The Two Kinds of Metroid Games - Game Design Gazette

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Two Kinds of Metroid Games


At E3 2017, Nintendo announced two completely separate Metroid games they were working on. One of these was Metroid: Samus Returns, a remake of the side-scrolling Metroid II on the original Game Boy for the Nintendo 3DS. The other was Metroid Prime 4—an entirely new game played from a first-person viewpoint like its predecessors—for the Nintendo Switch. 

The distinct styles these two games represent are often referred to as “2D Metroid” and “3D Metroid”. And so, their announcement fans of the Metroid series to say things like, “I’m glad they’re bringing both 2D and 3D Metroid back.” 

That is certainly one way to look at it. “2D” and “3D” admittedly the most common (and admittedly straightforward) ways to classify the two kinds of Metroid games. That said, it isn’t how I personally view these games. While it isn’t inaccurate to use the terms “2D Metroid” and “3D Metroid,” I haven’t categorized Metroid games that way since 2010’s Metroid: Other M, which is a 3D Metroid, and yet very different from what most people consider to be "3D Metroid". 

Instead, I prefer to classify Metroids into “Western-style Metroid” and “Japanese-style Metroid,” which I feel are more accurately descriptive of the two distinct Metroid design philosophies we've seen over the last 15 years, affecting everything from environment design to character design to genre. Until last year, the best representatives of these two design philosophies were the most recent games from each—the Metroid Prime Trilogy and Metroid: Other M, both of which have chosen to build upon the formula established by Super Metroid in very different ways.

Character Design 

Let’s begin with the most obvious difference between Western and Japanese-style Metroids: the way Samus herself is designed. While Samus without her signature suit (referred to as “Zero Suit Samus”) now looks consistent across most Nintendo games, there is a major difference between the Western and Japanese-style Metroids in how she looks and behaves with the suit on.

Let's tackle Western-style Metroid character design first. While each of the Metroid Prime games has made slight adjustments to Samus’s Varia Suit (which is the look most people recognize the character by), they primarily stress four key elements in their designs:
  • Large, bulky shoulder pads
  • A large, heavy arm cannon that complements Samus's "tank-like" design
  • Long, slender legs
  • Stiff, gunslinger-like body language
Samus in the Metroid Prime series is designed like a tank on legs. Her Varia Suit is tall, bulky, and exudes a commanding presence. It doesn’t matter if she’s standing next to someone in a space marine suit or a group of heavily-armoured intergalactic bounty hunters—the Varia Suit in Metroid Prime is meant to look inhumanly large and domineering. 

Part of the reason for this is that Super Metroid was a major influence on the creators of Metroid Prime. Samus’s Varia Suit in that game exhibits a rather heavy, bulky look, with a lot of official artwork and screenshots depicting Super Metroid’s Samus as a menacing, hunched-over robotic figure. 

While Samus in Metroid Prime looks more human (and less threatening, owing to the fact that her visor looks much less sinister than in Super Metroid), the tank-like features from Super are still very prominent in the Prime designs. The shoulder pads are just as voluminous, the arm cannon just as hefty (think: rocket launcher), and the overall posture and movement of the character just as stiff (presumably due to the weight of the suit). 

I've always found Samus in the Metroid Prime games reminiscent of a tanked-out space marine/cowboy in her mannerisms. The gunslinger-esque way she sweeps her arm cannon around, the way the suit prevents her from putting her back into her movements because it's so heavy.

The one major point of difference between Super Metroid's Varia Suit and the Metroid Prime Varia Suits lies in the legs. Samus's legs in the Metroid Prime games have always appeared a tad long. In Prime 1, in particular, it sometimes appears as though they lack volume or "muscle".  While Super Metroid Samus looks like she kicks like a mule, Prime 1 Samus's legs look much leaner, right from her thighs down to the ankles, and thus ensure one's attention is focused on her tank-like upper body instead.

In short: Metroid Prime's Samus design does a great job of emphasizing her brute strength and firepower. She's designed like a bodybuilder, with a massive upper body, a slender lower body, and an arm cannon built like a rocket launcher. Prime Samus lets the suit work do her work for her.

On the other hand, you have the more Japanese depiction of Samus from games like Metroid: Other M and Zero Mission, and this design of her could not be more different.

The Varia Suit in Metroid: Other M is the polar opposite of the same suit from the Prime series. Other M's suit is designed to look sleek, fast, and flexible. It affords Samus a level of mobility she's never displayed in any of the Prime games, with various in-game moments and cutscenes depicting her vaulting over enemies, wrestling them to the ground, and just generally being able throw her body around much more than she could she could under the weight of her suit in Prime.

Visually, the most noticeable difference right off the bat is Samus's upper body. In Other M, it isn't quite as bulky as it is in the Metroid Prime games, and her arm cannon has been designed to be a lighter, more compact looking armament as well. Conceptually, her look is very similar to the Varia Suit in Metroid: Zero Mission, which also depicts Samus as a far more agile and speedy character then in the Prime series. In both games, she does a lot more running, jumping, and sliding than she needs to in Metroid Prime, and her suit is designed around these requirements.

In Metroid: Other M in particular, Samus's body language resemble that of a Power Ranger more than a human space tank. 

Every so often, you're treated to a scene of her striking one of her signature poses as the visor on her helmet flashes to life automatically, as if in response to her heightened emotional state. It's the sort of stylistic detail only a Japanese developer could come up with.


Above is just one of several GIF-worthy moments from Other M, demonstrating where that game's modern interpretation of suited-up Samus really comes through. Designed by Team Ninja (developers of the recent hit Ni-Oh) Other M's Samus manages to replicate Nintendo's 2D art using a 3D model very effectively, and it's something I've always greatly admired about the game. 

Anyone familiar with animation understands that 2D art is a bit of a cheat—it allows you to bend the laws of anatomy and be more fluid in terms of how your character can move and be posed, even if their design isn't necessarily conducive to this. The fact that Team Ninja managed to turn the 2D Varia Suit concept into an agile, flexible 3D model in Metroid: Other M is quite an achievement.

Exploration, Movement, and Combat

Today, it seems only natural that Metroid Prime is still one of the best examples of what makes for good "Metroid-esque" design. Incredibly fun games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Crystal Dynamics's Tomb Raider reboot, and a number of others have used Prime as a source of inspiration to achieve their own design goals, and it's obvious that the approach to level design and pacing that Metroid Prime introduced will continue to be used as reference by game developers for years to come.

Naturally, this wasn't always going to be the case. Every Metroid fan has heard the story by now: Retro Studios, which had been newly-acquired by Nintendo in the early 2000s, were having trouble getting their projects off the ground, with Nintendo reluctant to greenlight any of them for release. Eventually, it was suggested that Retro try their hand at developing a new Metroid game. The project began as a third-person shooter, with the camera situated behind Samus's back, but was eventually changed to use a first-person perspective that conveyed the world through the character's helmet instead. 

When this change to a first-person viewpoint was made, Retro recognized that they couldn't simply take Super Metroid and replicate it in three dimensions. Super Metroid is a fairly fast-paced 2D action game, and it demands quick decision making and even quicker reflexes for the player to be able to effectively navigate its world. These demands could not be made of the player when navigating the world from a first-person viewpoint, which only conveys what is directly in front of you at any given moment—and so, Retro designed Metroid Prime to be a much slower game that placed the player in a complex 3D environment, and afforded them the luxury of understanding it through repeated traversal, one layer at a time. Each time you traversed a previous area, you were likely to spot something new that you could interact with, whether it was a puzzle you could now solve with a newly-gained ability or an object in the environment that you could scan for some sort of tasty world-building piece of lore.  

If you really think about it, the Metroid Prime games aren't very much like Super Metroid at all, just like Super Mario 64 is nothing like Super Mario World. Both 3D re-imaginings are meant to be played a little slower, and allow the player to take in their surroundings without being reminded of the constant need to push on. In fact, as the Prime series evolved Retro introduced more and more elements that would set it apart from Super Metroid, including a knack for slower-paced puzzles that could take several minutes to solve. (Metroid Prime 2 with its fantastic Morph Ball puzzles stands out in particular) As a result, Metroid Prime has rightfully become its own kind of "Metroid game" over the years, despite the fact that it ultimately isn't really all that much like Super Metroid.


On the other hand, you have games like Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid: Other M—two of the more "Japanese-style" Metroid games—which have been more interested in directly replicating and building upon the fast-paced "dance" of Super Metroid

Of all the Metroid games following Super, Zero Mission in particular has done an incredible job of fine-tuning all the little things about Super that felt off, to make for a game that does exactly what Super Metroid does, but with more finesse. Movement and jumping are both "tighter" in Zero Mission, for instance. When you jump, you know exactly where you're going to land. Other little additions, such as the more friendly missile-selection controls and being able to perform a Shinespark in Morph Ball form (which makes for some of the most memorable moments from the game) all amount to making Zero Mission a faster, slicker take on what Super Metroid started.

There are other, greater improvements, too. Each time you return to an older area in either Super or Metroid: Zero Mission,  you become just a little bit quicker and more efficient at navigating it—like a well-rehearsed dance that you practice over and over again, until you can perform it with a grace and confidence that's as fascinating to watch as it is fun to perform. And while Super Metroid forms the basis for the 2D Metroid formula as we know it, Metroid: Zero Mission does a good job of excising some of the unnecessary fluff by making the map a little smaller (which works really well for ZM) and making it easier for the player to return to previous areas, which in turn makes them better at mastering the game. Given that Zero Mission was the third time Nintendo were fiddling with the traditional Metroid design, the fact that it is so perfectly fine-tuned is no surprise.

In contrast to Zero Mission, you have Metroid: Other M, which is one of the more experimental Metroid games in this sense. Instead of building upon Super Metroid's idea of unguided exploration, Metroid: Other M gives the player clear objectives regarding where you need to go next if you want to get closer to completing the game, ensuring that they're never really lost. Using  its more linear map as a basic framework, Other M then turns its attention toward adapting the  style and fast-paced movement of the 2D Metroid games, and figuring out how make them work in interesting ways in a 3D space. Yes, there is exploration, backtracking, and a lot of well-hidden secrets in Metroid: Other M, but they're secondary to the game's primary goals.

Chief among the interesting twists Other M introduces is its use of the camera. It is a well-known fact that automatic camera management is something that has taken game developers a long time to master. Metroid: Other M, however, makes it look easy. You're constantly being presented a view of the action from different camera angles, and the game uses these to dramatic effect many, many times from start to finish, despite the fact that the player has no control over the camera whatsoever. 

Whether it involves the camera zooming far out to convey the expanse of your surroundings as you dash across a long stretch of tunnel, or simply scenes that transition seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene (like the GIF earlier), Metroid: Other M is an absolute master of camera management and using it to convey scenes from angles you wouldn't expect. There's even creative use of the camera for a couple of neat Shinesparking puzzles in the game. Given how often the camera's position changes throughout, it's astonishing how rarely Other M actually outright fails to present the player with a clear view of the action while keeping things interesting.


The camera also plays a significant role in another of Metroid: Other M's key features. In addition to feeling fast and stylish, Other M also makes enemy encounters feel much more involving. When you play the game for the very first time, the way enemies come at you can actually feel rather overwhelming, given that they have a tendency to attack from different angles and can catch you off-guard if you aren't paying attention. Other M also makes it a point not to let you one-shot most enemies in the game early on, and instead makes you learn to deal with groups of small, vicious creatures that attack you all at once. As you progress, it slowly begins to throw stronger, more tricky enemies at you—a pair of chameleons that can turn invisible, for example—encouraging use of Samus's new dodge, counter, and quick-kill moves (not the actual names) to deal with them. 

The counter in particular is interesting, because Other M avoids putting a bunch of button prompts on the screen to indicate when you can counter an enemy attack. Instead, it asks the player to learn the timing themselves, and this is one of my favourite things about the game, given that most developers haven't figured out how to make quick-time events interesting and unobtrusive even now.  

Finally, there are the missile controls. In order to fire a missile in Metroid: Other M, you need to move the Wii Remote—which you hold sideways for most of the game—and point it at the screen, which roots Samus to the spot she's in. The lock-on mechanism then takes an additional split-second to activate (provided you're accurately pointing at an enemy) following which you can let loose with a powerful missile capable of greatly damaging most enemies in the game. It requires an actual physical movement and asks the player to make a quick, on-the-spot decision about whether they're comfortable leaving themselves open while they go on the offensive or not.

On the whole, Metroid: Other M, more so than any other Metroid game, is about getting up close and personal with enemies, inviting the player to use melee attacks where possible to more effectively deal damage, and to do it with style. This is as close to a stylish-action game as Metroid has ever gotten. Granted, the game can be very inconsistent in its portrayal of Samus from a story perspective, but in terms of how it plays, I love the fact that Other M exists as a contrast to the more Western-style Metroid Prime. I'd argue that there a great many lessons to be learnt from the game in terms of perfecting that coveted "cinematic" approach developers value so much these days.

Art Direction/Environment Design

Incredible art direction and environment design has always been one of the most recognizable facets of the Metroid Prime games. Even ten years after the release of Metroid Prime 3 (on hardware that was considered weak by 2007 standards no less), the game still looks extremely pretty. Retro Studios were skilled enough back when they were working on Metroid Prime on the Gamecube, but by the time the studio had released Metroid Prime 3 you could tell they really knew their craft.

Thoughtful artwork is something all three Metroid Prime games have in common.  Retro would put an artist in charge of a room, and give them the autonomy to decide what every object in the room should look like, as well as what purpose it should serve in the game's universe. If you haven't already, I would highly recommend parsing through this thread on Conceptart.org, where Matt Manchester (going by the username "oracrest"), an environment artist that worked on Metroid Prime 3, shares a great deal of insight into their designs.  (The same artist also went on to do the same for Donkey Kong Country Returns a couple of years later.)

"The Chozo statues were always some of the most memorable set pieces for the Metroid games that I had enjoyed so many times before," Manchester writes about the Chozo model above, which is one of many pieces of art he designed for Metroid Prime 3's  Skytown area. "It was important to make ones here that were recognizable, but also influenced by the unique artistry of Skytown. For this entryway statue, I thought of the statues from Zero Mission, and adopted a similar Indian style sitting position for him."

Then there's the save station above. "I always loved the feel of the save stations in Prime. I thinks its the immediate sense of comfort and safety you feel when entering one," Manchester says about the room, also created for Prime 3's Skytown. "I wanted push that feeling that I always got, and make a very serene little hideaway type of save station. Along the walls, I made celestial clocks, that correspond to some unknown solar system, and the respective orbits of their planets."

Manchester goes on to explain he wrote a number of lore-related notes for his art on Metroid Prime 3, many of which actually ended up making it into the game as text for Samus's scan visor. (Naturally, they had to be edited down for length) This extra effort Retro's artists went to is self-evident when you play any of the three Prime games—you find that every part of the world is constantly giving you some sense of the civilization that inhabited it. It really gives one the impression that Retro put their hearts and souls into every inch these games, no matter how big or small.

Unfortunately, one can't really say the same for the more recent Japanese-developed Metroids. Yes, Super Metroid has some of the nicest, most moody environments for a game from its era. And yes, Metroid: Zero Mission, which is designed to translate those same areas into a distinctly more colourful art style, looks quite nice, too. But then you have games like Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Other M, where you get the impression that the art team didn't put a whole lot of effort into trying to make the environments look as distinctive as a Metroid deserves. 

One could argue that Metroid Fusion does at least make an impression by virtue of its colour palette (which makes heavy uses of purple and green), which it insists on using prominently throughout its 8 hours (including on Samus's suit). Other M, on the other hand, doesn't even have that going for it, and most of its environments consist of similar looking metallic corridors, or exteriors with very little personality beyond their general theme of jungle, arctic, and so on. 

(The one exception to this rule is the volcanic area, which I feel stands out above the rest, just because it at least employs a more vibrant colour scheme.)

On the whole, it's quite clear that Western-developed Metroids—we aren't counting Metroid Prime Hunters and Metroid Prime: Federation Force, given that they are one-off experiments—have the upper hand when it comes to overall art direction and environment design. Meanwhile, the Japanese Metroids are better known for their sense of movement and style.

So far, this logic holds up.

Metroid: Samus Returns

Metroid: Samus Returns isn't really like any of the other Metroids so far. For starters, it's a side-scrolling game that emphasizes its style and fluidity over exploration, but is developed by a Western studio—MercurySteam of Spain.

Similar to other Western-developed MetroidsSamus Returns' version of the Varia Suit is designed to look bulky, intimidating, and heavily-armoured. However, MercurySteam manage to pull this look off without making Samus feel stiff or restricted in her movements in any way.


Samus' body language in the game manages to convey a sense of both weight and lightness. When she walks, you can "sense" the weight of her suit. When she runs or jumps, you forget how heavy the suit must be and focus instead on how fast and flexible she is. The animation serves the scene and skillfully see-saws between conveying a sense of heaviness and power, and a sense of speed and agility.

There's also the camerawork. Samus Returns takes some of the best ideas from Metroid: Other M and uses them in a way that makes it look incredibly cinematic for a side-scrolling game. Like Other M, the game's biggest success in this area is that the camera actually changes most often during gameplay, and does it without disrupting the player's attention. It's also nice to see the return of QTEs that don't require on-screen prompts (you're required to use sound cues instead), as these are what often trigger the cinematic camera.

On the other hand, Metroid: Samus Returns almost tries too hard to associate itself with Metroid Prime. For starters, the game goes out of its way to re-use sounds and music from Metroid Prime. Item collection sounds are straight out of Metroid Prime, too, while a couple of tracks on the soundtrack are lifted from those games as well.

This actually feels rather odd when you play it. The rest of the game's visual style or presentation clearly has nothing in common with Metroid Prime, and yet most of the game sounds like the Prime series. I almost want to say it doesn't really work, but maybe I'm the only one it bothers. 

Ultimately, Samus Returns is an interesting game because it does successfully manage to replicate parts of the more recent Japanese-developed Metroids, but not to their fullest potential. In parallel, it also lifts subtly from the Metroid Prime games, but again, doesn't really do anything with the material it lifts from there. It is, in all senses of the word, a very deliberate balancing act. 

I'm still not quite sure what to think of it. 

An older version of this article first appeared on the blog of Black Shell Media, a videogame publishing and consultancy firm.