The Highs and Lows of a Metroid Fan

When you’re a fan of less popular video games, you feel a special mix of joy and frustration. Having the game acknowledged or celebrated feels like a special gift. But it’s often a gift that no one else understands. Once I said to some friends that my favorite 3DS game was Metroid: Samus Returns, and all I got in response was blank stares. It made me want to crawl under the couch I was sitting on. And yet another friend once told me that they wanted to try Metroid Dread thanks to my recommendation. I was so elated, I could’ve sworn I heard the powerup fanfare play.

Samus is so cool, and the games are so exciting to play — why is this series not more popular?

Honestly, Metroid has so many assets that Western gamers look for, that I’m genuinely confused about why I don’t know more Metroid enthusiasts in real life. It’s a tense SciFi thriller with a kickass protagonist. Whether in First-Person or in 2D, the games feature plenty of satisfying combat, exploration, and atmosphere. It’s dark and moody, balancing out Nintendo’s more colorful and happy-go-lucky franchises. I think many kids that start with Mario and Zelda would appreciate Metroid games as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. At least, that’s how it happened with me.

Thankfully on the internet I’ve found my fellow enthusiasts, and together as a Metroid fandom we can commiserate and celebrate through all the ups and downs. My father is a die-hard fan of the Boston Red Sox. He has lamented their losses, and he has cheered when they’ve won. I feel the same with I think about Metroid and its community. Luckily some of us have become prominent YouTubers, journalists, reviewers, and even game developers. With the modest yet robust sales of Metroid Dread and the surprise release of Metroid Prime Remastered, the internet has been abuzz with praise, and it feels like winning a World Series. Honestly, the community hasn’t been on a high like this since the original Metroid Prime was released. As I play through the remaster, I feel myself walking back through the years and how I became such a passionate fan…

Cue the flashback!

Primed for Success

It was 2004. I was in Junior High. I was still enrolled in my school district’s gifted program, surrounded by nerdy overachiever friends. I played Tenor Saxophone in Jazz Band, and we performed the songs of legends like John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. I was no longer reading “Children’s Literature” for school; I was diving headlong into Literature with a capital “L,” like Emily Dickinson and Arthur Miller. I had also just discovered the existence of Hot Topic, pop punk, and wristbands. The Christmas beforehand, I’d pooled my money with my brother to purchase a GameCube, and it became a symbol of my teenagehood. I was growing more mature and independent; most importantly, I was finally old enough to keep T rated games in the house.

However, as great as it was to be a teenager at this time, I was also struggling to meet all of the expectations put upon me. As mentioned in my review of the Halo Master Chief Collection, the religion I had grown up in was hyper-focused on gender roles; I spent every Sunday morning, every Wednesday evening, and every other Saturday with the same people, under a constant stream of indoctrination that I was supposed to grow up into a man and start doing manly things. I was supposed to lead people, become a big-earning breadwinner, and show my strength and stoicism. The role was not up for debate. I would’ve been fine if I’d wanted to become a businessman or a lawyer, but I felt called to become a writer and a musician. My own father was a talented pianist, but he ended up becoming an engineer so he could fulfill his role. If a man as musically skilled as my father had to do it… what chance did I have? Knowing what I lacked, I enrolled in karate lessons to make me into the athletic person that God needed me to be. I actually enjoyed learning the techniques and improving my individual skill, but I dreaded sparring, tests, competitions, teaching others… and none of it translated into the approval that I was seeking. I pushed myself to keep going, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be something wrong with me. It was hard to shake the feeling that I was destined to live a hollow life, going through the motions because I had no other option.

Then I got my first crush in English Class with a girl who knew about all the hip indie musicians. Nothing my mentors had told me helped me feel less terrified of talking to her. My religion talked about people assigned female at birth as if they were a mysterious “other race” of humans, destined for motherhood with a divine gift of childbirth and natural ability to nurture. They were placed on an enigmatic pedestal of purity. Trying to understand “girls” might as well have been trying to understand the Ancient Incas. I had no idea how to relate to them.

One day I overheard of my friends arguing about which game was better: Halo or Metroid Prime. I vaguely recognized Metroid Prime; I think a friend had shown it to me once during a sleepover. If my obnoxious Xbox friend was hating on it, then I knew I needed to play it. My GameCube friend allowed me to borrow his copy.

To this day Metroid Prime is a masterclass in game immersion.

I remember stepping on the surface of Talon IV, the rain falling on Samus’s arm cannon, and I had to pause. I had already been impressed by the graphics of Pikmin, Final Fantasy X, and Halo, but Metroid Prime was something else entirely. I genuinely felt like I was looking through Samus’s visor. I felt completely immersed in the character, exploring a hostile planet all on my own. I cautiously opened every door; I had no idea what monstrous creatures I would have to fight beyond them. I scanned every enemy and read every history plaque left behind by the people who used to inhabit this planet. It was like walking through a graveyard; the ghosts of a lost civilization haunted every room.

While I fumbled with the twin analog sticks of Halo, I quickly adapted to Metroid Prime‘s controls. Thanks to the Lock-On system, aiming at enemies was much easier, but that didn’t make the combat boring. Instead of focusing on pinpoint accuracy, Prime‘s combat emphasized dodging, switching visors, and using the right weapon to exploit weaknesses. I thwarted Space Pirate ambushes like I was born for the job. I deftly pummeled through bosses like I’d been a bounty hunter for years. My arm cannon was no longer merely a weapon, but an extension of myself. I solved complicated puzzles and won extra upgrades for my suit. By the time I neared the end of the game, I was a walking tank.

After beating Metroid Prime, my Xbox friend tried to convince me that Halo was still the better game. To paraphrase his words, he said: “You can tell how awesome Master Chief is just by hearing one sentence from him.” To which I responded, “Samus can just show you how awesome she is; she doesn’t need to say anything.”

Something clicked into place. I felt more “powerful” pretending to be a woman in a 15-hour video game than all the years spent doing activities to become one of God’s “strapping soldiers.” Samus had cracked the outer layer of what I knew about gender expectations. If girls like Samus could be strong, then maybe boys like me could be artistic and nurturing. I might belong somewhere after all. As I reflected on the tension, caution, and triumph I felt while playing Metroid Prime from Samus’s perspective, I thought: “Maybe girls aren’t the alien species that I’m led to believe. Maybe we’re more similar than I thought.” I just needed to spend some time behind their perspective as well.

Soon in my English class we had our seating changed, and I ended up sitting next to my crush. Now was my chance. I did what I do best: I didn’t start a conversation and instead drew cartoon animals. She looked over and said they were cute. The ice was broken. From there, we started talking about anime, then music. As the months went on, she introduced me to bands like The Postal Service, Stars, and Death Cab for Cutie. My hypothesis was correct: when you removed the mystique, you ended up with more similarities than differences. I think apologists of my religion would say that teaching boys to view women as delicate treasures is done to instill respect for them. But something about these teachings just felt off to me, though I couldn’t put it into words at the time. Turns out it was the power dynamic between genders that had bothered me. I thought, “How could I feel happy in a relationship if there’s this odd tension?” It made more sense to respect girls as people instead of porcelain dolls.

I never actually dated this crush, but that didn’t matter. Making a friend with a girl when I thought I couldn’t felt like a weight falling off my back. The best part about it was, I did it all as myself — as a goofy, nerdy, artsy kid, not as some charismatic ubermensch. This person was a fantastic friend throughout the rest of my young adolescence in Arizona. I moved away, and even though I lost contact with this friend, it paved the way for me to become friends with other smart and ambitious girls in high school and college. It would be a stretch to claim that Metroid Prime alone changed my beliefs about gender — I think good books, good friends, and my partner deserve more of the credit for that. However, I’m not sure I would’ve had those eye-opening relationships if it weren’t for Samus giving me that nudge in the right direction.

Metroid Prime 2 was even more thrilling thanks to its oppressive and ominous world.

A Change in Perspective

So yeah, you could say that Metroid Prime was an important game to me. And thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for a sequel to arrive. Metroid Prime 2 was everything I enjoyed about the first game, only the oven was turned up by 100 degrees. The planet of Aether was even more hostile than Talon IV. The atmosphere was so toxic, it literally burned through Samus’s armor. The only other game I’ve played that felt so oppressive was Dark Souls. Metroid Prime 2 can certainly get frustrating, but it felt so satisfying to learn the layout of the land, fight back against the nightmarish monsters, and conquer a world so set against you.

Metroid Prime 3, while not as beloved in the fanbase, I still regard as an amazing entry.

My adventures in Samus’s universe continued with Metroid Prime 3 on the Wii. I admit that the game had some unfortunate trade-offs like the more linear environments and several cutscenes, but I accepted them because I don’t think it could’ve achieved its climactic ending without them. The Wii’s pointer made aiming feel even more natural than on the GameCube, and made Samus feel more agile than before. And of course the series never lost its transformative immersion. No matter which game in the trilogy it was, I’d always feel the real world around me melt away as I entered the world beyond Samus’s HUD. The developer of the Prime series, Retro Studios, became embedded into my subconscious as a developer to keep track of.

I graduated high school, went on to college, and the Metroid Prime trilogy became a fond memory of my teen years. I didn’t know at the time that I had enjoyed the series at its peak, and it wouldn’t feel that way again for over a decade. In the late 2000s, it felt like Metroid was always going to be a mainstay Nintendo series, just like Mario and Zelda. Another Metroid Prime game seemed like a realistic expectation back then. So I waited. The years passed as I focused on art and my studies, and Metroid faded to the back of my mind. It wasn’t until 2015, when I got back into video games with the 3DS, that I began to ask: “Hey… whatever happened to Metroid?”

It turns out Nintendo was struggling with the series. While the Prime Trilogy was overall well-received, it still couldn’t match the sales of Nintendo’s family-friendly games like Super Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart Wii. With the flop of Metroid: Other M, the series went silent. But the fans weren’t satisfied with being sidelined like that. Indie developers began to make their own games inspired by 2D Metroid like Guacamelee, Axiom Verge, and Ori and the Blind Forest. Countless homages, romhacks, and retrospectives propped up online. I caught wind of these developments here and there, but it was one fan’s work in particular that convinced me to finally play through the 2D Metroid games.

AM2R, or “Another Metroid 2 Remake,” was a fan passion project that aimed to recreate Metroid 2 with modern sensibilities. It created quite a stir when it was released in 2016 in celebration of Metroid’s 30th Anniversary. Thanks to the parade of fan and critic adoration, I found the online Metroid community. I downloaded the game and I couldn’t have been more impressed. It was just as polished and deep as any AAA game. AM2R is a triumph of what passionate fans can achieve, and contrary to what Nintendo insisted, AM2R only got me more curious about 2D Metroid games. After playing AM2R, I bought the old Metroid games on the 3DS and Wii Virtual Consoles. AM2R was the best demo I could’ve ever asked for. Honestly, Nintendo should’ve paid the developers for providing better advertising that what the company had ever done since 2007.

I know that many people consider the original Metroid an archaic NES game, but I actually loved it. I read the manual and took its advice to make my own map on notebook paper. Metroid is a whole different experience using this method. I felt like an archeologist in uncharted territory, writing down every secret I could find. The combat was clunky, but it held up better than many other NES games that I’ve played. I did the same with Metroid 2 and I quite enjoyed it. It’s an impressive attempt at making a Metroid experience on the Game Boy. When I played Super Metroid, I realized that I should’ve tried the 2D entries years ago. I know that many gamers put a halo over this game, but it has earned that halo. I had a few problems with Metroid Fusion, but it still created a tense and action-packed experience that no other 2D Metroid game had managed to do at the time, and I respected it for doing that. Metroid Zero Mission, a remake of the original Metroid, quickly soared above the rest and became my darling favorite. I loved its heroic tone in the first half and its abrupt change to feeling weak and isolated in the second half; it was a clever twist on how Metroid games usually work. While the majority of the Metroid fandom was lamenting Nintendo’s neglect and its tone-deaf announcement of the spinoff game Metroid Prime: Federation Force, I was busy enjoying the 2D Metroid games for the very first time (and second, and third… I replayed them quite a bit). Metroid Prime may have been my starting point, but the 2D games made me a true-blue Metroid Fan.

Lost Contact

All of this climaxed during E3 of 2017, when Metroid Prime 4 was announced and then, to my delight, Nintendo revealed its own remake of Metroid 2, titled Metroid: Samus Returns. I was actually more hyped for the latter than the former, since Samus Returns had a release date only a few months away from that E3. I couldn’t believe Nintendo would return to 2D Metroid after such a long hiatus. Nintendo had found a Spanish developer called MercurySteam that had actually made a Castlevania game for the 3DS a few years prior, and decided they were worthy of trying to carry on the Metroid legacy. Could this new developer fill the giant-sized boots left behind by Nintendo and Retro Studios?

The photo I took when Samus Returns arrived in the mail.

When Metroid: Samus Returns arrived in my mailbox, I took a picture of the game and uploaded it to Instagram to celebrate such a glorious occasion. I put the game into my 3DS and spent a solid month playing it over and over again. Samus was even more agile and badass than before. The details in the environments was an impressive achievement on the 3DS. Every room looked like a hand-made explorable diorama; it was a masterclass of the handheld’s 3D effect. Sure it was more heroic and action-paced in tone than the more contemplative AM2R (or even the original Metroid 2), but I thought it was still an interesting reinterpretation.

Unfortunately, the general gaming audience didn’t share my enthusiasm. Samus had returned, all right, but only to a lukewarm critical reception and disappointing sales. I admit Samus Returns is a flawed gem, especially when it comes to its pacing, but it seemed like most gamers only acknowledged its weaknesses and none of its strengths. Adding insult to injury, no one wanted the game to be on the 3DS. Everyone expected it to be on the Switch. I was worried that this was 2D Metroid’s last chance, and Nintendo may have blown it. I kept this game in a special spot in my collection; I was worried it might be the last 2D Metroid for another decade.

The disappointing sales of Samus Returns made it feel like the series was hanging on for dear life before it even got a chance to really come back.

Nintendo didn’t exactly assuage my fears about the series during the new few years. The company went silent about Metroid for the entirety of 2018. Then in January of 2019, Nintendo announced that the development of Metroid Prime 4 had been scrapped and then restarted with Retro Studios. It was quite the blow. 2020 passed with no news outside of Retro Studios hiring some people. If Metroid Prime 4 was such a long ways off as well, I figured that we would be in for another long stretch with Metroid remaining in the shadows. These years were my lowest point as a fan.

The best consolation was that now, I didn’t necessarily need to play Metroid get a similar experience. Indie developers were popping up all over Steam and the Nintendo Switch eShop, providing that exact same formula. Some of these games rivaled — and even surpassed — Metroid’s pristine quality. I’ve already talked about Axiom Verge and Ori, but other darlings like Hollow Knight, Dandara, and Steamworld Dig 2 all contributed their own unique ideas to the Metroidvania conversation. In a way, the series’ DNA lived on through these many spiritual successors. One could’ve asked the question: did Nintendo really need to make Metroid games any more?

Back and Fully Upgraded

Metroid Dread was the last thing I expected to see at E3 2021. Contrary to my belief, MercurySteam had earned Nintendo’s blessing with Samus Returns, and they had plowed headfirst into a brand new sequel. Not only that, it was the same cancelled sequel that had only been rumored about back in the late-2000s. Part of me is still wondering if the past few years weren’t just a dream. Eventually, I’ll wake up to the reality that Metroid Dread was just cooked up by my brain under a feverish coma, right? Nintendo didn’t do stuff like this. Metroid Dread was a risk, and a heavily-marketed risk at that. Thankfully, it paid off. MercurySteam learned a lot from their missteps, and Metroid Dread proved that Samus deserves her spot as co-pilot of the Metroidvania subgenre. Everything from the movement to the combat to the detailed environments confirms that yes, Nintendo should still be making Metroid games, and the series can still be relevant even when an entourage of indie games try to outclass it. And so far it’s the best-selling game in the series.

The sun is rising on the Metroid series yet again, brighter than it has ever been before.

With the recent release of Metroid Prime Remastered, we’ve come full circle. The game that was such a large part of my growing-up years is finally available for others to enjoy. I’ve been giddy seeing people ask the same silly questions I used to ask, like, “How exactly does the morph ball work?” If you’re playing this game for the first time, I really hope you’re enjoying it. If it makes you curious about the rest of the games in the series, then I suggest you try playing Super Metroid on the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online app. After that, you can’t go wrong with Metroid Dread either. Hopefully when Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission arrive on the NSO Game Boy Advance app, you can play those as well. I’m going to have to re-do my Beginner’s Guide to Metroid post, aren’t I?

Metroid Prime Remastered is an ideal example of Nintendo handling their old GameCube games right — remastering the visuals, adding options and features, and selling it at a modest $40 USD. It remains a top seller on the eShop. The jury is still out as far as concrete numbers go, but my anecdotal evidence has made me optimistic about the Metroid series again. Metroid Prime 4 may be closer to release than we think, MercurySteam is probably developing another 2D entry, and Nintendo can remaster Prime 2 / Prime 3 to keep us busy in the meantime. We have entered another high for the series, and it’s one I hope will remain.

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