This is a series of features focussed on games that we keep playing again and again, either over an unhealthy number of hours or those that keep getting return visits long after they first graced our systems.
After the release of Super Metroid on the SNES, it seemed that the Metroid series had a future that was brighter than ever. Fans eagerly waited to see how the 2D masterpiece would be followed up, and whether or not the next game would top it. And they waited. And they waited. The N64 came and went, and while there was always talk thrown around of another Metroid coming out, nothing concrete fully materialized. Then - eight years later - the series came roaring back with not one, but two new Metroid games. While the critically acclaimed Metroid Prime blazed the trail for 3D entries in the series, Metroid Fusion provided what so many fans had been waiting for - a sequel to Super Metroid.
So, how does a development team follow up a game as beloved and polished as Super Metroid? The same way to properly do a sequel to any game: build on what worked in the original, toss out what didn't, and maybe experiment with some brand new ideas. Metroid Fusion did all of this, and while it always does fall down to individual opinion, it could certainly be argued as being better than its predecessor; that's my belief, in any case.
For one thing, the setting and the story were overhauled in a way that made the game stand out from the previous three. Rather than take place below the surface of a vast and dangerous alien planet, the majority of the game happened within the confines of a spaceship overrun by a powerful enemy. Moreover, Samus was arguably at her most vulnerable in this situation due to an accident that occurs at the very beginning. Not only does Samus obtain the Metroid's weakness to cold, but she loses most of her power suit and indirectly creates her greatest adversary in the game: the SA-X.
Prior to this, every game was started with Samus being portrayed as the already badass bounty hunter who gets even more powerful as she roams environments and obtains more upgrades. In Metroid Fusion, Samus felt stripped down and weak in the beginning, with each new upgrade bringing her slightly closer to her former glory. Bosses were tough, environments were brutal, and it constantly felt like Samus was only just getting by.
This central theme of temporary weakness and gradual recovery was further exacerbated by the SA-X. The SA-X acted as a tantalizing reminder of what you once were, and was the ultimate villain in that it completely turned the tables on Samus in this regard; for once, the hunter became the hunted. You never knew when the SA-X might show up, and when it did, you had virtually no option but to run and hide in the hopes that it wouldn't find you. A sense of dread would slowly build after each encounter with it, as you'd figuratively jump at shadows and wonder whether or not you'd be able to get away the next time it inevitably found you.
Another key distinguishing feature was the AI aboard Samus' ship, which she nicknamed 'Adam'. This was somewhat a source of controversy for Fusion, as Adam's inclusion made the game feel almost mission based in nature. As opposed to Super Metroid, which tossed you into a massive alien planet and put the burden on players to figure out what to do next, Metroid Fusion had a computer that would tell Samus exactly where to go next.
While it may be that this made the game slightly more linear, it also gave it some much needed structure without taking away from the open ended nature of Metroid in a major way. Yes, you always knew where you had to go, but the game rarely (if ever) told you how to get there. This was an elegant solution to one of Super Metroid's few flaws; instead of wandering aimlessly about the whole map until stumbling upon progress, you were told to go wander about in a specific part of the map. It's understandable that not everyone agreed with this decision, but it helped speed up the game's pacing by refocusing on a certain path while still allowing players to branch off and explore or find secrets.
Metroid Fusion seems to be one of those games that can never quite escape from the shadow of its predecessor, due in no small part to how innovative the previous game was. Whichever camp you happen to be a part of, both of these games are masterpieces in their own right and you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of this specific genre of 2D action gaming anywhere else. Unfortunately, we haven't had a main series Metroid entry in a number of years now, and many will consider the upcoming Metroid Prime: Federation Force to be a spin-off.
All the same, we can only hope that Nintendo will choose to revive the franchise once again and release a Metroid 5 that stands as a worthy successor to Metroid Fusion and Super Metroid. Especially considering the ending of Fusion, there's a lot of interesting places that a potential sequel could go, and there's even more possibilities when it comes to new gameplay opportunities. Hopefully, we won't have to wait eight years for it this time.