The Metroid series just celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend, and if you’re like me, you were probably caught off guard. Unlike certain other critically and commercially successful franchises Nintendo has been milking every possible dollar out of, there hasn’t been a new Metroid game in six years. It’s been even longer since we’ve had an installment that really focused on exploration – once the hallmark characteristic of the series. And barring the upcoming Federation Force spinoff, there’s nothing else on the horizon. Why is this? How did we end up here? Why did Samus get relegated to red-headed stepchild status despite having a fanbase that’s turned almost every one of her adventures into a million copy seller?
Like the opening to many Metroid games, it’s like we’ve ended up in a strange new world. Time to step back and explore.
Now, I understand not every franchise is gonna get the same anniversary treatment that we’ve come to expect from say, Mario or Zelda or Sonic. There’s a lot of good ones out there, and if we started celebrating every major anniversary, our calendars would be filled with remakes and ports and nobody would ever get on with their lives. Metroid’s neglect by its owners goes deeper, however. The last time we really had something close to its roots of exploration was Prime 2 and Zero Mission in 2004. The closest thing fans of the "traditional" games have gotten in the void was an impressive fan remake of Metroid II. In fact, it was recently released in Version 1.0 status on Metroid's big 3-0, only for Nintendo to predictably serve the developers a DMCA notice this week more than a decade and a half after Nintendo teased and cancelled such an idea. Happy birthday, Samus!
Now, I’m far from one of those types that’s against trying new things, but think of it this way: If Zelda was regularly outsourced and reduced to “new ideas” like Link’s Crossbow Training and Hyrule Warriors without any of the more traditional titles, people would be screaming for blood. Games like Axiom Verge didn’t become critically acclaimed hits just because of nostalgia, but because the gameplay style is legitimately fun and nobody is filling that niche.
Given the track record of the series, it doesn’t make sense to me as a business decision to let things stray this far for this long. It’s not like Nintendo is above putting themselves where the market is, considering how much of their business strategy relies on re-releases and nostalgia. Having access to the older games on eShop and Virtual Console? Great. Spinoffs and multiplayer shooters? Sure, why not. But where is the series I grew up with? What ever happened to the gritty sci-fi Metroid where you’re dumped on a strange alien world, looking for clues on where to go next, scavenging for tools that will let you dig deeper, and generally figuring things out on your own?
Is it the “family friendly” image thing? Nobody thought Nintendo traded in its “family friendly” cred when the three Prime games or Eternal Darkness came out. Content-conscious parents aren't suddenly going to buy their kids an Xbox just because something mildly violent got released on a Nintendo platform. Or does Nintendo think the audience isn’t there to warrant the investment? I can see the reluctance to invest money into a dark sci-fi shooter on the Wii U, given the abysmal sales numbers of the platform and the demographics of its installed userbase. However, I guarantee you that a properly developed and fleshed out original 2D Metroid game would easily sell a million copies on the 3DS. It’s been twelve years. Is Nintendo really so absolutely clueless to what fans of one of its most popular franchises have been waiting for? Do we really have to go through the Operation Moonfall nonsense again just to get them to toss out a return to form like they do for Mario and Zelda fans? Are we really at the point where annoying fans to the point they have to drum up publicity themselves is considered a Good PR Technique?
I’d hope not, but nothing would surprise me given the amount of trainwreck decisions Nintendo has pushed out over the years. It seems every decade I've watched at least one Nintendo console die a prolonged and agonizingly slow death as third parties and veteran gamers abandon ship in droves as the company struggles to make it to the next generation. It's a shame, because it seems like only yesterday I was a broke freshman resorting to selling my ADHD medication to pillheads in my high school to finance a Gamecube purchase when the first Metroid Prime came out - A title that accurately captured the magic of one of my absolute favorite SNES games to the point it warranted doing something highly illegal to acquire it. Spinoffs and new ideas are nice, but where is the next traditional iteration in the series, like their other popular franchises?
Assuming it ever happens, I worry it may end up being too little, too late.