Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Killing Metroid

Let me apologize in advance: this is a Blog Post in the truest sense. It is scrawled off quickly, in a state of relatively high emotion, shortly after the impetus for writing it. I'm not going to pretend that it's going to be immaculately structured or particularly well-written; I'm certainly not going to pretend that it's going to be anything approaching fair or evenhanded to its subjects! I am Very Angry About Video Games. This is a Very Angry About Video Games post.



Okay, great, now that that's out of the way:

E3 is an awful, noisy cesspit of manufactured hype around marketing releases, and it started yesterday. That day was a great deal better than my (admittedly rock-bottom) expectations. In particular, Sony's press conference had lots of rad titles on display - this is the part where I note that Horizon Zero Dawn looks just as interesting as its title is terrible - and left me in a spot where, much to my surprise, my views on the triple-A gaming space weren't marked by complete pessimism. Microsoft had Cuphead and managed to avoid embarrassing themselves besides, Ubisoft didn't manage to alienate me any further than the norm - given that my attitude to E3 can be accurately characterized as car-crash rubbernecking, this was all pleasantly surprising, and I went into today feeling relatively optimistic about the direction of the industry. Of course, Nintendo had never been much for following the lead of others. I'm not going to recap their presentation today; it was bad, and I presume you're aware that it was bad. If they'd just have had some bluster, it would've been delightfully terrible in the same way that Sony's famed 2006 press conference was; as is, it was just depressing. I am not here, though, to comment on the stunning cosmic levels of ineptitude demonstrated by Nintendo's marketing staff today. I'm here to talk about the current situation of the Metroid series.

Let's go back in time a little bit.

Metroid Other M is a very bad game. If you disagree you are wrong. Objectively, I mean. Not "I'm being a smarmy shit" objectively, literally objectively; Metroid Other M is a perfect storm of bad design. It's a dull, linear action game with incredibly sparse mechanics and simple, dull, predictable level design, tied into a larger world structure that completely fails to capture the sense of exploration, mystery, and gradual, hard-won progress deeper into a world that is itself a living, breathing thing that makes the Metroid games shine. It's all too willing to sacrifice game design for the sake of narrative - a Mystery Science Theater 3000-worthy narrative that seems almost to delight in pissing all over the understanding that people had of Samus Aran as a character, told so very ineptly as to make one long for the lofty heights of video game storytelling that Mortal Kombat 4 once reached. About the only thing it has going for it is that its cutscenes are, in fact, very pretty.

Nintendo, of course, had tried to position what Other M represented as the future of Metroid! Metroid Other M was supposed to get the conventional gamer demographic to take the Wii seriously again. Metroid Other M was supposed to expand the series' audience to make it a mass-market success in the way that it had failed to be in the past. It was a new, mainstream, streamlined, cinematic Metroid; it was the Metroid that Nintendo genuinely thought that people wanted.

It was not, in fact, the Metroid that much of anyone wanted. Metroid fans hated it. Gamers hated it. Nintendo fans hated it. No one else gave a damn. It sold poorly, to say the least, and given the sales Nintendo had expected and the sheer number of copies of the game they'd pressed in anticipation of those, it rapidly wound up as a ubiquitous shelfwarmer on deep, deep discount. I don't have any proof, but I suspect that - based on how weirdly optimistic Nintendo was about the project's prospects - there is probably some preliminary work on a scuttled Wii U Metroid game developed as a successor to Other M locked in a filing cabinet somewhere in Japan. Regardless, though: whatever plans Nintendo had for the franchise were well and truly derailed by the title's reception and (more importantly, if we're honest) commercial performance. Outside of lip service, the Metroid franchise has been allowed to lay - by all outward indications - dormant until earlier today.

Today, of course, Nintendo announced Metroid Prime Federation Force. I am, to put it mildly, skeptical about this being a good game. But that's irrelevant to my larger point here, and I don't like to be mean. Next Level Games is capable of good work; let's assume for the sake of argument that they're going to produce a fast, fun little co-op action game.

What this does not change is that, as of today, I'm pretty sure that Nintendo doesn't understand what people like about Metroid on any level, and they're not likely to gain that understanding any time soon. I'm not saying that Metroid Prime Federation Force can't be a good game for what it's setting out to do. I'm not even saying that it's impossible that, at some point in the future, a good Metroid game could come out of Nintendo. You give the job to talented people that know and respect the series' heritage, they might well be able to produce something pretty rad in spite of all of corporate's helpful advice. But Nintendo doesn't understand what makes Metroid itself, so while it's possible that they could put something good out, it's not likely and it wouldn't really be safe to extrapolate that to any sort of trend.

At the end of the day, the problem with Metroid Prime Federation Force is that it's not, in any meaningful sense, a Metroid game. Yes, it has the branding - but so what? No one cares about Metroid because of the damned trademarks.

Metroid is about being acutely aware of just how hostile the world is and just how alone you are. Metroid is about scrounging around the world to try and find a path forward where no clear path exists. Metroid is about getting stronger by forcing the world to accommodate you, taking the tools you can find and using them to get just a little bit further so that you can make that next step. Metroid is about being genuinely terrified of what's around that next corner. Metroid is about returning later to blast that thing that you were so afraid of to smithereens without a second thought. Metroid is about realizing that you genuinely don't know where you are. Metroid is about realizing that you're probably gonna have to go through things that you'd rather not. Metroid is about struggle, survival and triumph; Metroid is about omnipresent, creeping dread; Metroid is about helping yourself because if you don't nobody will. It's oft been noted that the proto-feminist streak that was read into the Metroid games was weird, given that inasmuch as Samus being female meant anything it meant pixel art cheesecake as a reward for beating the game fast, but it's really not weird at all. If you're playing Super Metroid, you understand that Samus Aran is a Hard Motherfucker because of course she is. It doesn't need to be told to you because you're sharing in that experience.

Metroid Prime Federation Force is not Metroid. Again, I'm being charitable here; I'm not even assuming that Metroid Prime Federation Force will be in any way a bad game. But what it is is a game about fast, arcade-style co-op action with your friends. It's intended to be a fun, light pastime that a group can get together, laugh and bond over - something in the vein of Super Smash Bros. except without the part where Super Smash Bros.actually destroys more friendships than drunken hookups. At its best, it will still fail completely to provide what people are looking for from a Metroid game - but Nintendo thinks that this is a suitable representative for the franchise.

And, yes, it's a spin-off! But it's a spin-off that's the sole Metroid game released in the five years following a disastrous failed psuedo-reboot. It's a spin-off that's the sole light shining on the Metroid name; it's what's meant to prepare the market for whatever Nintendo has in the pipeline for the series. And let's be clear: this wouldn't be tied to the Metroid IP if they didn't intend to do something bigger with it in the future. Metroid Prime Federation Force is supposed to get people to want Metroid - and it can't, at least not in any sense that would be constructive for Nintendo's purposed, because it isn't Metroid.

The fun part here is that if Nintendo understood Metroid, they'd realize that the market is already primed like never before for a big revival of the series. We're not talking about something like my beloved F-Zero, where no amount of tears shed on my part (Caaappptttaaaiiinnn Falcon will always be there...) can change that the current shape of the market is deeply hostile to what the game represents. The Souls games did quite respectably, and now Bloodborne is a huge triple-A success story that shows an obvious appetite for the complex, hostile world design and atmospheric, environment-driven stories that Metroid is good at. Dark Souls III is likely to follow in these footsteps. For all Sega's unrealistic expectations, Alien: Isolation still managed to demonstrate that there's enough demand for genuinely scary sci-fi horror games to sell two million copies of one. And, of course, let's not forget that we're currently starting to see a real pushback against the lack of half-decent female protagonists in games.

Consumers are as ready for Metroid as they're ever going to be. Make it the way it should be - atmospheric, open, as cautiously paced as you need it to be or as fast as you can get away with, with its twin stars a tough, capable-yet-human take on Samus Aran and a surreal, twisted biological nightmare world of beautiful and fearful craft, inhabited by a seemingly infinite array of twisted grotesques - and you will be rewarded. You won't make The Big Money a la yearly Call of Duty releases, but there is a market for everything that Metroid represents. And Nintendo doesn't get that, so they're completely failing to capitalize on that while the opportunity exists.

In truth, I'm not sure how long it's been since they really understood Metroid, if they ever did. Metroid Prime was by all accounts a fluke with a tempestuous development process that was as likely to have produced an unplayable mess as the masterpiece that resulted. Metroid Fusion is legitimately a really good game, but its aims - as a fast-paced, linear, narrative-driven action-horror game - are much closer to Other M than they are to Super Metroid. Metroid Prime 3 is a strange half-breed that sits somewhere between Metroid Prime and a more conventional first-person shooter like Halo, with the result that - while it's still absolutely well-crafted and enjoyable - it never quite feels satisfactory on either front. Metroid Zero Mission was a nice little love letter to Metroid and Super Metroid, but it was genuinely terrified of trying anything that its forebears hadn't already done, and where it did do something new - a clunky, obtrusive hint system; a weird, mandatory suitless stealth sequence; a hard mode that was hard primarily because it reduced your ammo pool dramatically, turning low-percent runs into tedious chores - it frequently clashed with the rest of the design. And, much as I might adore Metroid Prime 2's sprawling, labyrinthine world and complex, cerebral boss fights, it also gave us a weird insistence on having power-ups obtained by killing the bosses that used them against you a la Mega Man, a beam ammo system that mostly just wound up being a pain in the ass, a dark world that provided a few of the game's best moments alongside a whole lot of retreading the same terrain except more purple, and the absolutely baffling inclusion of the most half-assed multiplayer deathmatch mode of all time.

Oh well. Much as I might like to see the Metroid franchise healthy and vibrant, I suppose that in the end it doesn't really matter; if Nintendo doesn't step up to the plate, someone else will. Konami mishandled Castlevania something fierce, after all, and now Bloodborne fills much the same space in Sony's triple-A lineup while Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is literally a Symphony of the Night successor, developed by Igarashi and company, that just can't technically call itself a Castlevania game. If the market wants Metroid, the market will get Metroid whether Nintendo decides to provide it or not. It's just a shame that Samus Aran probably won't be involved.