The explosion of ideas that is Super Mario Odyssey resulted in the best game Nintendo showed off at E3, but it was the sudden one-two punch of Metroid announcements that captivated fans most. It only took one glimpse at Metroid Prime 4‘s logo send fans into a frenzy, but presenting the first 2D Metroid in fourteen years (a remake of 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus for Game Boy) on top of that in the form of Metroid: Samus Returns was enough to launch us Samus geeks into sweet, sweet euphoria. But what made them so shocking?
The answer is a simple one: for the past seven years, fans had convinced themselves the series was shelved after two misfires in the form of Metroid: Other M and Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Both games, respectively developed by series co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto and Metroid Prime producer Kensuke Tanabe,were perceived as a betrayal to the series’ core values, and many were quick to file both individuals into the “George Lucas” category. (As in, creators who’d lost touch with why their works were so beloved) However, despite our wishes coming true, fans are at an awkward impasse in that Sakamoto and Tanabe are at the helm behind the new games: the former behind Samus Returns alongside Spanish developer MercurySteam, and Tanabe with an unknown new team for Metroid Prime 4.
Are these fears unfounded? Let us not mince words: Metroid: Other M and Metroid Prime: Federation Force were failures. Sakamoto’s ill-fated ambitions for Other M resulted in a hodgepodge of gameplay elements that never gelled together, all of which undermined the series’ focus on exploration. This isn’t even mentioning the shockingly inept story: while I admittedly find certain oft-criticized elements to be overblown (namely anything to do with “The Baby”), there’s no use defending the dropped plot points, repeat contradictions of series lore, nonsensical actions by its characters, and the disappointing treatment of Samus Aran herself. Despite the solid critical reception, word-of-mouth spread, the game quickly found itself in bargain bins, and the series remained dormant for the next half-decade。
It was little wonder, then, that Metroid Prime: Federation Force was considered Nintendo’s most tone-deaf announcement of the past decade: after five years of waiting, fans were instead treated to a spin-off that that looked like something out of a Lego playset and didn’t play anything like an actual Metroid title. It was all the more shocking when producer Kensuke Tanabe revealed it had been a pet project gestating for over ten years, one that would elaborate on another side of the Metroid universe. While such an endeavor would hardly bat an eye when the Metroid Prime subseries was already receiving spin-offs of its own (Metroid Prime Pinball and Metroid Prime Hunters), no one could figure out why they’d randomly revive the brand for such an unappealing project. Regardless of its quality, the disastrous sales only proved what fans were saying: it was a game made for no one.
So with two bombs in a row, that should’ve been it for Metroid, right? After all, the series has only broken a million or two with most of its entries, and it’s like Nintendo should worry about their stagnant sci-fi series when your evergreen Animal Crossings and breakout Splatoons rake in cash. And yet here we are, with Metroid: Samus Returns arriving this holiday season and Metroid Prime 4 well into development. What gives?
Because, as Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime said just five days ago, Metroid is an important series to the company. The Metroid series is home to some of the greatest video games ever made, with one of the most passionate fanbases ever to grace not just Nintendo, but of all of gaming. It’s that very passion that led to our critiques of Other M and Federation Force, because we love the series so much and know Nintendo can do better than the previous two efforts. That these new games exist at all is a call to that passion; in fact, Sakamoto took the infamous AM2R fan-remake of Metroid II as an insight to fans’ appreciation of the series. How ironic that Nintendo was working on their very own remake at the same time!
Metroid may not be the biggest seller under Nintendo’s belt, but it doesn’t have to be; with all the variants of gamers out there, you need niche titles to round out your game libraries. That’s why sequels to non-million sellers like Pikmin and Xenoblade Chronicles keep being made, because they appeal to enough people and provide unique ideas and concepts not found anywhere else. Nintendo is hardly blind to the fact Metroid is niche; actually, Sakamoto himself once discussed the niche status of both the series and his own status as a game developer. And what better niche offering to gamers than a remake of a classic title and the fourth offering in one of the most beloved sci-fi game series out there. That’s how you make appealing consoles.
I understand the hesitations people have with these titles: MercurySteam’s efforts with Castlevania –a series with similar gameplay– were less than satisfactory, an unknown team is behind Metroid Prime 4, and the involvement of Sakamoto and Tanabe undoubtedly raised concerns among disappointed fans. But it’s their presence that gives me hope; take Tanabe, for instance. Yes, his other controversial deviations with Paper Mario: Color Splash and Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash may indicate that he’s not quite in-touch, but ask yourself this: is there anything more in-touch with Metroid fans’ desires than Metroid Prime 4? It’s as if Tanabe knew he let fans down, that this is his way of apologizing and he’s now stepping up to the plate to satisfy our expectations. (Actually, given how he stuck with Federation Force for that long, perhaps reviving Metroid Prime was his plan all along?)
And then there’s Sakamoto, the man supervising Metroid: Samus Returns. While he never publicly addressed the vast criticisms of Other M —a game that, no matter what you may think of it, was a project he was very passionate about– clues here and there hinted it affected him deeply. Interviews implied he wouldn’t be returning to the series, and that he’d be focusing more on smaller projects like the quirky Tomodachi Life for 3DS. But even if he was burned by the game’s reception, such stray comments can’t fully capture the man’s spirit; as it turns out, he was thinking about 2D Metroid all this time, and for the past two years, he’s been making that comeback a reality.
Their involvement is not a cause for concern, but as an opportunity for a second chance. Read through that last link and you’ll find none of the bizarre, conflicting philosophies that birthed Other M are being poured into Samus Returns; rather, the game is being made because fans wanted it, and Sakamoto and the folks at MercurySteam genuinely express their desire to surprise fans with the game’s quality. Would such a statement be made if they didn’t know Metroid was in dire straits? If I can forgive and move on, so can you.
If anything, I personally find the concept behind Metroid: Samus Returns to be rather genius: with the original Metroid reimagined as 2004’s Zero Mission, the Game Boy’s Metroid II remains the one entry fans may find difficult to approach. Instead of diving into uncertain waters with a brand new, yet unproven 2D Metroid, why not re-imagine a vital, proven entry to present goodwill and nostalgia to old fans and modern footholds for new ones to appreciate? For all the worry over MercurySteam’s involvement, E3 showgoers walked away quite satisfied; actually, Nintendo reps had to remove a 3DS demo unit from one Game Informer writer because he couldn’t stop playing. In that sense, the dual meaning of the game’s title truly lives up to its name: Samus has, indeed, returned.
What fascinates me the most about last week’s Metroid reveals is that both series hiatuses ended much in the same way, with a home console and handheld game set to resuscitate the series. However, there’s one big difference between the two: the first hiatus followed beloved masterpiece (Super Metroid) and the second after a commercial failure (Metroid: Other M, if we’re ignoring Federation Force). But as much as we appreciate Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion today, we forget that they, too, faced heavy scrutiny and fan expectations before their own launch. (Moreso the former; after all, it would be transitioning the series into first-person) In that case, it’s alright to be skeptical, but lessons have clearly been learned on Nintendo’s front, and I’m thinking both games are in good hands.
The Morph Ball is in your court, Mr. Sakamoto and Mr. Tanabe. We’re rooting for you!