Review and Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Let's just get this out of the way up front: Metroid Fusion is an imperfect follow up to what many consider the best game in the Metroid series, Super Metroid. It's a good game, no doubt, and fun in its own way, with attempts to do things differently from what came before (so we're at least not getting the same game all over again), but it's not as good as the previous title (and It probably isn't fair to expect it to be another masterpiece).
That's the big knock against it, but when you're trying to follow up Super Metroid how are you ever going to be as good. Nintendo spent eight years plotting, planning, and then eventually developing a follow-up to the SNES hit and, frankly, if they'd never done another game in the series it would have felt like we'd seen all we needed to. Samus Aran had saved the galaxy from the threat of metroids and every metroid in the galaxy was now dead. That's as closed of an arc as you can get. Fans, though, wanted more and they really wanted Super Metroid-level quality. That's a high bar to achieve, though, and there was no way any follow-up could meet that expectation.
It is true that some would consider Metroid Prime to be a near perfect follow up to Super Metroid, but that game had the benefit of coming out at the same time as Metroid Fusion as well as being different enough from the mainline entries that direct comparison almost felt like apples and oranges. Metroid Fusion bore the brunt of being the "proper successor", but it was anything but a direct follow-up to the conventions set by Super Metroid.
Following the events of Super Metroid, our heroine, Samus Aran, was critically injured after returning to Planet SR388, site of her Metroid extermination mission (back in Metroid II: Return of Samus). She was attacked by X-Parasites, creatures whose only known predator were metroids (which, of course, were wiped out by Samus, giving her a dose of karma she likely wasn't expecting). To save Samus from the X-Parasite infection ravaging her body the scientists had to infuse her with metroid DNA (thus giving us the "Fusion" of the title). This saved her life, and, in a way, made her kind of the last living relic of the metroids.
Healed from the procedure, Samus headed out once more to patrol the galaxy as a bounty hunter. Suddenly, though, there was a problem on the starbase orbiting SR388 and the X-Parasites that were being studied there broke out of containment. The only person that could possibly go there was Samus since, fused with metroid DNA, she's was resistant to the X-Parasite attacks. Not only was she powerful enough to take these creatures on, she was the only one that couldn't be infected by their virus anymore, meaning our heroine had to once again take on a solo mission through the depths of an alien-infested base, all to try and save the world.
Credit where it's due, Fusion has a compelling concept. Fusing our heroin with the DNA of what is, arguably, her long-term nemesis is an interesting twist. Having the plot be essentially a problem of her own making is also pretty fascinating -- if she hadn't gone to the planet and killed all the metroids, she wouldn't be in this mess now. That's a really interesting re-exploration of the series's overarching plot and puts even more emphasis on the various events of her life, showing how she's been inevitably draw to this place, at this time, by every missions she's taken on before (at least in the mainline series).
The problem with the game isn't a thin story, as this is probably one of the richer stories yet conveyed in the series. One of the biggest issues, in fact, may be too much story. If you've played any of the Metroid games that came before, you'll know that Samus is a lone heroine. When she goes somewhere to fulfill her mission, she's set there until she's done. She doesn't leave, and she doesn't have anyone to talk to, and the story around her is just her exploring a planet until its end. What she does on the planet is her business, and she does it any way she sees fit.
Fusion, though, forces a narrative upon Samus. She has to complete parts of her mission in a specific, and very linear, order. Meanwhile, the whole time she's on the starbase she's getting orders from (and participating in cut scenes with) an off-screen character (we're lead to assume it's an A.I. before more story reveals just what the character is or who it may be). We've never needed story like this before so it's a mystery why the producers felt like it was needed here. It's not a bad story but it does feel out of place in this Metroid series.
Along with the change in story we also had segmented, forced missions thrust upon us. As noted, Samus has to do things in a certain order to complete the game. You want to go into the section of the base models on volcanic environments then you have to turn the heat off in certain sections of the space base, then maybe venture over to the water section and turn off the power (before entering the Heart section and saving Captain Planet). While we're being sarcastic about it, we're really not far off: there are six sectors of the starbase representing six ecologies, essentially allowing the game to give us all the usual terrains, from ocean to ice to lava, all on a spacebase. It's weird and feels rather rigid and forced.
This change though also has another consequence: because of the mini-missions you have to complete in each area you don't get to play the game in classic, non-linear fashion. This may, in fact, be the most linear Metroid game in the series (certainly the most linear 2D game, for sure), with Samus stuck to certain paths through the game, forced to collect everything in an exacting order. The developers went out of their way, in fact, to try and prevent any non-linear exploration, feeling like the game only worked along one path. Considering the tight plot they gave the game that does make sense, but it doesn't feel very Metroid.
In a way it feels like Metroid Fusion was designed to compete with other Metroidvania titles that had come out (like everything in the later period of the Castlevania series). Those games put an emphasis on story and characters, and the structure of the games was much more rigid. To play in that pond, Fusion added in story and went much more rigid in its own structure. I can kind of understand it but it doesn't feel necessary.
If we ignore all these flaws, though, the game does play very well. It's tight and crisp, with a Samus that does look different (and has some different power-ups, like the Ice Missiles) but still controls much as you'd expect. If the story feels far off from the previous games, the responsive game play feels very much of-a-piece with the rest of the series. The graphics, too, a nice and sharp. They may err a little on the pastel side, but that was likely so they could be seen on the original Game Boy Advance's non-lit screen. Overall this does look and seem like a proper Metroid title, just one that's moved a little bit off the reservation.
We don't need the Samus to be accosted every few minutes by an A.I. We don't need Samus to be forced into a rigid structure so that she's shot down tight paths to her next item, her next location, her next mission. Hell, we don't need missions in a Metroid game because the overarching quest should be enough. How Samus goes about it and makes her way through the base (wherever it is) should be enough. The journey is the story more than anything else in these games.
Which again brings us back to why? Why was the game so segmented, with such an emphasis on story over exploration? It feels like the producers on this title lost their way. They got caught up in what everyone was doing and made a game that is really quite good -- fantastic for a GBA game but doesn't compare as well to other titles in this series. Metroid Fusion is missing that magic element that exists in the best games of this series, and that's what holds it back. It's good without really being exceptional.