Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Appreciation of the Past - Metroid series

[Written before the release of MOM]

If I had to describe the Metroid series in one word it would be quality. Very few videogame series get so much quality out of a single game that way the Metroid games do. When people say quality these days, they usually think of high production values like top-class voice acting, high quality cutscenes and motion capturing, and photo-realistic graphics. Well, that is not quality. That is just showing how deep a publisher's pockets are. True quality is when all facets of game development come together to form a game that is not different pieces meshed together, but graphics, music, gameplay, sound design, level design, art design, and execution that all form to make one identity all it's own. That is the quality that is Metroid. When play a Metroid game, you know you are playing a Metroid game. Whether it is ambient music that seems to meld into the background, the incredible art design, or the haunting isolation that follows Samus wherever she goes; it is all distinctly Metroid.

Metroid owes it's existance to the brilliant minds at Nintendo Research and Development 1. The two main minds behind the creation were the late Gunpei Yokoi (R.I.P.) and Yoshio Sakamoto, who continues to direct the Metroid games developed by R&D1.

So, what has the Metroid series accomplished throughout it's history? Well, Metroid created the aspect of an "open world environment" before anyone else, and utilized the concept to great effect. The player is thrown into the Metroid world without any hint of where to go; this has always been a staple of the franchise until Fusion. This immersed the player into the isolation of being alone on an alien planet. This gave Metroid it very own "flavor", even seperate from other Nintendo gems, such as The Legend of Zelda. Super Metroid's isolated atmosphere also helped build the foundation of survival-horror games; one could even say that the Metroid games are sort-of part of the survival-horror genre. Then there was Metroid Prime, which developed the sub-genre of first-person adventure games. While it's true that it was a shooter, Prime had many adventure aspects to it that gave it a truly seperate identity among other FPS. And, of course, the level of quality that Metroid games provide in both the 2D and 3D realm is truly excellent, and sets the bar for other adventures in both the 2D and 3D realm.

Gameplay has always been excellent in the Metroid games, both the main series and the Prime series. With the constant gaining of power-ups and enhancements, Metroid games always provided a sense of progression. But, it wasn't just the platforming and shooting that made Metroid games fantastic. Superb level design made traversing the areas of planets feel very engaging and never boring. Furthermore, combat was never so simple as simply shooting the alien creatures; strategy and thought had to be put into encounters, because enemies usually always had strengths to kill you, but weaknesses to exploit. This made combat in Metroid's very satisfying. The variety of enemies and bosses are incredible throughout the series, as everything is exploited to provide each boss with a unique touch; for example, Quadraxis' enormous size, Ridley's severe agression, the platforming element to the Kraid battles, or the distortion of gravity when fighting Nightmare.

You can't talk about Metroid without talking about the music. The original and Return of Samus had great themes, but sound director, Kenji Yamamoto, went all out on Super Metroid, providing a soundtrack that was both atmospheric and beautiful. His work would continue to impress throughout his work on the series. What is so truly excellent about the music in the Metroid series is how atmospheric it is. The theme of Norfair sounds like the erupting of lava, the gentle melody of the Phendrana Drifts sounds like the gentle falling of snow, and the eerie Sector 1 theme provides the feeling of isolation and fear. The music blends so well into the levels themselves that one tends to forget music is even playing, as it all just feels so natural.

Then, of course, we have the heroine of the series: Samus Aran. Up until Metroid: Other M, Samus has never spoken a word, yet we know Samus so well. Samus has shown us her strength, skill, maternal instincts, vengeance, and sadness to us; all without speaking a word. Nintendo must be praised for their ability to tell such a story without any dialouge. Well, it's less of a story, and more of a biography of Samus Aran that we are watching play out before us. Samus is alone in all of her adventures, thus making the experience that much more personal for the heroine. Something else I like about Samus is how despite being encased in armor, she still displays her femininity very well. It makes me very excited to know that Sakamoto plans to go even further into Samus' character with MOM.

The debate over which Metroid is the best is a debate that has raged on for well over a decade, and continues to this day. Super Metroid is a true legend of gaming, as it took the Metroid formula and executed it superbly; just looking at the title screen, and the player knew that they were in for a great experience. Metroid Fusion took the Super formula and enhanced it with more intelligent enemies, more diverse boss encounters, and added more of a narrative; a truly great successor. Metroid Prime took the Metroid series into 3D in the form of a FPS; and the result was nothing short of phenomenol. Prime took every aspect of Super and put it into the 3D realm; furthermore, Prime took every advantage of the 3D plane and used it in it's combat, platforming, and presentation. None of the games were slouches when it came to quality either.

Personally, I cannot choose a favorite out of the whole series, but splitting the series into the 3D and 2D realms, I'd have to go with the original Prime being the best 3D, and Fusion being the best 2D game. Yes, I said Fusion. It only beats Super by a hair, mainly due to Fusion's stellar boss battles. Combat has never been as satisfying in a Metroid than in Fusion, and that's including the Prime games.

Metroid games have influenced me in a large way throughout my life playing videogames. The main influence Metroid has on me would be the Metroid game's execution of it's presentation. When a game creates an atmospheric world, I always compare it to Metroid's worlds. I have never experienced such superbly executed worlds as I have with the Metroid games, because the Metroid developers understand that it isn't all in graphics and how detailed it is. It's about level design, art design, and how it is executed through the graphics and music, and how the player interacts with the world through gameplay. It is a complex process, and that is why so many games cast aside the complex process and just make the environments "pretty" and say that it was good. However, Nintendo always grasps the challenge and conquers it. Also, the Metroid Prime games changed the way I though about first-person shooters. In my opinon, the Prime games are the best executed FPS games to date. The way the first-person view is executed is incredible, from steam foggin up Samus' visor, or the relfection of Samus' eyes in the visor; it truly felt like the player was Samus. The controls were also very refined and worked perfectly without any clumsiness. Prime is truly a grand achievement in gaming, just as much as Super Metroid was. And, of course, the Metroid quality is some of the best you'll find in gaming, rivaled only by Team ICO's games.

So what can the modern market learn from the Metroid series? Modern videogames have come to gain too much of their identity from their production values. Relying on detailed graphics, extravagant cutscenes, and Hollywood caliber voice work and directing. While such merits aren't a bad thing, they are used far too often to mask a game's lack of identity in a market saturated by the same types of games. Games need to develop themselves to stand out among the crowd like games in the past did. Metroid did this by utilizing it's art direction and atmospheric design. Every aspect of a videogame should work towards the common goal of giving a game a sense of personality; everything from graphics, music, art design, and level design, and executing the gameplay so that the player becomes enthralled in the identity that all those different factors create. That is what every Metroid game does, and what modern games could learn from Nintendo and their legendary series.

No comments:

Post a Comment