When I was growing up there was a consensus among Nintendo fans that Metroid was part of this adored ‘Triforce’ of titles from the Big N. Zelda, Mario and Metroid were the three franchises held up as the torchbearers for the Japanese gaming giant, the trio that made them what they are. If you were into videogames then these were the games to get a Nintendo system for, allegedly.
It always seemed strange to me, then, that Metroid skipped the Nintendo 64 entirely. If it was so important, why did it duck a console, save for Samus springing up to add a sprinkling of female representation to the Super Smash Bros. roster? Not that it mattered much as Metroid Prime returned on the GameCube, after a somewhat fraught development, to utterly rapturous applause!
I’m going to cut the history lesson short though, as this is Shinesparkers – if you’re here then chances are you know Metroid’s potted release history and, if you’re like me, it’s likely something that keeps you up at night. Why, given the series’ plentitude of plaudits, are entries so rare?
Well, things start to become clear if you dig a bit. If you’re really into Metroid, then you probably already know this little curious fact that I like to spring at parties: Based on publicly available data, Donkey Kong Country Returns, on the Wii alone, outsold Retro’s entire suite of Metroid Prime titles, individual releases and the collected trilogy, by about 500,000 units. Throw in the 3DS port of DKCR that piggybacked off Retro’s work and that adds a couple of million to that number.
Hurts every time I remember it, too.
Not because DKCR is a bad game (far from it, I’m a big fan of Retro’s take on the ape), but more because it helps to really align one’s vision to the reality that Metroid games don’t sell Mario or Zelda numbers. Or Donkey Kong numbers. Or indeed Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., Kirby, Animal Crossing or Splatoon numbers. Heck, looking at an approximate average for the Metroid franchise you land at around 1.3 million per entry (which, admittedly, is dragged down by Federation Force and Other M, but we’ll loop back on those later), which means that even world-renowned commercial failure ARMS, if you go by what Twitter says at least, sold better than your average Samus sojourn – the Switch’s much maligned arena brawler has, to date, shifted at least 2.3 million units.
Metroid Prime, with a score of 97, sits among a handful of titles as the joint second-best Metacritic for a Nintendo published title. Metroid Prime, based on publicly available numbers, was outsold by New Super Luigi U, on the Wii U.
That’s a lot of numbers, but it’s essential context to explain why I’ve kept up into the early hours pondering not why Metroid Prime 4 exists, but more the rationale behind Nintendo putting quite so much effort into getting Metroid Prime 4 right. We’re nearing three and a half years from the initial announcement at E3 2017 (not to consider that pre-production must have started even earlier than that), and it’s almost been two years since the complete development overhaul – in my head it makes practically zero business sense to invest this much time, effort and money into a franchise that, when you run the numbers, has historically sold at most around 1/10th of your biggest franchises.
Let’s try and rationalise it! What can we surmise about Metroid’s role in the Nintendo portfolio if we accept its historical trend of not being a sales juggernaut? It’s clear that Metroid games sell enough to justify their cost, but if I put on my business hat then the numbers make it hard to justify these protracted development cycles based on sales figures alone, especially when you could pull the trigger on another Mario Party instalment, or an Animal Crossing spin off, and guarantee a better return on investment from a much shorter development cycle. Why put all that effort in?
If we look at gaming now compared to, let’s say, twenty years ago (just before Metroid Prime was released), there were far less publications, social media wasn’t really a thing, and streaming was but a nervous twitch in a few young minds. This is to say, lots more people discuss games nowadays on vastly more open forums.
Top game lists and best game ever chatter happens regularly, and both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are often part of those conversations. Not only that, but Metroid Prime won a few Game of the Year awards in 2002 – this is the sort of accolade that puts Metroid, its developer and the consoles it’s available on at the forefront of ‘core gamer’ conversation, and that’s a big deal for a toy company like Nintendo. Now consider this – that conversation in 2020 is much wider reaching than it was in the early 90s and noughties thanks to the fact that we’re all significantly more plugged in. Let’s just say that no one was reading about how terrifying Metroid Fusion’s SA-X was on a smart phone.
Zelda and Mario win these awards, yes, but Metroid has one thing over those games in terms of its appeal – it’s got aliens, arm cannons, weird jellyfish and a universe. To be as blunt as a mallet, Metroid has the best chance, out of Nintendo’s entire catalogue, to attract older gamers thanks to its more adult setting.
And what do core gamers have? Money. Doesn’t matter if Metroid sells less in itself if people that buy a Switch for Metroid also buy a wealth of other titles for the platform, that’s a big win for the Big N. The Switch was sitting at an attach rate of 6.62 games per console sold on June 30th 2020 – low for a Nintendo console (but high for a handheld, we must acknowledge). It’s one thing to get a system into people’s houses, it’s another thing entirely to keep getting them to pick up games.
And that older appeal goes for other publishers as well as Nintendo. Metroid often feels like Nintendo’s commitment to supporting more grown-up titles by leading the charge. Someone that buys into the Switch for an alien-blasting creep around an isolated planet is probably more likely to pick up indie horror games, deep western RPGs or that 18-rated DOOM port than a 12-year-old Super Mario fan, after all. Even more reason to ensure Metroid gets the attention of the right people.
Samus’s fans are also pretty vocal (you’re here on Shinesparkers, you don’t need me to tell you that), as could be seen when Metroid was trending after the Prime 4 reveal. Heck, you only need recall the response to Federation Force to see the other side of the coin – get it wrong and news sites will feed off the bad blood for months.
Speaking on that side of things, I feel that all of this pondering largely boils down to the fact that Metroid must be quality above all else, outrageous sales figures would just be a bonus. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime appear on best game ever lists and headline speed run competitions on the regular. Other M crops up in bad game design YouTube discussions and baby-based banter – the butt of jokes rather than a beloved best-of-show. For a view of the wider appeal of the franchise you need look no further than Google trends, where we see a harsh decline over time as the franchise fails to find the level of relevance and impact that the Prime/Fusion double whammy had in 2002.
And ultimately, when Metroid is quality, it is part of the Nintendo Triforce that I always heard it referenced as. Cut Other M and Federation Force from the aggregate and Metroid is tied with the Super Smash Bros. franchise at a very healthy Metacritic of 89. That makes it the joint third highest Metacritic for a Nintendo franchise behind, you guessed it, Super Mario and Zelda.
In truth, then, those Nintendo fans were right – Metroid, when you’re really analysing the franchise’s raison d’etre, comes from a Nintendo that’s here to please its fans and make headlines with a world class videogame.
In the words of Shinya Takahashi from the Metroid Prime 4 delay video, “we must let you know that the current development process [on Metroid Prime 4] has not reached the standards we seek in a sequel to the Metroid Prime series”. While it’s undoubtedly true that Nintendo surely tries to make all of its games great, I truly believe there is a vested interest in making Metroid Prime 4 ground-breaking, more so than any other Ninty franchise. So why is Metroid so important to Nintendo? Because it’s so important to us, and because the legacy a truly outstanding Metroid title leaves, as part of the pantheon of top tier Nintendo titles, is worth its weight in Phazon when it comes to mindshare across the gaming landscape at large, even if it doesn’t sell as much as that big ape in a tie.
Written by Dalagonash