How is it that this game took eight years to make? You'd almost think that it was designed by Nintendo or something.
I admit that I haven't played every game released for the GBA. Considering the mediocre standard for the platform so far, I don't think that I really need to. But feel free to check me. See how this sounds to you: Metroid Fusion the best game yet developed for the Gameboy Advance.
Sound bold? Controversial? Please. This is Metroid. What competition is there? Castlevania is about as good as things get on the GBA, and this easily blows away both Igarashi's and Kobe's games.
(Speaking of such things -- not that I was all too fond of what KCE Kobe has done with Castlevania so far, but what's up with Konami disintegrating them as a company? And Nagoya, for that matter, who were behind the original Gameboy Castlevanias? Is this what happens when you start to make money, as Konami has been doing lately? Strange and disconcerting.)
Back to the point. Yeah, this is Metroid. On the Gameboy Advance. However:
The game isn't flawless.
Wait, the negatives cancel out; we can simplify this sentiment.
The game is flawed.
As should already be evident, this is going to be a confusing and a contradictory journey. So buckle your barnacles.
Fusion is an experiment at making a linear Metroid. And... it succeeds to some extent, but there are some side effects. The level design is not constructed around exploration; it's constructed as a cleverly-intertwined series of more or less direct paths from point A to B to C to D. There are some detours allowed, and a few confined bits of mandatory tile-searching thrown in as an attempt to appease the audience -- but they're all more or less scripted events within that linear framework. It's got an interesting plot which falls into cliché near the end, then is abruptly cut short at what feels like the three-quarter mark without really capitalizing on some of the tension and the setup established through the earlier portions of the game.
Do you remember the Spider Ball from Metroid II? This was an item which allowed Samus to stick to, and roll around on, nearly any surface. Why has it never been used since? I realize what hell this addition must be for the level designers, but that unique ability is possibly the biggest reason why the second strikes me as my favourite game in the series. Not technically the strongest; not the flashiest, nor the most well-designed, nor the most charming -- but my favourite, nonetheless. That one item opens so much of the game to explore, from early on. Partially because of its quickly-complex network of passages, the game is far more mysterious than any of the other games in the series. There are so many possibilities, almost from the beginning.
One of the greatest strengths of Metroid, as a series, has been the way it has interfaced with the player's imagination. Compare the original Legend of Zelda to any of its sequels. What's missing in the later games (particularly after Link to the Past)?
Anything could be anywhere in the original Zelda. Once you find your first set of bombs and your first candle, you can blast and burn everything you see -- and who knows what you might find. Then later, when you realize that the flute -- of all things -- can also be used to open secret passages... it just gets insane. There's no telling which items might have an untold use. Maybe if you're really, really clever and persistent you can discover a third quest or a gateway to a whole other map -- a dark world where things are much harder and everything works differently. What other places might the Lost Woods take you?
What about that tunnel that Tommy down the street was bragging about having found? Is it really there? Can you really drain the fairy's pools? If so, how do you make the fairies go away first? Where's this gold ring that you've been hearing about? Why do those rocks look like turtles? Is there some point when they come alive? How exactly are you supposed to hit Deborah's Cliff with your head? (Yes, Simon's Quest is my favourite Castlevania for a similar set of reasons.)
What's missing in the later games is that mystery; the sense of wonder over seemingly limitless possibilities. It is this sense of wonder that makes Myst involving despite its rigid framework. It is this sense of wonder which pulls the curious player into the world of Shenmue. This is part of what makes Phantasy Star II the most gripping and unsettling game in its respective series. This is why the original Silent Hill is so much more engaging than any version of Biohazard will ever manage to be, and why Skies of Arcadia succeeds as most modern console RPGs fall flat.
After a certain point in the Zelda series, the possibilities were narrowed. Miyamoto began explaining and defining things in more and more (often shiny) detail. The more "real" the world became, the less it engaged the mind. For at least me, it's the difference between reading a Harry Potter book and watching Chris Columbus' ham-fisted, literal visualization of the text. It's gone from being a game about ideas to a game about objects.
It's not that I'm singling out Zelda for criticism; I admire the series as much as anyone, and the original game has probably been more significant to me than any single other game I've played. This is just an illustration of an annoying trend in the industry, as technology becomes more potent. What do we want to use this power to do; to simply explain away every detail of a world at the cost of the player's imagination, or to help create a new set of possibilities that would have been impossible a generation earlier? To provide new and even more wondrous fuel for the mind?
[Next: onward to the point]