Metroid is one of Nintendo’s tier-two IPs, sat along side the likes of Pikmin and below giants like Mario and Zelda. It has been difficult for Nintendo to find a place for Samus, and the common reason given is that the series simply does not sell well enough outside of the US for Nintendo to give it more attention. The last we saw of the series was when second party studio Retro was working on the much acclaimed Metroid Prime trilogy which concluded eight years ago as an early Wii title. The series performed well, but of course not as well those aforementioned giants like Mario or Zelda, or others like Pokemon. And once Retro wrapped up their work on the trilogy they were moved on to other projects like revitalizing the Donkey Kong Country series which was long dormant after Rare’s departure from Nintendo.
But I think there is more of a reason behind Metroid‘s scant appearances across the last four console generations, and it has less to do with the market performance of the series and more to do with what the series is supposed to be about. The first console to skip a Metroid showing was the N64 and this is probably the easiest omission to understand. During the transition to polygonal 3D graphics, Nintendo is said to have required all games produced on the system to be designed in 3D. Coming up with a way to transition a 2D game into the 3D space is a challenge that has ruined whole companies (See: Sega) but was something Nintendo had proven to be capable of with The Legend of Zelda:
KazooOcarina of Time and Super Mario 64. It may well have been that transcribing the Metroid formula into 3D was a problem they could not solve, and if this is the case then plaudits should be given to them for withholding a potential stinker.
Looking at what the series would eventually become on the GameCube makes that conclusion easier to believe as Metroid Prime took the series in a very different direction. Instead of some kind of Mario-style platformer, Retro Studios took the series into the first person perspective. And while the console FPS dynamic back in 2002 was yet to be set in stone as it is today, Prime‘s controls scheme was unusual even for its time. With a lock-on mechanic that took away a need for precision and added a more appropriate need for pattern and weakness recognition, as well as the least egregious implementation of first person platforming, Retro did a fairly stunning job of solving the transitioning problems Nintendo faced in years prior. The result was not quite the same as the 2D Metroid games, but it remained admirably within the spirit of those games despite playing and looking very different.
Retro would work with the IP for about six years before the series would be briefly turned over to Team Ninja for its release of Metroid: Other M on the Wii in 2010. This game would try to marry the 2D and 3D elements of the series, but it was bogged down by poor gameplay and story elements. Since then the series has remained dormant for five years until this E3’s announcement of a spinoff in the form of Metroid Prime: Federation Force. The game looks to be a co-op affair not directly featuring Samus and coming paired with a mini-game called Blast Ball. It is essentially the Prime formula fitted into a multiplayer action game, whereas the original was a single player puzzle/adventure. Reactions have been mixed, at best, and it once again got people talking about the fate of this series.
Since the only successful and well received 3D iteration of the series was largely a spin-off in itself, the Metroid formula seems to still be in limbo to some degree. With indie devs releasing spiritual successors to the series like Axiom Verge, Nintendo has clearly had its hands off of the wheel in terms of a traditional entry in the series on either home consoles or handhelds. My suspicion is that Nintendo has been avoiding the series not because it is too difficult come up with a new idea for the series, but because the series is their highest profile hardcore series in the roster. While there are other series that are better known or that are historically more difficult, Metroid is still quite well known and the idea behind the series’ difficulty has not faded from people’s minds. Simply put, I do not believe Nintendo was interested in creating an experience appropriate to the series, and while they may have had difficulties finding a way to make Metroid a 3D title, this cannot be the only thing stopping them anymore. It may sell less compared to their AAA franchises, but I do not think they are turning down an opportunity to fill the much remarked gaps in their release schedule because it will not set records. Metroid sells well enough, but for a while now the series epitomized the opposite of what Nintendo was interested in emphasizing.
Thankfully, given Nintendo’s somewhat recent change of direction, games like Metroid may be put properly back on the docket once again. Examples like Federation Force are disheartening in that regard, but these things do take time. I am not entirely optimistic about the future of the series, but I do know that we are looking at a Nintendo that has gotten comfortable again with being more traditional as well as a Nintendo amidst a great sea change so I cannot rightly say much of anything is out of bounds.
Are you a Metroid fan? Did Prime show you a good time, or are you a 2D purist? What about the likelihood of Nintendo reopening the books on a true entry Metroid series? Give me a shout!