Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Don't You Mess With A Little Girl's Dream, Or She's Liable To Grow Up Mean (Metroid: Rogue Dawn)

(Hello! As you'll soon find out when you get past the preamble buildup bullshit, Metroid: Rogue Dawn is a total conversion ROM hack of the original NES Metroid. It can be found right here. That's also where I'll be getting the screenshots for this, so credit where credit is due there. In the interest of playing nice with capitalism, I should advise you to give Nintendo five dollars for the original Metroid on one of its digital services before seeking out some sort of under-the-table version of it to modify. Also I'm going to talk about the tricks it does and the ending and shit, so if you're going to play it and care about that, there are spoilers!)

For Metroid fans, it's been a bleak ten years. 2007, in retrospect, was the last really great grasp of the series. Metroid Prime 3 was a pretty great Metroid game in a series of pretty great Metroid games from Retro Studios, but it was also the capstone to that particular trilogy. A little bit of a wait for the next new Metroid experience wouldn't hurt; we waited eight years after Super Metroid to get to this new golden age of Metroid being a profitable and popular thing that got regular new games. What would be next? E3 2009, that was what was next. I can remember sitting there, live watching the Nintendo show and reacting with my gang of pals. The Chat For Non-Losers and I sat there viewing, wondering what this strange space game that Team Ninja was making had to offer. Then came those words. "Any objections, Lady?". OH SWEET SHIT THAT'S ADAM MALKOVICH IT'S A NEW METROID GAME OH MY GOD YOU FLIP AROUND AND SHIT THIS LOOKS SO COOL! I was beyond hyped. We all were. Then the game came out. Oh. Oh my god. In that moment, the Metroid fanbase had its Phantom Menace moment. The creators went back in time to tell an untold story in the Metroid universe and it was garbage. For years we would get our bats and bludgeon the space where a horse had once laid, trying to understand just what had gone wrong and unable to let go of just how let down we'd all been (or maybe that's just me). To be fair, though, it was all we had. After Other M, things got quiet for Metroid again. Slowly the realization dawned. We were living in the embers of what had once been the golden age of Metroid. The peace and prosperity we'd fought for, wiped clean by the wagging no-no finger denying you a climactic final level or a true last boss fight. Oh sweet Jesus.

2016 now. Metroid's 30th anniversary. Nintendo had something cooking, alright. After six long years we got our new Metroid game, on the 3DS. It was a co-operative Metroid Prime-like game involving nameless Federation soldiers called Metroid Prime Federation Force and you didn't play as Samus. People were not too happy about this. I'm treading carefully here as I never actually picked up Federation Force. To be clear, my abstaining is not due to any sense of betrayal at it being a spinoff sans Samus or anything like that. The reviews just made it seem like a middling game that isn't all that fun in its single player mode, and that's how I primarily play games now; all my video game playing friends are scattered across the country and my Internet connection is too slow for meaningful online play. Plus it doesn't sound like all that good of a game. Worth 20 bucks if I ever saw it on the shelf, but I had no interest in running out and getting it. I even spoiled myself on the final boss battle because I read it somewhere. I won't repeat it, but on paper it's a wonderful idea that offers a multitude of readings. In game, the boss has basically one trick that it uses in phases and makes slightly trickier each time, followed by a limp escape sequence. It's a wonderful idea, but it just doesn't work. Out of all this, though, a curious sort of hope for many. For ten years, a video game alchemist had been tinkering with something. 2016 was when it finished and was released unto the world; a Metroid fan game that Nintendo was swift to crush under its C&D heels. This Metroid game escaped its captivity, though, and escaped unto the world. Another Metroid 2 Remake, or AM2R, can probably still be found with a Google search if you're seeking it out. Despite Nintendo's attempts, it is out there. A "new" Metroid game that seeks to reignite the spirit of exploration and give all the Metroid fans some joy through our cold journey through the night.

This is not the game we will be talking about today.

AM2R is... well, it's divisive. I played about half of it and I reserve my opinions until such time as I go back into it. What I can tell you is how my various friend circles seem to have reacted to it. I know a few people who really adored it, taking to a new good Metroid game like a thirsty man in a desert oasis and relishing in its joys. On the flip side, I have friends who played it and were turned off by just how it felt to play and what it represented. AM2R, as its namesake suggests, is a remake of the second Metroid game which was on the original Game Boy in 1991. Metroid is no stranger to remakes, now; the original NES game was remade for the GBA in 2004 and basically turned into a faster more kinetic game that did away with a lot of the things in the original that had aged poorly. AM2R is remade in that same spirit, but with stronger feelings on the matter; Metroid 2 is a "black sheep" of a game that gets a lot of shade thrown at it, and AM2R was essentially seen as METROID 2: GOOD EDITION. Even its creator seems to have adopted that as the design philosophy for the game, stating "My mindset was, whatever I do, it'll be better than an old black-and-white game." That's where the divisiveness comes in; some people are eager to put that old monochrome shit down and play what they see as a fully realized version of a flawed Game Boy game, while others kind of liked the original and are let down or insulted by the dismissiveness in writing off Metroid 2 (and, if you take that quote to its fullest, the Game Boy in general) for a simple little fangame. That's about all I have to say about AM2R for now, and I only hope I've represented both sides of that equally. No, what I'd like to talk about is another one of those odd fan projects, but from a different direction.

A different sort of alchemist now; a ROM hacker. Rather than make a new Metroid game from scratch, this one worked on rebuilding from the NES original to make something altogether unique. I have my reservations with ROM hacks, as a lot of them either just add vulgar shit to games or make them sadistically difficult in a betrayal of what those games are. I don't want to beat that horse again, but this ROM hack is one of the good ones. It was worked on for about three years, finally releasing on January 14th of this year. Metroid: Rogue Dawn is out now, and it's essentially a brand-new Metroid game in the engine of the original NES Metroid. Gone are most of the quality of life upgrades like shooting in more than three directions, as we're working in the original space... or rather, a place beyond the original space. Metroid Rogue Dawn, you see, is a prequel to the entire series. We're back in that Phantom Menace gap of fleshing things out, and doesn't that just terrify? More frightening yet is that this is an unofficial effort. We are dealing with playable Metroid fanfiction here, slotting into a gap at the very beginning of it all. What will we find, and how will it resonate with us here in the long darkness of no great new official games, in a world where new Metroid is uttered by Reggie in the same tone as fucking Mother 3 being localized? Step into the looking glass, and let us see what is on the other side.


"You, won't you say something? I need to get my bearings. I'm lost, and the shadows keep on changing..."

Okay, so let's elaborate on that fanfiction gap thing. Metroid: Rogue Dawn, as I just said, is a prequel. Brushing up on our Metroid lore, we know that the original game's plot was incited by rogue Space Pirates stealing a newly discovered alien critter called a Metroid from the Galactic Federation, and plotting to multiply them using radiation to take over the galaxy. All we knew up until now is that the Space Pirates stole the thing. Metroid Rogue Dawn is the expansion on that, and it is your player character who will be performing the theft. You are Dawn Aran, a dark experiment undertaken by General Ridley of the Space Pirates to turn a human child into a powerful and loyal destructor for the Space Pirates. The Pirates have already shot down a Federation ship containing the new Metroid speciment, and it is Dawn's job to go down to the planet and steal the thing for her controller. Dawn Aran's identity is never stated explicitly, but I can tell you right now that she isn't Samus. Perhaps Dawn is Samus's never-spoken-of sister who is assumed to have perished in the same destructive event that left Samus an orphan but actually survived. We're deep into Metroid lore here, but as I said this is fanfiction. It works, though, and it works because it's just the setup to the game. There's some "text" in the game from NPCs but it only gives insight into the Federation research ship; there's nothing about Dawn until the ending, which we'll get to at the end. You're otherwise free to explore planet SR388 on your mission. As stated, this is an all-new Metroid adventure presented before you. The laws of this place don't make any sense. We are on SR388, setting for Metroid 2, but nothing here seems to gel with the map layout of Metroid 2. Nothing gels with the expanded lore areas placed in AM2R as well, but that is beside the point. This planet is weird.

Armed with a long beam, a morph ball, and some missiles, Dawn Aran descends down Planetary Access Lift 1 from the Space Pirate ship and moves down to SR388. The opening exploration of this game is rough, to say the least. You really feel your limitations down here as you try to find the one right path that will lead you to an item of progression. My first hour or so was spent on the surface and the caves below, finding naught but more missile upgrades. The actual pathway was a block underwater. Clever, clever, clever. One of Rogue Dawn's concessions is adding a map to the game, and I'm alright with this because of how Rogue Dawn's world is laid out. It's not like the map is that well-defined. You can see most of the pathways and items and bosses are marked, but not specified. In addition to that, the world is... tricky. To grab items and find new passageways, you have to be spatially aware of how your glimpses on the hidden item could possibly connect to the other screens around it, and then hunt out the alternate path accordingly. This is the easy part; sometimes you have to go off the map itself in order to connect yourself to different screens. It wouldn't work with the very 1986 conceit of making your own map as you go, but it will still have you scratching your head. Then there are the times where things just don't make sense; the utter nonsense of being trapped in a deep dark cave in which the shadows keep on changing. You may fall forever through the same screen until you find another route. You might find a hidden passage and then fall downward... to the screen to your right. One tricky bit involves a maze of twisty passages, all alike; you have to roll yourself into the right one to make progress, or somehow be dropped into that same neutral screen again. My favorite little puzzles involved the way the game handles scrolling; NES Metroid can only scroll rooms horizontally or vertically, and it loads what "type" a room is upon entry. In one area, you enter a space horizontally and need to get up. After exploring for an alternate way upwards, I found that when I entered that space from below my starting point, it loaded the area as a vertical one. The nothing I could not traverse before led to something. Dawn Aran's cleverness in traversing this house of leaves is noted... but why wouldn't she be as clever as her possible sister?

"Well, you may be king for the moment, but I am a queen, understand..."

Look back at those items. Dawn Aran possesses powers that Samus has to work for when she will storm the planet Zebes, and when all is said and done it will be Dawn Aran that technically has more than Samus did in the NES Metroid. As General Ridley's dirty little black ops project, Dawn is bred for war and is able to modify herself with leftover Chozo relics, just like Samus. The golden age of Metroid saw two dark mirrors of Samus crop up; the stalking single-minded organism that was SA-X, and the reoccuring nemesis that was Dark Samus. Dawn Aran slots herself in as the third, right at the start of the series. This darkness manifests itself in the main mission, of course, as your goal is to steal a lifeform for your purple dragon boss so that he might hold the galaxy ransom and bring the Federation to its knees... but the game does pull one genius trick that gives you agency in being one mean mother from outer space. After defeating the boss of one of the areas, you find what's left of the research team that your Space Pirate pals blasted down to the planet's surface. They give you an access code you'll need to enter the final area, but right next to them is a shiny Energy Tank. They beg you not to take it, as they need it to send a distress call. I took it, because Dawn would take it. It's a very meta sort of moment of guilt tripping you for the basic desire to collect more items to survive. You can just as easily survive without it, and find enough Energy Tanks in the game that it's not a problem... but the choice is yours. Throughout your journey, you will find many more things. Most, like the Varia Suit and Screw Attack, are legacy NES Metroid items. Two "new" ones are the Spring Ball and Wall Jump. Walljumping would become a Metroid staple, and it feels really good here. It's the other big addition to the engine, and I was pleased with how well it worked. While we're talking about quality of life improvements, the game also has a save system and energy recharge stations. There are no missile recharge stations, however, so you'll have to save those or farm them. Unfortunate, especially later... but oh well.

The big thing I love about this game, though, is how it keeps a sense of atmosphere. Something like, say, Metroid Zero Mission can take the NES Metroid and get rid of all those flaws like the 30 energy thing or not being able to shoot diagonally. Those are fine, but what rubbed me the wrong way about it was the loss of atmosphere. The black bleakness of the labyrinth has given way to this bright and colorful neon world on a crisp GBA screen. It's a fun game, but it's not nearly as spooky as the one it's building off of. Rogue Dawn, being a black bleak labyrinth itself, nails this. The all-new music shines especially in this. Sure, something iconic like Kraid's Lair will always be the gold standard for spooky ambiance in my NES Metroid, but Rogue Dawn's tracks offer their own. I especially like the underwater area theme, the jungle area theme, and the Chozo ruins theme. The world itself is also more... real-feeling. The NES Metroid was very blocky and manufactured, but these caves and underground jungles have uneven terrain all over the place. It's the same map design that later Metroid games would pick up on, and to see it inserted back here is lovely. It makes these caverns feel like a real place, and not a base. There are... oddities though. Oddities in the form of secret rooms. Sometimes you find blocks in the shape of a Metroid. Sometimes you find other things, like a room that spells out "THE GRIM PICKER" with the next room showing tiles made to look like a guy picking his nose. It jars, but in an obvious way given the unreality of a planet where you can fall down a vertical shaft forever. Nowhere is this quite as apparent as the crashed Federation research ship you must explore. It's the trickiest area yet, with several instances of having to find cracked floors to proceed to other rooms, and trying to make sense of how everything interconnects. During my explorations, Dawn ascended a vertical shaft and pushed herself against the right side of the screen, trying to find a hidden route. She found it, alright. The screen scrolls into darkness, and Dawn falls for ages. As it happens, she literally falls out of the world. No Metroids, no Ridley, no Chozo. The gravity of another dimension sucks her downwards, and Dawn falls into the secret area; a Super Mario Bros inspired world. I am not kidding. You'll need to use all of your tricks to get out of it, as well; the horizontal/vertical scroll thing, some clever Morph Ball bombing, the works. An energy tank awaits and then you fall back down into your own dimension, ready to resume the mission.

"You're not the only one who runs on instincts, no I've got instincts of my own"

And now, the final chapter. A biohazard of an area swarming with Metroids. The lack of a missile recharge stings here; Metroids require being frozen and hit with five missiles to defeat them. There are a shitload of Metroids in this final stretch, and they're stingy on dropping missiles. I ran out and had to restart. That second time, I learned. I played semi-pacifist, freezing the Metroids to avoid them and only killing when they were directly in the way. As I learned, Dawn began to learn as well. The final battle is very Mother Brain-like, with destroying barriers and freezing objects to shoot at a stationary target, in this case a very large Metroid. It plays out almost like the Mother Brain fight will in future, and I can only assume that the assets for the end had to be re-used. What comes then is the escape sequence. The planet isn't about to implode or anything; no, the Federation has finally answered the distress call. The Man is here, and your criminal ass has to hightail it in an escape pod. It's a tense sequence and as you run you can see that the Federation troops have landed and are mobilizing. The timer is actually short this time, and if you dawdle your doom will come. Dawn is faster than that, and manages to make it out. Now for our ending... and wow. Dawn delivers the Metroid specimen to General Ridley on Zebes, as she said she would... but she has gained more than a bunch of ancient Chozo items on her mission. Dawn has gained the clarity of independence, and she realizes that the Federation's retribution will be swift. "I will not blindly follow... I'll choose my own destiny..." she says, completing her transformation into the mirror of Samus and gaining Samus Aran's agency as a force of sheer will. A good choice, as well. As Dawn's ship blasts off from Zebes, it is detected by none other than Samus herself. Informing the Federation of this, they tell her to ignore it and continue her own mission; the assault on Zebes. Dawn has flown off to discover new worlds, and Metroid can begin in earnest.

In case you couldn't tell, I really liked Rogue Dawn! It's a different sort of approach from games like Zero Mission or AM2R; rather than rebuild their inspirations from the ground up, Rogue Dawn adds as much as it possibly can to the original template while also smoothing out as many of its shortcomings and bugs as possible. There are still sore spots, and if you can't stand NES Metroid then this is probably not your cup of tea. Still, in this age of uncertainty regarding Metroid, this is a pleasant thing to see and it was a good experience for me. It's well-designed and full of tricky puzzles and beautiful areas, and the atmosphere is perfect to me. Then there's Dawn Aran. For the most part, I'm okay with this fannish expansion of the Metroid lore. Inserting a never before seen OC who's basically Samus but evil is strange, considering that she's never brought up again... but it's a fan project. Some leeway can be given to the original ideas, and it's up to us to think of what happened to Dawn next. I can think of what she might have done, and imagine future adventures starring her in the Metroid universe. That's the limitless potential of the fan, and it's all we have in a world where the Metroid franchise is stuck outside its golden age. Nintendo gave us all a world to play with, and now that we've all grown and become creators in our own right it's up to us to keep that golden age going. Our results may vary, but they are results. In a world where Dawn Aran can break free of her programming and transcend her narrative, anything is possible.

"Hey, did you ever get the feeling that it's really a joke?
You think you've got it figured out and then you find that you don't?
So you say goodbye to the world and now you're floating in space,
You got no sense of nothing, not even a time or a place.
Suddenly you hear it, it's the beat of your heart,
And for the first time in your life, you know your life is allowed to start..."

No comments:

Post a Comment