I’ll start with this: Super Metroid is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s part of the “Trifecta of Perfection” from the SNES days along with Super Mario World and A Link to the Past. I’m not alone in my opinion. Metroid is a fan-favorite Nintendo franchise, and a big part of the appeal of the original game came from the sparse nature of its world and soundtrack, both held back by the hardware limitations of the original NES. It was a sprawling open-world adventure before that was even a thing.
Mario and Link and Samus Aran: they were the original Nintendo Big 3. Samus, though, has arguably since been overtaken in Nintendo’s hierarchy of characters by the likes of Pikachu and Kirby, two later-era Nintendo megastars whose franchises get new titles far more frequently than does that of Metroid‘s femme fatale. The last Metroid game was the poorly-received Metroid: Other M for the Wii in 2010. Prior to that, in 2009, the remastered Metroid Prime Trilogy was released for the Wii, but the last really well-regarded Metroid title in new release was Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, also for the Wii… in 2007. That’s right, almost a full ten years ago.
While it appears Wii U will come and go without every being graced by the Metroid franchise, the latest game in the series is due out this August on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s a multiplayer shooter game called Metroid Prime: Federation Force, far from the traditional isolated adventure style of gameplay the franchise is known for, and let’s just say Metroid fans are… less than enthused. Calls for its cancellation, petitions against it, accusations of ruined childhoods… you know, all the usual responses when superfans unite against a product. Never mind that Federation Force is being produced by Kensuke Tanabe, who produced every other installment of the much-beloved Metroid Prime series. Never mind that Tanabe-san has been quoted repeatedly as saying this is the Metroid game he’s been wanting to make for awhile. Never mind that the developers behind the title are the generally well-regarded Next Level Games (who made one of my favorite 3DS games, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon). Fans are aghast: this is NOT the Metroid game for which they’ve been clamoring.
And they have a point. While new Zelda and Mario and Kirby games, spin-offs or otherwise, seem to pop up every year, Metroid is the tree from which the fruit is rarely offered. Nine years between proper installments of a cornerstone franchise (remember, nobody counts Other M as a “proper” installment) is a long time. So what’s the problem, Nintendo? Why are you hating so hard on Metroid?
The answer is probably easier than you’d think: Metroid games are big, sprawling, graphically demanding adventure titles that take time, resources, and money to make, and the truth of the matter is they just don’t sell that well. The best selling Metroid of all time is Metroid Prime, which moved approximately 2.82 million units*, making it and the original Metroid the only games in the series to break 2 million units sold. 2 million units is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but what does it say that the three series entries released on the Wii (Other M, Metroid Prime 3, and Metroid Prime Trilogy) cleared 1.63, 1.11, and .65 million units, respectively, on a console that sold over 100 million units? That is a woeful attach rate (the percentage of owners of an individual console who own a particular piece of software for said console.)
Now compare this to a few other Nintendo big-money franchises. The Legend of Zelda series saw only one game in its entire franchise history come in below 3 million units moved: Four Swords, which only moved about .65 million units. The next lowest series sales figure was Skyward Sword at 3.31 million units, and most Zelda titles have averaged between 4 and 8 million units moved.
Then there’s Super Mario Kart, a franchise that at its worst moved 5.47 million units (Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the GBA) and at its best moved a whopping 32.01 million units (Mario Kart Wii). Do you WANT to talk about Pokemon, which moves 10 million units per game without even trying? Or Super Mario Bros., well over 200 million sales and climbing?
So why is Metroid the weak link? Why hasn’t it struck the same chord as so many of Nintendo’s venerable IPs? At the very least, Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid Prime could arguably be on the list of anyone’s all time greatest games; hell, the series has even spawned its own genre, the Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania used to describe a game that apes both series’ format of back-and-forth dungeon crawling in search of items to overcome obstacles and allow further progression.
Maybe Metroid just isn’t popular enough in Japan. Maybe it’s too weird, its face-masked hero to impersonal, its titular creatures to creepy. Maybe it’s too daunting for the neophyte gamer. After all, Metroid on the NES offered no map through its maze of corridors and no save functionality a’la The Legend of Zelda; perhaps this curtailed the series catching fire like Link’s original open world adventure (which featured both maps and game saving) or like Mario’s much simpler NES pack-in offer.
Whatever the reason, when you factor in the struggling (and poorly trending) sales of the Metroid franchise, you start to realize the dilemma that Nintendo is in. While Metroid games are flagship titles demanded by the company’s hardest-core fans, the line seem to be drawn there, as sales figures indicate there are very few crossover gamers playing Metroid. So it makes sense, almost, that the company would be trying something new with Metroid Prime: Federation Force, turning this entry into the franchise into a multiplayer shooter/adventure title with bite-sized micro-stages. This is, of course, the antithesis of what Metroid has always been, so while the vociferous overreaction to the MP:FF reveal two E3’s ago was (and remains) silly, it’s going to be interesting to see if the game can, on the very popular Nintendo 3DS console, hit some respectable sales figures. If no, then Nintendo will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some new tactic as they continue in their attempts to solve the Metroid dilemma.
*All sales figures courtesy of VGChartz.com.