple action title. It effectively balanced out Super Mario Bros. platforming prowess and The Legend of Zelda‘s adventure mastery on the NES.
It was a critical and commercial success, though it was notably less successful than Mario or Zelda before it. Its release following the other two big Nintendo titles would prove to be a pattern the series would frequently repeat – perhaps to its own downfall during the N64 and Wii U eras.
Metroid II: Return of Samus
Gunpei Yokoi, who helped design and release the unstoppable Game Boy in 1989, decided to continue the series on his handheld creation. Metroid II: Return of Samus came to North America on the Game Boy in 1991, untraditionally ahead of the game’s Japanese release. However, by the 2000’s, this became a norm for the series.
Metroid II is a true sequel to the NES classic. It continues Samus’ story in chronological order and is critical to the series’ overarching story. Though many concessions were made for the game in order to fit on the Game Boy’s small, grayscale screen, Nintendo R&D1 specifically added a “Metroid palette” to the Game Boy Color’s hardware in 1998 to give the game a visual upgrade on the system.
The Super Famicom launched with Super Mario World in 1990. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past released the next year to critical acclaim. Still, fans had to wait until 1994 for the next console Metroid.
Led by series veteran Yoshio Sakamoto, Super Metroid spent nearly three years in development, a ridiculously long period for the Super Nintendo era. This was largely due to how much effort went into the game. Its file size was far larger than its contemporaries, which included minute details like idle animations and background movement. Level designs expanded and wove together seamlessly as the game progressed, setting a template that countless games mimic to this day.
Super Metroid was, and remains, an objective masterpiece. It has garnered widespread acclaim, making its way onto nearly 40 professional “greatest games of all time” lists. Fans loved it, critics adored it, but the game didn’t sell particularly well compared to its contemporaries.
This combination of praise and low sales fueled the painful Metroid drought that fans were about to experience.
The Renaissance: Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime (2002)
Following Super Metroid‘s release, there were precisely zero Metroid games for the next eight years. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The N64 era characteristically came and went without a peep from Samus. The Game Boy Color also never got a Metroid of its own. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, Zelda, and other classic Nintendo franchises, has spoken up in the past about what happened to Metroid during this era. “We couldn’t come up with any concrete ideas or vehicle at that time,” Miyamoto said, confirming that Metroid hadn’t completely left Nintendo’s thoughts.
But when it rains, it pours.
Both Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime were released on November 17, 2002. They came out on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo Game Cube, respectively. The simultaneous release and development of the two games were deliberate. Though limited, the games could interact with one another. Beating Prime and connecting it with Fusion via link cable granted the player Samus’ Fusion suit to wear in Prime. Beating Fusion and connecting the two unlocked an emulated version of the original Metroid to play on the Game Cube.
Metroid Fusion was more of a direct follow-up to Super Metroid. Once again directed by Yoshio Sakamoto, Fusion was a 2D action adventure game that chronologically followed Super Metroid. In fact, Fusion was originally announced as Metroid IV, solidifying its connection with the previous three games in the series. It added to the formula set by Super Metroid by introducing new weapons for Samus, animated cutscenes, and a pseudo-mission-based structure.
Metroid Prime, on the other hand, was a completely new beast. Developed by the fresh, Texas-based, second-party developer Retro Studios, Prime developed into its own subseries for the franchise. A first-person shooter at its core, Prime‘s foray into the third dimension signaled a change for the revered series.
Yoshio Sakamoto helped write the story, making sure the plot remained consistent with the rest of the series. While Sakamoto and other Nintendo employees remained in contact and had influence over Prime‘s development, the final product remains Retro Studio’s masterpiece.
Though many fans were initially hesitant towards the shift in perspective and untested developer, Prime turned into a massive critical success. It became (and remains) the best-selling game in the series. Prime cemented Retro’s importance to Nintendo, and a follow-up was expected sooner rather than later.
Nintendo continued this pattern of developing a handheld and console Metroid in tandem. With two separate teams in place making two different kinds of Metroid games, the series began to hit its stride.
Greatness Continues: Zero Mission and Echoes (2004)
Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes benefitted from directly following the development of the games that preceded them. Developed by the same teams, released the same year, on the same set of consoles, they continued a successful run for the series.
Metroid: Zero Mission
Released in North America on February 9, 2004, Metroid: Zero Mission looks and plays much like Fusion before it. However, unlike Fusion‘s original storyline, Zero Mission is a remake. Director Yoshio Sakamoto decided to take the original Metroid and modernize it. It takes power-ups, diagonal shooting, and more from Super Metroid and retrofits it to the game that started it all.
The base of Zero Mission is the same as the original, but many tweaks and additions enhanced the game. The basic plot was partially rewritten and modernized but is largely the same. If a copy of Zero Mission is connected with a copy of Fusion via link cable, an image gallery of various pictures of Samus from Fusion unlocks. Also, Samus can crouch in Zero Mission, and that’s a genuine game changer.
The game was well received but drew some criticism for its short length. Like Fusion before it, Zero Mission won numerous awards and stands as a handheld classic. It is considered to be the definitive version of the original Metroid by many fans.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
How could Retro Studios possibly follow up the original Metroid Prime? Easy: they put their nose to the grindstone and cranked out a more than worthy follow-up. They added features like the screw attack and wall jump that didn’t make it into the original. They upped the difficulty and created significantly more cutscenes. Retro even added a unique take on FPS multiplayer for up to four friends to enjoy locally.
Themes of light and dark permeate Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Dark Samus, a being made of the radioactive substance phazon, is a replicant of Samus created with her stolen DNA. As the two clash throughout Echoes, Samus travels between light and dark versions of the planet Aether. This created unique opportunities when switching between the two realms, a mechanic inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Though Zero Mission and Echoes didn’t communicate with one another like Prime and Fusion, they did inspire each other. Retro wanted to make an enemy that wasn’t as large as most of the monsters Samus faced in Prime. In Zero Mission, there’s a brief sequence where Samus is forced to face a facsimile of herself. Retro took this lead from Nintendo R&D1, and Dark Samus was born.
Completing the Trilogy: Hunters and Corruption (2006-2007)
Just as Prime was developed in tandem with Fusion, and Echoes was made alongside Zero Mission, Metroid Prime Hunters and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption had parallel development schedules. Unlike the previous two couples, Hunters was not developed by Nintendo R&D1, as the team was disbanded during Nintendo’s restructuring in 2005.
Instead of releasing on the Game Boy Advance and Game Cube (respectively), they came out on the next set of Nintendo consoles: the Nintendo DS and Wii. The tradition of a handheld and console Metroid games developing together continued for a third round. However, the length between releases also continued to drift further and further apart.
Metroid Prime Hunters
Metroid Prime Hunters was released in North America on March 20, 2006, for the Nintendo DS. Developed by Redmond-based Nintendo Software Technology, Hunters is the first handheld Metroid game to be made by an American studio. Nintendo chose NST as the developer because of their previous history of making games for the DS. Additionally, Nintendo wanted the Prime series to retain a Western influence, and Retro Studios was busy working on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption at the time.
Being a part of the Metroid Prime subseries, Hunters plays in the first person. It uses a touchscreen control system to aim and fire Samus’ weapons. It features a multiplayer mode similar to Echoes, but it’s the first Metroid game to include online multiplayer. This addition came about from feedback they received at E3 2004, where players were disappointed to find that the multiplayer mode was originally going to be offline only.
Metroid veteran Kensuke Tanabe came up with the premise of the game and served as producer. Hunters takes place between the first two Metroid Prime games. The ship from the first Prime is present in Hunters, and the suit Samus wears in Hunters carries on into Echoes, adding some connective tissue between the games. Similarly, the art team at NST collaborated with Retro Studios in order to make sure the design of the titular Hunters fit within the Prime subseries.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was released for the Wii on August 27, 2007. Though originally planned as a launch game for the Wii, Corruption spent an extra year in development due to its implementation of motion controls. Though the general gameplay and engine from the first console Prime games remained the same, Corruption‘s pointer-aiming allowed for quicker shooting and a more fluid combat experience. Additionally, the number of cutscenes and amount of voice acting increased substantially over previous games in the series.
Metroid Prime 3 received critical acclaim and strong sales similar to the previous Prime games. However, possibly due to launching the same year as the superb Super Mario Galaxy, or because Nintendo’s marketing campaign for the game failed to set the world on fire, the perception of Corruption is largely that of a solid Prime game that happens to use motion controls. However, the motion controls proved popular enough for Nintendo to re-release the first two games on the Wii alongside Corruption with the addition of pointer aiming in the Metroid Prime Trilogy in 2009.
Nintendo originally intended to end the Prime subseries with Corruption. However, with the release of Metroid Prime: Federation Force and the upcoming Metroid Prime 4, it appears that Prime is around to stay alongside other Metroid titles. Unfortunately, the continuation of the series would (hopefully temporarily) take a turn for the worse.
The Dark Days: Other M and Federation Force (2010-2016)
Oh boy, here we go.
Metroid: Other M
Metroid: Other M was released in North America on August 31, 2010, for the Wii. Other M is a collaboration between Nintendo and Team Ninja, a studio known for their work on the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series. And, despite the constant negative press, it’s really not all that bad.
Other M is an experiment in the series that has its highs and lows. It features a 3rd person camera in 3D environments and goes into 1st person when the player points the Wii remote at the screen – a first for the series. On the other hand, it’s a much more linear and restrictive experience than a traditional Metroid game. It features flashy, effective melee combat that’s unexplored in other Metroids. But then again, its narrative is a hot mess.
The game was given upwards of two and a half hours worth of unskippable cutscenes, one over 15 minutes long. Samus, as a character, was oddly helpless at times. This is a far cry from her status as one of the strongest female protagonists in video games. She even had to wait for her commanding officer to give her permission to use certain functions of her suit. The whole plot is frankly bizarre and asynchronous with the rest of the series.
But it’s still pretty fun to play.
Metroid Prime: Federation Force
The game debuted at E3 2015 and Nintendo showcased Federation Force‘s Blast Ball mode. This is basically just soccer played by soldiers in brightly colored mech suits. So, in short: it’s not Metroid. Retro Studios did happen to design the mech suits in the game, so at least there’s a little connection with the rest of the series.
Metroid guru Kensuke Tanabe, who produced Federation Force, was surprised by the backlash the game received. His goal was to take the spotlight off of Samus and focus more on the Galactic Federation. They ended up being faceless and void of personality. Meanwhile, Samus took a backseat and popped in from time to time during the campaign. It’s technically part of the Metroid timeline, taking place between Metroid Prime 3 and Metroid II. So it does hold some importance for the franchise.
The Prodigal Daughter Returns: Samus Returns and Metroid Prime 4 (2017-)
Mario and Link came to the Wii U party, but nobody invited Samus. By 2016, the 3DS basically didn’t get a Metroid game of its own either. So, when Nintendo announced two new Metroid games during E3 2017, fans finally had something to get excited about.
Let’s set the stage. Nintendo decided to hold their digital conference after everyone else on the morning E3 show floor opened – as per usual. Then they revealed about 10 minutes into their show that they’re developing Metroid Prime 4 for the Switch. Fans, naturally, are happy to hear that a mainline Metroid game is coming to a Nintendo console again. Still, it’s just a logo – we all know it’s a long way off.
But then, 40 minutes into Nintendo Treehouse Live, they decide to (super casually) announce that a Metroid game is coming. To the 3DS. This year.
Metroid: Samus Returns
Metroid: Samus Returns is being developed by MercurySteam and is set to release on September 15, 2017, for the 3DS. It’s a “reimagining” of Metroid II: Return of Samus for the original Game Boy. The game plays on a 2D plane – the first in the series since Zero Mission.
Yoshio Sakamoto, one of the vanguards of the Metroid series, is producing the game. “Metroid II, I feel, has a really important place in the Metroid franchise’s history,” he said. He also stated that he desires to return to the series’ 2D roots while still pushing the gameplay forward with more modern 3D visuals and fluid controls.
Samus Returns is bringing a lot of changes to Metroid II. Samus can now shoot from pretty much any angle she desires. She can chain together attacks with style to deal extra damage. She can even melee counter enemies to open up opportunities for attack – a new trick for the series.
Now that Samus Returns has been announced, Nintendo’s decision to pull the plug on the fan-made AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake) makes more sense. Still, Nintendo probably wouldn’t have let it live long regardless. Hopefully, Nintendo and MercurySteam’s efforts will be up to snuff so that fans can finally experience a modernized version of this highly important game to the series.
Metroid Prime 4
Metroid Prime 4 is being developed for the Switch, by a team that isn’t Retro Studios, and is due some time “beyond 2017.” The team that isn’t Retro is reportedly talented and new, and the game is being produced by Kensuke Tanabe, a mainstay contributor to the series. That’s pretty much all we know.
But here’s what we can guess, looking at the series’ history:
- Every Metroid Prime game has been in the 1st person, so it’s likely that Prime 4 won’t stray far from that course.
- This “talented new team” is probably a Western developer, as Nintendo has expressed their desire to keep the Prime subseries rooted in a more Western-centric direction.
- The game will likely take place either before or after Federation Force, which as of now directly precedes Metroid II/Samus Returns chronologically.
The last point brings up an interesting line of thought when it comes to the relationship between these two games. They won’t interact with each other like Metroid Prime and Fusion did before them. However, they will be released in proximity like previous Prime and mainline games have in the past. It’s almost certain that Prime 4 will take place sometime after Prime 3 in the timeline, meaning the only Prime game that may sit between Prime 4 and Samus Returns is Hunters.
Our guess? It’ll follow Hunters and sit as the final game in the Prime subseries. This would allow for a direct connection to Samus Returns, which leads right to Super Metroid. This would give more weight for Nintendo’s decision to remake Metroid II and cement its importance in the series plot.
There is a pattern of Nintendo releasing handheld and console Metroid games in loose pairs. Then again, the Switch blurs the line between handheld and console much like Prime 4 and Samus Returns may very well make us question what makes a worthy Metroid game. Only time will tell.
The Waiting Game
Samus and Nintendo have had a rocky relationship. When it’s good (like with Super Metroid and Metroid Prime,) it’s good. When it’s bad (like with Federation Force,) it’s painful. But, if Nintendo brings an end to the drought of quality Metroid titles we’ve been in, that’s more than enough reason for fans to celebrate.
Long Live Samus. Long live Metroid.
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