The flaws of Metroid Zero Mission no one talks about
...and how Metroid was displaced in it's own setting
Metroid Zeromission is a very fun game, can't deny it. I think it was a bit too easy, a bit too linear, and I didn't like the way it holds your hand with statues telling you where to go, which the level design makes redundant anyway. But otherwise I don't have much to say about it's gameplay. Instead, I want to talk about the way it completely fails to live up to the worldbuilding and atmosphere of an 8-bit NES game.
I'll start with the music. Behind the scenes it seems like the composers did try to stay true to the original style (composed by Hip Tanaka). Unfortunately their results were mixed at best.
Metroid (NES) / Metroid (Famicom!) / Zero Mission
Notice how they simply cut out the beginning of the song. Why? Did no one think it was there for a reason? I think the original is a work of genius. Harsh and mechanical opening, before transitioning into something hopeful and beautiful. I used to be more down on the thick choir chords in this remix, but on some notes it does sound very good. The choir has an "airy" sound, while the square & triangle wave combo in original has a "warm" sound. The NES version gives me the impression of a more intimate performance with it's limited voices. The chords are simple but chosen very well.
The last section is where the remix falls apart. The chord progression have been changed completely. A beautiful-sounding counter-melody was removed. (In the Famicom version the end is more of an arpeggio than a counter melody, but the chords are the same as in the NES version.) The bass is weak, this remix sounds empty.
The opening of the original song was moved to the ending in the remix. The notes are played with a rather basic saw wave sound. There's no delay effect in the melody. Was this meant to be fanservice? It sounds more basic than the NES version.
Metroid (NES) / Zero Mission
Not much to say here except the added timpani and choir make the song much more bombastic and "heroic." Although this is often how the original is interpreted, it was less in your face. The original fit the idea of slower exploration, "uncovering new areas" better.
Metroid (NES) / Zero Mission
The item room music tries to fit in with the style of Metroid Prime (less than a year old when Zero Mission was in development), and in doing so it completely looses the quiet, stark, and eerie mood of the original. Generally these remixes try to fill everything in with more noise, bigger chords, when in the original the silence actually worked in many songs favor. "Simple" does not mean "bad," John Carpenter comes to mind.
Metroid (NES) / Zero Mission
The original Norfair theme has a style I describe as "oh boy we're going even deeper."
There is a bouncing bassline in the first part, which is continually shifting into a different key than the melody and counter melody, which play contrasting major thirds. It's an incredibly dissonant effect while still having a melody. There is a strange alien feeling to it. It's not easy music to listen to, which is of course the whole point. The song tells you you're spelunking in an increasingly alien environment.
Norfair in Zero Mission sounds dramatic and serious, the theme is now "epic lava area." The bassline has been replaced with basic block chords. It's like the composers threw their hands up into the air, and decided it would be easier to just remix Super Metroid instead. The vox chior has a particularly nasty sound trying to play a complicated bass line. A piano also plays some of the bass, which gives me the impression that they weren't really sure what to do with it.
Metroid (NES) / Zero Mission
Kraid's Lair is another victim of the perceived need to fill up the soundscape with more, more, more! Again, the vox chior here sounds nasty when trying to do anything complicated.
The extended section I find to be boring. The whole song grinds to a halt, and you have to listen to plain filler repeat over and over again. Why did they cut out a section of the title music, but not this?
Metroid (NES) / Zero Mission
This one could have been good. Once again I dislike the vox, here it sounds out of key (in an unintentional way). A detail I like in the original is how the song waits a few seconds before the bass suddenly gets deep, as though it's waiting for the player's reaction to sink in as they read TIME BOMB SET - GET OUT FAST!
The NES version has an extra "hopeful" section that wasn't in the original Famicom version.
Metroid (NES) / Zero Mission
I do like the Tourian, Mother Brain, and Ridley's Lair remixes. Ridley's Lair in particular is atmospheric in a way the original wasn't capable of, and there's actually subtlety in the way it was arranged. The Mother Brain remix is probably exactly what the original was going for, limited by the 8-bit sound chip. "VS Kraid" is another good one, although it's a Super Metroid remix so somewhat off topic. I think the new bassline conveys Kraid's size well, and I like the changes made to the section before the loop. It sounds like you're solving an urgent puzzle, which you sort of are.
The original songs? They're all good except for the Chozo Guide music, which is just the vox chior playing octaves.
Yes, it has been pointed out to me that all the remixes I like happen to exclude the vox synth.
(When I originally wrote my thoughts on this years ago, I didn't think anyone had made a remix that truly captured the original atmosphere. But today I think this might be it:)
I focused on the music, below is part of an interesting post from a now dead forum, focusing on the atmosphere and worldbuilding:
Sylux on 9/30/15:
The Brinstar environments in Zero Mission looked like the kind of cave you might explore on Earth, and not even a particularly special or exotic cave by terrestrial standards either. There's nothing alien or frightening or wonderful about them. NEStroid's brinstar could be interpreted as boring caves, but that's not the only valid interpretation. For instance, look at what this guy created - perhaps even by accident - in the simple act of making it 3D:
The round, ribbed walls look less like a natural cave and more like a set from the Alien films. The width of the curves turns the environment from a narrow passage to a mind-bogglingly huge series of shafts while still retaining the sense of claustrophobia. The way the walls of the vertical shafts seem to be made of tubing suggest that artificial materials were grown out of the natural cavern through some scifi means. The horizontal shafts with lava at the bottoms resemble arteries, with the flying enemies that move through them being like blood cells
Let's look at NEStroid now. Well, everything is really hostile and aggressive, so that implies that the creatures of Zebes are actively opposing you. The boss is a giant brain, so maybe that means that she's controlling all the others? The arterial appearance of some hallways mentioned above suggests that the whole base is an organism, so that would make sense. Some of the enemies look artificial, but some just look like weird alien animals. Did Mother Brain somehow gain telepathic control over the wildlife? Did she mutate them into hardier forms? Or are they just biological robots that she built to a pseudo-natural alien aesthetic? There are demonic-looking statues in some areas of the game, especially by the elevators to Ridley and Kraid's lairs. What are those statues of? Who built them? Did the pirates make them? What does that say about pirate culture?
For that matter, who are these "pirates" anyway? Mother Brain is clearly the leader, so does that mean that all the drones she's controlling (if that really is what's going on) represent the pirate forces? If so, the pirates are less of a "them" and more of a "she." Then there's Ridley and Kraid. They're both humanoid-ish, and look like they could be technology users along the lines of humans or other more typical aliens. But they look very different from each other, also, so they're not the same species. What are they? Why does Mother Brain need them if she can control armies of drones on her own? Do they actually look like a hopping, six-eyed dragon and a spiky lizard with a mullet, or are they wearing biological versions of suits like yours? Kraid's lair looks like a city or temple environment. Is it an ancient temple that the pirates took over, or did they build it themselves? Does that mean the pirates have religion? Is Kraid religious, perhaps even a priest of some weird alien cult?
And what about these birdlike statues that hold items? The item room tileset looks a bit like Tourian's, so maybe Mother Brain built them, or they were built by the same people who created Mother Brain. They don't look anything like the demon statues, though. Different craftsmanship? Different makers? Which ones are older?
In short: tons of questions, and very few answers.
Zero Mission didn't help with any of this. The enemies still just move in simple patterns without anything more to imply intelligence, or purposefulness, and some of them look more natural and less mechanical than before. To boot, there are explicit "space pirates" who show up at the end, but they don't seem to be working with Mother Brain at all. In fact, you find their corpses all over Tourian, and the new arrivals don't leave their ship until after Mother Brain is dead, implying that they are her enemies as well as yours. But then...why is Ridley, who came from the pirate ship, one of Mother Brain's guardians? Hell, why do you even descend into Ridley's lair in the first place if - according to the elevator cutscene - he wasn't even down there until after you took the elevator? The demon statues near the elevators look like Ridley and Kraid now, and fall apart once you kill them, so that means that...what? The statues are biosign-readers? That Ridley and Kraid are narcissists who like having their faces everywhere? I don't know. The other, smaller demon statues in Brinstar are just gone.
What are the normal enemies - the desgeegas, rios, sidehoppers, geemers, etc - if the space pirates are something different? What the hell is kraid? Is he intelligent? In NEStroid he looks like he could be a sapient tool user, but in Super and MZM he looks and acts like an animal (and unlike Ridley, he doesn't get any cutscenes to show him piloting a starship or interacting with the pirates). Still no word on why his area is temple-like. What is kraid's purpose for the pirates or Mother Brain anyway? Is he just a guard animal who protects one of the keys to Tourian? If so, why is his face treated with the same reverence in the statuary as the clearly intelligent and proactive Ridley's?
MZM doesn't solve M1's biggest storytelling failures, and it adds a bunch of its own as well.
What kind of organization are the space pirates? Are they a race of humanoid mad scientists with the personalities of psychotic children, as per the Prime trilogy? Are they a coalition of many races (or at least members of many races)? What roles do Mother Brain, Ridley, and Kraid play in the organization? Did the pirates predate Mother Brain, or did she create their organization? Mother Brain is clearly an artificial life form; did the pirates create her? Did the chozo create her? If the latter, how and why did she betray or abandon them (or maybe in this version the Zebesian chozo are pirates themselves, and Samus' relationship with them is very different than in current series canon)? Will we see the enemies acting like Mother Brain's minions? Maybe geemers are actually maintenance drones, or gerutas are meant to carry things around?
There's also a lot of questions about the areas. Tourian is Mother Brain's support facility, obviously, but she's also keeping the metroids in there, why is that? Maybe she's keeping the metroids close so that she can keep them under her mental control or some such; she doesn't want a repeat of what the metroids did to their makers on SR388, after all? Or maybe Tourian is just the most secure area, and the metroids are a high value asset that must be kept safe?
Norfair is a magmal cave complex, but there's also lots of artificial construction in it. Why would you build things in a lava cave? Maybe the pirates are using it for geothermal energy? If so, we should see a lot of big machines. Maybe its a mining complex, and the lava is incidental? In that case, it should look like a mining complex, and the pirates should clearly be tunneling and digging there. Or maybe the pirates (or some types of pirate, if there are multiple species) are just naturally at home in hot conditions? Is Norfair their living quarters?
Ridley's lair is also attached to Norfair, as opposed to Kraid whose temple-like home is much closer to Tourian. What does this say about Ridley? Does he dislike the other pirate leaders? Does he value his independence and privacy? Is he a coward who wants to be as far from the surface as possible? Those are all things that will have a big impact on the type of minions his lair is staffed with and its level design. If Norfair is a mining complex, is Ridley's lair a processing facility? If Norfair is for power generation, is Ridley in the power plant's control room? Those weird columns in his lair could be decorative, but they could also be pistons or other machine parts for an industrial or power plant. If some types of pirate just like the heat, then Ridley might be from one of those species. In this case, maybe his lair is a pleasure palace? Full of alien decorations, swimming pools full of lava, balconies, statues, etc?
The discussion of what the Space Pirates are supposed to be brings up an interesting point: For better or worse, the original NES Metroid had been displaced within the universe it started.
Android Arts in 2016 (Highly recommend reading if you're a Metroid fan):
Because of the Zero Mission remake being so... modernized, I now consider the original Metroid to have been displaced into its own universe.
Why is Samus Aran alone on Zebes? The back story tells us that Zebes is a well defended 'fortress planet', so I'm thinking it's like an artificial, enormous porcupine, an ancient defensive "Death Star" festooned with turrets, subspace disruptors and sensors. The title screen and music somehow leaves me with the impression that Zebes has little or no atmosphere.
The low gravity might make sense if Zebes about 1/10th to 1/20th the radius of Earth (about Death Star size), but is composed out of a hard, heavy material rather than water ice. The Chozo found these unusual small dense worlds and turned them into enormous bastions. They apparently operate even after the Chozo's long absence.
The Space Pirates appears to have stumbled upon several of these planetoids, perhaps in a region of space neglected by the GFP. They somehow infiltrated and gained control over the ancient defensive systems (using a/the Mother Brain). The native creatures could still attack pretty much everyone, causing some amusing fights. Possibly the Space Pirate brought some hounds of their own. The Space Pirates have gained full door control, and generally avoid the creature habitats. Perhaps they purge some tunnels using shoot-everything turrets.
Many Chozo artefacts have already been discovered by the Space Pirates. It could be suggested that they looted some of the more accessible locations, moving treasures to Space Pirate vaults. Some bosses have used treasures for themselves (Ridley does drop +75 missiles).
The Chozo might have collected various creatures from all about re-engineered them to serve as a natural defence, or perhaps maintenance role.
Were Kraid, Ridley and the Mother Brain the only Space Pirates on Zebes?
Looking at things now, I don't get the impression that the Space Pirates are a... race or a specific group of races. It seems more like there are... well, pirates in space, and some of them got a hold of the Metroid being shipped from SR388.
One way to flesh them out is to thing about what they need to do. They obviously need to be able to launch pirate raids with spacecrafts, store loot, sustain a population, produce power and equipment and experiment in a lab. How many guys do they need for this? Perhaps Space Pirates should be mostly "mini bosses", a rag-tag collection of characters?
"The mechanical life vein"? What is the role of the Mother Brain? Is it an administrative system used by the Space Pirates, or a one of a kind leader found only on Zebes? I'm thinking it might be more like the former, similar to Pilot in Farscape. The Mother Brain is able to control the otherwise unruly Metroids using some kind of mind link, and it has also interfaced with many of the Fortress Planetoid's systems, making the world habitable for the Space Pirates.
Given that [the Chozo] built up these fortress planetoids and neighbouring worlds were wiped out by Metroids, it's quite possible that they weren't so good and wise.
In my interpretation of the story, the Chozo are long gone and more of a precursor race.
Why isn't the ship shot down by the defences at sight? Maybe the GFP got ahold of a one-time pass code? It works for a small ship, but not an invasion fleet. When the ship gets close to the surface the pirates can see who's coming of course.
The presence of fake Kraid & Ridley in M1 suggests to me that they are each a species, so those re-appearing fakes could be no-name pirates. Could have different body types just like humans. Not sure about clothes & armour though. Makes me wonder how naked things can take so much punishment... be it ZS Samus, wildlife or the mini bosses. Maybe "Energy" is some sort of natural or artificial shield (like "The Force"). Metroids could be especially extreme.
The style of the NES sprite work and the Japanese box reminds me of '70s sci-fi art. Take a look at the original manual. The bounty hunters are described like actual bounty hunters who target individual pirates, rather than mercenaries fighting against a rival state.
A question that interested me back when I played Metroid 1: If Samus landed with a spaceship, why does the game start in the middle of an underground cavern? Zero Mission reveals she simply climbed down without player input about 140 meters, but playing the NES my own imagination was filling in the blanks. I wondered if she used something like the drop pod in Halo, some sort of heat-resistant coffin that was shot onto the planet's surface in order to be stealthier than a spaceship. Perhaps Samus was snuck in during a GFP weapons or a natural meteorite bombardment.
Besides Metroid Cubed and Android Arts' page, a few other interpretations of NES Metroid exist. (Although cheesy, I have to mention the Captain N comics which were written before any of the sequels. Samus is characterized as a rude antihero, and the enemies from the game are shown as sapient space pirates rather than animals.)
In 2003 and 2004, long before he developed Axiom Verge, Thomas Happ made a college project called Orn. Orn was a remake of Brinstar, and like Zero Mission it was made for the Gameboy Advance.
Comparing Orn with Zero Mission:
(click for original resolution)
Some thoughts contrasting the art styles before I finish this:
Obviously a more cartoony style. The green cave background clashes, especially in the item room. Unnecessary red outline around every tile, maybe they found in playtesting that this reduces confusion? The alien-face tiles are more comical in a way. Instead of the gold rooms there are stone ruins, I actually like these backgrounds. The green room background are much more basic, although the dark areas do imply something more could be back there. The "plant tiles" from the original game have been reinterpreted as damaged bricks, or just removed.
I love the 3 layer parallax effects, putting ancient ruins behind caves and lava in the background for rooms where it's a hazard. The vertical shafts look mechanical, which makes me imagine that they could be part of the planet's function as a "fortress". The doors and tiles in the background are a visually neat touch, but for gameplay I understand why designers wouldn't want to do that. The gold rooms have been faithfully recreated. The item rooms have been recreated perhaps too faithfully. The pipes from the NES game were recreated too, part of some ventilation system that's now been overrun with wildlife? There's room for interpretation here. The plants with roots covering the whole background only appear in one room, they were a nice touch.