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.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 15 | Kefkaesque

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This is it: The big payoff for everything that’s come so far. The three diverging story paths converge once again, with everyone arriving in Narshe — some admittedly by a more circuitous route than others. All that Final Fantasy VI has presented to this point comes to a head here, and after the upcoming battle the nature of the game changes considerably.

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One of the nice things about FFVI is that it does its best, despite its limited memory constraints, to explore as many permutations of its expansive cast as possible. For instance, the reunion in Narshe sees plenty of interaction between characters known to one another, as you would expect…

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…but, at the same time, it also takes pains to show new combinations of histories and motivations. For example, Locke’s blithe introduction of Celes as a high-ranking officer of the entity responsible for the death of pretty much everyone in Cyan’s life doesn’t sit so well with him. Of course, Locke can’t possibly realize that for this old dude he’s never met, Celes is (not to get all Godwin here or anything) the Hermann Göring to his lone Holocaust survivor.

The game does as good a job as you could possibly expect of exploring the resentment and distrust the party has for Celes, and it doesn’t get dropped immediately like it would in, say, Final Fantasy IV, where interpersonal strife would occasionally get you turned into a magic pig, but that’s about it. It takes a while for Celes to integrate into the group… though the sequence ahead goes a long way toward smoothing things over with a thoughtful marriage of narrative and play mechanics.

Meanwhile, Terra is just trying to figure out if she and this other woman who can use natural magic are, like, sisters or something.

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In any case, in the time it took for Sabin and Cyan to unseat the foundations of every major religion in the world and teach a feral child how to transform into an electrical monster, Kefka managed to round up the biggest army the Super NES could possibly handle. That’s one more Magitek Armors than in the Empire’s previous assault on Narshe.

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Which leads to a reprise of the three-team battle from the very beginning of the game. By this point, that’s probably about five hours in the past, so…

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…a Moogle comes out to remind you what the rules are here. The choice of a Moogle avatar instead of a Kappa is surely no coincidence; it’s a subtle reminder of the last time you broke the team into three groups in the caverns and hills behind Narshe.

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But this time you’re not automatically handed three preset groups of Moogles and set about your work. Instead, you’re taken to this screen, where you must break your massive party into three teams. Until now, you’ve gotten about in groups of four or fewer characters, so there’s never been a need to ask what happens if your collective group exceeds the maximum size of an active party. Now you’re stuck with nearly twice as many characters as can fit into a single group, so you have to divide everyone into more manageable groups.

You’re allowed to regroup and save as much as you like before kicking off the fight, so it gives you some latitude for trial-and-error, should you need it. The seven current characters are definitely not created equal, and finding the right balance for this holding effort demands careful consideration.

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For example, a good half of the enemies you face here are human soldiers, so Edgar’s Bio Blaster is basically your “instant win” button for many of the encounters.

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Likewise, if you did even a small amount of training on the Veldt and experimentation with Gau’s Rages, you can face battles equipped with powers for pretty much every occasion.

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Of course, you can’t realistically take on every battle with Edgar and Gau, as the entire point of this sequence is that the enemy assault is multi-pronged, and everyone has to participate. Fortunately most encounters here (unless you get unlucky enough to face a Heavy Armor) are fairly easy.

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Other things to note: Around this point in the game, you’ll probably start to realize that Terra (and Celes) gain new magic skills as they level up. Unlike other magic you can acquire later in the game, these are predetermined and fixed according to character and level. Terra, for example, learns Poisona at level 6 and Drain at level 12; for now, this grants you access to powers no other character possesses.

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Which isn’t to say Terra can precisely steamroll the bad guys. For a living weapon whose powers the world desperately wants to take control of, she can’t flambé an army the way, say, Edgar can. Her one purely offensive spell, Fire, becomes much weaker against groups. She’s good for single-target attacks and healing, but that’s about it… and since magic is her main draw, she’s essentially useless against the boss of this sequence.

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Actually, this scenario features two bosses. The first is comparatively easy: The Hell’s Rider, whose most interesting trait is his ability to use something called Reverse Polarity. This power causes the party members’ rows to shift, forcing the rear guard to the front lines and the front-row fighters to the back. But since most characters in Final Fantasy VI tend to use special techniques that ignore row, this power is considerably less troublesome than it would have been in an older game like Final Fantasy IV. With Hell’s Rider defeated, you can reach the Imperial commander the sub-boss was protecting: Kefka.

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Kefka can be a bit of surprise here. Where your previous encounter with him painted him as a cowardly weakling who ran at the first scratch, here he has command of a huge range of devastating magic spells. Muddle, for instance, causes one party member to become confused — a more targeted version of Edgar’s Noiseblaster, and just as troublesome for the heroes as Edgar’s tool is to bad guys.

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More troublesomely, Kefka has access to the second tier of magic spells, such as Blizzara. Terra and Celes wield only tier-one elemental magic, meaning Kefka massively outstrips them in terms of power. Remember how hard Tunnel Armor’s first-level magic hit a single character?

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Kefka makes that look like amateur hour.

With the ability to wipe out any party member in a single shot, reduce an entire fully-healed party to critical status, and throw around status ailments that interfere with your ability to heal up and fight, Kefka by far represents the deadliest threat you’ve yet faced in Final Fantasy VI.

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But, fortunately, one neatly mooted by Celes’ Runic ability. Kefka doesn’t rely entirely on magic — he’ll occasionally hit a party member for moderate damage, but that’s nothing compared to his magical power. Tossing Celes into the mix to soak up his spells every turn completely defangs Kefka; the hardest boss to date becomes one of the easiest, with the right character in the party.

All told, this battle is your first real test of synthesis. The game has been throwing tutorial moments at you from the start, and here’s where you’re thrown in with actual choices to make, to see how well those lessons stuck. If you’ve been paying attention to the game’s workings and the distinctions between characters, Kefka should pose little challenge. Otherwise, he’s a brick wall that forces you to come up with an effective strategy. Brute force can work, but you kind of need to get lucky for that to happen. Much better to finesse it with the proper powers.

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As ever, a graceful loser.

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The game comes full circle as Terra is reunited with the frozen Esper to see what happens.

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“What happens” is that Terra suddenly transforms into a wild-maned pink creature.

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With a shriek, she blasts the entire party aside, going a long way toward explaining why everyone is so eager to press-gang her into their faction despite her paltry showing in the recent battle.

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And the first act of the game comes to a close, with the initial process of party-building and Terra-obsessing having led a group of six to Narshe, where the newly inducted Returners must venture into the larger world. From here the adventure becomes much less predetermined than it’s been to this point. While you still have a fairly linear tale to work through, you’re given more freedom to roam…

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…and freedom to build your own party. Only four characters can team up to form a party, so your first task upon striking out to find Terra is to figure out who gets to warm the bench for now.

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And, best of all, you can finally explore Narshe. The final piece of the puzzle falls into place at last.

This seems like a good point to take a break from The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI; I estimate we’re at about a third of the way through the series, even if this is probably about an eighth of the way through the actual game. (Remember that this is a design survey rather than a Let’s Play, so much of the discussion was front-loaded.) 45 entries at 1500-2000 words a pop is a lot to write about a single game, and frankly I could use a break. So please look forward to… something else. Soon.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI will resume at a later date.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 14 | Dive alert

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Sabin’s chapter is surprisingly lengthy. Even after teaming up with Shadow, sneaking through an Imperial base, fighting through Doma Castle, and undermining the supernatural order of the human race’s afterlife, there’s still more to do.

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Shadow won’t take part in it, however; if you’ve managed to hang on to him to this point, here’s where he’ll part ways. Apparently a journey by train into the underworld was cool, but a leap from a waterfall is where he draws the line.

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And no wonder: This leg of the journey consists of Sabin and Cyan plummeting thousands of meters in freefall next to waterfall as freakish monster fish take a moment from laddering their way back up to their freakish monster spawning pools in order to attack.

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It’s all capped off with an obligatory boss battle, though this one feels a little perfunctory; it’s just a more difficult, more purple version of the other freakish monster fish.

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Once again, Sabin finds himself washed ashore, unconscious, where a new party members awaits. Other characters find allies through hard work and learning to share a common objective; Sabin drowns his way into them.

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It’s Gau (or Wicket, if you prefer), and his special technique is as potentially valuable as Cyan’s is inevitably lame. But you have to earn Gau’s techniques, every step of the way.

Sabin and Cyan have washed up in an isolated region of the world called the Veldt. In the real world, you’ll find veldt in Africa, but in FFVI it seems more like a pastiche of Australia. Not only is it shut off from the rest of the world, it also contains all the most horrible creatures on the planet.

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The Veldt’s sole outpost of habitation comes in the form of a town named Mobliz, which has a bustling trade primarily in courier pigeons that connect the village to the larger world. Internet isn’t really a thing here, so news, rumor, and innuendo are all essentially the same for the inhabitants of Mobliz. The citizens’ musings about the outbreak of war abroad help convey the fact that the Empire, while far-reaching, hasn’t completely conquered the world yet. They also set into motion a small little side event — it’s too small to properly call a quest — that gives Cyan some additional character development far in the future.

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You can volunteer to help this wounded soldier write to his sweetheart Lola if you like. There’s no obvious benefit to it, but who wouldn’t want to act from a place of compassion?

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The most important thing about Mobliz is the fact that the Item Shop sells a new consumable good: Dried Meat. It heals a modest amount of hit points — more than Potions, which already are growing woefully underpowered by this point — but more importantly, it functions as food.

Interestingly, Gau appears in the purchase/equipment window despite not being in the party. By now the fact that you could name him should clue you into the fact that he’s a future party member, but seeing his sprite active and potentially benefiting from certain gear purchases you can make in Mobliz gives a stronger cue: He’ll be joining soon.

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Someone in Mobliz mentions the fact that there’s only one way to escape from this region, by water, and that the necessary equipment for doing so has long since vanished. For the moment, this means all Sabin and Cyan can do is wander around the Veldt, fighting a motley assortment of monsters.

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However, after a random number of battles (but generally just a couple), Gau will show up once all the monsters have been destroyed and complain about being hungry. If you attack him, he’ll get angry and vanish for a few battles, only to show up again. Of course, his rumbly tummy is your clue here: Gau wants food. Being a cool dude who’s beaten The Legend of Zelda, the solution should be obvious for you: Buy some Dried Meat and feed it to (i.e. use it on) Gau. He’ll join the party and add his not-inconsiderable talents to the mix.

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Much like Street Fighter‘s Blanka, Gau is a wild child who was abandoned as an infant and learned to live as the animals. In mechanical terms, this means he can use monster abilities. His Rage command is probably the most complex character skill in all of FFVI, but it’s incredibly versatile: Once you select Rage, you’re allowed to pick which Rage you want to use from a menu of abilities he’s learned. Like Mog, he’ll then enter a berserk state, using random abilities from the selected Rage until he’s slain or battle ends. In a given battle, he has two abilities to choose from for his current Rage, but where Mog can learn eight dances Gau can learn more than a hundred different Rages.

In practice, this makes Gau something of a hybrid of Final Fantasy VI classes: Berserker, Beast Master, and Blue Mage. The Rages Gau can access consist of skill sets tied to a specific monster — for instance…

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…if you learn to attack like Magitek Armor, Gau will randomly use skills specific to that enemy, such as Magitek Laser. But Gau sometimes gains special powers that those enemies don’t demonstrate; the Stray Cat Rage is always highly popular for the way it gives Gau access to some insanely deadly abilities early on.

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Actually learning the abilities, however, can be tricky and requires a fair amount of grinding. The unique property of the Veldt is that every non-boss enemy you encounter in the game can appear in random encounter formations. When on the Veldt, Gau gains the Leap command, allowing him to fling himself into a pack of foes. This ends the battle immediately, temporarily removing Gau from the party.

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After a few more random encounters, he’ll reappear at the end of the fight, automatically rejoining the team after a moment. Upon his return, however, he’ll have added Rages for all the monsters in the bookend encounters to his repertoire: The monsters he leapt into, and the monsters he resurfaced with. Those become permanent additions to his arsenal of Rages; by the end of the game, if you take the time to train on the Veldt every once in a while, Gau has by far the broadest skill set of any party member. Not all Rages are created equal, and there are plenty you’ll never want to touch. But some can be situationally invaluable, while others can carry you through to the end of the game.

This is all fairly complicated, so Kappa returns to explain Rages in detail. Even so, there are factors that Kappa doesn’t explain. For example, Gau’s Rages don’t just lend him new powers — they also buff or afflict him with that enemy’s special traits. For example, the Magitek Armor Rage gives Gau Protect status for as long as that Rage lasts, protecting him from physical damage… but it also gives him vulnerability to lightning. When you Rage a flying enemy’s skills, Gau gains float status and an invulnerability to Earth elemental attacks.

And status effects obey their usual rules, too. Protect only lasts until the end of the fight, but Float is a “permanent” status and will continue after the battle ends. This can be handy in certain situations. And in any case, it makes Gau a powerful (if sometimes unpredictable) ally; many enemy elemental skills don’t count as Magic and therefore can’t be nulled by Celes’ Runic ability, giving you a potential “magic” backdoor against various magic-slinging enemies. The strategic possibilities of Rage are enormous, but the game doesn’t give you much guidance on how to use them, leaving you to sort out the specifics of each Rage and the secret benefits of the technique for yourself.

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Story-wise, Gau is essential to the party’s progress because he alone knows where the sole diving helmet belonging to Mobliz has been hidden. Once the party ventures to Mt. Crescent to the south of the Veldt, Gau will dig up the helmet, allowing the party to travel the Serpent Trench between Mobliz and Nikeah (a seeming nod to Serpent Road in Final Fantasy IV) — though how three people get about undersea with only a single diving helmet between them is one of those little plot details that you’re probably better off not investigating too carefully.

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This plays out like an undersea version of the Lete River, with the party zooming along through an impressive-once-upon-a-time Mode 7 view of the ocean floor and occasionally picking a route, some of which loop back.

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Enemies in this area are, fittingly, aquatic in nature. They’re fairly easy to trounce, but you have to proceed with caution as the tiny jellyfish foes, Aspirans, have a counterattack called Gigavolt that can and will kill a party member in a single blow. Since you can’t access the party menu to heal up between battles in the Serpent Trench — the automatic forward motion negates that — this can be extremely dangerous, potentially putting you at a massive disadvantage when you enter a battle with a party member or two dead. You can avoid Gigavolt by taking care to use only basic attack commands, but by this point you’ve probably long since learned to use special techniques…

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This is a chance for Gau to shine, though his potential here is something you have to figure out on your own. If you choose a Rage that grants Gau lightning immunity (or even absorption), he can pummel any Aspirans you encounter with impunity and soak up their electrical counterattacks. This goes a long way toward keeping you alive until you automatically reach Nikeah. Speaking of which…

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You’ve got to be kidding me.

No new party member shows up this time, though, so that’s different, at least.

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Nikeah, too, is isolated from the rest of the world, not unlike Mobliz. Unlike, Mobliz, they have discovered the fun technology known as “boats,” and a ferry here will take you back to Figaro.

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But not before a woman who evidently thinks of her breasts as giant sentient eggs from a nursery rhyme comes on to Cyan, much to his indignation. And then, there’s nowhere to go but back to Narshe, along with the rest of the team, bringing this extremely lengthy portion of the game to its close.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 13 | Triple triad (part the third)

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With the introduction of Cyan comes a weird new special command: Bushido (formerly SwdTech). It’s almost really interesting as a command, but it suffers from a deep flaw that renders it largely useless — or, at the very least, ensures you’ll never make use of its advanced permutations. Weirdly enough, the otherwise dreadful iOS port of FFVI changes the workings of Bushido with a single, small tweak that makes it massively more valuable. In its vanilla permutation, however, it’s largely a waste of time.

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The problem with Bushido is that it preempts the rest of the game. Once you choose the menu command, a new action meter pops up, slowly advancing from 1 to 8. Press the input button again and the currently highlighted number becomes Cyan’s command; each number represents a different sword technique for him to execute.

For example: Bushido level 1 yields you Fang (formerly Dispatch). This action is a single powerful sword strike that you can basically execute immediately; it’s a single button press more complicated than the basic Attack command, yet works out to be far more powerful, especially in the early game.

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Bushido level 2 gives you Sky (aka Retort), which places Cyan into a defensive state from which he will perform a counterstrike against any enemy that hits him with a physical strike.

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This counterblow is even more powerful than Fang. Higher Bushido levels yield instant death attacks, multiple strikes, status effects, and more.

The problem is that while Cyan’s Bushido meter is filling, so is every other meter. Your party continues to accumulate ATB charges, and so do enemies. Unfortunately, since the Bushido meter dominates the command interface, you can’t give any other party members commands while it’s active. Your enemies, of course, have no such limitations; they’ll continue to attack with impunity while you’re tied up with Cyan.

To FFVI‘s credit, though, it does a nice job of introducing you to this new skill while at the same time encouraging you not to get hung up in pointless encounters. Cyan leads a counterattack against the Imperial assault on Doma Castle, facing off against groups of soldiers singlehandedly. It’s a great chance to learn about the different abilities offered by Bushido; since Cyan is the only playable character here, the Sky command is super valuable — everyone’s going to target Cyan, meaning lots of opportunities for counters.

However, every enemy here has an extremely high chance of using a final attack: A free action performed as a counter once you land the killing blow, regardless of that enemy’s ATB status. These death attacks hit much harder than standard attacks and quickly wear down Cyan’s health in short order, and they break the rules of the game’s counterattack mechanics: These soldiers can use final attacks even if they die from Cyan’s Sky technique (typically no one in FFVI can counter a counter). So you have a chance to get a handle on Bushido in a fairly safe setting, while at the same time being encouraged to hustle along to finish off this sequence by taking on the boss to prevent Cyan’s health from being worn down completely.

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Meanwhile, your main party has to sneak through an Imperial encampment that’s set up camp in front of a bridge blocking the road to Doma and the world beyond. This is a light stealth section, and you can largely avoid conflict if you follow the dialogue cues and sneak past enemies. Of course, you can also fight your way through the encampment like you just don’t care, too.

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The game rather unsubtly contrasts the two remaining Imperial generals here: General Leo commands the uncompromised respect of his men for his integrity and compassion. Kefka, not so much. But Leo gets called back from the front lines, leaving you to face off against Kefka.

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For a general, he turns out to be less impressive than one might expect, scurrying in retreat as soon as you land a blow on him.

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Kefka manages to throw his underlings in your way long enough to make a break for it and enact the dumbest plot event in the entirety of FFVI: The poisoning of Doma. It’s a tragedy, yes, but it also makes no sense. Kefka poisons the water, which causes everyone in Doma to suddenly drop dead… except, inexplicably, Cyan.

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But, unfortunately, including Cyan’s family.

The idea here is sound — showcase Kefka’s wretchedness once and for all, while giving the party a new ally with a profound motivation for hating the Empire — but it’s borderline nonsensical. The way Cyan’s son flops out of bed just makes the whole thing seem goofy, too. This is one of those cases where Square’s designers really needed more than the Super NES could offer in order to express their ideas….

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Nevertheless, this does lead in to the most intense character recruitment in the game: Cyan goes full on berserker, fighting the entire Imperial camp on his own, leaving Sabin (and, optionally, Shadow) to sit in as more or less bystanders to the event who mostly offer moral support. Eventually, Cyan begins to wear out and accepts the other men’s help, and they all scramble into Magitek armor.

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All three men, of course, only have access to the basic functions that were available to Biggs and Wedge. Terra’s enhanced capabilities are nowhere to be seen, once again reinforcing the fact that she’s basically awesome.

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The road leads to the Phantom Forest, where everything is undead. Observant players may have noticed the holy elemental nature of Aura Cannon; this makes Sabin the star player by far, with Aura Cannon doing ludicrous damage to everything in sight.

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Observant players may also have noticed that the reflective pool here restores your HP and MP, similar to the recovery buckets in Final Fantasy IV though far more elegantly rendered.

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As you continue to venture into new territory during this phase of Final Fantasy VI, the game rather unapologetically railroads you in a specific direction. In this case, like it or not, lunkheaded Sabin wanders into a haunted train because what could possibly go wrong? By and large, this is how FFVI works: It features plenty of nonlinearity, but mainly in the sense of backtracking or revisiting familiar ground. As you push into regions you’ve never explored before, however, the firm hand of Game Design presses at the small of your back to prevent you from wandering off-path.

Not only are you pushed enthusiastically into the Phantom Train whether or not you like it, the subsequent adventure is probably the most literally linear sequence you’ll encounter in the entire game (at least until the Fanatics Tower, I suppose). It’s a train, a dungeon literally on rails.

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But you do get to see a rare treat if Shadow hasn’t abandoned you yet: Even the unflappable ninja warrior has a surprised sprite.

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Even if you’re down to your two core characters Sabin and Cyan here, however, you can still take on the Phantom Train with a full party. The train is populated by character sprites, some of which are enemies as you’d expect… but some are ghosts who will tag along and participate in combat. It’s quite kind of them.

In fact, they’re so kind that they’ll even commit the ultimate sacrifice for the party. A ghost’s special command is Possess, which causes it to self-destruct, taking any target with it but also removing it from the party. You can return to where you recruited the ghost and team up with it anew afterwards, though this isn’t particularly practical if you have to backtrack all the way to the start to find the ghost… and impossible after the point of no return.

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Despite the simplicity of this dungeon’s “design,” the Phantom Train features enough unique events to make it memorable. The setting alone is fairly unique, but then you deal with events like being pursued by a legion of undead who can only be defeated by unfastening the train’s car junctions and leaving the rear cars behind… which presumably damns every soul aboard to eternal damnation or torment or wandering or whatever, since the Phantom Train ferries the dead to the afterlife. Probably best not to think too hard about the theological ramifications.

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You can optionally stop to restore your party’s health in the train’s dining car. You’re given the choice not to do it, which might seem wise — don’t want to go all Persephone here, right? But actually, there are no ill effects, and it’s a nice little character-building scene for the devil-may-care Sabin and skittish, uptight Cyan.

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There’s also a completely useless boss battle against a pompous swordsman who ambushes you, flails about pathetically, and makes off with a treasure. Siegfried’s role or nature is never explained; it’s just a bizarre one-off encounter against a foe whose mere presence makes no sense whatsoever.

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More difficult is the palette-swapped spirit enemy Apparition, which is the first time in this leg of the adventure that you’ve faced a foe casting legitimate magic spells — something that will grow much more common from here on out. Magic, at least for now, hits your party tremendously hard and poses a major threat.

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Any ghost companions you still have in tow will leave the party once you reach the engine car. Wouldn’t do to instantly-kill the upcoming boss, right? On the other hand, your erstwhile partner’s departure sends a clear signal that you need to brace for a big fight.

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To engage the boss, you need to complete a small puzzle… which isn’t really much of a puzzle, since the instructions are given clearly. A weirdly pointless little exercise.

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The Phantom Train culminates in a fight against… the Phantom Train. In a pretty fun twist, the final boss of the dungeon is the dungeon itself, annoyed that you’ve been ordering its denizens to commit eternal suicide and relegating half its passengers to eternal purgatory. Even though this boss is probably best know for the fact that…

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…Sabin’s Meteor Strike maneuver…

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…allows him to suplex a train

…it’s worth remembering simply for its creativity. The Phantom Train attempts to run you down as you scurry ahead of it, gaining the rear-attack advantage and using a variety of abilities against you, including a particularly nasty attack that only seems to appear if you no longer have Shadow in the party — which is a weird design choice, because you’re already at a huge disadvantage with only two party members against this boss.

Then again, like everything else in the dungeon, the Phantom Train is undead and will crumble at the touch of curative powers, and dies instantly if you hit it with a Phoenix Down.

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At the end of the dungeon, Sabin notices that Cyan looks like he’s seen a ghost. Because he has.

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Completely unique to this sequence, this scene ends only after a specific amount of time has passed — a moment of silence, as it were. You can’t leave the dungeon of your own volition, and you can’t stick around. Cyan reflects mournfully for several seconds while you control Sabin (Shadow advises giving the other man some respectful distance), then the scene fades to black before dumping you on the world map. This unusual presentation adds a subtle emotional punch to this sequence. You can only move along when Cyan is ready to move along. It’s little details like this that make FFVI so effective at character and story development despite its overall simplicity; not how much is said, but how smartly what little it does say is presented.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 12 | Triple triad (part the second)

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Locke and Celes’ path takes them from South Figaro back to Narshe. You know this route; you’ve already traveled it in the other direction. The prevailing theme of the game so far has been “retrace your footsteps,” and this sequence doesn’t disappoint. In this case, you need to pass through the cave between the desert and South Figaro.

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To keep it interesting, though, the designers have stocked the caves with enemies more appropriate to the current party’s (presumed) levels. These two could steamroll the hornets and other puny enemies from the previous trip, but the upgraded foes pose more of a threat. Why exactly the monsters here have been replaced by more dangerous creatures is never really stated — maybe there was some sort of ecological apocalypse while the team spent years locked in the Lete River experience loop? — but it makes this sequence into something more than just a perfunctory trip through known territory. It also provides attentive players with a cue: You’re on the right path, even if it seems like you’re just covering old ground, because here’s something you haven’t seen before.

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Throughout the trip through the cavern, the screen occasionally vibrates in sync with a strange rumbling sound. As you approach the exit, the source of this sound becomes clear: The Empire has attempted to stop you by sending a magic-slinging tunneling weapon after you.

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This is a nice little bit of setup; Final Fantasy games usually see you fighting a boss in dungeon scenarios like this, but unless the boss is specifically story-related, what you face off against usually just amounts to a random super-powerful creature that happens to reside along your path. In this case, the “random” boss isn’t quite so hard to explain, and it even comes with its own built-in foreshadowing.

The Tunnel Armor is by far the most powerful opponent to have appeared in the game so far save the Heavy Armors, which were optional. Unlike them, you have to pass Tunnel Armor to get to your next destination… and it comes at the end of a dungeon with no mid-point save opportunities, so the stakes for loss are higher than usual.

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The Tunnel Armor battle poses a challenge in its own right, but it also serves as a tutorial battle for Celes’ mysterious Runic skill. As the fight begins, Celes tells Locke that she can shut down many of Tunnel Armor’s attacks with her Runic skill. While this ability served zero purpose in the passage beneath South Figaro, where no enemies used magic, here it has tremendous value — though Runic alone can’t win this fight.

Runic is an entirely passive skill, which is why it seemed so useless in South Figaro. Celes’ class is Runic Knight, and Runic basically works like a magical Cover skill. Rather than acting directly for a turn, Celes will instead use her spell blade as a sort of lightning rod…

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….literally, in this battle, wherein the Tunnel Armor frequently casts the Lightning spell.

While the Tunnel Armor’s magic attack power is sufficient to make this spell a one-hit KO to a single-targeted character and bad news if it splits the spell across both party members, with Runic active Celes is able to absorb the spell. It hits her sword and disperses, doing no damage.

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And, as a bonus, the absorbed spell restores to Celes the number of magic points the caster expended on the spell. She will continue to suck spells from the air for as long as she maintains the Runic stance, no matter how many spells are cast. Once her turn comes up again, she’ll lower her posture until you select Runic again. This means that Runic is a rare instance in which Slow status can be a boon: Because Celes remains in her Runic state until her ATB meter refills, if you slow down her charge time she’ll maintain her defensive posture longer.

However, Runic does have some downsides. It only works on “normal” magic — that is, spells the party can learn. Special magic-like attacks, which most enemies favor over straight spells, won’t be affected by Runic. Worse yet, Runic absorbs all spells during that turn, both the enemy’s and the party’s. Forget about casting Cure or Raise while Celes holds her sword high. Sure, you can use this factor in a pinch to restore some MP to Celes without using an Ether or a spell like Rasp, but it greatly limits her efficacy in the latter half of the game, when the entire party has access to all kinds of crazy magic spells and uses them on the regular. Still, Runic does have its uses, and in battles like this it proves invaluable.

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However, as I mentioned, Runic alone won’t win this fight. While Celes wields her Runic blade, all her other skills are unavailable, placing both attacking and healing duties on Locke’s shoulders. Tunnel Armor doesn’t strictly use magical attacks, so healing plays a role here; the machine has a Magitek Laser that bypasses Runic, and its physical Drill attack inflicts major damage to a single character. Thankfully, it has fairly low HP, so Locke can beat it down on his own despite his low attack power, but it can be a tough fight — especially if Celes’ Runic falls out of sync with the Tunnel Armor’s spell-casting and it manages to slip in one of those powerful spells during the brief interim between her turns.

This would also be a good time to mention the importance of the evasion stat, which didn’t work correctly in the original Super NES version of FFVI (FFIII) but saved my bacon in this battle on GBA. Locke managed to evade two consecutive attacks in his critical state, giving him enough time to revive Celes and heal up before launching a final salvo of winning attacks against Tunnel Armor. Some armor and Relics and most shields boost a character’s evasion stat; the importance of shields here makes their value far more apparent than in many RPGs, and turns tactics like duel-wielding or two-handed grips into a tradeoff between defense and offense.

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With the Tunnel Armor defeated, Locke’s scenario ends — you don’t actually need to travel to Narshe on your own power, because as much as this game likes for you to retrace your footsteps it has to draw the line somewhere.

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And for our purposes, that leaves just one final scenario to explore — by far the lengthiest and most involved sequence of the three, spanning far more ground than Terra and Locke’s scenarios combined and introducing two new permanent party members (plus a third semi-permanent member, and a weird guest as well).

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It begins, as so many Final Fantasy scenarios do, with Sabin gaining consciousness after having washed ashore. This isn’t an Ys game, so there’s no winsome local lass to find him. Instead, he simply pulls himself to his feet and heads out.

There’s a small house in the wilderness immediately to the side of Sabin’s landing point on the coast — an optional stop, but one you’d be foolish to pass up. There’s a merchant here, along with that guy from the pub in South Figaro.

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The merchant offers some standard wares, but he also sells a few new items whose value isn’t immediately apparent: Shuriken and scrolls. No one can equip these, but the other part of this little puzzle is standing immediately to your left:

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Shadow. Despite his dark reputation, he seems a fairly affable fellow. He’s just hangin’ out in front of some crazy old dude’s house, offering advice to passing martial artists and even offering to tag along. How convenient, and equally handy that there just happened to be a merchant here ready to sell you consumables for Shadow’s special skill. In fact, this entire scenario relies heavily on narrative convenience, coincidence, and downright implausibility.

Shadow isn’t a permanent party member at this point; as he warns, he can potentially leave the party at (almost) any time, bugging off at the end of a battle and leaving Sabin solo. That’s only happened to me once in all the times I’ve played FFVI, though. Normally, he sticks around until the fixed point in the story at which he goes his own way no matter what.

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Shadow doesn’t travel alone, and his dog Interceptor wasn’t given his name by coincidence. Besides whatever statistical chance Shadow has of evading enemy attacks, there’s also a pretty strong chance (even odds, based on my experience) that Interceptor will leap in to parry any physical attack that targets Shadow, all but nulling the damage. Not only that, but from time to time Interceptor will follow one of these parries with a counter, dashing into the battlefield to deliver an insanely powerful strike in response to the attacker. While there are some limitations to Interceptor’s aid — there’s a chunk of the middle game where Shadow travels solo and doesn’t benefit from Interceptor’s help, and you can lose the dog forever due to a weird status-swapping glitch late in the game — this added defensive element makes Shadow an incredibly valuable party member.

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However, that’s not Shadow’s real special technique. Interceptor’s just a bonus! No, his unique secondary command is Throw, which works exactly as it did for Ninja characters in previous Final Fantasy games: Shadow is able to throw any edged weapon at an enemy for considerably greater damage than it would inflict when used for a standard attack. The downside, however, is that once you toss a weapon, it’s gone forever. So while you could theoretically chuck a one-of-a-kind sword like the Atma Weapon at a foe, that would be deeply foolish.

Luckily for Shadow’s utility, you can buy relatively inexpensive consumables like Shuriken to use with the Throw command. They don’t hit as hard as high-level weapons, but they do the job regardless… and won’t break the bank.

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Shadow can also “throw” scrolls, which work as special ninja techniques. An invisibility scroll, for example, causes Shadow to become invisible, making him ineligible for enemy AI to target with single-target attacks.

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However, group effects and multi-target magic will still hit him, bringing his invisibility status to an abrupt end.

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He can also use a Shadow Scroll, which basically works like the spell Blink: It creates an illusionary image that confuses enemies.

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While they can target him, they can’t land a hit. However, his “blink” state wears off after evading a couple of attacks.

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Shadow suggested to Sabin that the only way forward was to traipse through a haunted forest, but this is a video game, and that means there are always obstacles to deal with before you reach the other obstacle before your main objective. In this case, the Imperial Army has set up camp en route in order to stage an assault against the castled town of Doma.

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It’s not a very effective assault, as it consists of a handful of soldiers ramming the wall, trying to climb it, and comically failing. Still, the Empire has been remarkably industrious of late: Besides their small assault on Narshe, they’ve also conquered South Figaro and now are making a move on this kingdom.

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More importantly, though, the cut to Doma reveals that Sabin’s going to have another hungry mouth to feed soon. His name is Cyan, but you can call him “Obi-wan.”