by Marty Demarest

To the people who missed 1986: It might be hard for you to fully appreciate a game like Metroid: Zero Mission (for GameBoy Advance). It's not exactly a remake of 1986's Metroid. It's more like a retelling of that classic game.

It has been enhanced in places to make it more exciting; and some of the frustrating parts have been skipped, but there's still enough of the original left to give you a sense of why this outer-space run-jump-shoot game became a legend. When it arrived on the Nintendo Entertainment System, it became one of the first games to introduce you to the concept that the setting and mechanics of a video game could be part of the challenge. As you guided the protagonist Samus Aran from challenge to challenge, you needed to gain and master new abilities, then backtrack through the game's environments to reach previously-inaccessible areas. The effect was one of epic scale, and the puzzles were ingenious enough that solving them made you feel smart. (Check out Prince of Persia for the best modern incarnation of this style.)

The game's aesthetic -- vast and empty, with a haunting soundtrack -- bordered on artistic. As you moved about each cavernous chamber, the idea that you were alone with alien creatures was thrilling. Current horror games such as Silent Hill 3 have made an art out of this; but they still rely on the foundation laid by Metroid.

At the end of the game, you discovered that Samus was in fact -- gasp! -- a girl. The supercharged, butt-whooping intergalactic bounty hunter you had just spent hours controlling was a female, and the surprise was the stuff of playground legend. There's a new surprise in Zero Mission, approximating that original shock, but I'm not sure that any game messed with our assumptions more than Metroid.

Still, Metroid: Zero Mission will probably feel too short and simplistic by today's standards. Video games are based in technology, and as the technology becomes less relevant, so, unfortunately, do the games. But like the statues that now direct you through Metroid's fiendish design, Metroid is an artifact that we preserve because it teaches us how to play games. And playing through Zero Mission lets you relive the moment when you first became another person in another world, where the rules were made by entertainers, and you had to watch out for the monsters.

Publication date: 03/11/04

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