The Return of the Return of Samus

One complaint about movies that you used to hear a lot was “it looks like a video game.” But it strikes me that the current movie industry has become more like the video games industry in a more fundamental aspect: its increasingly iterative nature. Everything is franchise-dominated, with sequels and remakes being cranked out at a breakneck pace.

This has more or less been the norm for video games, but it’s a norm that is more suited for that particular medium: games are, among other things, software and hence are very beholden to technical development and breakthroughs in programming knowhow. Ocarina of Time is really just a rehash of A Link to the Past, but the difference in technology that separates them makes them fundamentally different experiences. Movies, on the other hand, haven’t undergone a substantial change in form since the development of synchronized sound. Thus when The Force Awakens rehashed a forty year old movie, the intent and effect was one of nostalgic reminiscence rather than the creation of something new.

It’s rare to find a movie where it can justifiably be said that remaking it with contemporary technology would make it better. But a game, in its iterative nature, is more open to the possibility of improvement (or at least variation). All this is a way of underlining something which is often overlooked while comparing the two media while giving a sly dig at the movie industry while providing a segue into talking about how Metroid: Samus Returns can be one of the best, freshest games of the year despite being a remake.

I have – for most of my life, really – taken the not particularly brave position that Nintendo’s 1994 title Super Metroid is one of the greatest video games of all time. So I’ll get a tad more controversial: Super Metroid is perhaps the key title for understanding video games (or, at least, video games as of 1994), which is why it is something of a developmental dead-end. With games like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros, Nintendo was laying down a fundamental grammar that other video games could use to their own ends. Super Metroid represents the ultimate, cumulative artifact that grew out of that grammar, which is why the so-called Metroidvania subgenre that followed in its wake often feel so derivative – there’s nowhere else to go.

Super Metroid was already the third entry in a franchise, and like a lot of early video game franchises, it took a couple entries of experimentation before locking itself down into a definitive template. This is what makes Metroid 2: Return of Samus so endearing as a flawed game featuring unique design choices that Nintendo ultimately decided to abandon. And this, in turn, is what makes its remake, Samus Returns, feel so fresh: it aims to be a more fully realized version of that game’s design philosophy, which paradoxically makes it feel less derivative of Super Metroid than so many of the Metroidvania games available today. Were it not for NieR: Automata, I’d unhesitatingly call it the game of the year.

I’ve got this far dancing around what Metroid is all about, so I should attempt to remedy that: Metroid combines the side-scrolling platforming of the Mario games with the free-form, exploratory structure of Zelda. Intuiting that the side view placed an emphasis on verticality, Nintendo wisely decided to make Metroid an exercise in sci-fi spelunking, primarily having the players explore labyrinthe alien caverns.

The original Metroid in particular was about badass bounty hunter Samus Aran stopping some space pirates from using the metroids (a dangerous, life-sucking alien parasite) to their own nefarious purposes. Metroid 2 is about how, in lieu of those events, the galactic federation or whatever has commissioned Samus with the task of exterminating the metroid species on its homeworld of SR388. She ultimately fails this mission: the last metroid is a larva that imprints on Samus as its mother, and Samus doesn’t have the heart to kill it off, thereby setting the stage for Super Metroid.

This is what gives Metroid 2 its unique structure: the typical idea of a Metroid game is one where you have an end goal that you gradually move towards through an organic exploration of the world; Metroid 2 is all search-and-destroy, complete with a counter telling you how many metroids are left in the game. Areas are sectioned off into levels that you can’t progress past before wiping out all the local metroids.

Booting up the game for the first time in about two decades reveals that it is far more lovable for me now than it was for me then – I’ve grown into the sort of person that likes to champion these sort of flawed but unique gems as perhaps being even more interesting and instructive than outright successes can be. Most games gate progress behind your ability to defeat enemies, but making your game about exterminating an indigenous species is an unusually grim choice. And then having the protagonist relent at the absolute last minute adds an ironic character to the whole thing, as if the game’s point was to satirize the typical video game structure. It’s also a dramatically savvy turnaround, having the dark atmosphere building up, only to melt away into a moment of tenderness. Factor in its isolated, foreboding setting and you have a game exploring territory not too far removed from what Shadow of the Colossus would later do – all on an 8 bit handheld.

This, incidentally, is a good example of why the early Metroids at least are good examples of what video games can do: the gameplay itself in both Metroid 2 and Super Metroid describes a sort of narrative arc. There’s no need to interrupt the game to tell the story through cinematic or textual means.

But Metroid 2 is still egregiously flawed, and most of these flaws stem from it being a Gameboy title. The extremely small size of the screen and its monotone visuals do not work well with a game about exploring large caverns; getting lost and accidentally stumbling onto a hazard are frequent dangers. And while Metroid is a series renowned for its atmospheric use of frequently atonal music, here the tech makes it sound goofy at times, like a man drunkenly playing Schoenberg on a Casio. These issues haven’t prevented me from having fun with the thing, but in playing it I can understand why people have been clamouring for a remake.

Samus Returns alleviates these problems while adding a fundamental twist: it’s not so much about exploring SR388 as it is about surviving it. Combat is the focus here, with a much more twitchy, responsive control scheme (complete with a parry-and-counter mechanic) and enemies that hit hard and go in for the kill. I’ve seen some people complain that this isn’t true to the spirit of Metroid, which in a broad sense is true, but I do think it’s true to the particular spirit of Metroid 2: it makes sense that a game about hunting down metroids would be a pugnacious experience. There is still a lot of exploring to be had – the individual areas are huge and nonlinear – but it’s a far more relentless and exhausting experience, and the map design aims more at a feeling of convolution than the organic world of Super.

Metroid 2 had a lack of variety when it came to environmental design. This was again likely due to the limitations of the Gameboy, but it’s been replicated in the remake, as it suits the game’s theme. The effect of this repetitiveness is a sense of plunging ever deeper into the labyrinth that the metroids labyrinth, a feeling that you’re getting over your head as you progress through seemingly endless corridors and shafts.

The game’s not without some flaws of its own. For all its greater detail, Samus Returns feels a tad less interested in using its environment to tell a story or suggest mysteries. And it ultimately doesn’t quite know when to ease up on the action, which weakens the atmosphere at times. This may seem like a minor complaint, but at least for me it prevents Samus Returns from being a remake that completely eclipses the original. Metroid 2 has a slow building sense of dread that culminates in a remarkably understated ending, while Samus Returns goes out all plasma beams blazing. The latter is the better game, while the former is the better experience, if that makes sense.

One thing is clear, though: Samus has indeed returned.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents, SF/Fantasy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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