Twenty Years Ago, This Short Metroid Game Was An Instant Classic
Metroid: Zero Mission might be short, but it’s packed with thrills.
The Game Boy Advance had a truly incredible catalog of Nintendo platformers: Wario Land 4, Kirby & The Amazing Mirror, and Metroid: Zero Mission, to name a few. And seeing how both Kirby & The Amazing Mirror and the system’s previous Metroid offering Fusion, are both in the Nintendo Switch’s GBA collection, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine one day playing Zero Mission on a modern console. It’s a truly fantastic game: As a remake of the first Metroid, it captured the moody atmosphere and sci-fi action of the original while expanding on it in a variety of fun ways. It also proved that a game’s quality should never be defined solely by its length, meaning it’s a valuable example for an argument that’s become especially prominent in the past few years.
When Metroid: Zero Mission came out, the first Metroid was almost twenty years old itself. Having appeared on the original Nintendo (and the Famicom Disk System before that), many players who would latch onto the Game Boy Advance had likely never played it. It didn’t help that the series existed under the shadow of Super Metroid, the Super Nintendo sequel that defines the side-scrolling adventures of Samus Aran to this day. It was vibrant, exciting and even a little bit spooky, which is a recipe that turned it into one of the most widely praised video games of all time. So a remake of the original game would have to live up to both Metroid and the standard set by its game-changing successor.
Luckily, Metroid: Zero Mission would have an advantage in that very area. Its director was Yoshio Sakamoto, a Nintendo developer with long ties to Metroid (He was a designer on the first game), and the man who had directed Super Metroid. Sakamoto wanted Zero Mission to go “back to the basics” to the “roots of Metroid gameplay.” This meant less focus on plot and more on exploration and action. To improve these aspects, Sakamoto and his team would not only offer difficulty levels (something not found in the original and a feature that gave new players different ways to approach Zero Mission), but also “new enemies, new items and new puzzles.”
Though the game does dive into Samus’ backstory a bit, not pushing an elaborate narrative to the forefront may have had the effect of shortening it. One can beat Metroid: Zero Mission in around five hours. In a modern era where a game’s main selling point is often the dozens of hours it takes to complete it, that sounds absolutely miniscule. Critics at the time rarely ignored it either — if there was one universal complaint about the game, it was that it was just too short.
Metroid games have never been known for their exorbitant lengths — the latest, Metroid Dread, can be beaten in about ten hours. The longest, according to How Long To Beat, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, can be toppled in seventeen. Still, five hours is admittedly short, and video game length is something that players constantly argue about as they weigh the amount that they’re willing to spend against the potential duration of their experience.
However, few games, no matter the length, pack as much fun and ambience into every minute as Metroid: Zero Mission. Composers Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano do a stellar job of recreating and remixing Hirokazu Tanaka’s classic 8 bit score, making everything a bit heartier without losing Tanaka’s penchant for both outer space creepiness and adventurous grandeur. Beautifully rendered on the Game Boy Advance screen with colors that absolutely pop, it’s a delight to look at even when you’re being besieged by intergalactic monsters.
Speaking of intergalactic monsters, multiple titles in the Metroid franchise have been openly inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. Sakamoto has directly referenced it as a major influence on the first game. In that film, the halls of the spaceship Nostromo are simultaneously cramped and seemingly endless. The mythology is sparse but layered in nightmarish visual hints. And the titular alien “Xenomorph” is both a beautiful work of practical effects and an unknowable, ruthless monster.
Thanks to Zero Mission’s advances, the Alien dream of the original developers is able to come out in even fuller detail. The halls and pits and rooms of Planet Zebes are, like the Nostromo, a blend of claustrophobic tension and open-ended investigation. The level designs (in particular the gorgeous background work) and the population of enemies makes Zebes thrive with odd life. It isn’t necessarily a very scary game, but it is a surprisingly tense one, and the way you alternate between creeping, running and rolling through the hostile environment gives the player little chance to wait. There is no wasted space or movement in Metroid: Zero Mission.
The influence of Metroid is still strong, even if you’re not necessarily playing Metroid. The developers of Hollow Knight have cited it as a major influence. And that game, among others like Ori and the Blind Forest and Bloodstained, are all part of a recent “Metroidvania” renaissance (and all are available on the Nintendo Switch). Slotting Metroid: Zero Mission into the Switch’s catalog would certainly help add a missing link between the past and present of its genre. In the wide history of gaming, those five hours are very crucial ones.
The arguments over what constitutes an adequate price for a video game in relation to the amount of play time it offers will never end. There is no mathematical equation that will satisfy everyone. However, if any game makes the argument that a good experience matters more than a concrete length, it’s Metroid: Zero Mission. By using the original game as a launching point for even more discovery and thrills, Zero Mission proved that when crafted well, even a short game can be priceless.