Twenty years ago today Metroid: Zero Mission reinvented the original Metroid for a new generation. Improving upon the original by leaps and bounds, it's not so much a remaster as an entirely new game.
Metroid literally defined the "Metroidvania" genre, so you know what you're getting here. The protagonist, Samus Aran, clad in her armored, yellow Power Suit, explores a claustrophobic planet. She shoots alien monsters (like the iconic Rippers and Zoomers) with her arm cannon and, collecting upgrades and new laser beams along the way. These weapons and abilities allow her to access new areas. For example, bombs destroy certain blocks and floors. Missiles open locked red doors. She must locate and defeat the bosses of the nefarious Space Pirates: the monstrous Ridley and Kraid. Doing so unlocks the final area, where flying jellyfish called Metroids try to latch onto her and drain her life. At the end, she must defeat the Mother Brain living computer, then return to her spaceship to escape the planet within a three-minute countdown.
Anyone who has played the original Metroid on the NES will recognize most of the environments and enemies in Zero Mission, yet everything has been rebuilt and reimagined. The planet Zebes is so expanded that, at times, the original map and game almost disappear. There are many new sections, secret passages, power-ups, and mini-bosses. Indeed, an entirely new and unique segment of the game begins after Samus destroys Mother Brain! Now her Power Suit is damaged, and she has to infiltrate a Space Pirate ship unarmored, wearing only her (blatantly sexy) blue Zero Suit. Armed with only a pistol, no less! This segment involves a lot of sneaking around and running. Getting the attention of the Space Pirates can be fatal since she has no armor. It's not my favorite part of the game, but the fact that it suddenly offers a whole new section after you thought you had beaten it is incredible.
The influence of Super Metroid and Metroid: Fusion on this game is apparent. Even some of the upgrades from those games have been added. During the aforementioned Zero Suit segment, Samus gets power bombs, which can then be used in the earlier sections of the game to unlock new hidden areas and collect more power bombs! The speed booster appears alongside plenty of boost blocks for Samus to blast through to open new areas. The Gravity Suit and Charge Beam from Super Metroid are also here, as is the Power Grip from Fusion. This latter item is a big quality-of-life upgrade. It lets Samus grab onto and hang from ledges. She can even fire her arm cannon while dangling, including at a 45-degree angle up or down (by holding L). This ability makes the platforming less frustrating and more fun.
The world design is perfect. There is a natural progression from one area to another. The original Metroid was open-ended; Samus could go anywhere as soon as she had missiles. Fusion, on the other hand, gave Samus linear directions. This game is closer to Fusion, though it still feels open to me. Samus is gated by boost blocks and other obstacles that weren't in the original. Notably, she must fight Kraid first because she can't enter Ridley's lair without the Speed Booster. The game flows well, so I don't mind, but it's a big change from the original, where you just wandered around trying to find things.
Kraid and Ridley have been radically upgraded: they are now huge and look and behave as they did in Super Metroid. This is good, since the boss fights were lame in Metroid. The fights are still easy (maybe too easy), but they at least look good and impressive. There are also new mini-bosses, such as a gigantic, one-eyed worm and a huge bee. The worm uses its body to form walls, trapping Samus. Interestingly, if she doesn't kill it quickly, it releases her. If and when she destroys it, it leaves behind the Charge Beam! Mother Brain has also been upgraded; it has an attack now instead of just sitting there!
The backgrounds change from room to room and area to area as well. Anyone who has played the original knows how repetitive the world can be, to the point that it becomes confusing and labyrinthine. That was cool in the 1980's, but variety is better. Now Zebes feels like a real place, each cavern and room unique. Samus even explores Chozo ruins during the Zero Suit portion! There are all sorts of little extras in the game like this, such as zip lines and Morph Ball launchers
Numerous quality-of-life modernizations are imported from Super Metroid. For example, the game uses save stations instead of passwords. Chozo statues serve as recharge stations. The most important improvement is the world map (something the NES game sorely lacked)! There are map rooms, in which Samus downloads the complete map of the area, excluding secret areas. You can examine all of Samus's upgrades from the sub-screen, too. Essentially, everything from Super Metroid and Metroid: Fusion is here. If you have played either of those, you'll feel immediately at home. There are even brief cut-scenes to convey the small amount of plot.
Zero Mission has beautiful 16-bit graphics. Like all GBA games, it's bright and colorful. I think it looks terrific, but it does lose some of that dark and foreboding atmosphere the NES game so well cultivated (a conscious attempt by the designers to evoke the feelings of the contemporary movie, Alien). The music is awesome. Metroid already had great music for the 8-bit era, so hearing the songs redone in 16-bit quality is delightful.
When you beat the game, you are shown your time and item collection rate. Depending how quickly you played and whether you acquired less than 15% or all 100% items, you get a different drawing of Samus, which is added to a gallery in the menu. There are quite a few possible endings/pictures, so collecting them all adds a lot of replayability. Regardless of which picture you earned, you also unlock the original NES version (now with a save feature!). Unfortunately, the image is squished due to the resolution of the GBA screen. Every fourth horizontal line is skipped, so things look a little off. Still, it was a cool thing to include back in 2004!
Metroid: Zero Mission is a worthy prequel to Super Metroid. In fact, I prefer it to Super Metroid! It's a joy to play and one of my favorite video games. Its progression flows so well. Its environments, enemies, items, and music are incredible and all come together to make a perfect game. It's almost too bad that Zero Mission is so superior, because it makes it harder to go back to the original—which was also exceptional by the standards of 1987 and is one of my favorite NES games. The two games are different enough to co-exist, but in some ways this feel like the "definitive edition." If I could have just one game on the Game Boy Advance, this would probably be it.
"The game has all the atmosphere of its forefather and enough modern gaming savvy to keep it fresh and interesting."
— Laurie Blake, Nintendo Life, 9/10