Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Gamecube)

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was released in 2004 and is the sequel to the 2002 game Metroid Prime. The game follows directly into its predecessors footsteps, telling another tale in the Metroid Prime triology.

The game takes place on the planet Aether, just like in the first game, a Phazon poisoned asteroid has crashed on the planet, devastating it and this time splitting the planet into two phases, a dark world and the regular light world. Samus Aran arrives at the planet after a emmergency call from a Galactic Federation trooper squad. Once she enters the atmosphere, her ship is hit by lightning and she crashlands. While exploring she encounters Dark Samus, a mutated Phazon copy of herself and follows her into the dark world. In the dark world she is attacked by creatures and robbed of all her power-ups, she barely makes it back to the light world. She soon finds out that the troopers are all dead and that the planet is overrun by creatures called the Ign, violent creatures living in the dark world. A Luminoth, a member of the native inhabitants of the planet, that Samus then meets later on explains her the situation and gives her the task to collect the planets energy from three energy collectors in the dark world and bringing it back to the normal world.

The core gameplay follows the same structure of the first Metroid Prime, focusing on exploration and item collection. The world structure however is more organized then in the first one. The Luminoth that gives you the tasks is located in a central temple from which three elevators branch of which in turn bring you to the three main sections of the world, Torus Bog, Argon Wastes and the Sanctuary Fortress. The whole world exists in a light and dark phase and portals that are scattered around the map allow you to travel between them. In each section of the dark world you have to collect three keys which will open up access to the dark template, which holds the energy you have to collect and bring back to that sections energy collector in the light world. Once you have collected completed all the three main sections of the game, you are required to collect nine keys that will unlock the last level, the Sky Temple, and bring you to the final boss fight. These nine keys are scattered through the regions you already explored and their location hinted at by a few Luminoth logs you scanned as well as some info that the living Luminoth provides.

Your path is regularly blocked by obstacles that require a specific power-up to overcome, power-ups include the regular Metroid items such as morphball, bombs, spiderball and missiles, as well as a few new abilities such as a light beam, a dark beam and an annihilation beam. You also gain the ability to shoot multiple missiles at once per lock on. New visor modes are present as well, including a dark visor and an echo visor. The dark visor serves a similar purpose to the x-ray visor in the first game, showing you invisible objects and hidden triggers, while the echo beam shows you sound waves and is mainly used to unlock specific doors, somewhat similar to the thermal visor in the previous game. One new ability in this game, taken from the 2D Metroid games, is the screw attack, it is triggered automatically when you triple jump and shows you from a third person perspective. It allows you to jump over very large jump gaps as well as to perform a wall jump. It however is only obtained very late in the game, only useful in a few specific spots and allows you very little control. Compared to the previous game, Echoes features a much more interconnected world, where you often have many possible routes to reach a target, in the first Metroid Prime on the other side you would often be forced to backtrack through the exact same path.

The graphics of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes look overall very much the same as the first game. All visor effects are still present and the world is still separated into rather small rooms. The graphics here however are a bit more detailed and the textures look a little sharper. Where it diverts however is in the locations, while Metroid Prime featured lush natural environments, including ice, lava and jungle themes, Echoes mostly features just an rather monotone industrial gray wasteland. Only the Sanctuary Fortress section of the game diverts a bit form that, featuring a high tech, almost Tron like, look, but even here it is mostly just gray, with very little color. In a few places Echoes tries to break free from the closed room structure, presenting open rooms with a sky or a horizon in the distance, but those backgrounds are very low resolution and while providing a nice addition, fail to really make the world feel like a larger place.

The enemies in this game also follow directly into Metroid Primes footsteps. While all the enemies feature a new look, many of them are clearly derived from enemies in the previous games, just with a few tweaks in behavior and a look that fits the new setting. The only real exception are probably the Ing creatures, which come in multiple forms and can basically liquefy themselves and then crawling along the rooms walls. Space pirates, while still present in this game, have a rather minor role and basically are just a third party, most focus is given to the Ing.

The gameplay in the dark world differs quite a bit from the light world. Not only is the dark world filled with Ing, but your health constantly drains while you are there. To solve this issue the Luminoth places crystals in there that create bubbles of light. In those bubbles not only does the energy drain stop, they also replenish your health, but only slowly. Some of these bubbles are only temporary and have to be activated by shooting against the crystal, which can also be used against some enemies, as many of them will take damage when coming in contact with those bubbles of light. A few hours into the game a suit upgrade will lower the energy drain a good bit, so this game mechanic loses a bit of its impact, but it basically stays to be part of the game till the end.

The scanning of objects is present in Echoes as well, providing you with enemy tactics and backstory of the world. In Echoes scanable objects are highlighted as a whole, instead of just with a small icon, making them much easier to spot and much easier to keep track of. The user interface for reading the scanned logs however still has the same issues as before, namely featuring a far to small text area to make reading comfortable. The game also switched to a rather unusual menu design, where you rotate the menu items around a sphere, allowing you to click the one that is in the front. While it looks pretty, it serves very little purpose and makes navigation of the menus substantially harder, as menu items often overlap and are thus hard to read. Menu items also lose any sense of order this way, making it tricky to read the scanned logs in the right order. One nice feature of the game however is that you can now view all enemies in a fullscreen 3D viewer, in the previous game that ability was limited to Samus alone.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes also uses a good bit more cutscenes to tell its story then Metroid Prime did. While the story is still mostly told via the scanning an the logs, a few short cutscenes, such as a flashback to the troopers getting attack or encounters with Dark Samus, somewhat reminiscence to the SA-X encounters in Metroid Fusion, provide a welcome addition. The task giving Luminoth also has a proper dialog with Samus this time around. Samus herself however stays silent and the Luminoths speech is only represented by text dialog, not voice acting.

Savepoints in Echoes feel more fairly placed then in the first game, I didn't encounter many situation where there wasn't a savepoint near by and most boss fights also had a close savepoint. Checkpoints are however still missing, so the savepoints are your only reset points. There where however two exceptions to the overall well placed savepoints, one was in Torus Bog, where your checkpoint is rendered unreachable, by unlocking the mechanism that opens the path to the boss, requiring a little round trip through the level each time you die at the boss for no good reason. Another case is when you fight the Spiderball Guardian, there you have to visit the temple and learn a new ability before you can fight the boss, with no savepoint between and the path back to an older savepoint blocked. While both of these cases are rather horrible level design, neither of which is an actual challenge to the player, they just waste a bit of your time.

Overall I enjoyed Metroid Prime 2: Echoes a good bit more then the first Metroid Prime game. While the locations are overall more boring due to their constant grayish look, the dark world with its light bubbles provides a great game mechanic, constantly having you to run or jump to the next bubble and providing you with a sense of urgency. The heavily interconnected world of Echoes also makes travel a good bit more pleasant, as you no longer have to always travel through the exact same pathways. While the story still isn't great or even good by any stretch of imagination, it at least provides basic video game plausibility, something the first game failed rather miserably at. Echoes is also much less focused on combat and more focused on puzzles then the first one. Backtracking through old location is only rarely interrupted by a pirated encounter and you can walk past most enemies without to much trouble, this is quite different then in the first game, where you where constantly interrupted by annoying Chozo ghost or pirate encounters, that served no other reason then to annoy you. The bigger pirates encounters that Echoes has, are scripted events, that don't repeat each time you reenter the room.

I also had to rely a lot less on the hints for the next item that the game provides you with, most of the time you can figure out where you have to go without to much trouble. The only part where this got a bit annoying was with the search for the Sky Temple keys, here you have to read through you logs and then find rooms that match the given description. This isn't hard, as it is just a matter of finding a room name that matches the given one, but due to the slow and uncomfortable menu navigation in the logbook, it becomes chore switching from the map to the logbook and back. I had to resort to pen&paper and just write all the hints down, to bypass the slow menu. Another issue with those hints is, that the game doesn't really introduce you to that mechanic, it is just this one point near the end where looking at the logbook becomes important for the core gameplay, for all the rest of the game, the logbook just provides backstory that isn't really needed for the game itself. The game also has a few weird spots where you are required to interrupt your key search and backtrack over half the map to obtain a new power-up, these could have been much better integrated without the backtracking, but at least the map hints made those things obvious.

So while Metroid Prime 2: Echoes won't win a price for originality, taking most of its mechanics and even enemies, with only small changes, form the first game, it does improve in many key areas, leading to an overall much more enjoyable and less frustrating experience. It is not a perfect game by any means, for that the story is just to uninteresting and the combat still to much an annoyance instead of being something that engages, but the puzzles and exploration can be quite fun at times.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Slideshow Generator

Over the last few days I hacked together a little slide show generator that was inspired by still2dv, but as still2dv was a little to slow to be usable for me, I hacked together my own that can render in realtime using OpenGL. It also supports offline rendering to JPEG files which can then be further processed with mencoder/ffmpeg.

The slideshow generator works by supplying a bunch of JPEG files and a control file, the control file defines what path the camera shall take, how long fadeovers should last and things like that. The control file looks like this:

set fade 2.0
set dt 10.0

fade $fade

image test/screenshot5.jpg
pos center center
zoom fill

duration $dt

pos 60% center
zoom 1.5

fade $fade

image test/screenshot6.jpg
pos 60% center
zoom 1.5

duration $dt

zoom fill

fade $fade

image test/screenshot7.jpg
zoom fill

duration $dt

pos 40% center
zoom 1.5


An example video produced with the slideshow generator would look like this:

The code for the thing is floating around in the Windstille SVN repository in the directory extra/slideshow/. It is not separated from the whole thing, so you have to grab everything to build it:

svn co svn://

Review: Metroid Prime (Gamecube)

Metroid Prime was released back in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube and marks the first try in moving the Metroid series from 2D beginnings into a more modern 3D game. Instead of going with a third person perspective, the first person perspective was choosen. The gameplay however doesn't follow modern first person shooter controls as established by Halo, but uses its own unique control scheme and gameplay style.

Movement in Metroid Prime follows classical Doom-like controls, where the left/right controls, turn you to the left or the right instead of letting you strafe into those directions. Strafing is accompilshed by holding down the L button. The second analog stick is also not used for looking up and down, but is used here to switch between different weapons. Looking around is only possible by holding down the R button, thus making it impossible to aim and move at the same time. To cope with these restrictions the game provides an lock on system that is triggred by pressing the L button. This will keep your view centered on the nearest enemy and allow you to circle strafe around it as long as the button is held pressed.

The game structure also diverts from the more story driven nature seen in other FPS games, instead Metroid Prime follows classical Metroid roots. You are thrown into a freely explorable world that requires the collection of special abilities to continue. Missiles or special beams can be used to unlock doors, bombs can be used to trigger switches or clear rubble out of the way and the classic Morphball is used to get through small passages. The Morphball is special in that it switches the game to a third person perspective and when going through small passages it switches to an almost 2D side view. Missile and energie contain are hidden around the world as well and allow you to increase the capacity of live energie and missiles that you can carrie. The next goal to which you have to go will be marked with a question mark on your map screen, these question marks however don't pop up instantly once a goal is fullfilled, but only after a time of free exploration.

Saving in Metroid Prime works similarly to previous 2D Metroids, special save rooms are provided that allow you to save your current progress. In Metroid Prime those room also refill your health completly, they however do not refill your missile or power bomb amount. Those items have to be either collected from destroyed enemies or refilled in special locations, such as one of the rare missile refill stations or your space ship, which will repelish everything.

Graphically the game still olds up rather well. The game features a smooth framerate that almost never drops. One unique feature of Metroid Prime is that it shows the outline of the helmet of your character. So the game tries to not only portrait a view into the world, but the actual view through the eyes of your character. Energiebar and missile count are thus also presented as HUD elements on the helmets display, not just on your screen. The game also includes numerous effects in which the visor of your helmet might be obscured, this can be things like rain falling on it, steam condensating on it or water running of from it. A bright lightsource in the environment, such as an exploting missile or charge beam, might also cause a reflection of your characters face to become visible in your visor. The game also features a set of idle animation, that either let your character perform some minor maintanance on her weapons or look around suptly in the environment. All those little detail do a good job at increasing the immersion.

The environments in Metroid Prime are lush and well executed, weather and fog effects give the world a life like appearance. In industrial areas plenty of smoke and steam effects will make the world seems like a working environment and underwater small flocks of fish will keep things interesting. The game also features nice light effects that will cause the environment to light up whenever a charged beam is shooting through it or one of the rare light emitting creatures flies through it. The temperature and x-ray visors that you get later in the game and that you need to see specific enemies or secrets are also well implemented and look good.

Some of the textures in the game tend to be a bit blury and some environments could need a few more polygons to look a little less blocky, but other then that the graphics hold up quite well, even by todays standards.

The music is for most part very good, giving each area a distinct theme, underlining the often spooky athmosphere.

The level design on the other side feels often flat and unrealistic. While each room by itself looks quite nice, the world as a whole feels artifical and gamey, not like a living breathing world. This is in large part caused by the world not being one seamless place, but by being split into small rooms that are connected by doors. While this might make some sense for an underground mine, it really doesn't make any sense at all for the more organic environments on the planet surface. Furthermore this restriction into rooms robs the game of any view into the distance. The next view blocking wall is always just a few meters away, thus you never get any foreshadowing of where you will be going and you never really get a sense of space. You basically will never feel like you are entering a building or a cave as you are always trapped in the never changing structure of the rooms, never outside of them.

Just like most of the later 2D Metroids, Metroid Prime also features a map system. The map system is available either by looking at the top right corner of the screen, where there is an always present minimap or by pressing the Z button, which will zoom that minimap into a full screen view. On the map screen the game allows you to rotate, pan and zoom the map completly freely, while the minimap always is in an unchangable default view. This in turn makes the minimap pretty much useless, as it is so small that it is hard to make anything out of it and you are forced to watch it in the default isometric view, instead of a simplified top down view. These issues even cause trouble on the full screen map, as while you can zoom and rotate that freely, you will often run into issues where a closer part of the map is covering up something further way, with no way to properly hide parts of the map, you are forced to rotate the map around frequently to make out what the geometry of a room looks like and while you can rotate the view into a top down view, this top down view provides only limited usefulness as well. Doors are hard to see in that top down view and some sections of the map actually consists of multiple layers of rooms on top of each other, making the top down view completly useless in those cases.

Doors on the map are marked with special colors that indicate which weapons you need to open them up, however the game won't do the same for other blocking objects that might inhebit further progress into that directions, such as rubble that might requier a powerbomb to clear. This will in turn lead to quite a few unneeded trips around the world, as what looks like unexplored terrain, is really just blocked by an object that didn't show up on the map. The map system also has the disadvantage of hidding doors that are not in the currently selected room, thus the search for an unopened door can turn into a chore, as you have to pretty much select each room individually. The map also fails to clearly indicate where an elevator will go, while each room has a name and thus provides some hint as to where the elevator will end up, a way to quickly navigate to the target of that elevator isn't available and you have to fall back to manual search. While the map does display savepoints and missile refill stations, it doesn't keep track of special items or other places of special interest, neither does it keep a count of the already collected items in an area. These are all features that have been present in Metroid Fusion and greatly eased the frustration when exploring an area, but in Metroid Prime they are completly missisng. Only a single item count is provided for the whole world, but without being limited to an area, that is mostly useless.

One feature that would have benefited the game a lot would have been a way to mark points on the map. GTA DS for example allows you to mark a target location which then in turn will cause a navigation system to plot a course for you, you then simply have to follow that course. Metroid Prime provides nothing of that sort, not even a basic compass on the HUD, thus it makes it very easy to take the wrong door out of a room and get lost on larger trips, requiring frustrating back tracking.

An important new game mechanic in Metroid Prime is the ability to scan objects. This will provide you with detail information on enemies and objects, weak points on boss fights or bits of background story. The way scanning is implemented can however be a bit annoying, as scanning will always take a second or so to actually complete the scan and present the new knowledge, this second by itself wouldn't be that bad, but if you have half a dozen objects in a room to scan, it quickly adds up and turns into an annoyancy. A further issue is that the informational text is presented in a very tiny window on your HUD, this window often doesn't even have enough room for a single sentence and doesn't allow smooth scrolling, thus making reading longer text on it a chore. The scanned information can also be looked up in a database and there the text are is a bit larger and thus easier to read, but it still suffers from lack of smooth scrolling and from still having to small a width to properly fit for the given text.

The story in Metroid Prime happens to be almost exclusivly told through the scanning of special objects. Cutscenes that further the story are pretty much completly missing, you might see a boss explode after a fight, but you won't really see anything that would deepen the story itself. The scanned objects sadly don't really do much to deepen the story futher either. They provide a few bits of unimportant back story on the Chozos and the Space Pirates, but hardly anything that could be classified as story.

One big issue with Metroid Prime is simply that it lacks characters, not just some, but any at all. The scans could be losely compared to say the audio logs you collect in Bioshock, but while those in Bioshock give you insight into important characters of the world, the scans in Metroid Prime just give you general unpersonal talk about the races involved. You will here a bit about "the Chozo" and "the Space Pirates", but there is never a single identifiable character in either group, it is just general talk about the group as a whole. It really is a rather awkward way to tell a story. Now given the previous 2D Metroids weren't rich on story either, but in a 2D game that is simply much more acceptable then it is in a 3D game, as in a 2D game this is kind of the norm, while in a 3D game it just stands out. Also the 2D Metroids at least had the whole Baby Metroid plot going from Metroid 2, over to Super Metroid and then Metroid Fusion, Metroid Prime is missing anything that would leave a lasting impression.

Another thing with the story of Metroid Prime is that it simply doesn't even make much sense even given the mechanics of the game. The story basically goes like this: A meteroid crashes down on the planet, poising its inhabitant, the Chozo, and the wild life on it with the Phazon in it. The Chozo die out slowly, failing to do anything about the Phazon polution, so they create artifacts that lock a teleporter to the impact crater. The Space Pirates then come much later and use the Phazon to create basically super soldiers. The game time itself is spend first collecting weapnos and items that give you access to other areas and then finally collecting the artifacts that unlock the teleporter to the impact crater. Once at the crater there is a Metroid Prime that you defeat and the game then ends after that. What the Metroid Prime has to do with anything, I don't know, it just happens to be the last boss. I don't think it was ever mentioned in any of the scans I read. Neither do I think anything of what you do in the game did much to defeat the Space Pirates or restore the planets health. I couldn't even say what was accomplished by fininshing the game. The more I think about the story, the less sense it makes. So it goes well beyond just being a boring story, as it basically is a non-story.

The story also has the problem of just being really badly paced. For example you will learn about the Chozo artifacts very early in the game, but you won't be able to actually collect them until much later. Many are specifically placed in locations so that you can't reach them unless you have all the weapons. So they force you to backtrack, even so you might have discovered their location much earlier on. The game also does an early sequence in which it hints at Ridley, but it doesn't show him again for another 12 hours or so, by which time you probablly already have long forgotten that sequnce.

Fighting against enemies in Metroid Prime differs greatly from more traditional first person shooters. Due to the lock on mechanic you lose precision in aiming, this means that enemies don't have different hit zones, so you won't see any headshots here, instead it is just lock on and shoot. Dodging happens for most part via the ciricle strafing that the lock on allows you to do, which however happens to not work all that well. Many enemies that run at you will hit you even when you try to dodge them, it seems kind of random when you are able to dodge and when not. Further some enemies require that you hit them from behind, but as the enemies will automatically turn into your direction, getting behind them can turn out rather problematic. So basically you spend a lot of time circle strafing and jumping around to get a proper aim at an enemy, which is basically just annoying and not fun at all. What makes this especially frustrating is that you don't really see much when circle strafing, you don't see what it left and right from you, instead you always look straight forward. In some boss fights this might result in you falling into lava or poison water.

Another issue with the fighting in Metroid Prime is that basically every enemy is a bullet sponge. You can defeat a few of the smaller enemies with a single shot, but all the larger ones take lots and lots of shooting. The scheme to defeat a Space Pirate is basically: charge up your beam, stun enemy with it, charge up again to kill it. You spend a lot of time in cover to do the charging, then just hop out, make a single shoot, then back to recharge some more. It never feels like any of your weapons have much of an effect and when you try to defeat a Space Pirates with a normal shot, it takes you easily 30 or even 50, it simply takes forever. Even your missiles don't really feel very impact full.

And as if the fighting in the game would already be annoying enough as it is, the game also features respawning enenmies. Whenever you move two rooms away, everything in the old rooms respawns. All the old enenmies are back and even objects that you might have destroyed earlier return. The only exceptions are boss enemies and special objects that are used to lock an area. This respawing makes it basically impossible to do strategic combat, as you can't clear a room, backtrack to refill your health and then continue fighting, as by then everything will be reset to zero.

After specific points in the story the rooms might also fill with new enemies, most importantly probally the Chozo ghost which will pop up in many places in the Chozo ruins, but also a few new Space Pirates might pop up in old places. What makes this annoying is that it doesn't really make the game harder or more interesting, it just slows you down on your backtracking.

The savepoint placment in Metroid Prime is also of questionable quality. Quite a few times you will have a puzzle right before a boss fight, but no save point after the puzzle. So you either have to backtrack or to run into the potential danger of having to resolve the puzzle after failing the boss fight. The game lacks any kind of reset points other then the save points and after you die all your progress and collected items and such get reset to exactly what you had back when you did save. The boss rooms are also not clearly marked from the outside, so you might trip into a room not knowing that a fight will follow that locks the doors.

The game features one situation where this savepoint placement is basically elevated to game breaking qualities. When entering the Phazon Mines for the first times, you have a savepoint right at the start of them, but then when you go deeper down that route you will have to fight your way through multiple waves of space pirates, a room with jumping platforms that require activation, a laser canon that needs to be positioned, a room with a large cylinder that needs to be rotated multiple times to create a Spider Ball path, a Elite Space Pirate mini boss, a room that floods with poison gass, an an invisible control droid mini-boss and a Morph Ball labyrinth, all of that without a single savepoint inbetween. So basically you can lose well over half an hour of gameplay when you die on your first try. What makes the situation even worse is that you don't even find anything to repelish your health inbetween, so you basically slowly drain your health and then might make it to the save point with a few points left. It is not even that anything in that list is especially hard, but it simply takes a lot of time and resolving a puzzle again just happens to be no fun at all. I ended up being stuck in that situation on both my first and second play through.

As a special unlockable the game contains the Fusion suit from Metroid Fusion, but given that you don't see your character a lot in the game, that isn't all to useful. A more useful extra is the original NES Metroid game in emulated form. It features a automatic password save function, so you don't have to write the passwords down.

Metroid Prime is around 16 hours long, however the core game is probablly just around 12 hours, as you will spend a lot of time backtracking through old locations collecting the Chozo artifacts.

Overall I would describe Metroid Prime as "less then the sum of its parts". There is a ton of cool things in the game, the way your visor interacts with the environment looks great, the jumping works very well for a FPS, the enivornment look often great and graphic and music are perfectly fine. Every now and then when the game lets you explore freely it can be quite a lot of fun at those moments. Where the game fails is in the combat and story. The combat is pretty much always annoying. It is already annoying enough when you have to fight Space Pirates for the first time, it is absolutely no fun to fight respawned pirates for the fifth time, same goes for the Chozo ghost, it just takes forever without adding anything meaningful to the game. Same goes for the boss fights, there is always a ton of headache inducing strafe jumping going on and they also take forever. Shooting the same boss for five or ten minutes just seizes to be interesting very quickly. The story also goes way beyond just being a let down. It is not just basic, but pretty much activly stupid. It makes not much sense on its own and even less so when seen in the context of the game.

It is sad that Metroid Prime in the end just doesn't come together, it can be fun at times, but when that time is regularly intermixed with controller tossing awefulness it just spoils the whole package. I'd say they successfully translated the exploration aspects from the 2D Metroids into 3D, but they completly failed at doing the same with the combat. In the 2D Metroids combat always has been a fun thing to do, in the 3D incarnation it just fails on so many levels, which it wouldn't need to, as many other first person shooter manage to handle combat just fine.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB)

Metroid II was released back in 1991 for the original Game Boy. The game was the first one after the original NES Metroid game and introduces many new elements, game mechanics and a graphic style that have defined the series since then. The game however does also divert from other parts in the series. Most notably is this in the story. Samus is given the task to destroy all Metroids on the planet SR388. Ridley, Mother Brain or other classic Metroid enemies don't have part in this game. The game also follows a much more linear path, you start at the entrance to a cave and then basically work your way through an underground maze exterminating Metroids in the process.

After selecting one of the three available save slots, the game starts you next to your landed space ship, similar to Super Metroid and the games that followed. Samus starts out with the Morph Ball and a supply of 30 rockets, while other abilites and upgrades need to be collected in normal Metroid style. A counter at the lower right of your screen tells you that there are 39 Metroids that you need to kill, pressing Start will show you how many Metroids are in the current level. Unlike other Metroid games, in this one there are no boss enenmies, aside from the final Queen Metroid, instead each of the 39 Metroids acts as sort of a mini boss.

The level design in Metroid II diverts from other games in the series. Instead of one huge world with frequent backtracking, the world is separated into levels that are linked together in a linear fashion. Each level contains a fixed number of Metroids that need to be killed and progress into the next area is blocked by a wall that won't disappear till an earth quake, triggered by the last Metroid killed, will remove it and allow progress to the next level. The levels themselves however don't follow a linear structure and are basically smaller side caves that allow non-linear exploration. Backtracking through all the levels back to the top is possible, but is never needed or encouraged in the game. Backtracking however is frequent on a per level basis and once you unlocked the next level you have to often leave the cave back the way you came in. The levels themselves are also filled with dead ends, so you often have situations where a Metroid is in a side cave, which you then enter to kill the Metroid and then leave it the way you game. The game does wrap itself back to your ship once the final Queen Metroid is defeated in traditional Metroid fashion. Another noticable divergence from classic Metroid formular is that the game does not have doors in the normal levels, you switch rooms by simply walking to the edge of the screen. It is only the Chozos chamber that contian weapon upgrades that are locked by missile doors.

Unlike later games in the series, Metroid II is still a map-less game, relying on the players memory, a handdrawn map or a walkthrough. The game also provides little to no hint as to where an earthquake has opened up a new area. It does show the count of Metroids still alive in this area and the earthquake is a strong graphical clue, but there is no directional hint given.

In terms of game mechanics, the game feels a lot closer to the later Super Metroid then it does to the NES original. The game introduces the ability to shoot downwards and the ability to duck. The the ability to shoot diagonal is still missing however.

The game introduces the Spider Ball, the ability to turn the Morph Ball into a sticky form that will attach to walls and allow you to roll up vertical walls or even roll around the ceiling. The Spider Ball made a reappearence in the Metroid Prime series, but so far Metroid II is the only one of the 2D Metroid games that provided this ability. The controls of the Spider Ball are a bit trouble some, as it will only work when you press into the proper direction, which when you ball is right at the corner of a wall becomes trouble some, as it is hard to tell if it is already on the vertical part of the corner or still on the horizontal one. The Spider Ball also rolls around a little slowly, which given that you sometimes have to travel quite long distances with it, can get a little annoying.

The Metroids in this game not only come in their common jellyfish form, but in different stages of their lifecycle namely Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, Omega. Each of which presents basically a harder form that is more difficult to fight. While those other lifecycles make a short guest appearence in Metroid Fusion, Metroid II so far is the only game in which the different stages of the Metroid lifecycle played a major role.

One of the weird parts of this game is how it handles enemy activation, while it is normal for console games to only activate enemies that are close to the screen, here only enemies are activated that are fully on the screen. In the Metroid fights this has the effect that you often have the Metroid almost outside, but still visible on the screen, yet he will not be activated and stand still. This basically becomes a boss tactic, you try to keep the Metroid outside the screen, then jump into its direction at the right high fireing a missile, then back out again to freeze the Metroid with the help of the screen border. This limitation to the screen area also comes into play with destructible sand tiles, that respawn instantly when out of screen, which feels a little weird, as it often happens by accident, blocking a just cleared area.

The game features savepoints similar to the later games in the series, but due to the layout of the levels you don't come across them often enough, forcing you sometimes to backtrack to an earlier savepoint to save. Savepoints in this game also don't replenish you health, so you have to rely on health and missile refill points, which however are very sparingly as well or you have to shoot enemies, which while working, can be rather time consuming.

The graphics are for the technical capabilities of the Game Boy quite nice, featuring a much more zoomed in view with very large sprites compared to the NES Metroid game. This zoomed in view however comes at a price, as it provides much less overview over the current room, making it sometimes hard to orientate oneself. The graphics are however mostly limited to cave tiles, while there are different kinds of cave tiles provided, the more industrial design of later Metroid games is mostly missing, making the game lacking in noteworthy locations. The lack of color or good animation also makes it nearly impossible to distingish lava from water in this game, but that never really becomes much of an issue. Playing the game on the Game Boy Player will give the game a custom palette, providing Samus with proper coloring and breaking the regular four color limit on the original Game Boy.

The music in Metroid differs from the other games, but is overall quite nice and different tunes for different areas keep the music from getting to repetitively

Overall Metroid II is still a very fun game, but just like the original, it suffers form the lack of a map screen. The game also suffers from a general slowness, not only is the jumping a little slow, but especially the spider ball just moves to slowly. The story, presented completly without cutscenes, on the other side is rather nice, even so it is very simple, as it moves the Metroid series away from the normal boss fights, giving the mission a clear purpose and adds some moral ambiguity in the end, when you destroy the last Metroid and then a newly hatched baby Metroid follows you peachfully, even helping you, for the rest of the way back to your ship. A classic countdown is missing in that sequence.

The game is around four hours long when played casually with a map. The classic Metroid special ending is unlocked when finishing the game in under three hours. A counter for how many items one has collected is missing, so one doesn't get anything extra when collecting 100% items.

PS: There is a fan made remake of the game in works, using what looks like mostly recycled Metroid: Zero Mission graphics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Record your Linux desktop with sound

Record your Linux desktop with proper sound:
  • apt-get install gtk-recordmydesktop pavucontrol
  • launch pavucontrol
  • pavucontrol: go to the "Input Devices" tab
  • pavucontrol: select "Show: All Input Devices"
  • pavucontrol: select "Monitor of Internal Audio Analog Stero"
  • launch gtk-recordMyDesktop
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: mark the checkbox at "Sound Quality"
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: chose a window by clicking "Select Window"
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: chose a location for the video via "Save As"
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: press Record
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: you can stop the via the icon in your systray
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: if you use "Encode on the Fly" the resulting .ogv will be somewhat broken, to fix that use:
    ffmpeg -i input.ogv output.ogv -vcodec copy -acodec copy
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: "Encode on the Fly" can help keep the file size small on long recordings
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: to select an arbitrary area take an application (for example xzoom), position that window where you want to record, "Select Window" that window, close your application or move it out of the way, the selected area will not follow your application
  • pavucontrol: the Ubuntu sound control does not allow you to select the internal audio, it only allows you to record from microphones, that is why pavucontro is needed
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: recordmydesktop can be used from command line without the gtk interface
  • recordMyDesktop: xwininfo can be used to get geometry informations of windows
  • gtk-recordMyDesktop: some applications require "Full shot at every frame"
  • OpenGL recording will not work very well with recordMyDesktop, try GLC instead

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Review: Metroid (NES)

Metroid on the NES is the game that started the Metroid series back then in 1986 and then was remade in 2004 with the game Metroid: Zero Mission on the GBA. I played the original NES version that comes as unlockable with Metroid: Zero Mission. Changes to the original NES version include graphics that are being a little squished to fit the GBAs lower screen resolution and the ability to save the password, so that one doesn't have to reenter it. To get a little closer to the original experience I tried to play it without referencing a walkthrough and instead draw my own map of the game.

Graphically Metroid definitively shows it age and even for a NES game it is rather basic, featuring no backgrounds and almost monochrome foreground tiles. The engine is also unable to handle multidimensional scrolling, so you are limited to horizontal- and vertical scrolling sectors, which are separated by doors. Different sectors do contain different looks, so there is at least a bit of variety to be had. One big disadvantage of this game however has is that it is full of recycled rooms, there are literally sections where each of four door ends you in the exact same looking room. This makes it basically impossible to navigate the game without a map, as you can't really tell where you are with so many rooms not only looking similar, but being pixel exact copies of each other.

Sound and music to a good job at creating the atmosphere and already feature the tunes that where recycled and remixed in later Metroid games.

The game features the same open world exploration as later games in the series, but it does not feature an automatic map system or hints on where to go. In this game you are basically completely on your own without any help. The gameplay is also noticeably different, most importantly in that you can't shoot down and in that you can't duck. These limitations allow enemies that are half the size that you can't easily hit with your normal weapon, forcing you to either use the morph ball bomb or the environment to properly align your shoot. This makes the combat a good bit more interesting then in later games, as you have to figure out proper ways to work around enemies and can't just shoot everything on screen with ease. The small sprites help to give you an overview over a large game space. The weapon upgrades then do a very good job in lifting some of the limitations. The ice beam allows you to freeze enemies in place, making it easier to dodge fast moving enemies and removing a need to fight them, while the wave beam allows you to shoot enemies that are half your size. Unlike in later Metroids the weapon upgrades don't stack, so you can have either the wave beam or the ice beam, but not a wavey ice beam. In the end fight against Mother Brain this lack of stacking forces you to go back to recollect the ice beam. Another thing mission from later games is the bomb jump, placing a bomb on the ground, then standing up, catapults you into the air, allowing you to perform a higher then regular jump. While the game does locks you out of some areas when you haven't collected a specific item, this is used much less then in later games, allowing you to basically explore the whole map once you have the bomb and missile, which you get early in the game.

Collecting weapon upgrades and suit upgrades in this game is as important as it is in the later games, but unlike later games, here the items are placed much less logically. A lot of items and areas are hidden behind seemingly normal walls that you have to blow away, giving you little to no hint to do so. The game even goes as far as hidden secret passages behind lava, which you normally try to avoid, but here you have to jump into to get critical items.

This basically brought my playthrough without a walkthrough to halt, as it is very easy to miss an important item, which in turn makes the game incredible frustrating. In my case I ended up defeating Kraid and then being in Ridley's lair, but missed screw attack, Varia suit and the wave beam along the way. What made the situation worse is how the password system works in Metroid works. The game doesn't feature save rooms, but instead gives you a password whenever you die. This password saves the sector you are in, your suit upgrades, your missile count and your energy tanks. What that password however doesn't save is the energy count, meaning you always start out with 30 health, even when you have health tanks that would give room for 500 health points. This means that in the later parts your character can take two hits before dieing. You can collect health points just as in later games by destroying enemies, but those enemies that are in location where you can easily harvest only give you 5 health points, making refilling your health an incredible tedious thing.

Being stuck in Ridley's lair, I chose to peak at a walkthrough instead of trying to refill up my energy manually. Knowing the locations of the new upgrades made things a lot easier, as it turned aimless exploration into a targeted treasure hunt. With the new items collected the game also become a hell of lot easier, as now not only you got twice the health from enemies, but the weapon upgrades also allowed to basically clean each screen, giving you much more opportunity to collect health. I'd go so far as to say that the game got a little to easy, as it went from basically 'impossible' to 'easily manageable'.

Kraid, Ridley and Mother Brain are the only boss fights in the game. Unlike in later game both Kraid and Ridley are here barely larger then a normal enemy, instead of screen filling. Kraid turned out to be rather tricky, not following an easy dodgeable pattern, but having full health helped to defeat him without to much trouble. Ridley on the other side was trivial, just as in all the other Metroid you could just spam him with missiles and be done with it. The projectiles he shoot were trivial to dodge. Mother Brain didn't provide all that much challenge either, as there only a few slow moving projectiles floating around, no fast targeted attacks. After the last fight against Mother Brain Metroid typical countdown follows, but it is rather large and the escape path is very short.

Overall this is still a very fun game after all those years, playing it without a walkthrough however turned out to be not the best way to enjoy the game. The same looking rooms make the navigation by memory extremely hard and even with a hand drawn map, it is just to easy to miss critical items, turning the game into an near impossible to solve chore. With a walkthrough on the other side the experience is completely different. You no longer need to just randomly walk through same looking room, instead you focus more on your next goal, this also leads to a steady stream of new upgrades, thus making the game much easier.

That you only start with 30 health points, instead with full energy is probably the by far biggest fault of the game, as it adds a lot of unnecessary tedium and renders the energy containers mostly useless, as you almost never will find the time or motivation to actually fill them early in the game. The base difficulty of the game on the other side is very welcome, as it forces you to be careful and figure out proper strategies and patterns against enemies. Early in the game you are also forced to dodge enemies instead of defeating them, something not seen in many games these days.

PS: Source code for the NES version of Metroid is floating around on the net, it is not the original code, but a disassembled ROM that is heavily commented.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Breathing life into an old laptop

I have been toying around with an old 600Mhz Intel Celeron 64MB over the last few days, trying to find some use for it. In terms of actual speed it is pretty impressive with WindowsME it boots up in 40sec and the overall experience there is perfectly fine, but of course WindowsME isn't support any more and you can't find new software for it.

So next step was to look into Linux, browsing around the Ubuntu page gave me the impression that below 256MB that wouldn't be any fun, so I didn't bother to try it and went directly to Debian, which should have lower system requirements. That however didn't work to well either. First of Debian Stable didn't want to run Xorg, due to some graphics driver misshape, after that was fixed with a dist-upgrade, the thing however just was to slow to be of much use. Memory usage of the normal Debian Stable was always around 55MB when Xorg and LXDE was running, with basically nothing else. So it already was right at the max before doing anything demanding. I didn't bother to figure out, who exactly is wasting the memory, but gave Damn Small Linux a try instead.

Damn Small Linux is pretty impressive. It comes on as a small LiveCD and manages to boot into Linux with Xorg and Dillo as a webbrowser running without problems, just using around 20MB doing that. Installing Damn Small Linux to the HD also went smoothly. The thing neither looks as good nor is quite as responsive as WindowsME, but it is a perfectly usable Linux from what I could tell.

Overall I am still not quite sure what that laptop is still good for, the 64MB RAM is kind of a show stopper, the 5GB HD is also rather small and only having a single USB slot doesn't help much either. But Damn Small Linux works and that WindowsME might be good enough for some older games and watching DVDs.

Update: I now also gave Puppy Linux 5.1.1 a try. The LiveCD is a lot more demanding on the RAM then DSL, with 64MB already being already little to low, killing the X server and dropping to console to add a swapfile however fixed that. Installation was also a bit problematic, as Puppy Linux doesn't format the partition, you have to do that manually, else Puppy Linux will just install its files over what is already there, possibly getting confused in the process (installing over DSL Linux resulted in an unbootable system). Once past that trouble, it somewhat runs, but the RAM is still pretty maxed out, so your not wanna try to start any heavy apps, I guess thats the price you pay for having a more pretty looking GUI.

Review: Super Metroid (SNES)

The first thing one notices when launching Super Metroid is that it is unusually option heavy for an Nintendo game. Not only can one configure the button layout, but also a few other things such as "moon walk" (walking backward when holding the shoot button) and icon cancel (automatically deselects icon on room change). The default control scheme is also pretty unusual in using X for shoot and A for jump, instead of the normal Y and B combination. That aside the control scheme also feels a little cumbersome, to select a weapon you have to toggle through a list of all those items by pressing select. In Metroid Fusion this was much more smoothly handled by having a modifier key that would turn your normal bomb into a super bomb or normal shot into a missile, thus making them easier available in combat without having to go through a list.

Another weird thing with the game is the way in which it handles translations, unlike other games, the normal text here is not translated, instead the game features subtitles below the normal English text. This doesn't really have much impact on the game, as you won't be seeing much text beside the intro, but it is a rather unusual thing to see in an non-FMV game.

Once past the option menu and into the actual game, it looks a bit disappointing at first. The graphics are rather basic and especially the backgrounds are often very blunt, giving it the look of a very early 16bit area title instead of one of the later ones. However that first impression doesn't last for long, as what the graphics lack in detail they make up in atmosphere. Especially later in the game there are some nice scenarios, such as when one walks through the ruins of an abandoned spaceship or when you are deep underground and have earthquakes shaking. The music, while basic, does a really good job supporting that atmosphere.

The games map lacks a few features one might have learned to love from Metroid Fusion, such as the ability to see doors. In Super Metroid you only see the rooms outline, but not if it has a door or which kind of door, thus it becomes much trickier to find unexplored areas. The map also doesn't keep track of items you have collected, it only keeps track of "points of interest", but that can be anything from an already collected energy tank to a missile refill station. The map also doesn't provide you a pointer as to where you have to go next, thus it becomes easy to walk off aimlessly into the wrong direction. What the map however shows are the boss locations, so you always have a final goal, but without information where to collect the next item that might not be all that helpful, especially given that many critical items are very well hidden behind seemingly normal walls.

In terms of items the game features missiles, super missiles, super bomb, grappling beam or x-ray. The last two have been missing from Metroid Zero Mission and Metroid Fusion and provide a nice addition that adds a bit more complexity to the game then you see in the 2D Metroids that followed. The spiderball from Metroid II however is missing. Super Metroid also allows you to customize your suit, you can switch on and off collected abilities at will, something that didn't make it into later games either.

Compared to the later games the gameplay of Super Metroid also feels a little stiff, you walk and jump rather slowly. Some of that is helped once you notice that you actually have a separate run button in this game, instead of the auto-running of the GBA, but a little sluggishness in the controls remains.

The save points in the game are for most part placed well enough, but sometimes rather well hidden behind a wall or another obstacle and thus not instantly obvious. There is also one savepoint in the wreaked ship that is activated only after you defeated the boss, not before. While justifiable from a story point of view, it is a rather mean trick, especially given that the boss is one of the harder ones in the game. Another extremely problematic save point is the last one, as that savepoint is a non-obvious point of no return, once you have saved there you can not go back and collect remaining items, you are stuck in the Mother Brain lair forever, essentially making your current savegame useless and not giving you a way to refresh your super missiles. Super Metroid is neither the first nor last game to pull such a misshape, but it is especially annoying here as collecting items after defeating the last boss is kind of half the fun.

In terms of story the game keeps it really basic, you get an intro and an ending, which not much inbetween, but the game does manage to keep things interesting with a few scripted in-game events (such as a bird creature teaching you the speedboost jump for example) and also the intro does do a good job recapping previous games events, which makes the ending a lot more meaningful. The short introductory space station mission is also extremely well done.

Overall it is a very good SNES game, probably my second favorite in the Metroid series behind Metroid Fusion. In terms of length it is a little longer then the GBA games, clocking in at around six hours on a normal play through. A few interface goofs spoil the fun a bit, but one gets used to most of that after a while and for the lack of proper map screen one has the Internet these days as replacement. The story is simple, but it does a great job in connecting all the 2D games in the Metroid series. The one thing that was a huge bummer was the point-of-no-return save point, a game in which collecting stuff is a large part of the experience should never have such a point, especially when completely unnecessary.

Review: Metroid Zero Mission (GBA)

Metroid Zero Mission is a remake of the original Metroid from the NES that was released some years after Metroid Fusion. Aside from the first few rooms and the boss fight against Mother Brain however, there really isn't all that much noticable reassemblence to the original NES Metroid. This is especially true since you are given almost all the weapons from Super Metroid, which in turn change the flow of the game quite a bit compared to the NES original.

In terms of overall game mechanics it basically follows traditional Metroid conventions and plays for most part rather similar to Metroid Fusion, where it diverts however is in its story telling or lack there off. While Fusion could get a little to talky at times, Zero Mission is almost void of any dialog. For storytelling the game features a series of cutscenes that work with images instead of in-game graphics. While this sounds fine in theory, these cutscenes however lack any kind atmosphere and the editing is rather terrible, thus doing far more harm then good to the overall game. The art style also diverts from more traditional pixel art, to what looks more like a comicbook style, that seems unfit for the atmosphere of a traditional Metroid game. This graphic style is not only used for the cutscenes, but also to a lesser extend visible in game. Comparable suspensful in-game sequences to Metroid Fusions SR-X encounters are missing in this game, even so there would have been plenty of opportunities to integrate similar stuff.

Instead of dialog sequences that guide you through Metroid Fusion, this game guides you mostly by statues that highlight a point on your map where you have to go to. This leads to a much more fluent open game experince, then Metroid Fusion as you are not constantly stopped for the next briefing, it however also means you don't really have any context as to why you should go to that point.

The game contains some technical improvements over Metroid Fusion, such as a new graphical effect with which tilemaps will fade away when you go below them. It is a neat little effect that is used cleverly in a few places to hide items and other mechanisms. The map screen now gives you an overview map over all the sectors and lets you switch between sectors without having you standing in them first, this saves a bit of useless running around. The game also by default shows you the items you have collected per sector, so it is easy to see where you have overlooked stuff and even without a walkthrough it is not that hard to collect most items.

Boss fights in this game are rarer then in Metroid Fusion and also less interesting. Basically the game contains just Mother Brain, Kraid, Ridley, Acid Worm and a Ridley robot. Ridley is just as in Metroid Fusion trivial to defeat with spamming it with missles, while Kraid looks almost exactly like the SNES version. The remaining ones aren't all that interesting to fight or look at either.

The most interesting and also the most broken part of the game is the zero suit section. This section takes place after you defeated Mother Brain and thus after the end of the orignial NES game. In that section you are attacked after take off and crashland back on the planet, with your suit destroyed. This means you have to fight your way through a whole bunch of space pirates, armed with only a small freeze gun, before you can get your suit back. In theory that sounds like an interesting and suspenseful change of pace for the game, in practice however the results are rather disappointing. The most confusing part about this section is that it in large part looks like a Metal Gear'ish type of gameplay where you have to sneak past the space pirates without being noticed, mechanically the elements are even there, you got alarms that get triggered and spots for hiding. What destroys this section is that you are very frequently forced to trigger the alarm without any way around it. Thus instead of a clever game of hide&seak, it just boils down to running real fast to the next hiding spot to escape your followers. The gun you have is only good for stunning enemies, so you can't actually defeat them. What makes this section so frustrating is that you have no other choice as to painstakinly remember the path, as almost every unplaned enenmy encounter can and will result in your death. On hard mode the game even goes so far as to intentionally blocking a few savepoints in this section, making it even more frustrating.

In terms of length the game is very similar to Metroid Fusion, around four hours for the core game and then another few to collect every item. The game also includes next to the remake, the original NES version scaled down to GBA resolutions. The NES game automatically stores the password, so you don't have to write it down to save you state.

Overall I didn't enjoy this as much as Metroid Fusion, while the added freedom is a nice change, the game just lacks purpose and feels rather blunt. In Metroid Fusion each sector had a clear purpose and theme, while here it all just feels more random. It also just doesn't look as good and the suspenseful athmosphere and the intensity of the gameplay is mostly gone. The zero suit mission just feels like one huge missed oportunity and thus feels simply out of place.

In the end it is still a solid Metroid adventure, but my least favorite one of all the 2D ones, it feels to much like a step backward in some areas while not really offering anything new. As a remake of the original NES game it also fails, as it neither does a good job of capturing its atmosphere nor does it contain many recognizable parts and those that it does, where also remade for Super Metroid, so thats nothing new either.

Metroid Zero Mission for me marks the starting point where the series took the wrong turn. The first four parts build up a nice little storyline, where one part basically follows directly after the other, this remake of the first however doesn't add anything interesting of its own, but clobbers the story with some useless and unneeded pieces of Samus Arans backstory. It also introduced the zero suit and the overall new look of Samus, which seems to be a pointless depature from the more realstic and gritty lock before (as far as pixel art goes anyway).

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Ubuntu 10.10 (maverick) Upgrade

Just upgraded to the latest Ubuntu 10.10 beta, so far everything seems to have went smooth, except the Nvidia drivers again, which already failed on the last few dist-upgrades. After the dist-upgrade gdm won't start, but it is easy to fix, make sure nvidia-current is installed and just add the following line to the ServerLayout section in your /etc/X11/xorg.conf:

Option "IgnoreABI" "True"

In terms of new features I haven't noticed much so far, the volume control now includes controls for Rhythmbox, which is a little weird, given that I already have those controls in the Rhythmbox icon right next to it and Firefox has a new set of icons.

Today, when booting up the machine, Ubuntu started to display some three month old messages in its notification area, not sure what's up with that.

The new cryptsetup is currently incompatible with the old one from the previous Ubuntu, making encrypted mounts fail without a meaningful error message, one has to add a few additional options to make it work.

Emacs23 with a anti-aliased font is extremely slow when it comes to scrolling.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Review: Metroid Fusion (GBA)

I recently replayed Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance. In terms of graphics the game still holds up nicely, it doesn't look quite as good as say a Castlevania on the NintendoDS, but as far as the GBA is concerned it is definitely one of the better looking games. Sound and music are also pretty good. The controls are a bit overloaded due to the lack of buttons on the DS, but work overall quite nicely. The L button lets you aim up or down in a 45 degree angle, holding R lets you shoot missiles or charge missiles and A and B let you shoot and jump. Pressing start will show you a map of the explored area.

Like previous Metroid games this one also provides a chain of of collectable extras that give you new abilities, you get those collectables after basically every boss fight. It is the standard stuff for most part, morph ball, bombs, high jump, screw attack, etc. The one new thing is that you now got an chargeable ice missile instead of a regular ice shoot, but it serves much the same purpose as before.

One nice new core game mechanic is the way how you refresh your energy. Like in previous games enemies that have been killed will leave collectibles that will refresh you missiles or energy, but in Metroid Fusions those collectibles are actually viruses that will, if not collected quickly, respawn into a new enemy. It is also possible to kill two smaller enemies and then have their viruses respawn together as a single bigger enemy. This mechanic gives the game a great sense of speed and urgency as you end up constantly hopping around and collecting things.

Unlike Super Metroid however, this one is a lot more talky. The game is separated into 7 sectors and at the entrance to each sector you will have a short dialog with an AI computer. While every now and then this provides interesting story bits, it sometimes feels a little to much as all you get is another objective to collect this or that item. The story driven nature of this game also adds a bunch of linearity to the game. You always have a next objective to fulfill and there is very little room or reason to go exploring and due to the way many secrets are only accessible with newer power ups that you might not yet have. The one point where you can freely explore is right before the very last boss fight and while it is fun to revisit old locations and explore every spot of the map, it is also rather pointless, as at that point you simply do not need any of the extras any more. Unlike the Metroid Prime series, collectable items will be marked on a map, this makes it much easier to keep track of what got collected.

The one area where the story telling in Metroid Fusion really shines are the encounters with SA-X. SA-X is an fully powered up Samus clone in the Super Metroid suit that you will run across multiple times in the game. It is undefeatable, thus your only job is to survive the encounters. This can be accomplished by either freezing it with ice missiles or hiding. The music, pacing and the fact that they all play out through normal gameplay makes those encounters extremely suspendsful. SA-X and other boss enemies will will also from time to time leave a trail of destruction behind them, thus blocking previously accessible path and forcing you to find another way around.

The difficult of the game is pretty well balanced, providing a decent challenge, without ever getting to hard. The once exception is the Nightmare boss, that one is by far the hardest boss in the game and takes by far the longest to defeat compared to other bosses. The game also has a few situations where it is not all that obvious you have to do. In one instance a locked door will only open up, after you defeated some enemies that only appear after two viruses combined. While having doors open up when all enemies are defeated is not a new mechanic in games in general, it is used only exactly once in the whole game and there really isn't any reason given why that happens. In those cases you are mostly looked up into a rather tiny environment, so there isn't all that much chance that you wander off into a completly wrong direction, but in those few cases where this becomes an issue a few additional hints would have been welcome.

In terms of length the game is not the longest, but fine for a handheld game, an average play through will probably take you around five hours, collecting all the items might almost double.

Overall this is probably my favorite Game Boy Advance game. While the way the story adds linearity and slows things down can be annoying, the story itself is perfectly fine for a handheld game and serves well in giving you points to go to and explanations for new game mechanics. Some non-linearity would however have been welcome instead of giving the player a completely guided experience. There is still a bit of exploration to be done, as your objectives might not give you an exact room to go to or tell you how to get there, but you don't really get to do exploration on a larger scale till the very end. The nice thing about the exploration however is that you will learn a few new moves that you likely never used in the normal game, so while the new energy tanks might be rather useless, you actually do see a few new and interesting things and some items provide a good challenge to figure out.