One of the reasons many gamers have remembered the Super Nintendo Entertainment System so fondly is 1994's Super Metroid, the third installment in a classic series of open-ended side-scrolling shooters, and one of the best 2D action adventure games ever made. Starring the tough intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran, Super Metroid delivered a level of detail, polish, and style previously unseen or unheard of in a game of its type. Fans of the series, which started on the Nintendo Entertainment System and continued on the Game Boy, were especially thrilled, since Super Metroid fully realized the distinctive style of gameplay of its predecessors. Samus has since made a few appearances in Nintendo's multiplayer party games, but now she's finally back in the limelight where she belongs as Nintendo unleashes not one but two outstanding Metroid games at the same time. While Metroid Prime for the GameCube is an ambitious reenvisioning of the series in full 3D, Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance is a throwback to Super Metroid, offering most of that game's best qualities in an all-new adventure. It's disappointing that Fusion ends so soon, since it's such a great game while it lasts.
Unlike any other Metroid game, Fusion is heavily story-driven. The game begins with some retrospective cutscenes that explain how Samus got into her latest predicament. On a routine mission, she's assaulted by an unknown parasitic organism that infests her nervous system and fuses her power armor to her body (hence the game's title), nearly killing her in the process. Ironically, it turns out that this creature--simply dubbed "X"--was the natural enemy of the metroids, those jellyfish-like energy-sucking things that Samus had hunted down years prior. Now that metroids are apparently extinct, the X have rapidly multiplied, and they suddenly pose a grave danger to the universe, much like the metroids once did. A precious vaccine made from the last metroid's DNA fortunately saves Samus' life--but she's changed, and, among other things, she's now immune to further contamination from X. So when a distress call arrives from a deep-space research laboratory orbiting the X parasites' home planet, Samus is quick to take the job. Sure enough, the facility has been overrun. And so, under the watchful "eye" of a computerized commanding officer, Samus sets out to save the remnants of the research station and hopefully find a way to destroy the X once and for all.
It's a good story, and it effectively drives the action along as Samus' CO guides her through the research facility's numerous infected quadrants. But the focus on plot has a certain effect on the gameplay. While Metroid Fusion essentially features the open-ended design of its predecessors--Samus gains numerous new abilities over the course of the game, enabling her to access numerous previously unreachable areas--there's so much urgency to the storyline that you'll likely find yourself constantly following the CO's orders without taking the time to explore. There's never a point in the game when the situation isn't desperate, and so rather than carefully surveying your surroundings as in past Metroid games, in Fusion you'll find yourself rushing from one checkpoint to the next, all the way until you finish the game about six hours after you begin, give or take one. The fact that you can't outright skip the story sequences also diminishes Metroid Fusion's replay value, as you'll wish you could just play the game rather than have to sit and read a bunch of text every so often.
Now that all the bad news is out of the way, it bears repeating that Metroid Fusion is really an outstanding game. Extremely responsive controls, terrific graphics, and great audio make Fusion easily one of the best action games for the Game Boy Advance. Those who played Super Metroid will feel right at home, though this new game offers a number of new play mechanics. Samus does not have many of her signature abilities at the beginning of the game, thanks to the X parasite, but she can still run really fast, jump really high, and fire her main beam weapon in eight directions all around her. She soon gains back some of those signature skills, such as the ability to roll up into a "morph ball" to fit through narrow passageways and the ability to fire powerful missiles. Samus can grab hold of ledges this time around, which she'll need to do when trying to make some precarious leaps and is really helpful for when she mistimes a landing on a platform. While hanging, Samus can either pull herself up or can plant her feet against the nearby wall and vault off backward. Samus can also climb ladders or move hand over hand across certain types of ceilings, and she's able to shoot while doing so. Try not to wonder too much about why she's able to do all this new climbing when she's still got a big blaster for a right hand.
Besides those basic skills, Samus will upgrade her beam weapons, missiles, and morph-ball bombs over the course of the game, and she'll gain other abilities like the screw attack, which turns her entire body into a weapon as she somersaults through the air. A few of Super Metroid's cooler abilities, such as the grapple beam, are missing, but there's plenty here to replace them. As in previous Metroid games, the motivation to keep finding new upgrades to Samus' suit keeps Metroid Fusion very engaging. She starts out strong, and she'll be extremely powerful by the end of the game.
She'll need to be, because the X make for some powerful opponents. Much like the Thing from the John Carpenter film (and the recent video game adaptation), the X have the ability to mimic their host, using its body to their own nefarious ends. By the time Samus shows up, the research facility is already brimming with all sorts of dangerous creatures, from the sorry remnants of former scientists to huge beasts that have broken out of quarantine. Samus herself was host to the X, and you'd best believe the parasite took advantage of that opportunity--her most dangerous foe in fact turns out to be a spitting image of her old self, armed to the teeth and incapable of remorse. You'll run into this doppelganger Samus a number of times during the game, and each of these instances is extremely intense. Many of the other encounters are equally good, as Samus will have to square off against a number of big, ugly, and powerful bosses before she can call it day. Some of these are pretty tough, and they all look great.
In an interesting twist, Samus' immunity to the X in its pure form means that she can harmlessly absorb the parasites that once nearly killed her. Defeating enemies causes them to give up the ghost, or rather the amorphous blob, and Samus will have to snatch up these multicolored things before they fly off--not only because absorbing the X restores some of Samus' health, but also because if she doesn't soak up the X, they'll either regenerate or find a new host. All in all, the X make for a different and compelling central threat in Metroid Fusion, and they do a surprisingly good job of making up for the fact that you're taking on something other than those lovable metroids.
The game takes place entirely in the research laboratory. That makes the setting of Metroid Fusion sound pretty bland, but you'll find that the setting is quite well done. Turns out this facility was modeling various planetary biospheres, so you'll find different regions that have entirely different types of climates: fiery, freezing cold, watery, nocturnal, tropical, arid, and more. There's actually a great deal of variety to be found in Metroid Fusion's locations, and some will require some skillful jumping and shooting, while others will require a keen eye and careful exploration. Most areas will initially be blocked off, requiring you first to gain particular skills and then use them to bypass whatever obstacles were insurmountable before. Later on, you'll need to use almost all your numerous skills in concert to get through the facility's deteriorating innards.
Metroid Fusion looks superb, and anyone who fondly remembers Super Metroid's terrific visuals will be happy to find that their high quality is matched in this game. Samus herself animates with amazing fluidity and is extremely detailed--for example, you'll notice how her asymmetrical armor looks different depending on whether she's facing left or right. Many of the monsters she'll face also look great, especially the game's huge bosses. The environments she'll traverse are as colorful as they are varied, and there's usually something interesting to look at in the background. Even the game's cutscenes are slick. Metroid Fusion also sounds great, and while its musical score doesn't attain the same level of greatness as that of Super Metroid, it certainly does a fine job of giving the game some extra atmosphere. In fact, the plot's suspenseful moments work as well as they do largely on account of the fitting music. The rest of the audio is also very good. The numerous creatures all sound different, as do Samus' weapons and various upgrades.
Part of the reason Metroid Fusion will seem so short is because you probably won't help but finish the game in just a few sittings. The game plays so well, looks so good, has such an involving story, and moves at such a fast pace that you'll always want to see what's around the next corner until you've soon seen it all. If you also own Metroid Prime--which you should--then linking the GameCube and Game Boy Advance games together (using Nintendo's GC-to-GBA link cable, sold separately) enables you to play a perfect port of the original Metroid game on your TV (not on your GBA) once you've finished Fusion. And once you've finished Prime as well, you'll be able to play that game again using Samus' distinctive fusion suit. These extras add nothing to Metroid Fusion, but essentially still do give the game some added value for those who own its 3D counterpart. More importantly, though, Metroid Fusion is another excellent installment in a series that's always been great. Metroid fans should absolutely get it, as should anyone willing to trade off some quantity for some serious quality in their gaming time.