I spent much of the N64's lifetime cursing Nintendo for failing to continue the story of bounty hunter Samus, whose 2D adventures against the nefarious Metroid creatures I had so enjoyed on the Super Nintendo, GameBoy and NES before that. However, the double-act of Metroid Fusion (GBA) and Metroid Prime (Cube) has seen the series return so phenomenally in excess of my expectations that I'm left panting and wheezing, wondering just where the hell any of this came from!
The answer to the GBA side of the question is "Intelligent Systems". Formerly R&D1, Intelligent was Nintendo's first internal development studio and the birthplace of the Metroid series, as well as the birthplace of the Fire Emblem series, Paper Mario and Advance Wars - is it any wonder that Metroid Fusion is one of the best GBA games ever? Even taking the developer's illustrious history into account though, creating something to top Super Metroid was always going to be difficult - I think they've done it, but whether or not the legions of Metroid fans out there agree with me, Fusion is still a fantastic platform adventure worthy of everyone's attention.
Now then, here's why...
Fusion starts where Super Metroid ended. While lending mission support on SR388, Samus is attacked and infected by the never-before-seen X parasite. X infects most of her vital systems and it's only thanks to a vaccine based on Metroid DNA that she survives at all. Despite finding herself in a hugely weakened state, Samus is forced to journey to a research station and investigate and eliminate the X parasite at its source.
X parasites are nasty little bastards. They assume the rough shape and form of any creature they infect, so the research station is swarming with old enemies enhanced and mutated into hideous approximations of their former selves (rather like The Thing). The difference is that by killing them and absorbing the X parasites within, to which she is now immune, Samus can replenish her stock of health and ammo. Rather as she did with multi-coloured icons in previous games.
Any bosses Samus encounters yield bigger X parasites, and once absorbed these re-endow her with her special abilities and a bunch of new ones. So before long Samus has her trusty morphball ability back, allowing her to venture as a little ball into tight spaces, holes and previously unreachable areas, and by the end of the game she'll have all of her old abilities and then some. Happily, all of her new abilities are enhancements of old, something of a comfort to an old Metroid fan like myself.
Unfortunately, regular X-controlled nasties and X-bosses are nothing compared to the ultimate threat - SA-X. SA-X is the result of the X parasite's first invasion of Samus' form, and mimics her in virtually every skill, except SA-X is tooled to the teeth from the very start, whereas Samus is vulnerable until the very end. This 'anti-Samus' is an integral part of the story, but completely untouchable - if you see SA-X for more than a few seconds, the chances are that Samus' time is up. Intelligent Systems ram this home early on, and once established it's a rule which they use to delicately frighten the pants off you, leading you by the nose oh-so-close to impending doom and then venturing out of it again.
I fear change!
But what's this, you're saying, leading by the nose? That doesn't sound like Metroid. I'd agree, it doesn't, and I was very sceptical at first. Samus is in almost constant contact with her ship's computer, which means that the sensation of being stranded and alone is almost completely gone, and you almost always know exactly where you're supposed to be going and why.
Metroid is of course famed for its freeform gameplay. You're on an adventure, uncovering bits and pieces as you roam, and acquiring abilities which open up sections of the game previously unavailable to you. It's a tenet that Retro Studios preserved with much precision for Metroid Prime, but it's something that Intelligent Systems have managed to preserve whilst bravely eschewing the blind "I've no idea where I'm going, but if I can't get anywhere it's because I missed something" mentality of previous games.
Samus continues to collect new abilities as the game wears on, allowing her to destroy certain blocks which barred the way early on, and like previous 2D Metroids, players will need to commit a certain amount of the design to memory so that when the ability to smash a certain block comes about, they know exactly where to backtrack to in order to reap rewards. The beauty of Metroid being that it's entirely up to you and down to your memory - you can finish the game (albeit with a bit more difficulty) without visiting fresh treasure, but the series has always been a playground for completists and Fusion respects that. And what's more, it also has a strong, cohesive and memorable plot, albeit bathed in rather too much common sci-fi.
Intelligent Systems abound
Playing Fusion on the GBA is a lot easier than I'd anticipated, and most of that comes down to the way Intelligent Systems have doubled up the weapons function. Instead of pressing one button for blaster and one for missiles, you simply press the fire button to blast, and if you want to fire a missile you hold down the R button and then press. It's a system that generally doesn't come unstuck.
Having conquered the issues of control and gameplay though, it wouldn't be all that great if the game looked exactly like its predecessors, and it's the area I most expected Fusion to fall down, but as with the rest, it stubbornly refuses to do so. Metroid Fusion is among the best looking GBA games, with a lovingly animated Samus, tremendous use of water, lighting and heat effects thanks to transparent layers, and too many subtle effects to mention. Environments (of which there are seven total) are vividly coloured, and although you won't ever find anything particularly jaw-dropping, the attention to detail means no two areas are ever the same and the design is consistently diverse and good-looking. Completing the package, we have a typically modest soundtrack which highlights the mood with sombre, serious tunes. One to leave on for once, then.
Deliver her from evil, now
Metroid Fusion delivers for me on so many levels. It isn't afraid to toy with the Metroid formula, and it always looks, sounds and plays wonderfully. I can't even make my usual complaint about mid-level saves! Fusion has them, and when you can't find one and need to stop playing suddenly, there's even a sleep mode function which preserves battery life without the need to turn the console off - perfect if you need to duck into a meeting for half an hour...
And if I was expecting to bash anything it was Fusion's length, but Intelligent Systems haven't disappointed there either. I was expecting something of about Super Metroid's length, but when I finished, the in-game clock read 6:02 and I know for a fact it wasn't counting the dialogue and cut sequences, nor the time I took replaying levels. You can add a few more hours to that figure.
The only thing I can come up with which deserves criticism is the GameCube link-up function. Metroid Prime isn't out here until March, so there isn't much to do until then unless you have it on import, but even then, there is literally nothing on the GBA side of it - the two principle benefits apply only to the Cube version, like unlocking Samus' Fusion suit in Prime once you've completed it.
On the whole then, this is my favourite 2D Metroid yet. I hesitate to say it's the best, because some will find its new "with friends" approach somewhat out of character, but even they will have a hard time denying it's fun, and if you've spent the best part of this review wondering what the heck I'm talking about, it's time for the learning to begin - get out there and buy yourself Metroid Fusion, it's the best platform adventure the GBA has.