First things first, Metroid: Zero Mission is not a straight remake of the original NES Metroid with GBA quality graphics. It's a complete retelling and retooling of Samus' first 2D space adventure, including remixed areas, new power-ups and over a decade of refinements added to the formula. Nintendo has freshened the experience whilst retaining the elements that made the original great. In fact, Zero Mission's refinements are integrated so well that you'll start believing that Metroid played this way from the very beginning.
The story sees Samus sent to the crustacean-like Space Pirates' base planet Zebes (a world that was once her home) to eradicate the Metroids: a race of flying brain things that have a penchant for sucking all the liquid out of people. The Pirates have been harvesting Metroids for use as biological weapons and it is up to the bounty hunter to destroy the base and its guardian Mother Brain. This is achieved through exploring different locations on Zebes, defeating bosses and collecting power-ups until you are strong enough to blast the big brain right in the grey matter.
From the outset the differences in gameplay between Zero Mission and the first Metroid are easily apparent. The new game keeps all of Samus' platforming and shooting fun intact, but adds in some modern game design common sense for good measure. Firstly, the controls have had an overhaul: Samus can now easily toggle between beam and missiles by holding down the R button and shoot diagonally by holding the L button. Nintendo has also seen fit to include now-iconic abilities such as the Charge Beam and Space Jump that weren't in the original, and skills like the Power Grip that allows Samus to hang from ledges are sensible inclusions that make the adventure more manageable. Save rooms also replace the passcodes of the original, though the Wii U Virtual Console restore point is hugely helpful. The planet Zebes itself is also enhanced with far more than just a lick of paint.
While players of the original Metroid could be described as free-range gamers – allowed to go off, explore and find their own way around the sprawling planet of Zebes, players of Zero Mission are in for a more linear experience. That's not to say the game will wrap you up in cotton wool; it'll just give you a map and point you in the right direction, which is better suited to handheld play than the sometimes needle-in-haystack design of NES Metroid. Even veterans of the original will be thankful for the map as the developers completely restructured the game's progression, added all-new areas and made alterations to old locations such as Norfair and Tourian. The traditional exploration elements are expedited by the new Chozo statues that mark target locations on the map in a more toned-down way than Adam did in Metroid Fusion. This means that you'll always have an idea of where to go, but due to a lack of verbal instruction you'll have to find your own way there. The new guidance system is a blessing due to Zebes' labyrinthian structure, however the vague nature of the orientation keeps Metroid's classic sense of isolation intact.
No more so is this isolation felt than in the completely new area of Chozodia. After defeating Mother Brain and making a mad dash from the exploding planet, Samus' ship is attacked and crash lands in this never before seen part of Zebes. With her ship wrecked and wearing only the leotard-like Zero Suit, Samus is left with no option but to infiltrate the Space Pirate Mothership in her skivvies armed with nought but a pistol and a disarmingly innocent look. This Zero Suit segment has some of the most interesting gameplay in recent Metroid history and feels like quite a departure – in a good way. Having lost all her power-ups save her energy tanks and a laser pistol that can only be set to stun, the aim is to sneak through the Mothership hiding in shadows whilst avoiding pirates, tripwires and spotlights. Detection puts the ship on high alert with swarms of Space Pirates hunting you down; these sections can be incredibly tense as you make a mad dash for the safety of the shadows. The Zero Suit section not only expands the game beyond the ending of the original Metroid, but takes Zero Mission far beyond the realms of remake, adding an entirely new play style that could easily be a standalone game.
If there is one hole in Zero Mission's Power Suit it would be the length; even with the Chozodia epilogue the game will only take five or so hours to complete; that's less of an issue at modern day Virtual Console prices, admittedly. This is partly due to a decreased difficulty level when compared to NES Metroid, as expert players will find themselves vanquishing the final boss (who isn't Mother Brain) quite quickly. Even rookies will find it easy to chug on through to the end credits with the help of the map and the guidance system. Fortunately, Zero Mission includes three difficulty settings which up the replayability; there are also multiple ending shots to unlock depending on completion time and the percentage of items collected. Even players who suddenly get a hankering to play the original game are catered for, as Nintendo saw fit to include a perfect emulation of Metroid for the NES on the Zero Mission cart – you need to clear the game first, though.
Graphically Zero Mission is similar to its GBA predecessor Metroid Fusion, which in turn was like an updated Super Metroid. Although not as full of graphical flourishes as Fusion, the game still has its moments, like the way in which the titular Metroids fly in from the back of the screen in Tourian. As ever the boss fights mark real high points for the graphics, and it's great to see Kraid and Ridley given a modern makeover and a real sense of scale. The size of the sprites for these two iconic bosses really adds some menace to the showdowns, and alters the tactics needed to survive the encounters. Prior to the fights players are also treated to short cutscenes featuring the bosses, boosting the atmosphere for the coming brawl and excited to see the bosses in all their glory.
The music throughout the game is of a similar quality, as the developers have taken many of the original tracks and updated them to GBA quality. By creating new tracks for the new areas that are in-keeping with Metroid style the sound team have managed to weave together a cohesive soundscape across the entire game. The new music really captures the magic of the series, and the classic tunes like the theme that plays when Samus lands in Brinstar for the first time is guaranteed to elicit puppy-dog eyed nostalgia from even the most stone-hearted Metroid player. Thought the big screen is an option on Wii U, naturally, a pair of headphones and the GamePad screen can bring these presentation elements together very nicely.
If you loved the original Metroid you are bound to love Zero Mission: the game has all the atmosphere of its forefather and enough modern gaming savvy to keep it fresh and interesting. Even gamers who had trouble liking the NES original are bound to find something to love in Zero Mission, as the game refines the formula to make it accessible to newbies whilst retaining the depth in exploration and compelling action that veterans love. Nintendo could quite easily have churned out a blow-for-blow remake of the NES game with updated graphics and the fans would have been happy. Instead they went above and beyond the call of duty, creating a title that could quite easily pass for an entirely new and thoroughly entertaining entry in the franchise; it's a hugely welcome addition to the Virtual Console.