Over the years Nintendo has continually expanded its range of IPs. In the DS and Wii era we had Touch Generation, motion games, Mii-driven titles of various kinds, and in more recent times the likes of Splatoon and ARMS have made their mark. As a company it often opts for the whimsical and playful, of course - part of the Nintendo appeal is brightly coloured and fun games, an antidote of sorts to the seriousness seen in much of the retail gaming landscape.
Nintendo does dabble in more mature storytelling on occasion, with The Legend of Zelda arguably being a case in point. Granted, most of the games are packed with humorous characters and quirky sequences, but at times they can ramp up the drama and peril. Breath of the Wild does this at key moments, as do most games in the series - Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess also touched upon tougher storytelling. Even going back to the older games in the series you've got worldly danger, tough odds and great evil to fight; rather different from Mario's often slapstick battles with Bowser.
The Metroid series, at its best, is another that's important in keeping a little edge to Nintendo's output. The first two games made notable marks of course, but plenty would argue Super Metroid was the game that really put the franchise on the popular culture map. Its level of challenge, the isolation of Samus, the iconic boss fights - they set the tone. The series may have had sporadic releases, but through games like Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid Fusion the 2D flame remained lit, and then we had the Metroid Prime Trilogy from Retro Studios. It was a series that won plenty over, some relatively new to the franchise and others that had perhaps previously thought that the IP in '3D' wouldn't work. Though the first two games on GameCube had slightly awkward controls (revised for the better in the Wii trilogy release) those three releases demonstrated that Nintendo - in this case through Retro Studios - could produce immersive first-person experiences.
The cold reality, though, was that sales were decent but not spectacular, and there's the enduring sense that the IP often struggles to achieve notable success in Japan. Metroid: Other M, for multiple reasons, was also met with some criticism and baffled Nintendo with its modest sales. It generates heated debate to this day between its defenders, critics and some of us sitting somewhere in-between. Yet the mess of a reaction to it, combined with disappointing sales, seemed to trigger a malaise for the franchise that would last 5+ years. The releases stopped coming.
The early 3DS years and the whole Wii U generation passed without any new games, and the 'Metroid is dead' opinions were (not unjustifiably) doing the rounds. Nintendo does let IPs have a long hiatus, of course - Pikmin had a similar dry spell - but it was troubling with Metroid. A series that may not do the sales numbers of Mario, Zelda or Pokémon, to some it was nevertheless an integral part of Nintendo life. Moody, occasionally space-opera sci-fi with an iconic hero, every expo you'd see cosplayers, and every E3 we'd beg for Metroid Prime 4 or a new 2D entry. Silence was what we had for years, which helps explain why the reaction was so harsh to Metroid Prime: Federation Force; it had the branding, but it wasn't our Metroid.
Recently we did a light-hearted article on a year-long journey for two in our team to beat the Next Level Games title. A few serious points were made, though - we had fun with the game and it had its merits. It suffered from an identity crisis, though - the art design, the fact Samus was merely a walk-on unplayable part; these weren't popular decisions. Plenty flat out refused to acknowledge the game, and it was a doomed project. Strategically we're not sure what Nintendo's gameplan was - perhaps it was hoping to appeal to younger gamers or the Japanese market with the cute look and giant mechs. Maybe it was simply a case of wanting something new. Yet what ultimately happened is that it struggled to please anyone, and never was the negativity around the big N's handling of the IP more raw than the year from Federation Force's announcement and then its release.
At that point it seemed like the series would be over, and rumours around a 2D title on 3DS were vociferously shot down. Yet the 3DS reports were true, and E3 felt like a tentative rebirth for the series - we got teased with the Metroid Prime 4 logo, and then Metroid: Samus Returns was unveiled shortly after.
Samus is back, then. Next week's arrival on 3DS is highly anticipated, with positive noises being made in some previews, including our own. On the surface it looks like it could be a Metroid game many have been demanding - a return to 2D play, but with a bit of modern flair and a few different ideas. MercurySteam, with its flair for dramatic combat showcased in its Castlevania days, was the developer entrusted with the task.
It's shaping up well, even if some would rather it was a juicy HD game on Switch; to be fair, game projects can take years to come together, and Samus Returns makes use of the dual screen format rather well. Yet the buzz around Switch and the late-era feel around 3DS may prompt Nintendo to turn around a HD re-release for 2018; well, we can dream.
That could be a space filler, as realistically Metroid Prime 4 could be a long way off. Nintendo knew the simple news the game is happening would draw huge attention, and making noise is what E3 is all about. Mission accomplished, but it's unclear how far the project has actually progressed.
In a sense, though, none of this matters. For Metroid fans, and those that value what it brings to Nintendo hardware, these are good times. There's a 2D entry about to arrive, and a 'proper' Prime game in the works. That's a major turnaround from the doom and gloom brought on by Federation Force.
Ultimately, we hope fans will back the games, in fact we hope the games deserve backing. Metroid is a unique part of Nintendo's history, and it offers something different on the company's hardware. A bad-ass heroine, intimidating foes and fantastic enemy design, exploration, loneliness, epic battles. At its best the franchise simply has it all, and it's very different from anything else that the big N has to offer.
Welcome back, Samus.