When a video game developer decides to produce a remake of a classic title, there are several approaches that can be taken. On one hand, we have remakes that modernize the look and feel of a title without fundamentally changing the game, like the Crash and Spyro remastered trilogies; on the other, we have remakes that adapt the broad strokes of a game using a completely new gameplay style, as is the case with Resident Evil 2 and, of course, Metroid: Zero Mission.
The decision of which approach to take generally boils down to the context in which the original game was released, and the context in which the remake will be released. Developers have an important question to consider: what changed in this series, this genre and in video games as a whole, in the time between those two releases? This will help the team identify what changes the remake needs in order to pass as a contemporary game at the time of its release.
To elaborate on the example given above, Resident Evil 2 needed to be completely reimagined because, between 1998 and 2019, the way players expect to interact with 3D games has completely changed. Most importantly, Resident Evil 4 redefined many of the series’ tropes, and is now seen as the template for modern survival horror. So it would make sense to change Resident Evil 2 to make it feel closer to Resident Evil 4, while maintaining the aspects that made the original unique.
The same thing happened with the Metroid series. The original Metroid, in 1986, was developed in a time of great experimentation in game design. There was little precedent on how to do things, so developers constantly tried out new things to see what worked. In that, Metroid essentially pioneered a new genre, which we now know as Metroidvania. As the first of its kind, the game was primitive in several aspects and is not a welcoming experience to modern-day newcomers.
It was several years later that the Metroidvania genre was consolidated. Super Metroid established many of the fundamentals still used to this day. So, naturally, when Nintendo decided to remake Metroid, the design principles of Super Metroid would need to be incorporated into the title. Furthermore, Metroid Fusion revived the 2D Metroid series on the Game Boy Advance and established the sort of gameplay we could expect from the series on the portable.
In a way, Metroid: Zero Mission is a mixture of Metroid, Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, incorporating elements from each without mimicking a single one too much. For the players, it meant games with very distinct styles despite sharing many similarities that we associate with the Metroid series. But, from a different perspective, Zero Mission goes directly against all three of those titles.
A big part of the challenge of the original Metroid comes from the lack of information the game provides. There’s no map and no indication of the path you should take. The game has an intended order of events but is structured in a non-linear way that often confuses players. Zero Mission remedies that by providing guiding Chozo Statues, which end up guiding players a bit too much.
In opposition to Metroid Fusion, Zero Mission was designed to allow non-linearity, which was an important part of the original title. Similarly to Super Metroid, a player’s first run might give the impression of linearity. Super Metroid accomplished that because sequence breaking is the result of a solid understanding of the game and its mechanics, so a new player would usually progress the way the designers intended. Non-linearity is achievable through a series of tricks, many of them unplanned by the designers, and its lively speedrun community shows just how far it can go.
Zero Mission‘s intended sequence is very obvious to the player, but sequence breaking isn’t as much a result of understanding the game as much as it is about knowing where to shoot, even though there is not always clear indication that there was somewhere to be shot. The clearest example of that is a missile block in the upper-right corner of Norfair, which is hidden and completely indistinct, but provides access to the lowest regions of the game and allows players to defeat Ridley before Kraid.
The fun in Zero Mission‘s sequence breaking, then, comes less from finding the tricks that enable non-linearity, but more from figuring out the possible combinations of paths to achieve a certain goal. Now, 15 years later, we know which paths are ideal for speedruns, but each player can have his or her own favorite. Once in a while, I still revisit Zero Mission, and I’ll often take different paths to see how they feel. To me, it adds a layer of engagement to a game I know pretty much inside out.
So, how well does Zero Mission fare as a remake of Metroid? Very well, as it turns out. But its success doesn’t come just from understanding what worked and what didn’t in the original Metroid itself, but also from understanding what its sequels improved. Zero Mission isn’t just a modernization of Metroid, it’s an application of nearly 20 years of game design evolution into a title that desperately needed it.
Written by Renan Greca