Samus is not the center of the Metroid universe, just it’s brightest star. Nintendo recently announced Federation Force, a cooperative online shooter set in the Metroid universe, where for the first time, you do NOT play as Samus. Fans, both rabid and casual have not been the most hospitable towards this new entry in the franchise. Change scares people, both consumers and business alike. See Microsoft back peddling on the Windows 8 start screen for a rather high profile example, it might have its uses and merits, but it was too different of an experience from what the vast majority of the customers were comfortable with.
Metroid has a long history of being particularly atmospheric for a side scrolling action-adventure game (sorry I’m trying to stop using the term Metroidvania). The opening moments of Super Metroid do not waste any time in trying to tell a more mature story than many of the game’s contemporaries. Clearly they were going for something more cinematic, and it worked.
To this day, Super Metroid is still regarded by gamers as one of the best video games of all time. The bar was set high early in the franchise history, and living up to that mark has proven pretty hard over the years. For perspective, the original Metroid was released in 1986, the last game came out in 2010 (Other M). So, in the almost 30 years since Metroid, only 3 games were released in the series during the first half of its life. Since 2002 there have been 8 entries in the series. There was an 8 year gap in the wake of Super Metroid, during that time, you have to bet Nintendo was trying to figure out, where do we go from here? How do we top that?!
They decided to take a huge risk with a beloved franchise, and change the very foundation of the game, just not it’s ingredients. Instead of a side scrolling adventure, Metroid Prime was to be a first person shooter, with an emphasis on exploration similar to the previous games. It was a huge gamble, and it paid off. Notice how that same year though, Metroid Fusion was released. Nintendo intended to completely change one of their core franchises, and at the same time deliver something more familiar, probably as a just in case measure. Fusion was a side scroller that had an emphasis on story, and started to introduce other characters to this universe other than faceless scientists. Metroid Prime Hunters for the DS would do a similar thing with introducing rival bounty hunters. Other M would take this concept and run with it, honestly I have not played Other M, it just didn’t appeal to me at the time, however, I am more likely now to give it a chance. One last thing to note in the series evolution, 2005 gave us Metroid Prime Pinball for the DS, where Samus is a pinball, a, pinball.
So during E3 when Nintendo released the trailer for a new Metroid game, without Samus, fans were upset, confused, and angry. How dare the company try to do something different or new again? Look at any other long lasting game franchise and they are filled with characters in a world or universe that is populated. Mario has the mushroom kingdom complete with dozens of sub-cultures of species. Donkey Kong has his whole family tree to draw on for support. The Legend of Zelda remakes itself with almost every game, but it retains the same core elements to retain that familiarity. Assassin’s Creed always has a cast of people that you go on your adventure with, some you already have a cursory knowledge of through history class. Even Halo brought in other characters to more fully develop it’s narrative. Metroid is severely lacking in this regard. I’ve played through Fusion, Hunters, and the Prime trilogy, and without referring to the internet I couldn’t name any other character in the Metroid universe other than Samus, and Metroids. In Fusion she gets orders from a commander/boss/boyfriend type person, Prime involves ancient cultures and tries to expand on the Chozo culture, and while Hunters did have some interesting character designs, none of them stuck with me. That is a very, lonely, universe out there for Samus.
Metroid deserves a better universe than the one it has. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some amazing times there, but few experiences stuck around as much as Super Metroid or Metroid Prime. It only makes sense that Nintendo is trying to get back to that point in the franchise, and likely won’t until they launch their new system within the next year or two. I think it would be a safe bet that the next GREAT title in the series will be a launch window game for the new system. Between now and then, Nintendo needs to flesh out that universe more. Do I think Federation Force alone is going to do that, no, but it’s a step in the right direction. Prime Hunters was fun, except for the mandatory, obligatory escape sequences, and I have faith that Federation Force will be a potentially fun, different entry in the series. If it doesn’t appeal to you, just don’t buy it, and leave it at that.