The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 10 | Porno for PYR

I always like to see developers making conscious, and conscientious, use of their selected platform.

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For example, here we have the real path to Sector 5’s objective tucked behind a hidden block that offers a small, discreet visual cue at the very right edge of the screen. This is something that wouldn’t really have worked in console Metroid games due to the uncertainty of television pictures and overscan — some tubes would have shown too much of the hidden passage and given it away while others would have made it truly hidden and left players casting about for the way ahead. But with the fixed resolution of the GBA screen, Fusion’s map designers could give a subtle hint to observant players without making it too obvious.

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This sector introduces a number of new creatures whose real value isn’t immediately apparent — though they might jog the memories of series veterans. These manta ray things leap straight up and slowly descend, dropping corrosive fluid as they flutter to the ground. But they have a greater value that becomes evident only later, once you acquire this area’s main weapon upgrade.

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And there there are these lattice shrubbery things, which initially appear both completely inert and completely indestructible. They are completely baffling at first, since they literally do nothing but sit there.

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Returning from the original Metroid in this area are Wavers, which now behave somewhat differently than before. Rather than drift aimlessly in sine wave patterns at all times, they now alter their flight pattern when they pass directly in front of Samus, accelerating to collide with her. You can actually exploit this behavior in this room — when they plow into the wall, they become momentarily stuck, and they protrude far enough that you can actually hit them through the barrier. If you don’t realize that, however, this room is a bit stressful, as blasting through the wall with a bomb causes the entire barrier to break away, opening the room to half a dozen erratic enemies.

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Once again, you unlock doors with a terminal rather than a tool. That’s not very Metroid-like at all.

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Two yellow doors become immediately accessible once you lower the security lock, but the one to the right leads to this: A shaft with a ledge too high and far away from the ladder you climbed to reach this point to be accessible. However, armored Rippers drift back and forth within the shaft, which is comfortingly familiar; despite all the changes Fusion brings to the series, these guys still exist entirely to serve as temporary platforms once you acquire ice powers.

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Speaking of which, said powers are just beyond the other yellow hatch. Ice missiles reproduce the function of the classic Ice beam, but in a way they make for a faster, smoother play experience. The Ice beam had the side effect of reducing your firepower by adding the freeze effect to basic attacks; in Metroid, this meant you had to shoot everything twice as many times in order to destroy it. Super Metroid switched things up by causing the freeze effect to wear off with time rather than using the Ice beam as a toggle, but it still meant enemies would freeze when fired upon… whether you wanted them to freeze or not.

Here, though, you have more control over the freeze effect. Rather than every single basic shot freezing a monster, now you only freeze them when you use your secondary weapon. Combined with the instant single-button toggle Fusion adds for missile attacks, it works really well — a small but well-considered interface improvement.

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Yes, that’s better.

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Not cool” Another one of those mimics, this time imitating an Energy Tank.

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As has happened several times already, acquiring a new item causes a change to affect the enemies in the current area. This is similar to Metroid II‘s arbitrary gating, but it’s much more graceful than that game’s earthquakes causing subsidence and lowering the water level to reveal new areas. The changes here take place within the X parasites infesting the station, who react to the growing threat that Samus represents to them. It’s still arbitrary and conspicuously designed, but it demonstrates a much better integration of narrative and mechanics.

In this case, those inert nests of vines or whatever now come to life. They remain indestructible, but now they grow upward and cause impact damage to Samus. They’re both a passive threat and, in some cases, a deliberate obstacle. You can freeze them with the Ice missiles now, but it doesn’t do you any good if you freeze one after it’s risen to block a passage.

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Which isn’t to say frozen vines aren’t useful; this one bridges a gap that allows you to build up a speed boost and reach a new area.

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Another new dynamic element here: A massive shadow appears in the background of the main chambers of the sector, swooping quickly back and forth. It’s ominous, but you can’t do anything about it…

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…though that bizarre presence makes the sudden alarm considerably more alarming once the screen begins strobing with a red light. A computerized voice begins warning you about an emergency. Is it related to the ominous shadow?

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No, it’s just a machine error. You’re given six minutes to make your way to Sector Three and shut down the boiler before it detonates the station.

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And you burn about 30 seconds on the elevators alone, which doesn’t help soothe the nerves.

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This works as an excuse to revisit previously explored areas under a new frame of reference — a bit of backtracking, but one that doesn’t feel aimless or repetitive. Instead, you need to recall the paths and passages through this area, such as the hidden, crumbling block under this expand-o-alien. While six minutes is actually quite generous if you know where you’re going, the padded time allowance lets you bumble around momentarily if needed to remind yourself of the proper route.

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A new path opens in the molten regions of the area; the magma remains deadly to the touch, but you can pass beyond it now.

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A number of active threats appear in this area, such as more of those retracting monsters and Novas — three-eyed wall-crawlers who, unlike in previous games, now drip fireballs as they scuttle along. On their own, these hazards wouldn’t be a particular bother, but the stress inspired by the countdown timer can result in sloppy play.

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It’s good not to take too much damage, though, since the main boiler room…

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…culminates in an eye door. Which means you’re gonna have to fight something.

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Which turns out to be just a nerd in a lab coat. But! If you walk up to the scientist, Samus takes damage. Counterintuitive as it may be, you have to shoot his guy — the first instance of violence against a human in the Metroid series.

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The “scientist” actually turns out to be a Core-X imitating his form. It drifts around, pivoting its vulnerable eye rapidly to return fire at Samus, but ultimately the only challenge here comes from the narrow space in which you’re forced to complete this battle.

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Which is ironic, see, because surviving the battle in this narrow space results in the acquisition of the wide beam.

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The wide beam strengthens Samus’ blaster yet again while also creating a broad spread — not only do her beams separate from one another more dramatically, they also take on a ring-like form, similar to the ripple laser from Gradius games.

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With this task complete, the game allows you at last to return to an area that’s long been cut off: The very first area, the Habitation Deck, closed away when the SA-X blasted its way through the elevators. Adam has restored power, allowing you to put all your new powers to use in a sector you previously experienced at your bare minimum strength. While this clearly stated directive to return to the beginning is, once again, a much less elegant way to nudge players backward than in older Metroid games (which would have locked off the main elevator with some sort of barrier that could be circumvented with the acquisition of an advanced skill), the satisfaction of returning to old haunts with far more capabilities at your command is satisfying enough to make up for it.

Book report

Hello, everyone. Sorry for the lack of activity here lately — I’ve been dealing with a nasty hand injury that’s made writing and video editing (not to mention playing for research) painful and difficult. In my downtime, though, I’ve been keeping myself productive by converting all the Anatomy of Games books to a format that can be sold on Amazon.com. I’m happy to say the process is finally complete. Hoorah!

It’s been an interesting learning experience, which unfortunately means a slightly inconsistent final product. I initially began by working with 6×9″ books to keep the price economical, but the last two books I’ve changed over are at the 8×10″ size. When it came time to convert The Anatomy of Metroid Vol. I, I had to completely overhaul the book for technical reasons and decided to experiment with the larger format. I also combined both Metroid books into a single volume.

The results turned out to be pretty fantastic, I have to say. The 8×10″ format looks better, and because it allows more content in a smaller page count, and ends up being about the same price as a 6×9″ book. More importantly, the price of 8×10″ Anatomy paperbacks through Amazon ends up being about half that of 10×8″ paperbacks via Blurb! Volumes that were $40 on Blurb turn out to be $20 on Amazon, making them far more reasonable — and that’s before Amazon does its random temporary price reductions. Needless to say, this is the format and medium I’ll be using for all future books, Anatomy and otherwise.

My only complaints with the CreateSpace/Amazon route are that (1) I can’t sell through Amazon.ca (even though I can sell in Europe and the UK) and (2) they don’t offer a hardcover option. So my Blurb store will continue to offer hardcover versions of books as well as most old GameSpite Quarterly volumes. I intend to convert the platform retrospective books (NES, Super NES, and PlayStation) to Amazon with expanded content for those systems’ 30th/25th/20th anniversaries, but that process will take a while, I suspect… and I can’t find the Super NES book’s original files in my archives for some bizarre reason, so that one may simply be lost to the ages. We shall see.

Anyway, for anyone who had been interested in the Anatomy books but understandably balked at Blurb’s exhorbitant costs, they’re now available at Amazon for much more sane prices. Or, more specifically:

And of course Game Boy World 1989. Needless to say, I’m pretty happy about this development — the books take a fair amount of time to put together, and maybe now people will actually be able to afford them. (Certainly they’re a lot more affordable for me now, and lining my bookshelves with my own words is really the whole point of this.)

Also, p.s., if anyone does pick up any of these volumes, I hope you’ll be kind enough to review it on the bookstore and increase its visibility! Ideally a positive review, but the important thing is to be honest, of course. Thanks!

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 9 | Bad mister frosty

As irritating as the game’s insistence on giving away the surprises in store for this upcoming sequence was, there’s no faulting the trip to the next sector itself. This is Metroid Fusion at its best, doing something no other Metroid game had ever done to this point. Arguably Zero Mission would go it one better, but at the time, this spoke to Fusion‘s designers’ desire to use the Metroid sandbox in a new and different way. We see Samus at her most powerless, outnumbered and forced to avoid omnipresent creatures that can destroy her completely with just a few successful strikes.

This is a new design philosophy for Metroid. Typically Samus begins the game underpowered but steadily grows in strength along a linear curve. Here, although she’s collected quite a few new powers — bombs, two levels of missiles, and a beam upgrade — Sector 6 pulls the proverbial rug out from beneath her feet, making her largely defenseless against the hazards ahead.

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This sector’s parasite spawn comes in two forms: Utterly deadly or utterly pitiful. These guys are the latter, hovering about the screen and lazily drifting toward Samus. They’re easy targets, and they appear several times throughout this leg of the mission — their only role, really, is to serve as health restoration opportunities. They’re as close to harmless as anything in the entire game, and they tend to show up after difficult gauntlets of frozen parasites. When you see these guys, it’s your signal to pause and farm them for health.

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As for the frozen parasites in question, the blue X entities are larger than the others that have appeared so far. They also tend to move around less by default, hovering deliberately in Samus’ way and obstructing key passages. Of course, your first encounters with them put you up against only one or two at a time, in wide open spaces where you can fire on them first. You can’t destroy a blue parasite, but shooting it will cause it to become stunned for roughly 10 seconds, allowing you to slip past safely. A stunned parasite remains deadly to the touch, though; if Samus makes contact with a blue X, regardless of its current state, she’ll absorb it.

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Soaking up an ice parasite inflicts roughly one and one-third bar of damage to Samus’ health, making them extremely dangerous.

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The only viable tactic here is to run, ideally after zapping the parasite in question…

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…though that’s not always possible. There are several branches from the route into this sector where blue X parasite congregate in large numbers amidst tightly wound passages. You’re not meant to go this way. You can certainly try, of course!

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…but even if you do make it past the X parasites, the game trolls you with the Metroid equivalent of a Mimic chest: A creature masquerading as a Super Missile expansion that comes to life when you come close, hitting you for a small amount of damage. Coming directly after a harrowing room full of murderous X parasites, this is just the game hitting very deliberately below the belt.

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It’s not as much a figurative dead end as it may seem (though it may be a literal one depending on the state of Samus’ health once she sneaks past the X); you can bomb through the wall next to the mimic and collect a legitimate expansion.

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However, the trip back to the main path is even more dangerous than it was coming in, with several blue X entities hovering close to the door — close enough that they’ll immediately move in for the kill when you return to this room. And even if you can survive against these three, the ones further in are much more difficult to evade. Like all free-floating parasites, they can pass through walls… something Samus’ blaster fire can’t do.

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Even an experienced fan of the series may see Fusion‘s first game over here. Strangely, Samus turns into Ayla from Chrono Trigger when she dies.

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Further along the main route, there’s a second room full of even more ice parasites. I guess it’s theoretically possible to evade all six of these things, but it looks daunting enough to be discouraging even to the most stouthearted heroine.

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This sector offers several save rooms along the way — no recharge stations, but there are plenty of those fat, lazy eyeball things to blow up and keep your health topped off.

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Fusion borrows one of Super Metroid‘s more memorable “gotcha” moments: Destructible blocks in which a life-sucking creature hides. Only here it’s not some parasitic grasshopper but a much deadlier blue parasite.

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Eventually, you’ll reach a wall that can only be broken with weapons Samus doesn’t have… and in the process of attempting to bomb through, you’ll inevitably drop down into the narrow duct below the floor, which crumbles beneath your weight.

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As you roll around in the crawlspace, the SA-X appears, marching confidently in blissful unawareness of your presence. It’s a nice reminder that as nerve-wracking as those blue parasites may be, there’s something far, far worse out there on the prowl for Samus.

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Being fully powered-up, the SA-X is able to clear this wall quite neatly with a Power Bomb. In a neat touch, Samus takes damage from the bomb (though not much) as it rips through the room. It permanently clears away the wall ahead (also giving a clue for future reference on how to break down these wall block icons), allowing SA-X to resume its deathmarch.

You can, if you want to see the game over screen, pop up from the crawlspace and try to ambush the SA-X. It will obliterate you no matter how deftly you play, legitimately overwhelming you with powers you’re helpless to parry, but it’s possibility. For those who place more value on their free time, however, give the SA-X a few seconds and it will march along to the next room and out of your life for the moment.

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Beyond your close brush with SA-X, you’ll find one of those eye doors in front of a Data Room. Weird, right?

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But it turns out a parasite is actually stealing your Varia data. You end up destroying the computer terminal when you chase away the parasite, and it flees to the next room…

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…where it moves in for the kill.

All the Core-X battles you’ve taken on to date have reflected the power-up the parasite contains in some capacity, and this one’s no different. This Core-X has stolen the Varia, and “varia” is of course a mush-mouthed reinterpretation of the Japanese spelling of the English word “barrier.” Fittingly, then, this X comes equipped with its own barrier: A spinning array of smaller X parasites that render it impervious to Super Missiles.

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Your only offensive option here is to use your Charge Beam, which lacks the punch of Super Missiles but can pierce the Core-X barrier. Each shot takes down one of the subordinate parasites, causing the nucleus to revert to a basic Core-X once it’s on its own.

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This, of course, equips Samus with the Varia, allowing her to withstand both heat and cold — including the frozen X parasites that litter this area.

As a subtle reminder of what the Varia does and doesn’t do, you reacquire the power in a room partially flooded with water. Despite your new elemental upgrade, you still don’t have the Gravity Suit’s ability to negate the drag effect of fluids — so while you can venture into superheated areas, you won’t be making any new progress in liquid magma just yet.

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Another great touch: Before acquiring the Varia, blue X parasites would make a beeline for Samus if she came within about half a screen’s distance from them. In the rooms following the Core-X battle, you bump into quite a few blue Xes… which will initially behave as before. This time, however, you absorb them like any other X, regaining health on contact instead of losing it. After you’ve snagged a few of the blue ones, their behavior actually changes. Rather than attacking Samus, they’ll make haste for the far end of the current room and try their best to avoid contact. It’s a fantastic and satisfying design choice, giving you a real sensation of empowerment. These things were intensely deadly just a few moments ago, and now they’re terrified of you.

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There’s nothing much else to do in Sector 6 besides check out the corridors that were clogged with blue parasites before, but once you return to the entrance Adam of course has more mission objectives in mind.

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Door to unlock, weapons to acquire. But it all comes with a message of hope that the tide of the fight against the SA-X is turning now that Samus is again immune to the cold. And that is pretty OK.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 8 | Heat of the moment

The journey to Sector 3 plays out differently from previous segments of the game so far. Each sector excursion until this point has sent Samus into an area to achieve a goal, then perform an unstated secondary task to unlock a new power. You don’t end up with a new ability after the surprise encounter here, however, as Secret 3 essentially works as a middle point between two other tasks.

As in your previous task, large areas of this sector remain inaccessible…

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…thanks either to excessive heat or areas flooded with magma (which combines fluid friction with excessive heat). You still won’t be picking up the heat-proof Varia in this sector; much as in Super Metroid, the overheated portions of the game function as a sort of dangling carrot to entice you for a while. All these spaces you can’t yet enter are meant to stick in your memory for later reference, taunting you with their unavailable nature.

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Instead, you need to figure out how you can advance. The passage to the right of the sector’s first large room has been locked down with another of those emergency one-way gates, making it impassable. Well, seemingly impassable, anyway.

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Opposite the security door you’ll find another seeming dead end, though a quick application of your bombs to the left wall will reveal speed booster icons. The tasks in Fusion are growing more convoluted now, as you’re forced to combine your two most recent skill upgrades in order to clear the path forward: Bombs to reveal, speed booster to clear.

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Even trickier: Speed boost through the wall and the area you reveal terminates at a green security door, which is precisely what you’ve come to this sector to unlock. The switch to unlock the green doors is hidden behind a green door, making for a gordian knot of safety. Like downloading a decompression app only to find it’s in .zip format.

The solution, then, is to sneak into the security room through the conduit in the ceiling. You can see the opening in the ceiling overhead leading to the door, though you can’t shoot or bomb your way into it. Instead, you have to break through with another speed boost, this time through blocks suspended above the floor — meaning you need to jump while boosting. Conveniently, the floor is sloped in just such a way that it draws your eye to the vulnerable point and creates a sort of ramp to leap from. Thank goodness for this space station’s completely insane architects.

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Once again, it’s fortunate that the security doors were designed to be unlocked only by Samus Aran.

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Opening the green doors causes X parasites to invade this portion of the station (Sector 3 has been monster-free until now). This does more than simply add a combat rhythm to the action, though. The arrival of parasites also gives you a valuable hint for moving forward.

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See, even with the green doors unlocked, there’s still not much of anywhere new to go in Sector 3. But back to to the right, above the security gate, those weird barfing alien faces that grew out of the wall in Super Metroid take up residence here once the X are allowed in. The bottom-most face sits immediately above the gate, and when you destroy it the loose parasites that emerge don’t do their usual flying-around-the-room thing. Instead, they simply sit in place, enticing you to run forward to collect them and top off your health… which you’ll probably want to do, as the wall-bound face creatures now have the ability to dart forward to hit Samus at a distance, a fact that will almost certainly catch players by surprise the first time.

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When you grab the free parasites, the floor suddenly collapses beneath you, revealing the fact that you could have gotten to the other side of the security gate at any time. It’s a clever little touch — you could have bypassed the gate as soon as you arrived in Sector 3, though there was really no purpose to it as the green doors beyond here would have halted your progress. But now that you need to advance, the map designers lure you in with a subtle twist on standard play mechanics. X parasites demonstrate a variety of behaviors when loosed from their hosts, so the fact that these particular parasites hover motionless instead of flying around doesn’t stand out as odd until you’ve fallen through the floor. Like a damn fiddle!

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The data room beyond Sector 3’s security doors grants you a missile upgrade. These work somewhat differently than the Super Missiles in Super Metroid. Rather than being a more limited alternate fire mode to standard missiles, these Super Missiles actually replace the previous projectile altogether. In other words, it’s a linear and permanent power upgrade.

This appears to be a concession to Game Boy Advance’s more limited interface; with only two face buttons to work with instead of four, Metroid Fusion streamlines its controls so that holding down the R trigger activates your alternate fire mode for all weapon types. You no longer need to cycle through your weapons this way, so everything feels more immediate and responsive. On the other hand, you do lose out on the tactical aspects of Super Metroid‘s Super Missiles: They were more scarce, but far more powerful, and had interesting secondary effects in certain places (e.g. triggering Phantoon’s alternate attacks, knocking hidden enemies loose). So, a tradeoff.

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Basically, Super Missiles hit somewhat harder than the old model, and you can take out these blue barrier membranes… of which you’ve encounter maybe two. So it’s not really that big a deal.

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I’m not sure if the room leading to the data chamber was a deliberate reference to Super Metroid, but this arid region patrolled by Sidehoppers seems like a callback to the super metroid’s feeding pen at the end of the previous game.

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And here, as there, something dangerous is afoot: Once you pass this room and download Super Missiles, the screen is rocked by a loud explosion, and you return to find the floor torn open and one of the doors destroyed.

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It’s not SA-X, though — just a fake out. Instead, a berserk security droid goes on the attack, shattering another door as it crashes out of the data room you’ve just activated. Samus is penned in this area, so there’s no flight. Just fight.

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The droid is only vulnerable from above and scuttles back and forth rapidly, meaning you need to attack by hanging from the overhead rails and firing downward in the brief windows that its exposed central area comes within range.

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Its spider-like legs frequently compress inward, lowering the vulnerable central core unit to safety, but the droid needs to widen its stance in order to attack or move. Its attacks consists of columns of fire that travel away from its body on either side, rising high enough to hit Samus even when she’s at the ceiling (and moving quickly enough that you can’t simply move away from it with the overhand crawl).

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It’s not a particularly difficult fight, though, and the droid escapes by launching itself upward through the ceiling once it’s taken enough damage. Handily, this dislodges huge chunks of structure, which create a convenient new platform for Samus to use to chase after it.

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You can’t catch it at this point, though. Although it seems there should be more to do here in this sector, the path the droid creates leads you back to the entrance of the Sector where you learn two new areas have become available thanks to the diminished security restrictions.

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But of course you’re only allowed in one of those zones for the moment, since Sector 5 is effectively inaccessible due to its cold temperatures — plot and mechanics dictating game flow.

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Adam warns of a new hazard that’s entered the scene: Frozen X parasites that have evolved to hit Samus in her newfound weak point.

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But thankfully, the Varia will finally become available, protecting you from heat and cold. This all sounds interesting in terms of game mechanics, but it’s disappointing that Fusion once again robs you of the discovery process, spoiling the surprises in store for you with a mission briefing. There’s no reason players couldn’t figure out the hazards of Sector 5’s climate through experience, just like we quickly realized that wading in magma was a bad idea. And the danger of blue X parasites would have been wholly self-evident as well, with the unannounced acquisition of the protective Varia suit resulting in a welcome sense of relief.

The didactic computer tutorials made sense at the game’s outset, but at this point they feel somewhat grating… and degrading. Players have gotten a taste of liberty as they venture beyond Adam’s watchful eye, so the game’s continued insistence on laying out every detail feels like a step backward.

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Though even that’s no big deal next to the shadowy plot exposition that follow’s Samus’ departure from Sector 3. Come on, guys.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 7 | Save Serris

After Sector 2’s design, which left players much to their own devices to discover most of the area map, Sector 4 reels them back in a little bit. You’re given more explicit instructions and a detailed breakdown of the obstacles ahead of you; the challenge here is to circumnavigate those obstacles in order to reach your blocked-off goal.

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Adam reveals about 80-90% of the area map and goes on about the challenge here: The underwater area has suffered extensive damage, resulting in electrified pools of water that will injure Samus. Basically, the entire gimmick of Sector 4 is based around the alternate tactic for fighting Draygon in Super Metroid — except that instead of the electrified water serving as a secret alternate solution for beating a boss, it’s an unavoidable hazard that forces you to take an indirect route through the stage.

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But here’s why Adam’s explanation is needless: The first room of Sector 4 to the right of the main entry chamber features an electrified current in a situation where you can’t reasonably die from falling into the water. What appears to be an open passage becomes blocked by that inflating pufferfish things when you roll into the gap, preventing you from advancing and forcing you to double back. It’s tough to hop out of the gap while in morph ball form, though, meaning you’re probably going to fall into the water and land on the platform just below the surface. The charged water will sap Samus’ health, but slowly, leaving you plenty of time to escape with your well-being intact, a lesson learned. The hazard posed by the water would be just as clear without the didactic text — an instance where less would be, if not more, then at least just as much.

In a nice little visual touch that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality but communicates the difference between safe and dangerous water, the surface of electrified pools consists of a jagged, shimmering line rather than the flat line of normal water.

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An easily overlooked detail in many rooms: You’ll frequently see creatures that haven’t yet been infested by X parasites hanging out in the background, safely out of Samus’s line of fire. Generally, though, you can expect to have to fight them in some form or another once you backtrack after completing a task; in this case, the creature on the ceiling transforms into a large, golden version of the Sciser crabs that occupy this region in such large numbers. As in Super Metroid, gold color denotes a giant pain in the butt: It can only be destroyed by missiles.

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New to this area is a different kind of destructible block. One of the abilities the Bomb adds to Samus’ repertoire is the ability to reveal the nature of “hidden” blocks that can only be destroyed by specific powers or weapons. Destructible blocks are obvious through their coloration or other irregularities more often than not in Sector 4, begging you to poke and prod them. But this mysterious configuration resists all of your current abilities. Alas!

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Large expanses of electrified water span Sector 4, with suspended platforms providing your only purchase in several rooms. Even when you’re forced to drop from above onto these platforms, sight unseen, you can judge the placement of secure footing by the chains suspending the blocks. Since Metroid Fusion takes place entirely inside of confined, manmade spaces rather without any open sky (being set in a space station and all), it does demonstrate more of an effort to reconcile the placement of platforms with the logic of architecture. It’s no Castlevania, but it does the trick.

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While exploring, you can stumble across an alcove that offers the most convoluted platforming puzzle yet, rewarding you with two missile expansions for your troubles but also requiring a combination of tools in order to claim both prizes.

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It also requires a touch of intuition to detect this not-at-all-obvious missile block in the middle of the wall. Your hint: A completely useless and vestigial piece of ladder on the wall opposite. Also, if you wait long enough you can spot a creature patrolling inside the wall on the other side to clue you in to the fact that there’s a navigable space over there.

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This area really forces you to pay attention to the configuration of wall panels. There are a number of seeming dead ends that have to be bypassed by alternate means. In this case, the 2×2 panel in the ceiling to the right can be blasted away with Samus’s arm cannon, and the long block spanning most of the length of the top of the room will disintegrate when bombed, revealing an overhead ladder that Samus can use to cross the water below.

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If you take the direct and obvious route to the target room, you’ll encounter a broken floor that blocks your path. But you’ll also be rewarded with an Energy Tank. If you go the proper way, you’ll have to backtrack later to collect the tank.

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Peering around walls is all the rage in this sector, in fact. But this one gives you an unstated clue for the solution to your electrical issues: A pump control device, which can presumably lower the water level. At no point does Adam tell you about this; the only clue you’re given is the slow auto-scroll forward to reveal the device if you run to the wall, and the fact that the room is captioned “Pump Control Room” when you step inside. That’s all it takes, Metroid Fusion! We can do the math ourselves.

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A devious little puzzle here: This looks like a normal Save Room except for the dent in the wall to the right. Save Rooms have, until now, been a “neutral” space without threats or puzzles, so the presence of a destructible panel here might evade your notice unless you’re paying careful attention, either to the walls or to the minimap (which indicates an opening in the grid space for the room adjacent to the right).

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Whatever showdown was slated for this breeding tank with the aquatic dragon Serris clearly won’t be taking place.

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Though there will evidently be some sort of showdown.

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Behind the eye-door is a spacious room that appears to be the area’s primary pump system. Nothing seems to happen at first, but then the floor crumbles, leaving only a handful of segments.

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Serris, or at least the X parasite masquerading as such, bursts out of the water and travels in an unpredictable handful of patterns through the openings in the platforming: Performing large arcs overhead, dashing along the ceiling, performing tight sine-wave motions around the chunks of flooring.

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Serris-X is invulnerable along the length of its body, its head the only weak point. It moves at high speeds, which — combined with its unpredictable patterns — makes hitting the mark a difficult matter. Serris’s head need only be struck a handful of time to defeat the creature, but landing those blows can be tough…

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…and it’s made tougher by the fact that once it’s struck, Serris-X enters an invulnerable state in which it moves even more quickly than normal. All Samus can do during these phases is lay low and avoid being struck.

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As usual, there’s a Core-X here to be destroyed, with a power to be claimed.

If this area’s presentation was overly didactic, you have to admire the fake-out here. With this being a flooded region where Samus’s movement is heavily restricted by the density of water, you might expect this Core-X to yield the Gravity Suit power, or something similar. But no.

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That’s still a ways out, and Samus reclaims her Speed Booster ability.

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As usual, you need to put your new power to use in order to return to the main portion of the sector. This time, though, it’s not as simple a matter as just running and smashing a wall. This segment of floor can only be shattered with the Speed Booster, but it’s stuck in an alcove that prevents you from building up the momentum to reach a boost state. Instead, it forces you to break the wall immediately to your left, wipe out the creatures patrolling the interior space, and use the broken-open space for your run-up.

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The speed booster allows you to reach the pump control room, which is what you do to access the remainder of this sector. Who needs a gravity suit? The water level descends, leaving the exposed electrical conduits an active hazard but removing them from the water. Not only can you get about the region more easily now, no longer stifled by the weight of the water, it’s no longer dangerous (unless you incompetently blunder into the wires).

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Which isn’t to say you can just go wherever you like all willy-nilly; the dry environment simply reveals two new kinds of obstructions: A parasite membrane that can’t be destroyed with your current weapons loadout, and a switch on the wrong side of the security door it opens.

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Speaking of security doors, once you regroup and talk to Adam again, he explains your new mission objective and sets up a convoluted route in order to avoid opening any more of the station’s colored doors.

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And in case you’re too stupid to figure out how to use the elevator to reach the next area at this point, it’s helpfully explained again. Thanks, Adam.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 6 | A little more rope

With Sector 1 conquered, there’s not much doubt about where to go next. Adam tells you to head to Sector 2; all the other sectors are closed off; and the hub area flashes the “2” marking in the background to eliminate any ambiguity that might remain.

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You’re going to Sector 2 now, and that’s final.

All of this seems very suffocating, doesn’t it? Metroid Fusion refuses to leave you to your own devices, huh? How horrible!

In truth, Fusion is being no more linear at this point than Super Metroid. It’s just being a lot chattier about it — a lot more obvious. Instead of letting players figure out the fact that they can’t make any more progress in a given area on their own, Fusion simply tells you and says, “You’re done here, head on out.” I can understand why the designers would take this approach; the Miiverse shenanigans that resulted from Super Metroid‘s release on Virtual Console were surely just a tiny glimpse of the awful “Help, I’m stuck” messages that came in to Nintendo’s counselor phone lines and trickled back to the developers.

Is it the right approach? I’m not crazy about it, personally. There’s something to be said for figuring things on your own. But again, Fusion debuted in a different time than Super Metroid, with different expectations attached. Fusion strikes me less as a degradation of game design by its creators and more of a reaction to a changing medium and consumer base. The past is a country we can never go back to again.

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And anyway, Fusion doesn’t hold your hand forever. Sector 1 and the main deck had several doors that demand your eventual return once you’re more properly equipped. And beginning with Sector 2, you’re given less explicit instructions and left to discover more of the area map on your own.

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This is all of Sector 2 you’re shown initially, but the area actually spans about three times this much space. To complete this chapter, you’ll need to explore on your own, far removed from Adam’s supervision and guidance.

The game doesn’t tip you off to this fact, though. Instead, you’re introduced to a different factor: That other version of Samus is an X parasite that Adam has decided to designate as “SA-X,” and it can completely destroy you in an instant. This becomes Adam’s new refrain: You will die, you are helpless, fly you fool.

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And a small story justification to the fact that every step of your journey will no longer be predefined for you: Internal security measures obscure certain data from being available to Adam and Samus, so you need to explore in order to reach your target: The security room that allows you to unlock blue doors.

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This proves to be no real trouble at first; Sector 2’s initial area is pretty small and low in challenge, and there’s only one area that the “hidden” security room could really be.

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The security room gives you access to the data room, where you gain access to Samus’ bomb power. As always, this works by rolling into a ball and “firing,” whereupon you plant a bomb that can damage enemies, break through walls, and give Samus a small boost with its explosive force. Unlike in previous games, the propulsion doesn’t stack — you can’t “bomb jump” as in previous games. This actually comes off as a more aggressive attempt to restrict player actions and force linear play than the communication rooms, as it prevents sequence breaking.

Once you acquire Bombs, you’ll hear a loud explosion and find that the door to the rest of the sector has been destroyed; another near-miss with the SA-X that forces you to find another route.

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Not surprisingly, this route can be cleared with the use of bombs to blast through certain vulnerable blocks.

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The creatures (or parasitic mockeries thereof) inhabiting the tropical zone appear to be big honkin’ insects from previous games: Sidehoppers, Reos, and these grub-things that resemble Ohmu. Though the grubs are easy enough to destroy, they’ll surprise you from time to time; occasionally, grub parasites left to float free will coalesce into much more powerful blue versions of the grubs that move quickly and soak up a ton of damage.

This particular nook serves as both a trap to reveal that feature and a reinforcement of the fact that you need to bomb certain passages in order to advance. The ceiling above crumbles beneath your feet as you pass overhead (then immediately reseals), pinning you in a small room with parasites, and the only exit is to bomb the conduit to the right clear of blockage.

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Another new element here are the hidden columns that rise out of seemingly random sections of floor when bombed. These allow you to pass over otherwise impossible obstacles, though they seem haphazardly placed and generally fairly useless.

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The flood region is patrolled by fish that demonstrate the same clustering behavior as the grub parasites: If you don’t snatch the free parasites from the little fish, they become a big fish that’s invulnerable to standard cannon fire and hits Samus for nearly an entire energy tank’s worth of damage. Because you move more slowly underwater, the parasites have more time to group up and cause trouble, so this can be a nasty surprise.

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The closer you come to the region’s boss, the more the scenery changes. The tropical forest becomes a mold-ridden mess (seemingly another allusion to Nausicäa).

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Unsurprisingly, at the heart of this sea of corruption you’ll find another eye-door… though you can’t reach if from the most obvious entry point. Your bombs do nothing here, and you’re forced to find another way around. At this point, you haven’t communicated with Adam since entering the tropical zone, and you’ve explored far more of Sector 2 than originally mapped out — and, for the moment, you’re trapped down here, as the exits located upward are too high up for you to reach with Samus’ current power set.

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Near the boss you’ll also find this uncharacteristically useless room. There are no secrets hidden here, even though you can shoot loose the ceiling and jump up into the alcove above. How odd!

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Eventually, you have to work your way around to the eye door by taking a circuitous route upward and approaching through the ceiling. This takes a bit of detective work and exploration, as the path isn’t really intuitive. You need to keep track of your objective on the map and sort out where other rooms are relative to the door. The level design of Fusion, while not precisely intricate at this point, is definitely growing more complex and expecting more of players.

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The boss itself is a weird one — a column of gelatinous tubes topped by a big blue eye and a set of stalks that look like nothing so much as a shock of clown hair. It inches along the ground, leaping vigorously back and forth in a huge arc that’s easily ducked beneath.

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The creature’s main form of attack is to stop in midair and open its maw-end wide to attempt to consume Samus. Metroid veterans might experience a moment of trouble here, since this most resembles the fight with the metroid queen at the end of the second game. But the goal here, despite how neatly a morphed Samus fits into the monster’s business end, is not to roll up into the thing at bomb its nucleus.

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Instead, you need to stand your ground and pepper its guts with missiles while it’s descending. You have time to fire off two or three missiles as it drops before it comes too close and engulfs Samus. With each round you plaster its innards with explosives, it loses a segment of its body and begins moving slightly faster, because in video games mortally wounding a wild creature causes it to become more powerful rather than less.

Still, Samus’ new bomb power does come into play here. If you’re sucked up by the boss, you can escape in the classic Metroid fashion by ducking into a ball and laying down bombs until it releases you. As in Super Metroid, the game teaches you the importance of escaping a creature’s clutches with bomb by showing rather than telling quite early on. Of course, all the metroids in the galaxy are dead at this point, so obviously there’s no point in all of this, right?

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The creature’s core is a lower-grade version than the last boss you fought; simply hitting it with missiles or charged beams will destroy it, and its only form of attack consists of floating back and forth and trying to bump into you.

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Absorbing its essence restores two of Samus’ powers: The high-jump (allowing you more hangtime when you leap) and the jumpball (allowing you to hop while in morph ball form). Naturally, these are the keys to escaping Sector 2, so it’s a good thing this dude was hanging out here instead of the X that restores your Screw Attack or something.

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These new powers work everywhere, including underwater, allowing you to pick up a power you couldn’t collect before.

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This same room includes an overhead rail that you can also reach now that you’re able to jump higher, so there are two missile containers newly within your grasp in close proximity to one another, acquired through slightly different applications of your skills.

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Fusion‘s world is much more dynamic than in previous games, constantly changing as you advance. Besides the havoc SA-X wreaks as she stomps through the station, you also have other shifting factors within the world. Once you defeat the eyeball tube guy, the grubs that had been skulking along the floors and walls enter a pupal phase of their lifecycle. They become harmless to the touch in this form, but also immovable.

This creates makeshift platforms to help Samus reach new areas in some cases and creates semi-permanent obstructions in others. It’s another way the designers arbitrarily control what players can and can’t access as Samus acquires new powers — certain areas that you’ll have to explore later are conveniently blocked off by these shifting larvae — but it’s far more elegant than Adam saying, “No, sorry, I’m closing the doors now.” Which he does from time to time. But this at least feels like something natural within the world as opposed to an outside force imposing limitations.

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Speaking of outside forces, once you destroy the boss you’ll find the nearby exit has been demolished by more of the SA-X’s obscene powers, forcing you to find an alternate route…

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…which leads you back to that “useless” room, where the upper alcove allows you your first direct glimpse of the SA-X in action. The music stops so that you hear nothing but the parasite’s heavy footsteps and the sound of its cannon fire. You can, if you’re very stupid, dash over to the right and shoot through the floor to take on the SA-X directly, but Adam wasn’t kidding. It will destroy you in an instant. On the plus side, it follows after a very easy boss fight, so if you want to see how efficiently SA-X can wipe you out you won’t have to recover too much hard-fought progress. On the other hand, you can simply wait and watch until it goes away on its own, then return to the entrance to Sector 2.

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Whereupon you’ll find Adam defending his title as master of the obvious.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 5 | Fresh air

Fun fact: According to my in-game clock, the content covered in the previous four entries of this series on Metroid Fusion comprise the first eight minutes of the game. That’s ever the way of well-made games, though; they tend to be dense with mechanical information and ideas in the opening moments as the designers lay out the rules and workings of the adventure ahead.

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Observant players can already get a taste of the backtracking mechanics in Fusion once they’ve acquired the Morph Ball power: The lab zone’s main hub had a single inaccessible chamber that can only be entered by rolling into it. Your reward is another missile upgrade — a nice but inessential reward for taking the time to search.

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For the more adventurous, there’s the Sub-Zero Containment at the bottom of the map. You’re able to open this now that destroying the Arachnus parasite has restored power to the area, but the moment you step into it Samus begins to bleed health. Her metroid-enhanced DNA renders her vulnerable to cold — an important game mechanic, eventually, though here it simply serves as a warning not to linger in this room. However, the health drain happens slowly enough that you might feel compelled to take a chance and see what you can find here…

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Ah. Well, there’s that. Scientists just can’t resist the temptation to put dead villains on ice. First Hitler, now Ridley. He’s frozen solid and secure behind an impenetrable wall, though, so you can’t snap off his brittle head with a well-placed kick, unfortunately.

Newcomers to the series might not get the import of this particular scene, but this room is still great — it demonstrates one of Samus’ weaknesses while teasing the possibility that there could be something nasty to deal with in the future. And it’s not compulsory, so its discovery is left to player discretion.

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But of course there’s only so much you can do before the computer dictates you next move, giving you an explicit objective and revealing the entire map of one of the space station’s six sectors.

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There’s nothing else to accomplish or find in the research lab, so it’s down the elevator for now.

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Which proves to be a one-way trip, since your descent is immediately followed by a massive explosion that shuts down the elevator.

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The explosion, it turns out, was caused by… Samus. Pre-X Samus, standing upright and holding her arm cannon the old-fashioned way.

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She (?) breaks the fourth wall and turns to face the camera…

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…revealing the face of some sort of Samus-like monster.

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This fake Samus takes a flying leap over the elevator shaft, revealing the fact that it possesses the Screw Attack…

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…then switches to Super Missiles and blows open the hatch to the next area.

So, basically, not only is Samus devastatingly weak now, there’s an imposter walking around the station sporting all of her old powers, cutting a swath of destruction in its path. While Fusion‘s tendency to shut doors behind the player and cut them off from the option to backtrack remains a point of contention for many fans of the series, this instance at least works incredibly well. You can’t go back because some sort of imitation Samus is smashing up the station; even if you could go back, you clearly wouldn’t last long, armed with a single Energy Tank and two dozens missiles.

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The elevator shuts down once you reach your destination, and the shaft back to the main deck is too high for you to wall jump up. So you’re stuck here in this hub, which leads to the six different sectors of the station.

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Literally all you can do here is descend to Sector 1, following Adam’s orders like a good little soldier.

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Adam gives Samus the bad news about the elevator, though the player has a somewhat more omniscient perspective than the characters, so this simply reinforces what you (the player) already know. The entirety of the Sector 1 map unfurls here, leaving few surprises for this leg of the trip.

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Which isn’t to say you won’t experience anything new here: As soon as you exit the Navigation Room, you meet a new kind of X — a sort of proto-boss core. Individual Xs agglomerate into hard-shelled blobs that cling to Samus in an almost metroid-like fashion. You can destroy them, but the small parasites will continue to zip into the room and fuse together ad infinitum.

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The task for this sector is to destroy the parasites clogging up the air filtration system. While it’s not a particularly challenging task, it does serve as a sort of progressive tutorial for many of Samus’ new combat capabilities. The filter “barnacles” can be cleared away with a few missiles easily enough, but each one requires a slightly different technique. The first (and it is the first; this sequence is entirely linear) can be killed by simply standing and blasting it.

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In between tasks, you can enjoy seeing the world of Metroid II and its monsters rendered in 32-bit color. The X-creatures use more varied attacks than they did in their first appearance. Interestingly, the X parasites copy some wildlife completely (meaning that they’re destroyed entirely) while others are merely possessed and become passive elements of the environment once the parasite is destroyed.

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A second Energy Tank sits ready to be collected in the floor, accessible but not available for effortless pickup like the first was. You need to puzzle this one out. The solution is “the grey cylinder encasing it is a tube that you can access and roll through by shooting the stone next to it,” so it’s not exactly rocket science. But it’s a step toward more bedeviling puzzles later on.

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The room immediately after the Energy Tank puts an unavoidable destructible wall immediately in your path, reminding you that some walls can be whittled away with cannon fire. It’s also a gentle nudge that maybe you should go back and try doing something like this to pick up that Energy Tank, if you hadn’t already figured it out.

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The second “barnacle” can only be destroyed by aiming upward.

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Station break! The simulation of SR388 is briefly interrupted by a service shaft between the environmental sim chambers, occupied by a small army of Space Pirates. Their presence acts as sign that the X contamination has spread beyond the zones reproducing SR388, and beyond the content bounds of Metroid II.

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This small room filled with water contains a single enemy, but more importantly it introduces the physics of water — running through the submerged depression creates a drag that slows Samus’ movements. This works exactly as it did in Super Metroid, with her underwater movements basically being identical to movement on dry land at 50% speed, and her jump height after breaking the surface of the water being greatly reduced.

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Next up: Overhead ladders, another new feature in Fusion.

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And a “barnacle” that can only be destroyed by perching on a vertical ladder and firing away from the wall, a new addition to Samus’ skill set, required here for the first time.

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Samus can also attack while hanging from an overhead ladder, as the process of destroying the fourth air purification parasite reveals.

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An optional room, and currently a dead end, grants you a missile expansion for climbing out over this lake of magma. Like cold air, magma saps Samus’ health steadily. Unlike cold air, though, it works far more quickly — and moving around while in the molten liquid functionally works the same as water. So Samus is moving half as fast but losing energy twice as quickly, meaning that attempting to venture beyond this missile expansion (even with a full 299 points of health) is a guaranteed way to die in about 10 seconds flat — not nearly enough time to do any exploration.

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Look at this journey up Bloom’s Taxonomy. Already we have synthesis happening: Samus has fought one of those boss door eye things, and she’s engaged in combat while hanging from a ladder, and here she is doing both at once.

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Inside the boss room, however, there’s no boss — just a Chozo statue holding a power-up.

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Before you can collect the power-up, however, the entire statue transforms into an advanced X parasite core. This raises a lot of questions! Are Chozo statutes actually alive? Sure, there were the Torizo statues in Super Metroid, but apparently they were alive rather than just sentry robots? That’s pretty weird! Does that mean the decapitated statue at the end of Metroid II was straight-up murdered?

It’s interesting to observe the little narrative design choices happening in these sequels, because the designers often recontextualize the older games with non-incidental choices. I mean, this Chozo statue occupies what appears to be a stasis chamber consisting of unique sprite tiles, so there’s something happening here. But despite all the surface exposition about Samus’ mission, much of the underlying Metroid universe mythos, the deeper backstory, is never addressed in text. Even as the game leaves nothing about your mission to the imagination, there’s plenty for the invested fan to chew on.

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Anyway, the X core here is more like the ones Samus has to deal with throughout the rest of the game. Where the first one simply allowed you to pepper it with missiles, this core has a much more durable shell. You can see Samus’ missiles deflecting harmlessly away here. In order to damage this core, you need to wait until it generates an orifice of sorts, which centers on Samus’ location (tracking her as she moves) while it charges up an energy blast. It’s only vulnerable in this opening for a few seconds at a time, and you have to strike quickly in order to avoid being hit by the core’s own projectile attack.

To balance this battle’s high difficulty and more exacting rules, this core moves more slowly than the first and occupies a much larger room than Arachnus did. You have plenty of freedom to move around and lead the core back and forth, with high and low platform routes to enable you to move around without it drifting into you.

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Upon its defeat, the core restores Samus’ Charge Beam. This allows you to fire a powerful blast of energy by charging up, like the X core did, but it also doubles the strength of Samus’ basic attack.

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However, you don’t actually need the Charge Beam to take out the last air filtration parasite, making for something of an anticlimax.

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No worries, though, because Samus doesn’t get coffee breaks. It’s on to Sector 2 — and you can’t actually leave Sector 1 until you receive your briefing, since Adam locks the exit door on you. What a jerk.

Also, for those keeping track, this entry’s time took us from the 8-minute to 24-minute mark. It’s decompressing!

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 4 | Return of Return of Samus

Once you get a handle on some of Metroid Fusion‘s mechanics beyond “run/jump/shoot,” you also get a little lesson in reading its map to find secrets.

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In a game from the cartridge era, where no pixel of space existed without good cause, this empty room should pique your curiosity. It seems to be a dead end with no real value, just an empty chamber leading to an oddly stair-stepped wall with no standout features. However, if you look up at the minimap in the upper right corner, which has been filling out details as you travel through rooms, you’ll notice this particular room (the current room or screen always sits at the center space of the minimap’s 3×3 grid) has a circular icon in it. Rooms where you’ve collected a pickup are always marked with a dot, but the circle denotes an unclaimed pickup. You can’t see a pickup at a glance here, but Metroid vets know the drill:

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Sometimes, you have to shoot the scenery to make secrets appear. You’ve already seen how dynamic bricks can be disguised as normal scenery (such as the crumbling blocks that led you here), and you’ve been forced to explore shooting up the walls in order exit the observation deck. This room combines those two features for a new purpose: Hiding a collectible. In this case, another missile.

Something that only now occurs to me is that playing this game on the Wii U’s Game Pad or a nice TV doesn’t really convey the intended effect of the graphical design. Remember that the original Game Boy Advance was kind of a piece of garbage where its screen was concerned. When Fusion debuted, the side-lit GBA SP was still several months away. The game was designed to be played on a dim, unlit screen, and on its original platform the obscured areas outside of Samus’ immediate range of vision was essentially black. On today’s better screens, you can pretty easily see threats and details in shadow, but the original intent really was to leave you in the dark in a very literal sense.

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Anyway, here’s a dude you probably remember from Super Metroid: The crazy eyeball monster who takes up residence on boss doors. This apparently is a Metroid thing now, even if it doesn’t precisely make sense given that you only encountered these on Zebes in the Space Pirate base and the X parasites in the BSL station are mimicking creatures from SR388. But whatever. You can only hurt this and open the passage it blocks with missiles (the red color is your clue) when it opens its eye… except when the eye opens covered with a yellow film, which means it’s going to fire a Samus-sized energy beam at you. A few hits will open the oculus rift, simultaneously loosing a red X parasite at you.

There’s an added element of danger here as well: Even if you destroy the scientist zombies wandering around and collect their X parasites, a moment later more parasites will swoop in and revive the creatures. Like Shandor Building in Ghostbusters, this region (as Adam indicated) is a hotbed of paranormal activity. The constant influx of X is nice in that it means you’re constantly able to restore your health and missiles in the event you take a hit from the eye creature’s beam (or from zombies while dodging the beam), but it also means there’s no time to rest here, either.

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With the eye thing destroyed, you pass through another service conduit where an Energy Tank is simply sitting, waiting for you. Previous games may have taught you to distrust Energy Tanks waiting in the open, but there’s no trick here. You simply grab a can’t-miss tank to double your maximum health, much needed…

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…just in time to take on the first boss, which appears as an advanced X. It sweeps in, gathering smaller parasites, eventually coalescing into its “true” form.

But first, let’s look at the room itself. Technically, this room isn’t shut off: You drop in from the top, which doesn’t seal shut behind you. And there’s a small opening in the wall at the bottom left that you could potentially pass through if only Metroid could crawl. But you can’t, so effectively you’re trapped despite the theoretical freedom to exit.

Also of note are the small recesses on either wall. You can’t climb into these, but you can cling to them for safety.

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Which it turns out is a good idea, because this boss is much more difficult than you might expect. Fusion differs from previous Metroid games in that the combat is much faster-paced, enemies more aggressive, and their damage output much higher as a result of Samus’ newfound weakness. Compared to the first battle in Super Metroid, the Torizo statue, Arachnus here uses more and more frequent attacks and hits much harder.

You should, of course, recognize Arachnus: He’s a larger, more dangerous version of an optional boss from Metroid II. “Well, of course,” you say. “Fusion‘s all about riffing on Metroid II.”

But this is not an incidental or spurious reference! Arachnus has an interesting place in Metroid history, as it was the first boss you battled to gain a power-up directly rather than from a Chozo statue (the creature disguised itself as a Chozo item orb). This would be echoed in the Torizo bosses in the sequel, but nevertheless Arachnus has a special and unique place in the series’ design, and makes for a fitting cameo here: You won’t be gaining powers from Chozo artifacts but rather by defeating X parasites that have siphoned away Samus’ abilities, and so it’s perfectly fitting that the first boss in this new schematic calls back to the first time you experienced this break from tradition.

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That said, Arachnus is way harder this time around. Before he just kind of rolled back and forth, popping up and waving his mouth claw at you. Now he creates a shockwave that travels quickly across the floor, moving back and forth to crowd you into corners.

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He can also create a massive blaze of fire that travels forward across the ground and lingers for several seconds — you can jump over the shockwave easily, but the fire can’t simply be waited out with a single jump. You either need to leap over to Arachnus’ backside or else hang from the recesses until the flame gutters out.

Likewise, you can’t fight Arachnus (or Arachnus X) the way you did in Metroid II; you had to bomb it to death there, which is impossible here as you don’t have a Morph Ball or Bombs. So instead you just pepper it with missiles in its face — and, reminiscent of more evolved metroids on SR388, its carapace is invulnerable, so you have to blast its moist, tender underbelly. The creature doesn’t make it easy, but fortunately those “free radical” parasites drop in occasionally to allow you to stock up on health and missiles.

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Once Arachnus-X has been stomped, it reverts to its primal form, a floating super-parasite with trailing subordinates. The big parasite shell can’t be absorbed — the spikes should make it clear that it’s dangerous to the touch — but its little ones can. You need to smash it open with missiles.

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Once you’ve cracked its bitter shell, the gooey morsel inside floats helpless and free for you to absorb.

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Your gift is the ability to tuck into a tiny ball and roll about, allowing you to squeeze through the small opening to the left and return to the main station spaces.

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Whereupon you can blow up that stupid gummy door obstruction, which no doubt has been antagonizing you since you first encountered it. Equipped now with missiles and the ability to roll into small spaces, Samus is a little less likely to die horribly now. The theme of Fusion remains “Samus is weak,” but that slowly changes as you advance.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 3 | Missile command

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Beyond the save point, Samus reaches the lab proper. Technically, I suppose the whole space station is a lab, but it’s divided into quarantined simulation zones and work zones for the scientific support. This area is the latter.

And here you find another Super Metroid parallel: Samus arrives too late to this lab to prevent its civilian personnel from suffering a terrible fate. As at Ceres Station, bodies lay strewn across the ground, the collateral of whatever violent horror has taken place here.

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In this case, though, not all the bodies simply lie dead. Beyond the human corpse is a bizarre zombie that rises from a degenerate puddle — a human possessed by an X parasite, evidently. The leftmost corpse never stirs, suggesting that this civilian was killed by a parasite-possessed colleague before he or she could be consumed by an X.

The zombie doesn’t pose much of a threat, ranking somewhere below “Castlevania zombie” on the danger meter. It just shuffles along, quivering slightly if Samus comes within striking range.

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Unlike the small creatures Samus has already encountered at this point, though, the zombie doesn’t disintegrate when “killed.” It disgorges an X, yes, and you can soak up the parasite per usual. But the zombie itself collapses into a wobbly puddle of goo that you can’t interact with. If you leave the X it emits alone, the parasite will eventually return to the zombie’s mass, regenerating into an upright monster again. All you can do here is prevent the X from reconstituting its host. This is not a common scenario throughout the game, but reformation of enemies is something you’ll have to deal with from time to time and this is a nice, safe introduction to the mechanic.

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Above the first zombie lurks another, as well as a more curious obstacle: Some sort of mucus-like growth obstructing a door. Your blaster can’t harm this thing, so it basically represents another obstacle to overcome in the future — one to file mentally alongside red and green doors.

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Surprise! You quickly arrive at another Navigation Room. As you can see, the station is lousy with them. This time, Adam passes along information on a superficial change to the game mechanics from previous chapters of the series: How Samus acquires gear. In other games, you almost always collected power-ups from ancient Chozo statues… but since Fusion takes place in a human-built space station rather than the ruins of a Chozo-colonized planet, there are none of those statues on hand. Instead, Samus is forced to rely on the Federation to pass along weapons data for her new suit as they’re able to develop it— the idea that Samus’ powers here are simulations of her previous skills developed for her new bio-technical suit. A little flimsy as premises go, but sure.

There’s a feeling of tension and urgency in the background of Fusion, and it comes in part from the looming sensation that you were rushed into action before Samus was fully ready. The Federation works in the background to come up with programs to allow her gear to mimic the functions of the Power Suit. You don’t have certain abilities because those abilities simply don’t exist yet. Again, it’s a thoughtful way to unite play mechanics and story design, and shows that the Fusion team wasn’t simply content to lazily reprise previous games where it didn’t make sense. Structurally, Fusion works quite a bit like its predecessors, but some careful consideration was given to how its workings reveal themselves.

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And here’s an entirely different kind of obstacle than ever before: Some sort of structural damage to a pair of conduits. You’ll have to come back once you acquire wire cutters, it seems. Really big honkin’ wire cutters.

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The only other door in the area takes you to, yes, an elevator. As in previous games, the elevator serves as a natural break in the layout of the game world…

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…but it also serves as an opportunity for exposition. We get a glimpse of Samus’ rich inner life here, whether we want it or not. Later in the game, elevators serve a different narrative function, too. But due to the “down time” they create, elevators make a smart place to advance the story a step or two.

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The observation deck basically works as a command center for the station, consisting of a single large chamber leading to one of every kind of sub-room: Navigation, Save, Recharge, and most importantly (for the moment) Data.

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It also features this suspicious panel on the wall, but for the moment that’s simply an incidental detail.
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There’s nothing to do here but head to the Data room and upgrade Samus’ suit to fire missiles. Missiles work differently here than in previous games: Rather than activating them with an on/off toggle that brings up missiles in place of standard energy projectiles, you hold down the right shoulder button to work as a modifier. It’s not a bad idea, as mechanics go, allowing you to hot-swap between your weapon selections almost instantly. But it does come with a tradeoff, as the ability to fire at 45 degrees sits solely on the L trigger now. Where in Super Metroid up and down angles were mapped to separate buttons, here you have to hold L then press down to depress Samus’ aim to 45 degrees downward. This is especially cumbersome when you’re firing missiles at a downward angle, as it requires you to hold both shoulder buttons and down and press fire. Blame Nintendo’s goofy decision to make Game Boy Advance functionally a portable Super NES but remove two of the Super NES’s face buttons.

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You’re immediately given a new objective here, even as the space station suffers a power loss.

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The power outage takes out the doors, so that out-of-place wall hatch comes into play. The room’s illumination dims down, allowing the lighting inside the service tunnels behind the hatch to stand out and draw your attention. As always, Metroid Fusion follows up the acquisition of a new tool or weapon with a situation in which you’re forced to use that tool to get back into the action. But instead of simply sending you through a red door, the game instead makes you find a less-obvious alternate route for advancement. This is a really nice bit of design here, as much of Fusion involves finding hidden routes and passages (including the cathartic “breakout” sequence many hours in). By immediately forcing players to jump through a small and obvious hoop, Fusion sets up player expectations and habits for the future.

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Another of those mucus barriers appears here, though this time it completely obstructs your path. With no where to go but forward, you can easily make the mental connection here that you need to blast this thing with missiles to advance.

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Further on, a “dead end” allows you to advance with crumbling flooring that regenerates once you pass through it. This pitfalls will come in to play over and over in Fusion, and here you’re getting a crash course.

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And finally, you land in a pit which can only be escaped by climbing a ladder embedded in a wall. Oh, the humanity! Samus reduced to climbing a ladder rather than jumping to escape? This gets back to the theme of disempowerment that permeates Fusion: Samus has been weakened, almost crippled, by the X’s attack.

I mentioned her hunched postures in the previous update, but I forgot to point out a major element of her new design that speaks to her newfound weakness. In previous Metroid games, Samus didn’t just stand upright, she held her weapon differently. In the original Metroid, she held it at chest height. Beginning with Metroid II, she began to sling the weapon a bit lower, placing her left (off) hand on top of the gun barrel as if to steady her aim and against the weapon’s kickback. This made even more sense in Super Metroid, where the ability to fire at 45-degree angles made it look even more as though Samus was simply holding her aim steady. But in Fusion, her firing stance changes. Can you spot the difference?

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Rather than holding her arm cannon down, now she’s holding it up. Either her body or her suit has been weakened enough that her blaster has become a burden, and she’s forced to support it with her off hand rather than simply steady it. It’s a subtle change, but a significant one. And not incidental, either, because these sprites were deliberately drawn in this fashion — as someone noted in the comments, Samus’ appearance in her Power Suit during the prologue shows her fighting the old way, and the SA-X also walks and shoots with the gait and stance of old Samus. Over and over again, Fusion hammers this theme home: Samus is no longer the invincible loner, and she’s in over her head.

Sort of like a dry run

Yesterday, I hosted a one-hour live stream of the original Metroid for USgamer. It went pretty OK.

I mention this here because, for all intents and purposes, this is a rough draft of a video version for The Anatomy of Metroid. Until I can actually put that together, this has a lot of the same information arranged in a far more scattered and confusing fashion. Might be worth a watch if you’re really bored and want to kill an hour?

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 2 | First contact

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No sooner does Samus land in the space station which comprises the entirety of Fusion‘s world than she comes across the first of many Navigation rooms. And that’s the beginning of the end for many people.

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By far the most unpopular element of Fusion, the station’s Navigation rooms are compulsory stops where Samus has to stop and communicate with her mission “commander,” a computer which she nicknames Adam. (There’s a dumb plot twist around this later on, because the Metroid universe is incredibly tiny and basically consists of half a dozen named characters.) You can’t avoid these conversations, and they spell out every portion of your mission in excruciating detail until the point at which they don’t. For the first several hours of the game, Metroid Fusion offers very little sense of discovery as each and every goal is handed to you explicitly, not just through text but also with mini-map highlights as well.

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On top of that, Adam is a patronizing, paternalistic, and sometimes condescending robot who talks to battle-hardened huntress Samus as if she couldn’t be trusted to visit a toilet unsupervised.

This marks a radical change in tone and style from previous Metroid games. Even at their most linear, the original Metroid trilogy dropped players into a silent labyrinth of space monsters and left them to their own devices. Not here. You’re marching to the orders of a computer, who sends you scurrying from point to point to do its grunt work: Investigate this, kill that, repair something else.

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Mechanically, though, it’s very much Metroid. Samus runs and jumps, shoots, and finds her way through the space station maze. As soon as you receive your first mission objective from Adam, you come across this: The classic red door. Metroid veterans know the score here, of course. You can’t crack this door without a missile, which Samus doesn’t wield at this point. So regardless of how progress is doled out, there’ll still be opportunities to backtrack and navigate through previously inaccessible paths as you acquire new powers.

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Speaking of new powers, Samus comes with one by default: The ability to grab on to ledges and pull herself up. This opens up a number of new puzzle design opportunities, but it ultimately comes from a place of practicality, an attempt to solve the Metroid II conundrum: Being on a portable system, Fusion suffers from diminished vertical pixel resolution compared to previous console entries (160 pixels versus 224). Metroid II’s solution to the Game Boy family’s scaled-down size was to make Samus bigger and then double down by giving her an infinite jump skill, often leading players to go leaping into danger without sufficient warning time.

Fusion goes the other route: It makes Samus’ sprite smaller than in Super Metroid, then diminishes the maximum height of her jump. Her reduced hang time makes for a faster-paced game, less floaty than earlier games. But the scale and proportions of the platforming remains similar to that of Super Metroid; Samus’ ability to grip ledges makes this possible. She can’t jump directly onto high platforms as in older games, but she can still reach those areas of the screen by pressing up against them and grabbing them. It’s a smart way to work around the platform’s inherent challenges while switching up the feel of the action and reinforcing the narrative conceit that Samus’ powers have been partially crippled.

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The same shaft includes two other doors of a different color: Green, for Super Missiles. So multiple backtracks, then. The colored doors also mean that, for the moment, the game is strictly linear; there’s only one door you can go through, and it leads immediately to your objective.

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Said objective is a small critter in a darkened room. This entire sequence, with Samus exploring a seemingly deserted space station, echoes Super Metroid‘s atmospheric beginning, but it’s far more brief, crashing to an abrupt ending here.

This encounter serves a much different purpose than Samus’ landing on Zebes in Super Metroid anyway; that involved a return to familiar territory and the slow build-up of tension. Here, you’re entering a never-before-seen locale in order to advance the story. The tension comes later.

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Destroy the creature here and it spawns an X parasite, just like on SR388. This time, though, it doesn’t hurt Samus; instead, when Samus touches it — and the entrance to the room automatically locks and refuses to open until Samus makes contact with the parasite — she absorbs it harmlessly, taking it out of play.

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As it turns out, Samus is now an X-destroying machine. Her metroid infusion allows her to soak up any class five full roaming vapors she may come across, converting them into life-sustaining energy and missile juice.

And here’s the central mechanical hook of Metroid Fusion. No longer do enemies drop standard energy and missile capsules; instead, a destroyed monster transforms into a free-flying parasite that can be absorbed to acquire similar effects to old-school capsules. But parasites have other traits as well, which changes the nature of certain areas of the game.

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And here’s another change of pace: At key points in the story, Adam will unlock specific doors. This isn’t entirely without precedent, of course. Metroid II did something similar, with inexplicable earthquakes making new areas accessible as you worked your way through the metroid species. The similarity may not be an accident, as Metroid II informs much of Fusion‘s design.

The opening of Level 0 hatches allows Samus to travel beyond the very small entry areas.

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You immediately meet another creature like the one in the darkened room. This one’s even easier to shoot, since it appears on a raised section of floor directly in Samus’ line of sight (you had to target diagonally or drop to the ground to shoot the first one). It’s your proper introduction to combat in Fusion, as the parasite this beast releases on its demise can be sucked up without incident or even ignored. A quick, simple, repeat encounter to denote the fact that you’ll be experiencing live combat from here on out.

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And, with the introduction out of the way and combat encounters, you finally get to save. Just in case you screw up once the real monsters make their debut.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 1 | Disempowered but not disenfranchised

Metroid revolutionized action games. Metroid II proved that you could make a satisfying and substantial sequel to a console game within the bounds of a portable system. And Metroid IIISuper Metroid — advanced the state of the video game art considerably, relaying both an engaging story and the workings of a complex, non-linear platform shooter with barely a word. The third entry in the series was so good that many people declared it the greatest game of all time, period. And then… Metroid skipped a console generation, foregoing the N64 and Game Boy Color altogether.

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Metroid Fusion, the fourth game in the series, wouldn’t arrive until 2002, more than eight years after Super Metroid‘s debut. Needless to say, it arrived with grand expectation in tow; sure, Nintendo was also publishing Metroid Prime on the same day, but that was a first-person shooter made by a bunch of Texans. This was the real Metroid sequel; not only was it directed by one of the key creators of Metroid and Super Metroid, Yoshio Sakamoto, the title screen even said Metroid 4!

Within a few days of Fusion’s release, however, many fans had unilaterally declared Fusion a disgrace to the Metroid name and Prime the true successor to the torch, interquel status and shifted genre designation notwithstanding. Fusion was deeply reviled for its linearity, its lack of atmosphere, and its constant dialogue and restrictions. Also, for Samus’ weird new blue suit.

But was Metroid Fusion really the garbage many disgruntled fans would have you believe? Yes, it’s very different in many ways than Super Metroid, but in hindsight these changes seem neither haphazard nor spurious. Nintendo deliberately set out to create a very different game than Super Metroid here, leaving the slavishly faithful approach to design to Retro with Prime — which is not a criticism of Prime. Retro took Metroid into the third dimension by following the Ocarina of Time template, carefully reproducing a 16-bit masterpiece not from laziness but rather to guarantee a rock-solid basis for a radical shift in play mechanics and possibilities. Prime is a 3D carbon copy of Super Metroid in many ways, and that superior foundation made for a brilliant work that excelled in its own right. It was a smart and effective approach.

But with Super Metroid being copied so meticulously by Prime, the team at Nintendo R&D1 needed to do something other than churn out a second direct reiteration of the Super NES classic. Their solution, not uncontroversially, was to create in Fusion a game that was in many ways the inverse of Super Metroid. It holds true to almost all of the fundamental tenets of Metroid, but it presents them in a different fashion in an unusual context.

In breaking down the design of Metroid Fusion, I’m not simply going to look at how the game reveals itself; I’m also going to demonstrate how Fusion is a worthy successor to Super Metroid by knowing when to mimic its predecessor and when to throw out player expectations. This won’t be an uncritical analysis, though. Fusion has flaws, and it has subjective failings that don’t appeal to all players. But on the balance, Fusion is a smartly designed game that plays with the rules of the series in order to prevent coming off as a tired rehash.

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Eight years is a long time in video games, and the span between 1994 and 2002 proved to be particularly tumultuous. Games went 3D, gaining a new dimension; and with that new dimension, they developed a new vocabulary and a new way of communicating with players. Characters and narrative grew more important; abstraction began to fall out of fashion; and the find-your-own-way approach of Super Metroid gave way to tutorials and mechanical exposition.

Metroid Fusion came into a world that had little patience for its predecessor’s style. Super Metroid expected observation and patience and mental synthesis of its players; it offered copious clues, and its design nudged players in the proper direction, but it was rarely explicit about directions or even expectations. Masterful as Super Metroid‘s design was, its subtlety was no match for a new generation of gamers who preferred telling to showing, explanation to experimentation. Fusion had to be different — and, as Sakamoto has explained, the team wanted it to be different. Nintendo R&D1 was always about playing around with new ideas, and they’d already made the best possible Super Metroid imaginable with Super Metroid. The sequel needed to be something separate.

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So even before the game begins, it throws you off guard by nearly killing Samus Aran.

For three games, the implacable, unstoppable, genocidal bounty hunter Samus Aran had taken the central role in Metroid adventures. Wordlessly, she defeated no end of creatures, always finding a much-needed tool to advance further and destroy new and more dangerous threats in the nick of time. At the end of Super Metroid, she basically functioned as death incarnate, supercharged with a metroid-powered energy beam capable to tearing through any enemy in a single blast.

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So Metroid Fusion begins by tearing her down again to the weakest state the games had ever depicted her in. Metroid Prime did something similar, but it half-assed the idea, damaging Samus’ systems at the end of a prologue sequence but by no means stripping her of all her capabilities. Not Fusion, though. It commits cheerfully to the concept of Samus being disempowered and makes it the entire premise of the entire adventure.

At the same time, it also develops the concept of who Samus is. Through prose and pantomime, Fusion‘s prologue depicts Samus’ fall from power, but it also shows hints of the larger world of Metroid. The title screen animation begins with Samus’ distinctive fighter craft flying alongside a frigate before crashing into an asteroid field; shortly after, a cut scene shows her leading a team of soldiers, driving home the idea that she really is the toughest and most capable bounty hunter around: She gets hired to take charge of the dirty work.

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But that vanguard position also renders her vulnerable here, as a parasite set loose by her killing of a hostile creature on SR388 latches on to Samus and nearly destroys her.

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Fusion‘s introductory cutscene plays out as a sort of twisted parallel to Super Metroid’s introduction: Samus narrates as white-clad technicians perform operations.

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But in this instance, it’s not a baby metroid being put under the microscope but instead Samus, who lies at the brink of death after her parasitic encounter. Rather than playing the role of outside observer, Samus has instead become the subject herself.

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And here, as in Super Metroid, the baby metroid’s advanced capabilities come into play as the lab workers discover the creature’s curative properties: It alone can push back the infection that threatens to end Samus’ life.

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The infusion of metroid DNA into Samus marks the big conceptual change behind Fusion’s story and play mechanics: Samus becomes part-metroid herself. The creatures that have existed as the central threat and motivating device for the duration of the Metroid series may be extinct, but their legacy lives on in the form of the woman who destroyed them.

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The metroid-infused Samus is fundamentally the same character, but she plays differently. She shares the same weaknesses as metroids — ice will freeze her solid — and she’s fundamentally weaker. Her attacks don’t hit as hard, she can’t juggle multiple powers, and she suffers far more damage from enemy attacks than  in previous games. Even her profile changes, losing the bulky Power Suit/Varia components that defined her silhouette an adopting a slimmer profile reminiscent of her look in the original Metroid. More than that, Samus’ posture changes, with a ragged hunch to her stance that suggests weariness and fatigue.

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The game goes to great lengths to convey Samus’ newfound vulnerability, in both subtle and dramatic ways. Most famously, Samus effectively becomes her own worst enemy; but her weakness is presented in other ways as well, some less obvious than the deadly SA-X.

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Some of this is conveyed through game design, but much of it comes across in dialogue and monologues — quite different from Super Metroid‘s laconic approach. Still, they’re from different eras of game design, and Metroid Fusion does a lot with its dialogue to reinforce story and game concepts.