See You Next Mission – The Future of Metroid

Metroid Saga

Image by Screw Attack. Used under Fair Use.

I am a huge fan of the Metroid franchise. I own every game in the series, have beaten them all with 100% completion, done speed runs of Super and Fusion, and played through the Prime Trilogy more times than I can remember. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when the most recent game, Metroid Other M, turned out to be absolute crap. No, don’t defend it. It was crap. If you don’t think it was crap, I invite you to watch this video and come back after you’ve been educated. Don’t worry. I’ll wait.

You back? We on the same page? Alright, let’s get to the topic at hand: in light of how terrible the last game was, where can Metroid go from here?

Metroid is a great series, but its game design is rooted in the past. One of the main reasons Other M failed so spectacularly was that it tried to modernize Metroid and just fell flat on its face. This is because a lot of modern game design elements just blatantly don’t fit into Metroid‘s old formula. Things like linearity, heavily scripted sequences, and cinematic storytelling don’t work in Metroid. When you include these things in the way Other M did, the fundamental design of Metroid is perverted and the game becomes something it’s not. However, I don’t believe that Metroid must dogmatically cling to the past in order to be good. The Prime games are proof of that.

Metroid Prime was a huge franchise overhaul when it came out in 2002. It took a 2D sidescroller and turned it into a first person shooter, yet managed to still be a Metroid game. This is because it preserved the core elements that make Metroid compelling: exploration, isolation, and discovery. Even though the mechanics and genre completely changed, the game still appealed to those same underlying principles, so it still felt like a Metroid game. Conversely, Other M neglected these principles by being completely linear, surrounding Samus with other characters, and constantly telling you where to go. This is the lesson to be learned when moving forward.

While I would certainly love Nintendo to make Prime 4 on Wii U or a sequel to Hunters on 3DS, what I really want is a sequel to Fusion. I want Metroid 5, and I want it to be a 3D sidescroller. Yes, a 3D sidescroller – a game with fully rendered 3D environments and character models that is still played on a 2D plane. A game like this would be perfectly situated to incorporate the best elements of the franchise as a whole. It would have the potential to be a synthesis of two eras of game design. It could combine the open world exploration of its 2D roots with the storytelling techniques used by modern games. A Metroid game can’t shove its plot down your throat with cutscenes, so this would have to be done tactfully.

The biggest issue that Metroid games have always faced is the struggle between exploration and narrative. If the story is minimalist you have the freedom to go anywhere in the world whenever you want. You are only limited by Samus’ current abilities and your own ingenuity. The freedom to explore is what made Super Metroid the classic that it is. However, once you start adding story elements into the game as a whole, the experience become more linear by necessity. Plot events have to happen in the same place every time you play the game. Therefore, you can’t be allowed to reach that place until you’ve hit the required point in the story. Usually, the easiest way to block access to an area is to force the player to have a specific ability in order to get in. Hence, the acquisition of abilities becomes tied to progression through the story instead of exploration of the world. When that happens, you no longer have a Metroid game. I’ve thought of a solution to this problem though.

Wrap your head around this: non-linear gameplay with an emergent linear plot. Did your mind just explode? I’ll break it down for you. Imagine an open world 3D sidescroller with multiple paths through every level. Some paths are obvious, some are hidden, some require specific items to access them, but all of them lead to the next plot event. There’s a subtle distinction here. I didn’t say they all lead to the same place. I said they all lead to the same event. Every scripted event can happen in multiple locations, freeing you to explore the environment at your leisure. Even more important: in this model you would discover the plot instead of having it spoon fed to you. You wouldn’t be told, “Go here and do this.” You would instead be told, “Find this.” The point of the series is exploration and discovery, so the plot would be built around those principles. Furthermore, a branching environment opens the door to a modular story where things change a little bit depending upon what path you’ve taken through the game.

As an added bonus, ability progression would not be tied to the plot. Since you are free to take multiple paths without disrupting the progression of events, you are likewise free to collect items and abilities in whatever order you find them. Navigation and combat in Metroid games is predicated on your current ability set, therefore your initial choice of path will influence how you experience the rest of the game. Various optional paths will be either open or closed to you, certain enemies will require different engagement tactics, and boss fights will unfold in completely different ways depending upon what abilities you currently have. The replay value on a game like this would be astronomical, so long as the story is implemented in a non-invasive way.

What I mean by this is that the story should not be told to you with obnoxiously long cutscenes, but instead should emerge from the environment. Environmental storytelling is a great way to convey all kinds of information without a scrap of dialogue. The Prime series used this to great effect with dead bodies, decayed structures, and long dormant technology for instance. When dialogue is necessary however, it should take place during gameplay through radio transmissions. Samus can even contribute to the conversation, or provide brief narration for exposition purposes and character development. You can stop and listen if you want to, but you can just as easily ignore the talking and keep on playing if this is your second or third time through the game.

I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like a pretty awesome game. The sad thing is that it will probably never exist. Nintendo have always shied away from changing their game formulas, and Other M’s colossal failure probably hasn’t helped in that regard. Even more distressing is Nintendo’s history of neglecting the series for long periods of time. Five years separated the original Metroid from its sequel and a whopping eight years went by between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. It’s been four years since Other M irrevocably tarnished the series’ reputation in 2010 and Nintendo hasn’t said word one about any new Metroid games. If it wasn’t for Samus’ presence in Super Smash Bros, I’d be worried that Nintendo was planning to let the franchise die. As it is, I remain optimistic that one day we’ll get another good Metroid game. But until that day, we’ll have to make do with our imaginations.

See you next mission.

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