From Zero to Hero in the ultimate Nintendo remake.
The idea of a remake or remaster became incredibly common with the advent of HD TVs and consoles. It made financial sense for companies to take titles they had already invested in and bring them to a new audience with a fresh coat of paint. Not every re-release aimed to take advantage of high-definition graphics, however. In 2004, Nintendo released Metroid: Zero Mission, an entirely new version of the original Metroid from 1986 (1987 for the NES in North America). Even today, Zero Mission not only remains a timeless adventure, but also represents one of the greatest top-to-bottom remakes we've ever seen.
I never actually played Zero Mission on Game Boy Advance. In fact, I never played much on my GBA, aside from Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. The launch line-up was pretty disappointing to 16-year-old me; I wasn't wise enough to appreciate the interesting ways that Super Mario Advance tweaked the original Super Mario Bros. 2 (speaking of remakes). It wasn't until Metroid: Zero Mission finally came to the Wii U Virtual Console in 2016 that I finally went back to Planet Zebes, and I'd been clamouring for the game--quite vocally on Miiverse, actually--since GBA games had been announced for the service.
2016 was actually a really eventful year for me. Even though I played Zero Mission when it hit Virtual Console in January, I would end up running through it multiple times in the months after picking it up. More notable than my sub two-hour completion time was the fact that I would become a homeowner later in the year, but not after learning about how stressful and heart wrenching that process can be. After having an accepted offer fall through at the 11th hour, an incredibly difficult decision my wife and I had to make, the housing market where we wanted to live was seeing a decrease in supply and a subsequent jump in prices. It seemed like the door may have shut on us purchasing a home bigger than the apartment we were renting at the time, but we were lucky to find a townhouse within our budget; we didn't hesitate to put an offer in. Luckily, this offer was accepted, too, and we didn't find any shady, unpermitted bathrooms to deter us from following through with the purchase.
So what does that anecdote have to do with Zero Mission? Nothing, really. But maybe the big changes that happened in my life are similar to those that the original Metroid underwent in being reborn as Zero Mission? You're right. It's a stretch.
Getting back on the Samus track, what makes Zero Mission timeless? How can a remake of a game be timeless when the original isn't? Metroid on NES introduces that series staple: the feeling of being lost and isolated in a dangerous alien world. Exploration, action, and atmosphere combine to create what was once a memorable albeit challenging experience. However, the lack of an in-game map almost necessitated that the player draw their own. In truth, Metroid wasn't and isn't a bad game; it just requires the type of patience that we don't always have these days. Funny enough, completing Zero Mission actually unlocks the original Metroid, and going back to it after a playthrough of the remake is a stark reminder of just how far we’ve come.
Zero Mission’s brilliance stems from its playability. Maps, hints, shortcuts, secrets: all of these culminate in both a journey of discovery and an experience that changes every time you boot up the game. Shooting or bombing walls, ceilings, and floors regularly reveals new paths to explore and more upgrades for Samus’ arsenal. Does finding another Missile Tank feel as satisfying as discovering the Screw Attack? No, but each boost to your firepower represents a reward for your action-platforming endeavours. Metroid: Zero Mission does a masterful job of balancing a map and playtime more compact than Super Metroid’s with a challenge and experience that is true to the title it’s based on.
Unlike the very floaty feel of controlling Samus in Metroid, Zero Mission adds a weight and heft to the character. You fall fast, much faster than in any of the previous games, and your jump is more deliberate and direct. The physics are just the tip of the iceberg, though. There is a familiarity to the layout of Brinstar, Norfair, and Torian, but then you add entirely new areas in Chozodia, Crateria, and the Space Pirate Mother Ship. Power-ups from previous games, like the Charge Beam and Speed Booster, make their first appearance in the world of the original, while the Power Grip, which allows Samus to grab onto ledges, is entirely new to the series. Mini-bosses show up where none had been before. The phrase might not have existed when Zero Mission originally released, but the glow up is definitely real.
The icing on the Kraid cake is an epilogue of sorts that takes place after defeating Mother Brain and escaping a self-destructing Zebes. After being shot down by Space Pirates, Samus crash-lands on their Mother Ship, and here we are introduced to Zero Suit Samus for the first time. What follows is an action-stealth sequence where the player must navigate a hostile and dangerous environment without the abilities and upgrades you amassed for the first 80 percent of the game. The twist of having to escape receives its own twist: you end up having to escape a second imminent explosion after destroying Mecha Ridley in one of the Mother Ship’s final rooms. Before that, however, you regain Samus’ trademark Power Suit and can even return to Zebes to explore new areas and collect every upgrade with the help of the Space Jump and Power Bomb abilities. Can we agree there’s nothing Zero about this Mission?
Metroid: Zero Mission is arguably one of the best Metroid games, even if some prefer the 3D Prime series or the SNES staple, Super Metroid. What really makes Zero Mission timeless is how lovingly and thoroughly it improved on the original game. You would be hard pressed to find a change or addition that isn’t welcome over what the NES game offered. I would argue that the remake almost makes its forebearer obsolete, perhaps a relic lost to time, in a way. The Game Boy Advance saw scores of ports and remasters, but none can hold a candle to Zero Mission. An unlockable hard mode, sound test, time attack mode, and even images from Metroid Fusion added even more to the package. Going back to the future is fine for Michael J. Fox, but I’m all about going back to the past, and few games make it more worthwhile than Metroid: Zero Mission.