Retro Review: Metroid Fusion, or, Does Samus Even Need to Return?
Sometimes, a multi-national megalith will care enough to put up quality goods. And sometimes, they have to be beaten at their own game, to care enough to reclaim it. I get the impression that without some external incentive, Nintendo wouldn’t have batted another eyelash at Metroid (wasn’t that midget soccer simulator Federation Force as decisive a corporate death knell as anyone would need?). But DoctorM64’s Another Metroid 2 Remake gets the ol’ cease and desist from Mt. Nintendolympus and here we are a year later, a week from the first mainstream 2D Metroid game in 15 years. I could be wrong. I can’t be bothered to find out.
And I still want to play Metroid Fusion again, the fourth main Metroid and the one that proofed the portable for glorious 32-bit action puzzling. Metroid had never been this story-driven before. Acolytes of Super Metroid scoffed at the idea. Even now I don’t think I’ve ever gotten half the hearted apology I deserve for putting my faith in Yoshio Sakamoto, the man who directed them both, for trying something new, adding in a narrative that’s as ready with Alien-esque horror as with Blade Runner-esque mind games.
Now let me deflate a little bit – Super Metroid is the more seminal Metroid experience and the better game (and Sakamoto proved he’s not my reliable creative institution, when he went on to make Metroid: Other M). But a series of moments define Metroid Fusion as a narrative experience that has more in common with Portal than its own predecessors. It’s a disenchanting adventure into Samus’ mind, her relationships, her body. The ultimate conclusion is the best possible end for the frostiest bounty hunter in the universe. And it does it without a single recorded word.
The story is sparkling scenario writing. We left Samus having decimated the universe of her arch-enemy, the parasitic Metroids (Metroid, like Metal Gear Solid, has a continuous timeline). Her encounter at the beginning of Fusion is with a new organism, the X-Parasite, which is flourishing now that the Metroids, its natural predator, have been excised from its ecosystem. When Samus comes in physical contact with an X, her suit is destroyed down to its skin grafts: the only way to save her is to convert her energy reserves into a form compatible with the X tissue bonded to it. Though weakened, she departs to a research station to discover the source of the outbreak of the X.
This intro does a few things. It disassembles the perfect hero archetype, forcing us to live through the consequences of our heroically destructive actions in previous games. The score-based Metroid II is unveiled as a genocide that put the galaxy out of balance. We learn the price of Samus’ insecurities and our own action gamer’s bloodlust. We experience her pain as the irony of her situation literally cripples her and disempowers us (Metroid always starts with a power reset, but never so meaningfully, never like it takes a toll on a human being).
There are also elements in the intro that are assigned canon in the game by the story alone, elements which we would take for granted in any game.
Health for instance is almost always non-canonical, meaning it exists in a reality that is outside a game’s prescribed limitations. An example would be that despite the rendered reality of gunshot wounds, you have health regeneration in games like Uncharted. In Metroid Prime, you collect non-descript purple energy balls that recharge your suit for some reason. In Doom, you heal bile-caked flesh ruptured by demon spawn with first-aid kits. The universe rarely has an explanation for health. Metroid Fusion prioritizes immersion from its first moments by canonizing the health system into the game. The X infecting the research exhibits are all that’s left when you destroy them. And because of the attack on your suit, you can convert them to energy.
Simple acts like collecting health are in this way bonded to emotion and narrative in Metroid Fusion. The game’s mission operator is a computer whom Samus names Adam, after an old commander for which she had some unrequited affection. Their relationship in Fusion is cruel and poignant, divisive and uplifting. Especially when you’re eight-years-old.
But one element of Metroid Fusion does not age. It stands against time as the best in its class, still haunts me to this day, controls my opinions of similar game sequences, and still works as a masterclass in player disempowerment and tone.
When confronted with a Big Daddy for the first time in Bioshock, my first thought was irredeemably, “At least it’s not the SA-X.”
The X-Parasites imitate life. When they attacked Samus in the game’s introduction, they assumed her form as it was at that time. The best encounters in Fusion are with a white-eyed, inhuman clone of you when you were at your most powerful. Its sequences involve the galaxy’s greatest bounty hunter running for and from her life. As you accumulate powers unique to the station, you slowly make progress in your ability to deter and finally face the SA-X. Its apparent destruction is so satisfying from an avatar strength perspective that one final reunion with your old self at the game’s conclusion is perfectly mystifying. Definitely gaming’s least lame deus ex machina.
But the SA-X is even better than its sequences, which often force you to break through the lines of the map you thought was immutable, into worlds within the machine and beyond the grid. The SA-X is a perfect storytelling device because it represents the pure destruction that led Samus to this point, the blindness that allowed her to destroy an ecosystem for personal vengeance. It is the persona of a different game that follows you in those harrowing chase sequences, the mind of a violence-lusting action gamer looking for a combo hit, a clean kill, a high score.
The clone is a disenchanting and reflective persona, especially for a young gamer. The next time I felt similarly was when disobeying GLaDOS and jumping over the fire at the end of the test, and disappearing into the lost world beyond the air ducts. Or the Atlas twist in Bioshock. Fusion is a game that disempowers the player of their abilities, while reinforcing their sensitivity. Empathy is the result of this powerlessness.
Metroid Fusion isn’t the best game ever made. But sometimes I feel it driving my tastes even today. When my friend hands me the controller to play Call of Duty with them my inescapable feeling is that I know too much to enjoy that. Maybe Fusion crafted me into a gamer cognizant of flesh and blood, of the price in sensitivity of mindless fun. Its meticulous application through gameplay of all its subtexts makes it a game of almost unnerving power, for how simple it really is, so much so that I’m not sure if Samus even needs to return. The whole person that exits Metroid Fusion has been unified on a level that would make Jung proud, having become one with her shadow self and reacquainting herself and her body with her own humanity. I’m not sure if Samus Returns can do anything but step backwards. Or maybe I’m just a snob.