Metroid Fusion slipped out of the airlock between two behemoths, simultaneously having to live up to the legacy of its predecessor Super Metroid, which is a big Power Suit to fill, and keep the advancing Metroid Prime at arm cannon's length. It would have been easy for Fusion to have become lost in the vacuum created by Prime, or to languish forever in the shadow of Super Metroid, but in Metroid Fusion Nintendo has crafted a 2D handheld gem that deserves to hunt with the big boys.
Set sometime after the events of Super Metroid, the opening of Fusion sees bounty hunter Samus Aran accompanying a team of researchers sent to the Metroid homeworld of SR388. Upon arriving Samus is promptly infected by the indigenous parasite codenamed ‘X’ and whilst returning to base in her ship Samus falls unconscious and takes a quick trip through an asteroid belt, winding up in a critical condition at a Galactic Federation lab. It transpires that the X-parasite has multiplied within Samus and it’s not exactly doing wonders for her health. Fortunately the scientists create a vaccine made from leftover baby Metroid juice that kills off the X; however, the damage to Samus’s Power Suit is irreparable so it needs to be removed, leaving her in the underpowered Fusion Suit. As well as being a rather fetching shade of blue, the Fusion Suit gives Samus the ability to absorb X-parasites. This ability proves handy as she is sent to investigate an explosion at the Biologic Space Labs Research Station, which just so happens to be overrun with the little buggers.
As Samus’s borrowed ship docks at the BSL Station the game hands over control to you. Directed by the ship's computer you explore as Samus, blasting the X you go. The X are excellent mimics and are masquerading as the myriad creatures kept aboard the BSL; successfully felling a parasite reveals its blobby true form which Samus can then absorb to replenish energy or missiles. The absorption mechanic plays into the way in which Samus upgrades her abilities: killing bosses releases a core X which, when defeated, can be absorbed to gain new abilities. Samus can then use these new skills to reach new areas, which harbour yet more abilities to learn in a classic style. The list of Samus’s skills features fan favourites such as the Screw Attack, along with a few new tricks, including the ability to charge up Diffusion Missiles that radiate outwards upon impact. The constant upgrading adds a real feeling of progression to the game that is exemplified by the more linear structure.
Unlike the rambling quest of Super Metroid, Fusion’s seems a lot briefer. Exploration is broken into chunks through the use of objectives doled out by the ship's computer Adam at the new Navigation Rooms. Whilst this does make the game more linear, it is well suited to handheld play, as it means you are never at a loss for where to go: simply consult your map by pressing Start and your target location is clearly marked. It has also allowed the guys at Nintendo to cram each segment chock full of action. One minute you’ll be fighting a giant security robot, the next you’ll be trying to stop the whole space station exploding, and the overall pace of the action will leave you breathless. Those who still prefer a good old explore should fear not: Fusion still has tonnes of hidden areas and power-ups for you to wander off and find, adding some much-needed length to the game.
The short length is Metroid Fusion’s one fault; after the credits roll you’ll be shocked to see your completion time. Averaging around five hours for competent players or between six and seven if you're going for 100% completion, the real shock comes from the fact that the time passed so quickly. The length is only exacerbated by the difficulty; seasoned gamers will barrel through Fusion with relative ease, the bosses providing the stiffest challenge and even they can be conquered in two or three attempts. This would be more of a problem if Fusion weren’t an absolute blast to play; so much so that you’ll start it and before you know it you’ve completed it, then find yourself firing it up for another time almost instantly.
The game grips you from the get-go; you’ll be drawn into the frantic action, ponder on the possibilities of exploration and want to dive deeper into the story. In a relative first for a Metroid game, Fusion attempts to construct some semblance of narrative throughout the experience; through the use of simply animated cutscenes and still frames you are updated on the overall plot throughout the mission. These expositional pieces either take the form of text narration from Samus as she rides the elevators up and down, or through conversations with Adam. It is these dialogues that really build a sense of character into the game: torn between logical duty and feeling, Adam has quite an interesting character arc for a computer. As the game goes on you will find that your relationship with Adam is both one of implicit trust and distrust as he doles out useful objectives, but clearly has ulterior motives. Early on Samus draws parallels between the computer and her ex-commanding officer Adam Malkovich; the comparison instantly imbues the computer with a personality and you’ll be left smiling as the machine slowly becomes more human-like.
Having Adam constantly relaying orders to you somewhat dilutes the atmosphere of isolation established in previous entries in the series, but this is balanced by the increased feeling of tension. This tension is due to being stalked by the SA-X: an X-parasite mimicking Samus at full power, orange shoulder pads and all. As you are severely underpowered, the encounters with the SA-X leave you with no choice but to run and hide, at least until you can acquire better weaponry. The threat of the SA-X is constant and the run-ins with your doppelgänger are some of the most exhilarating moments in the game; you can’t help but feel tense when Adam says "leave immediately – the SA-X is tracking you."
Fusion’s sound design plays a massive part in building the atmosphere. The use of music and sound to punctuate action and heighten tension is masterful, from the slow building of tense music throughout exploration to the sudden burst of high intensity chase music and back to silence, broken only by space-age beeps and whirs as the threat level descends. The score is a mix of old and new that does an impressive amount with the limited GBA hardware, and although the tunes aren’t exactly memorable they feed into the overall package.
The 2D sprite-based graphics of Fusion are reminiscent of Super Metroid, except better. Samus moves with defined, fluid animations and the game is full of lovely little touches like the way in which space moves outside as you walk past a window or the spotlight that illuminates Samus in darkened areas. Overall the enemy design is great; especially the bosses, which are a showcase for the character artist’s vision. Being both varied and impressively detailed, it makes fighting them a real joy, especially when there are little extra graphical treats like a boss whose face progressively melts as you pummel it with missiles. There is a great diversity of environments, which is impressive considering it is all set aboard one space ship. The BSL Research Station is split into six ‘habitats’ ranging from night and aqua to a replica of SR388 planet surface, and descending into each for the first time is a real treat.
Like Samus’s new suit, Metroid Fusion is utterly absorbing. It is a perfectly crafted handheld adventure that’ll grip you from start to finish, even if those two points aren’t necessarily far apart. It will leave you wanting more, but that’s no bad thing: some of the best things in life are just a little too short. Metroid Fusion easily captures the magic of the series and is a great example of polished 2D GBA adventuring, making it a must-have for any would-be bounty hunters out there and a great addition to the 3DS Ambassador programme.