Today I played through Metroid: Zero Mission, and was struck by the rawness of emotion that the game evoked in me. Emotions of fear and, at times, of power, often playing off of one-another.
The very start of the game is kinda boring, since Samus can’t do much yet. It consists mostly of simple platforming bits and shooting a few baddies. Each power-up Samus gets makes the game a layer more exciting, as it opens up a slew of new ways to interact with the world. But more importantly than the interaction itself is the feelings that came from interacting with the world in different ways.
Early in the game, one of the Chozo statues told me to go to Norfair for my next objective. Upon reaching Norfair, it quickly became apparent that the location on the map where my objective was marked was a place that I couldn’t reach yet. Instead, I went wandering around, and ended up stumbling upon a secret passage and an elevator leaving up to an are called Crateria.
I hadn’t seen any save rooms in a while, and I was relatively low on health. I had no idea whether I was going the right way, or if I’d accidentally gone somewhere that I wasn’t supposed to be yet. As I went further into this mysterious area, I became scared that I was going to die and get sent all the way to my last save.
While in Crateria, I stumbled upon the Chozo Ruins—a mysterious area with a haunting, foreboding soundtrack that served to heighten my growing fears. I found the item that I needed there and continued through the area to find something wholly familiar—Samus’ ship. Finally I could heal, save, and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Zero Mission was full of haunting, unsettling moments like this. For instance, at one point, I saw what appeared to be a giant caterpillar emerging from its chrysalis in a part of a screen that I didn’t yet have access to. I went through a tunnel, collected something, and came back. Suddenly, the chrysalis was empty, the giant insect gone.
There’s this sci-fi/horror biopunk thing going on in Zero Mission, clearly taking inspiration from movies like Alien, that creates an atmosphere so thick, it’s hard to imagine the game without it. (See: Metroid, which is impossible to play after Zero Mission.)
The gratification of getting new items wasn’t just that I could interact with the world in new ways, but that I could conquer it. Every ability made the areas I’d been through before easier to traverse, opening up new avenues of exploration and allowing me to conquer former obstacles. One of the craziest power-ups is getting the Screw Attack, which, true to its name, lets you fuck up pretty much everything in a single hit. It’s actually so powerful that there are puzzles which become harder after getting it, because you have to try and freeze enemies and then jump on them without breaking them.
Yet the game continually found ways to make me fear it again. Towards the end, it introduced the Metroids. Funny thing about Metroids is that they weren’t any kind of challenge for me—I had a ridiculous stock of missiles and laid waste to all of them in seconds. That said, I did so in a frenzied panic, because every time one of the huge mutant headcrabs spawned horribly from the darkness, I would go into a panic and fire a hailstorm of rockets at them.
But better than anything adapted from the old game, what best exemplified the feelings of fear and power was the final stage, which is unique to Zero Mission. In it, Samus crashes back down on planet Zebes without her power suit and has to crawl her way through the space pirate ship practically defenseless. Suddenly, not only was it outright impossible to kill enemies, but they could destroy me in a matter of seconds. Instead of jumping around, guns blazing, I had to be stealthy and try not to set off the alarms.
After twenty or thirty minutes of crawling around and being very afraid, I finally found it—the Power Suit—better than ever, with a slew of new powers. The music changed, from mysterious to empowering. Now I could jump endlessly; could use my morph ball, my bombs, my missiles, and destroy Space Pirates in just two hits of my regular blaster, or with my Screw Attack. I even gained the Power Bombs, which allowed me to nuke the entire screen, wrecking everyone’s shit.
The whole final level was incredibly empowering, as I traversed all the areas which had been difficult minutes before, now cutting through them like butter. It was magical.
On a side note, I couldn’t figure out how to get from the space ship back to the old areas so that I could gather all the power-ups that I couldn’t before. I didn’t want to use a guide, so I finished the game instead, with a time of four and a half hours, expecting to have something like 90%. I only had 74%. Only after reading guides did I find out about some of the special techniques for collecting that I hadn’t even been aware of. Oh well.
Having really enjoyed the game, I decided to try and play it on Hard Mode, but Hard Mode in Zero Mission is a whole different ballgame. I got my ass handed to me and trapped myself in a save zone within twenty minutes. In a game which sends you back to the last save point every time you die, there’s no way I can handle that!