As with many recent posts, this isn’t going to go in deep; I’m retreading a Twitter rant/discussion, with a bit of framing information so that it makes sense as a block of prose.
So there’s this Metroid II remake project that just finished. I’ve seen progress before, and dismissed it on the basis that it seemed to miss the point of the original almost entirely. It looked like the idea behind the project was that Metroid II was the “bad” game in the series, or at least the one that didn’t match the others, and that for anyone to enjoy the game it ought to be brought up to the standard of Super Metroid or Zero Mission (a remake of the first Metroid, made to look and play more like Super Metroid).
This is… kind of an offensive way of thinking, no matter what subject we’re talking about; that the nail that sticks up has to be knocked down, that the strange voices have to conform, that everything needs to be of a sameness. That the game in question is actually one of my personal favorites, one of the most expressive and artistic games that Nintendo has ever published, makes the project all the more irritating.
What it looked like they were doing was stripping out all of the atmosphere, the tension, the thematic intensity that made the game worth playing in the first place, under the misapprehension that all of this was a flaw because it made the game strange and difficult to play. Every game should play like Super Metroid, especially another Metroid game — and the first game has already been “fixed” to match, so that just leaves the one everyone hates. Let’s try to change their minds by turning it into another bouncy chapter of the Samus Zappy Puzzle Room Adventure.
So — and here’s where the tweet storm starts, I relented and I played it. A little of it, anyway. It really is very well-made, as fundamentally misguided as it may be. That said, I tuned out when it started to insert random puzzles.
Because it absolutely has to have the fucking shinespark, I guess (a convoluted ability introduced in Super Metroid that fans have taken, er, a shine to), we now have a charge beam as the second pick-up — which totally changes the focus of the narrative. Originally, you got the bomb, and then the Spider-Ball, because this is of fundamental importance. It’s pretty much what the whole game is about.
Now, the Spider-Ball comes almost incidentally, in an afterthought chamber after the big reveal of the charge beam and lots of distracting puzzles that take away from the significance of the event.
The charge beam is just one of many features from later Metroid games retrospectively crammed into here for no reason other than that people liked them. The idea being that game design is a constant march of progress, and this game was dated — so let’s incorporate all of our modern concessions. Let’s let the player grab ledges! Does it fit what the game is out to accomplish? Don’t understand the question; why wouldn’t we put it in?
Now. I haven’t played too far yet, but on the basis of what I’ve played… for all of this laboring the game with later concepts that it doesn’t need, I bet they missed a thing. I can’t verify if it’s in there, but it seems unimaginable to me to revisit Metroid II now and not reference the X parasite.
The X parasite was introduced in the fourth Metroid Game, Metroid Fusion. That game revealed that the player did a very bad thing back in Metroid II, by wiping out all the Metroids. As it turned out, over the course of that game Samus totally unbalanced the ecosystem, allowing a much worse threat to take hold. As that game began, Samus even paid for the mistake with… not her life, exactly, but her being. To save her from the X parasite, she had to be infused with Metroid DNA. Her old armor had to be physically cut away. Basically, she would never be the same again.
So if I were remaking Metroid II, you can bet I’d keep this development in mind. You couldn’t make a big deal about it, but for people who knew what they were looking at, some foreshadowing would be obvious. Considering that these guys are basically upgrading Metroid II to play like Fusion (by way of Zero Mission), you’d think they’d pay attention to the game’s greater narrative significance. And yet, something tells me the thematic development is going to be pretty low here. In messing with the flow leading up to the Spider-Ball, they’ve already diluted the first major beat.
The whole game is supposed to be womblike. The Spider-Ball and final Metroid egg (which the player first rolls past in ball form, emphasizing a similarity between Samus and the egg — and then which hatches in the game’s final moments, leaving one last Metroid alive and imprinted on Samus as its mother) just being obvious facets of that. This being the game where Samus finds her compassion and becomes a “mother” is not a coincidence. The womblike way you hold the game, the claustrophobic display, the dark, the atmospheric soundtrack.
I mean, the whole story is about the Metroid queen and her babies, about hatching. You spend most of the game in ball form. You can keep picking away; the metaphor extends as far as you want it to.
Here, they’ve basically stripped the progesterone out of the game and turned it into a dur-dur zappy puzzle adventure. So, no, I don’t think that thematic resonance is high on the list of concerns. But if you were to go the sensitive route, and do a remake that emphasized and further explored the game’s original themes, then having that retrospective concern about genocide and ecological destruction and unforeseen consequences would make the discussion even deeper. It’s not the immediate point of the adventure, and it can’t be, but seeding in the occasional overt hint would be nice.
Imagine a version of Metroid with the building suggestion that You Are Fucking This Up, that you shouldn’t be doing this, that this is wrong. That would be welcome. Shadow of the Colossus was 12 years ago now. You know what came out 13 years before Shadow of the Colossus? Metroid II. You know how long ago Zero Mission came out? Also twelve years ago. Some fucking selective education in this system here.
Game design isn’t an objective thing, and there is no such thing as progress except in our growing understanding of how design mechanics can be used to express ideas. Game design means nothing in and of itself, and its application as an intellectual exercise or a means to entertainment only makes the most facile use of the potential for material betterment available to us through forty years of study and (often ineffectual) experimentation.
Ultimately, though, this remake is just one take on an existing story. It won’t supplant the original. The mentality guiding the remake is troublesome, but it is on its way out. Other perspectives are available, and many enlightened ones have made themselves heard over the last decade or so.
Though there’s no real need to revisit Metroid II, I can see an advantage to calling back to its affect — on what the game actually does, artistically; what it serves to communicate. We have the tools now to convey this all more clearly. Any such emphasis would help to underline the greatness in the original work, to make it easier to appreciate. In the process, there’s also a bunch to learn for future work.
So, here’s an idea. What about a game jam? How about a bunch of voices get together to trade alternative readings of Metroid II. Give their own concerted personal interpretations, emphasizing their own themes. Draw on the contrast between experiences.
That’s probably the way forward. Despite what this remake would serve to insist, there’s no one truth to be had. There are no Platonic forms. Our experiences are what make us what we are, and in the end that’s all that we have to say for our lives. So, we might as well respect our individual experiences for what we are. That’s the only way we’ll ever grow, ever achieve something great as a people — by acknowledging the limits of our own two eyes in our own skulls. If we want to expand our views, we need to pool our resources. Every perspective we accept makes us richer, makes us better, makes us wiser, makes us more kind.
All of which videogames could use.