I had a long car ride last night (had to go up to Fort Collins to get a quail) and didn’t feel like playing a slow RPG. I was in the mood for something more jumpy-shooty so I grabbed Metroid Zero on a whim. People like to gripe that the Metroid series has lost the natural in-game storytelling that was present in Super Metroid. They complain that the games have gotten too wordy, citing Adam’s chatter in Metroid Fusion and the constant database scanning in the Prime games as examples.
Coming back to Zero Mission I was surprised how much of the game is a reaction to the complaints made about Fusion. Fusion is notorious for its linearity (though it does open up in the second half). Zero Mission, conversely, is open to sequence breaking from the get-go. Not only are there cleverly hidden roundabouts for obvious road blocks but skillful bomb jumping and spark-shining can get you to impossible places. Just like Super Metroid! The other main reaction to Fusion is that Zero Mission is almost completely silent. Except for a couple of sentences at the beginning the game keeps its mouth shut.
And while the plot is simple–Samus goes to Zebes to kill Mother Brain–the game uses pantomime to tell it with sophistication. Just like the way everyone bemoans the loss of! I was particularly struck by this during a neat little sequence in the middle of the game. Spoilers of a five year old game to follow!
While exploring the fiery caverns of Norfair the player comes across this little tunnel.
The path forward is blocked by a giant alien larva. It doesn’t move or attack and beams and missiles have no effect. The player has no choice to go back. He or she moves on to explore other caverns and soon the larva is forgotten.
Eventually, while exploring the western side of Norfair the player acquires the wave beam upgrade. This item allows the player’s shots to pass through walls. The path from the wave beam leads eastern and soon the player is on the other side of the tunnel containing the larva.
Here the path is blocked by another larva. But with the wave beam the player can shoot upwards through the floor and damage the larva’s vulnerable underside. Killing this larva reveals that it was in the process of shedding its skin. When it is dead it leaves a thin membrane behind.
Just to the east of this room the player encounters the original larva again but now the player is approaching from the other direction. By now this larva has finished molting and will charge at the player. The player must use weapons to push the larva back (they still don’t do any damage) and then lay bombs that, when the larva charges forwards over them, explode and hurt the larva’s soft belly. Like the previous one this larva has also left behind some shedded skin. The problem with the larvae is now solved and the path is open. It’s important to note that here the game has revealed that the larva are transforming. By showing the larva’s sheddings the game has added some depth to what would otherwise be just another obstacle in the player’s progress. A lock to the wave beam key, as it were.
During his or her explorations the player has also come across vine-like plants that sometimes have weak enemies trapped in their tangles.
These plants aren’t much of a danger. They can easily be blasted through. It’s neat to see that they feast on the native creatures though. Shortly after getting through the larva’s tunnel the player comes across more of these vines. In addition to the smaller enemies caught in them there is also the corpse of a larva tangled as well. With this simple background element the nature of both the vines and the larva have become more complex. This set up pays off a screen or two later when the player comes to the game’s next mini-boss:
A larva corpse suspended by a knot of vines. In a battle reminiscent of the Spore Spawn from Super Metroid the corpse/vines will release small plant spores that can hurt the player. Shooting the corpse accomplishes nothing and so the player must focus his or her attacks on the vines. Destroying them all lets the corpse fall into the ground and reveals a new path forward. If the player looks carefully they’ll notice that larva isn’t dead. It’s slowly pulsating. By destroying the vines the player has revived the larva.
The player moves forward and comes to an elevator downwards into the deepest depths of Norfair. They can only proceed a short distance before they come to a dead-end. Here, though, is an interesting sight.
A larva has started building a cocoon. There’s no way to get to it though and so the player has no choice but to return to the elevator and head back to upper Norfair. Returning to the room where they fought the mini-boss they find that the larva is gone and a new path leads downwards. Following it will take them to the cocoon, which is now empty. The larva has metamorphosed.
Moving forward, the player starts to come across eggs. Whatever hatched is now creating more larva. The player reaches a huge mass of eggs and behind it is the newest power-up: the super missile. But there’s no way to get to it. Not that the player will have much time to experiment because the monster from the cocoon comes sweeping down.
The larva has grown into a giant wasp. It moves quickly and hits hard but it’s not too tough to beat. And when the player does it crashes into the nest of eggs and opens the way to the super missile and the rest of the game.
This whole sequence is done in-game without cut scenes or dialogue. It uses backgrounds, enemy sprites, and the player’s exploration to tell a story. Sure, it’s a short, simple story about giant alien bugs but it is a story nether the less. It has a beginning (the discovery of the larva getting past them), middle (the larva and the vines), and end (the transformation and fight with the wasp). It creates a fun and memorable set piece. Perhaps the best in the game? Certainly it rivals the extended ending sequence, which I remember as very cool. We’ll see how it compares now in Obama’s America. Maybe the ending will still stand out. Maybe not. Until then, I declare the larva sequence in Zero Mission as the best Metroid moment of the aughts.
A big thanks to Metroid Recon for actually having screenshots of all of this.
Also, in case you didn’t see it, my Mega Man 2 comic/review/thing went up at Gamespite last week. In it Mega Man admits to having sex with metal blades. That is to say, it’s worth your time.