Originally released in 2004 for the GBA, Metroid Zero Mission is a remake of the NES classic, Metroid. It was the last 2D Metroid released. By the time the 3DS remake of Metroid II comes out, it will have been 13 years without a new 2D Metroid game. What a dreadful thought.
Some people say that the original Metroid is unplayable these days. I think that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a little hard to go back to after playing the later games in the series. Zero Mission brings the original Metroid up to Metroid Fusion standards. It’s not just a graphical update. The controls, UI, music, story, items, and zone layouts have all gotten major updates.
The NES original didn’t have much of a story, but Zero Mission changes that and tries to make the game fit in better with the rest of the series. The game starts off with an animated cutscene and a journal entry from Samus. It’s very reminiscent of Super Metroid’s intro. There are also cutscenes that play at key points throughout the game. For example, a cutscene showing Mother Brain watching Samus plays the first time you take the elevator down into Norfair. The new cutscenes really make the game feel dynamic, like the enemies are reacting to what I’m doing and not just standing around waiting for me to come kill them.
Zero Mission looks fantastic. It brings the graphics up to Metroid Fusion standards, but has its own unique look. Samus, the enemies, and the foreground objects all have very nice looking and detailed sprites, like in Fusion, but the backgrounds are mostly black shadows and outlines using 2 or 3 colors. It’s a stylistic choice that helps recreate the look and feel of the NES game, without using flat black colored backgrounds. The game succeeds in keeping the 80s vibe and ends up looking a lot cleaner than Fusion, which can look a bit cluttered in some areas.
You'll find all the items from the NES game here, along with a few items from Metroid II, Super Metroid, and Metroid Fusion. The ledge grab move from Fusion returns here in the form of the Power Grip upgrade. This item can be found in the new Chozodia area, being held by a giant, sinister looking Chozo statue, which looks like something out of Metroid Prime. I found it kind of funny that they present this item like it’s some huge deal, when it’s a base ability in Fusion. The Spring Ball from Metroid II returns, bundled with the Hi-Jump, as well as a few Super Metroid items, such as the Speed Booster and the Super Missiles. The NES game’s inventory was kind of small when compared to the later games, so the addition of items from other games spices things up a bit. And it makes sense that these items would be in Zebes, since this is the Chozo homeworld.
Throughout the game, you’ll find a few sinister looking Chozo statues that will give you a mystery item. These items are actually 2 upgrades. One is an upgrade to your arm cannon, which lets you break special blocks you’ll find in your way in some areas. The second upgrades from these items are actually some of the returning items from Metroid II and Super Metroid, but they stay dormant until you get the Gravity Suit, because apparently, they’re not compatible with the Varia Suit.
I thought some of the ways you opened paths to new areas were unimaginative and not very Metroid-like. The whole mystery block breaking arm cannon upgrades thing ends up feeling like some half baked idea they forgot to remove from the final version. I guess they just felt like they had to give you something with the upgrades you wouldn’t be able to use yet. There’s also another method they use to open paths where all you do is go somewhere, maybe watch something happen, and then turn around and go back to where the path opened up. It requires no skills or items and sometimes doesn’t make much sense. For example, there’s a doorway made of giant stone Ridley and Kraid heads, which open their mouths when you kill them. After killing Kraid, you’re required to go look at them and then turn around and go back where you came from to open the way. You haven't killed Ridley, so you know you can’t go through, so why are you going there?
The rest of the game plays like something halfway between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. You can freely run around and go wherever your abilities can take you, like in Super Metroid, and the game is not constantly locking doors behind you and funneling you down a path, like in Metroid Fusion. Zero Mission does streamline the experience and cuts down on a lot of the wandering around you might have done in the original by adding a map, save rooms, and waypoints, though. The waypoints in particular do feel like they take a little bit away from the old Metroid experience. Part of the fun of Super Metroid and the original was exploring and finding your own way around.
Zero Mission has a few areas with layouts that look like they’re straight out of the NES game, but most areas have a completely different layout from Metroid and Super Metroid, even though they are technically the same areas. Zero Mission has all the zones from the original and adds 3 more zones; Crateria, Chozodia, and the Space Pirate Mothership. Crateria is the surface of Zebes, which you might remember from Super Metroid; Chozodia is vaguely Aztec and Egyptian ancient Chozo ruins; and the Space Pirate Mothership is the ship Ridley comes to Zebes in, and the final area of the game.
The original game ends after Samus escapes Tourian, following the battle with Mother Brain, but Zero Mission adds a new chapter with 2 new areas and a new final boss. At the time of its release, the extra chapter was kind of a big deal. It was the first appearance of “Zero Suit Samus”. This new version of Samus in the Zero Suit became so popular, that a new Super Smash Bros character was made around the idea of Samus fighting without her Power Suit. In this new chapter, Samus’s ship is shot down and she can’t use her Varia Suit, for whatever reason. She then sneaks into the Space Pirate Mothership with nothing but a stun gun. Maybe she can find some tools and spare parts to fix her ship there. While on the ship, you try to sneak around while avoiding Space Pirates, until you get the Gravity Suit. Playing as Samus with no powers is kind of frustrating, but it makes the moment when you get all of them back and wreak havoc on the Space Pirates all the sweeter.
After beating the game on normal, you unlock an art gallery, a new hard mode, and the original Metroid game. The main difference in Hard Mode is the damage you take. You take a lot of damage in Hard Mode, so it makes even the beginning of the game much more challenging. The version of Metroid included here is pretty much the same as the NES Classics version that was later released on GBA. It’s stretched to fill the wider GBA screen and it has a save feature, but still no save files, like the Famicom Disk System version. It’s not a very good version of the game. If you want to play the original, your best bet is probably getting it on 3DS Virtual Console. At least the version included in ZM has shoot on B and jump on A, I guess.
Zero Mission is definitely the version of Metroid to play. It has better graphics, sound, gameplay, and the story fits in better with the rest of the series. I wouldn’t say it makes the original completely irrelevant, but I wouldn't recommend it over Zero Mission unless you’re just interested in it as a piece of videogame history.