Metroid has always struck me as a platform gaming franchise. So when most of last year's accolades went to one of the few shining stars on the GameCube, I was surprised to find out it was a first-person shooter. But it's understandable. These days, with 3D progressing in full force, it's either a third-person action game or a first-person shooter. These two genres reign dominant. No doubt, with the progression of technology, the distinction will blur so much that one day, both will be indistinguishable from each other.
On handhelds, that's another story altogether. Because of the nature of the hardware, the Game Boy Advance is not known for its 3D titles. When multi-platform releases are sanctioned by the big executive honchos, a publisher usually has to tone down their vision for the handheld product. Much to the chagrin of handheld gaming fans, that usually means a more inferior product. Metroid Fusion, I'm happy to say, is definitely not in that category.
It follows a different story of Samus Aran, the heroine of the Metroid series. During a less than routine mission, we find the protagonist infected with some sort of organism known as X. Only with some heavy-duty surgery could the X be removed sufficiently for her to survive.
The caveat and catch, however, is that X has to be part of her very livelihood, living in symbiosis with the heroine. When contact is lost with a space station orbiting a planet that the X organisms call home, it would seem Aran is the only logical choice, as her symbiotic ties with the X organism guarantees a certain immunity to the infestation.
Thus, Aran embarks on the archetypal you versus the whole world theme.
Most platform titles begin to falter here - no matter how great the backdrop is, you're thrust into some alien world, jumping on mindless platforms, unlocking doors that have no reason to be locked and moving towards the inevitable "boss" battle that deserves its own term in the annals of platform titles. Luckily, Metroid Fusion is not like that.
The designers guide you with a heavy hand, courtesy of an off-screen commanding officer giving you objectives upon objectives, such that you'll never be at a loss for which platforms to jump to and which doors to open up.
At its core, Metroid Fusion is a 2D platform title and on the Game Boy
Advance, we've seen plenty of those. Remarkably, it does not feel tired or worn out and that's mostly because of the amount of detail put into the game. This is one of those Game Boy Advance titles where the developers are producing with the ethic and quality of a GameCube title. That's a rare feat on this platform.
Visually, this is expressed by the detail put into graphics. Instead of sterile space station walls, we have plenty of animation, lights flickering on and off in the navigation rooms for example. Instead of a few lines of text to tell the story, we have quality storyboard artwork to guide us through the different missions. The music is generally ambient and moody, matching the sense of foreboding you get as you move through the eerily empty station environs. Little audio cues go a long way, including the whooshes of doors opening/closing. These combine to make the game more alive.
Your protagonist, Aran, is also alive too. She is literally yanked from recovery and put straight into action. Many of her abilities were lost because of her disfigurement when combining with the X parasites. She gains the ability to absorb X as energy and this provides the perfect context for health power-ups. The X are a bunch of creatures based on metamorphosis. They mimic other creatures like the ones in Carpenter's The Thing. However, Aran's exposure to X means she can morph into different objects too, allowing her to get around physically difficult to access locations.
Metroid Fusion takes this learning curve as a way of introducing the rest of the game to the player, which is a clever and completely plausible way of including a tutorial. While your default weapon is a blaster, one of the first weapons you'll come across is a rocket launcher, which demands a slightly different key combination to access.
Since these controls are gradually opened up to the player, you aren't bombarded with a lot complexity during your initial forays.
Ultimately, it's that type of attention to design, detail and execution that makes Metroid Fusion such a fun title. Even when I became completely lost, I could always bring up the map, revisit the checkpoints to refresh my memory of the mission details and go towards the next objective. Never was there a moment where I was so frustrated
I would turn off the Game Boy device and come back to it later. That's odd, considering fundamentally there's nothing new under the sun here.
This is still a 2D platform title but one that has a premise and clever smarts in its storyline to make up for those technical deficiencies. Metroid Fusion does not do any disparagement to its bigger cousin, Metroid Prime, and all of its accolades. It is, indeed, deserving of accolades in its own right.