Players assume the role of Samus Aran, the legendary bounty hunter responsible for overturning the sinister designs of the Space Pirates and obliterating their organic weapon, the Metroids. Samus accompanies a group of scientists to SR388, the Metroid homeworld, planning to survey the planet, but is unknowingly accosted by a virulent organism known as an X Parasite. The grim reality of this infection is explained once Samus loses consciousness and crashes her ship on the return journey – though she escapes the impact unharmed, her body and equipment are teeming with X Parasites, and her chances of survival are slim to none. Her signature apparel the Power Suit is surgically removed and she is injected with cells from the last of the Metroids, saving her from a grim demise but drastically altering her appearance.
The weakened heroine is given little time to recuperate when the laboratory containing both the creatures collected in the exploratory mission and her Power Suit is rocked by an explosion, thus tasking Samus with the responsibility of investigating the mysterious space station.
It’s a powerful opening sequence, particularly for those that played Super Metroid – Samus muses that the Metroid vaccine with which she is administered was derived from the Baby Metroid in the SNES title, and as such she owes it her life twice over. Samus is now able to absorb X Parasites into her body thanks to the infusion of Metroid cells, as Metroids were apparently designed to be the X’s sole predator – as such, her own actions in wiping out the Metroids in Metroid II: Return of Samus have indirectly caused the events of Metroid Fusion. Previous experience with the series is not necessarily required to enjoy this entry, but at least Super Metroid is undoubtedly recommended for full enjoyment of this game.
The gameplay itself has been further refined from past instalments – Samus is as sprightly as ever and still utilises her signature spinning jump and 8-directional aiming techniques from previous games, but is now also able to grab ledges and climb certain surfaces. Samus is stripped of power-ups from the previous game thanks to the removal of her Power Suit – a clever justification for starting from scratch again – and these are gradually unlocked through progression in the game.
Metroid Fusion’s progression, however, is surprisingly linear – Samus is given instructions from her ship’s onboard computer, who she dubs Adam after her late commanding officer, and there’s very little room for deviation for most of the game. Metroid Fusion has a story, one that it insists on telling, and as such often funnels the player down certain paths. Metroid games have always done this, mostly through the use of environmental obstacles requiring some power-up or technique to conquer, so it’s perhaps a little disappointing that Metroid Fusion often just seals off certain routes with locked doors, particularly towards the beginning of the game. It’s this lack of ingenuity and originality that keeps Metroid Fusion from surpassing its predecessor — Super Metroid — in quality, but it in no way serves to spoil the game. Metroid Fusion’s narrative, is, thankfully, worth the concession – it’s a gripping tale of suspense and intrigue, perfectly accompanied by the hostile setting and Samus’ unfamiliar feeling of helplessness.
The research station Samus is charged with exploring is host to a wide array of biological specimens, meanwhile, now infected with the vicious X Parasites. The variety of enemies on display is impressive, and boss battles in particular are enjoyable and inventive. Samus’ larger foes are formed from X Parasites holding one of her previous power-ups, and use this ability against her. The opponent holding the Morph Ball, for instance, is an alien armadillo that curls into a sphere and rolls into Samus, whereas the boss holding the High Jump vaults high into the air. It’s a nice little touch, one that is seen again in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and is used in both games to great effect to make Samus seem helpless and powerless without her equipment, empowering the player upon its recovery.
An undeniable highlight in terms of enemies is the SA-X, a doppelganger of Samus created by the infection of her Power Suit. This merciless clone hunts the bounty hunter and is in full possession of her entire arsenal of weaponry, including the Ice Beam, to which she's now extremely susceptible thanks to her Metroid DNA. The game frequently reminds Samus (and the player) that the SA-X is far too powerful to combat in her current state, and evading the creature whilst attempting to reach the next objective is tense and exhilarating.
Graphically, Metroid Fusion is a joy to behold, with detailed sprites and moody, atmospheric environments. It's awash with colour, which is refreshing for a title with a sci-fi setting where a dark, muted palette would have been the obvious choice. Environments are distinct and varied, displaying an excellent fusion of organic and mechanical design.
Nintendo has graciously included a number of options to customise the look for Metroid Fusion and all GBA Virtual Console titles, in the form of welcome display configurations for altering the resolution and overall appearance. The game is, by default, upscaled to the largest possible resolution on the TV, 1620x1080, filling the display vertically and leaving borders on each horizontal edge. This can be altered in the settings to ‘Original Resolution’, scaling it to the largest whole factor it can, at a resolution of 1440x960. Similarly, the game can be played with or without a smoothing filter, toggled by pressing the right joystick. It’s a matter of personal preference which looks better – the smoothing filter can make some environments look cleaner and more natural but text can look a little muddy – and some retro fans will choose to play the games in Original Resolution with the smoothing turned off, but there’s no right answer here.
The Virtual Console releases also contain a full colour scan of the original manual, viewable on the GamePad either during play or whilst the game is paused. Metroid Fusion’s manual doesn’t contain much useful information as it's a fairly linear and explanatory experience, but it’s an appreciated touch and a welcome record of the game’s history. The games are also brightness corrected – many GBA titles were artificially brightened to offset the original Game Boy Advance’s lack of a backlit screen, and this has been rectified on each Virtual Console port.
Metroid Fusion is as long and difficult as the player chooses to make it. Following the story itself should take under ten hours for most players, but there’s a wealth of hidden power-ups and items to collect for completionists. Collectibles are often fiendishly hidden away in the environment, betrayed by subtle visual cues that only the most perceptive players will notice. There are less head scratching moments than Super Metroid, for the most part, but it’s rewarding to uncover a hidden trove of items using wit and attention to detail. This title isn’t overly challenging; save points are littered fairly frequently across the environments, whilst enemies frequently drop health-restoring X Parasite for Samus to collect. Some bosses can prove tricky, but locating a healthy supply of Energy Tanks can allow Samus to tank through most encounters.
Metroid Fusion is engaging, it’s tense and it’s polished. It’s only negative quality — if we can even call it that — is that it isn’t quite as good as the outstanding Super Metroid, but judged on its own merits it’s an easy recommendation, and one that most gamers would do well in taking. The game’s relative linearity and narrative focus make it a great jumping-in point for those new to the series, whilst longtime fans will enjoy some of the references and subtle winks thrown at them. Metroid Fusion is a fantastic start to the GBA Virtual Console library, and if later additions can be of this calibre then it will prove to be a phenomenal service indeed.