About a month or so ago I discussed some of the reasons Metroid: Fusion was good, but just didn’t measure up to the standards of its predecessors. I had come to the simple conclusion that the problem was focusing on Samus rather than the world, shifting the central focus of story-telling.
I still stand by this theory, as it not only explains how Fusion fails to measure up, but why Prime was met with joy while Other M was met with rage. Granted, Other M was already being developed by Team Ninja, the studio behind the Dead or Alive series, the new Ninja Gaiden franchise and a ridiculous set of physical standards for women (that look like walking and talking anime dolls). However, Prime was met with similar skepticism once it was announced to be a first-person shooter. As such, both games were already met with jaded and bitter attitudes, and both had the capability to surprise its audience.
The primary difference between the two is that Prime continued to focus more on the world Samus was inhabiting while Fusion and Other M had focused more on Samus herself. This broke away from the original games, where the only real characterization given to Samus was her exposition-driven monologue at the start of Super Metroid. A lot of this was a result of technological limitations, but for years players developed this idea of who Samus Aran was in their mind.
If you go back and play Super Metroid, the opening ten or fifteen minutes deliver all the story through the world itself. The eerie sight of the lone infant Metroid in a canister on the title screen allows the player to know something is wrong when they find it busted open on the space station. Zebes is quiet, desolate and a ruin as the player returns to where the first game ended. When the lights turn back on, the player knows they are not alone, and suddenly everything is brought back to life. The message is clear. The Space Pirates have returned, and they are more ready for Samus this time.
Getting down to brass tacks, the first three games aren’t actually about Samus. She is an intruder, a stranger in a strange land. She disrupts the system in place. The real story is in the world.
Now consider for a moment how Western game development has been largely influenced by this sort of play. The Elder Scrolls franchise is known for having a protagonist defined by the player while focusing efforts on a massive world with rich cultures and histories. Quake II brought a nameless marine to an alien planet full of creatures that fused cybernetics with corpses. Half-Life II was literally about Gordon Freeman disrupting the Combine and Breen’s deal with them.
So it should be no shock that the Western founded Retro Studios were able to take the Metroid franchise and bring it to modern platforms. Samus remained a silent protagonist entering a strange world that she had disrupted and invaded. Her actions were good, of course, but she was still not the central focus of the story. She was merely the driving force that pushed the tragic tale of Talon IV forward, just as her 16-bit self had been used to tell the story of a Chozo world overrun by Space Pirates and an ancient crashed freighter.
Fusion, on the other hand, takes place on a space ship that is designed to simply recreate sections of Zebes. That’s pretty much all there is to it, and the only plot twist in the game is the moment you discover that, gasp, scientists are cloning Metroid creatures.
In truth, the game literally turns Samus into a Mary Sue. The story is really all about Samus, how she can’t find out about the Metroid clones, and how the X Parasite becomes intent on destroying her. The world is built around and for her, and it’s all about her journey.
By focusing purely on Samus, the entire set-up suddenly becomes weaker. The ending of Metroid II is strong because Samus has invaded SR-388 on a mission of genocide, yet she finds herself unable to destroy an infant. It suddenly changes how one looks at the entire game, and at Samus herself. She viewed the creatures as monsters, yet here was an innocent, and its first reaction was to love Samus rather than destroy her. This bond was so strong that it continued into Super Metroid, ending with the demise of the infant. It’s not about Samus, but how a monster capable of evil had somehow become a creature of good.
That’s some potentially strong stuff, and if there were potential for building Samus as a character then that’s where to start. If you want Samus to angst, have her angst about the fact that she’s just as much a monstrous weapon as the Metroids that she sought to destroy. She had driven an entire creature to near extinction, and she could do nothing to save the last of its kind. An innocent. The journey is all there. Her need to cope with what she’s done, and the acceptance. You could even use the stages of grief as the building blocks for your plot.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. I don’t know what the developers of Nintendo had thought, but it just seems to me that they don’t understand their own property. Of course, while the creator of their other major franchises, Shigeru Miyamoto, is still alive and kicking, the creator of Metroid, Gunpei Yokoi, died many years ago. When it came time to try and develop Samus as a character, Nintendo honed in on the fact that she was a woman. Her flash backs to her CO and how he used to call her “Lady”. Her maternal attachment to the infant Metroid. It wasn’t intended to be sexist, but it devalued Samus. Her strength was the fact that her gender didn’t really matter on the battlefield. It’s possible to be feminine without being identified by that trait. Yet that’s what Nintendo chose to build on.
Of course, I’m not even sure Nintendo has any established canon for Samus at this point. In Metroid Prime, the Space Pirates are treated as an intelligent race that perhaps built the Mother Brain on their own. They do not need her to function, but they desire a designated leader. They are reverse-engineers, unable to really create any technology on their own, but capable of figuring out how other technologies work and retooling it in their favor. Most of all, they seek to turn everything into a weapon.
Then there’s the Chozo, the race that had sought to flee this world so they could end their warmongering ways. They were ancient, tired, and pretty much ready to retire in peace and tranquility. Their last act in the universe was to teach Samus, the lone survivor of a colony destroyed by Space Pirates and Ridley, how to be a strong warrior with their best equipment, fit to defend the galaxy from those that would bring harm upon it. Her destiny becomes further intertwined between the two races as the Space Pirates populate old Chozo ruins and colonies in an effort to discover and repurpose their technology.
Metroid Prime keeps these histories consistent, right down to Chozo traps illustrating their prowess as a warring race. Yet Other M dismisses the Space Pirates as being intelligent creatures, claiming that without the Mother Brain they are just a chaotic race without a purpose. Further, it refers to them as Zebesians, hinting that Zebes itself is their home world. This contradicts with Prime 3: Corruption, where Samus and the Galactic Federation launch an assault on the Space Pirate Homeworld.
Further, they insist on tying together with the Fusion plot line, where Samus had spent time in the military with Adam, her Commanding Officer. While it would have made more sense to have made Samus a young cadet in military academy before the attack on her home colony, it was instead written that Samus had joined after she had been trained by the Chozo and had acquired her armored suit and weaponry. This makes absolutely no sense. The Chozo had already taught her anything that the military might have, plus any necessary skills to pretty much be a trained assassin or special operations. In addition, any government would want to take her armor in order to study and replicate it, as the big driving force is how technologically advanced her equipment is as a result of being made by the Chozo. That she’d be in the military at all after such a thing is ridiculous.
If this is how Nintendo is going to treat their own franchise, it might be better if they stop for a while. I do not say this lightly. The Metroid franchise is one of my favorites, and though the story was horrible, I do wish to see the gameplay in Other M repurposed for a 3DS title. Considering the simplicity of controls and the perspective used, it would be a fine platform for another game of that sort.
Nintendo would need to figure out just what their franchise is about, though, and understand that there was more to it than exploring a non-linear environment to pick up a bunch of hidden items. Otherwise, they’ll just be hurting their own character.