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Every Metroid game ranked from worst to best

From the Chozo homeworld Tallon IV to the Metroid-infested depths of SR-388, Samus has been to countless planets and survived many harrowing adventures. But which one is best?

That's a harder question to answer than you might think. Nintendo's favorite bounty hunter has tackled space pirates, confronted two different evil doppelgängers, fused with her mechanical suit, squared off against a small army of her peers, and transformed into a pinball (seriously) for some much-needed relaxation. Metroid games might feel like they're few and far between, but if the past 30 years have proved anything, it's that Samus is remarkably hard to keep down. Nintendo fans wouldn't have it any other way.

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Metroid Prime: Federation Force

Say you manage a popular franchise that, despite a rabid fan base, hasn't had a new entry in over half a decade (and hasn't had a good installment for twice as long). How would you reintroduce that series to the masses?

If you'd do it by making a game that's absolutely nothing like the others in the series, you probably work for Nintendo. When the company revealed Metroid Prime: Federation Force at E3 2015, hungry Metroid fans cheered—but their enthusiasm didn't last long. While open-ended exploration forms the series' core, Metroid Prime: Federation Force is a mission-driven shooter. The core titles in the Metroid series force players to navigate harsh alien terrain all by themselves, but Metroid Prime: Federation Force focuses on cooperative multiplayer levels.

Samus Aran, Metroid's beloved protagonist, only appears in a supporting role, the squat, cute character designs reduce sprawling space opera to a cartoon, and Metroid Prime: Federation Force's secondary mode, the Rocket League-like soccer knock-off Blast Ball, is sluggish and slow and doesn't make much sense. Taken on its own, Federation Force may or may not be a good game. We'll never know. The Metroid name brings certain expectations, and Freedom Force doesn't meet them.

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Metroid 2: Return of Samus

In 1991, when only one other Metroid game existed, Metroid 2: Return of Samus looked and played fine. Sure, it was in black-and-white (or, on the original Game Boy, black-and-green), but the characters looked almost as good as they did on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the game controlled much, much better (for example, this time around, Samus could duck). Besides, unlike the game's console sibling, you could play Metroid 2 anywhere, anytime. For a game that relies so much on exploration and backtracking, that's a big deal.

But while Metroid 2: Return of Samus still plays an important role in the ongoing Metroid saga—plot-wise, it's the launching point for both Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion—it hasn't aged well. Compared to other franchise entries, the environments don't have much variety (in fact, many rooms are identical), making it easy to get lost. As with many early Game Boy titles, Metroid 2 slows down and flickers when the screen gets too crowded, making combat difficult. Finally, the small screen robs it of its predecessor's epic atmosphere.

In other words? There's a very good reason why both fans and professionals want to remake Metroid 2. It's an important game, but it could—and will—be a lot better.  

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Metroid: Other M

First, credit where it's due: Nintendo catches a lot of flak for sticking to predictable formulas for its big franchises (besides the dungeons and the items, is there any fundamental difference between The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, or Skyward Sword?). After three first-person Metroid Prime titles and five 2D Metroid games, Nintendo used Metroid: Other M to try something new. With help from Team Ninja, the group of developers best known for Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden, Nintendo tried to reinvent Metroid as a slick action title with an in-depth cinematic storyline, simple controls, and linear, straightforward levels.

It didn't really work. Metroid: Other M looks great, and its combat is both simple and satisfying. The story, however, transforms the fiercely independent (and intentionally mysterious) bounty hunter Samus Aran into a whiny, insecure damsel in distress who must rely on others to succeed (unlike past Metroid games, Samus gets new abilities in Other M because her commanding officer unlocks them, not because she discovers them for herself). The rest of the plot doesn't make much sense, and Other M's strange first-person segments—in which Samus can't actually move—bring many of the action scenes to a grinding halt.

It's nice to see Nintendo branching out. It's just too bad to see them sacrifice Samus' character while doing so.

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Metroid Prime Pinball

It's a rule: if a video game character is round, they're going to get a pinball spinoff. Samus Aran is no exception—nor should she be. After all, she was rolling up into a morph ball when Kirby and Sonic were still mere gleams in their creators' eyes.

And believe it or not, Metroid Prime Pinball is pretty good, too. At its base, it's a pretty standard pinball game, but special enhancements—like boss fights, collectible items, weapons, and various minigames—help infuse it with Metroid flavor. Every one of the six tables, each one based on a different Metroid Prime location, oozes atmosphere. There's even a fully-fledged campaign mode in which Samus must collect 12 artifacts in order to unlock the final table. Metroid Prime Pinball isn't a great Metroid game, but it's a surprisingly solid spinoff that should appeal to Metroid and pinball fans alike.

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Metroid Prime Hunters

On a technical level, Metroid Prime Hunters is impressive—or, at least, it was in 2006. The Nintendo DS was the first Nintendo handheld capable of real 3D graphics, and seeing Metroid Prime's moody and atmospheric world brought to life on a portable system felt like a small miracle. The tense multiplayer mode proved Metroid could double as a harcore shooter. The stylus-based controls worked surprisingly well, too, allowing players to blast at their foes with pixel-perfect precision.

Until the hand cramps set in, anyway. Metroid Prime Hunters' unique control scheme might've been a canny way to get around the DS' lack of analog sticks, but after extended play sessions, your hands hurt. Bad. Metroid Prime Hunters' single-player campaign doesn't hold up, either. Metroid Prime Hunters is first and foremost a shooter, not an adventure title like other Metroid games. The action-heavy design hasn't aged as well as one would hope. Given that the game's multiplayer servers shut down in 2014, that's a big problem. Cramps aside, there's still a good game inside Metroid Prime Hunters—but these days, you can't enjoy the best part.

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Metroid: Samus Returns

Boy, it feels good to play Metroid again. Metroid: Samus Returns has everything you want from a 2D Metroid game. The game's story, which is fleshed out via cutscenes and in-game text, puts Samus Aran front and center as she burrows deep into the Metroid's homeword in order to carry out some government-sanctioned genocide. The game's ten levels don't really fit together to create one giant, sprawling maze, but every stage is full of secrets, alternate pathways, and carefully hidden upgrades (and, yes, the journey requires a fair share of backtracking). The 3D graphics may not age as well as Super Metroid or Metroid Fusion's stylish pixel art, but for now, Samus hasn't ever looked better.

Even the stuff that's new is welcome. Now, you can place pins on the map, marking places to return to later. A scanner reveals destroyable bricks in the immediate area—which can be a godsend, given that you'll need to veer away from the obvious path if you want to progress. Everything that's not great about Metroid: Samus Returns can be traced back to the Game Boy's Metroid 2: The Return of Samus (technically, Samus Returns is a remake), but even that game's weirder features—like, say, linking progression to the number of Metroids Samus has slaughtered—are better tied to the overall Metroid mythology.

That being said, Metroid: Samus Returns doesn't dramatically shake up the core formula. As far as Metroid goes, it's pretty standard. That's okay. After seven years without a proper Metroid game, we'll happily take whatever we can get.  

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Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

If you think the Wii's casual-friendly motion controls ruined gaming, give Metroid Prime 3: Corruption another spin. Chances are, you won't ever want to go back. While turning can get sluggish, the Wii Remote provides Metroid Prime 3 with one of the best and most accurate shooting interfaces a console-based video game has ever seen. It's not quite as flexible as the PC's mouse and keyboard setup, but it's close, and helps make Prime 3 one of the most satisfying Metroid experiences on the market.

The rest of the game shines, too, with the best graphics in the Prime subseries (at least until Metroid Prime 4 ushers the franchise into HD for the first time), high-quality voice acting, and a story that brings the first Prime trilogy to a satisfying end. The "hypermode" mechanic, with which players can sacrifice health for temporary invincibility and a massive damage boost, gives Metroid Prime 3 a fresh strategic edge.

In fact, the only thing dragging Metroid Prime 3 down is the sense that it doesn't always feel like Metroid. The best Metroid games, including the first two Prime titles, immerse players in the world via a sense of eerie isolation. Metroid Prime 3's chatty companions—not to mention all that noisy shooting—tend to ruin the mood. Metroid Prime 3 successfully reimagines the franchise as a Hollywood-style sci-fi blockbuster. At the same time, we're glad it's a one-off experiment, not the new norm for the series.

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Metroid: Zero Mission

The original Metroid is a classic, but it hasn't aged particularly well. It's only natural. When Metroid: Zero Mission debuted, Samus Aran's first adventure was almost 20 years old. Games in 2004 looked and sounded better, took longer to beat, and had more detailed stories than they did in 1986. A remake simply made sense.

Judged by that criteria, Metroid: Zero Mission is a rousing success. New areas fleshed out Metroid's atmospheric but sparse world (roughly 30 percent of the game takes place after Metroid's original boss, Mother Brain). The items and skills—including the ability to crouch, which wasn't included in Metroid's first outing—established in Metroid Fusion and Super Metroid return in Metroid Zero Mission, making combat more varied and more interesting. Simple cinematics flesh out Metroid's barebones plot, while tying Samus' first adventure directly to the Metroid Prime series. The improved graphics and revamped maps don't just make Metroid Zero Mission easier to look at; they also help the game flow better. In the NES' Metroid, uncovering hidden passageways takes guesswork. In Zero Mission, clues in the environment point to secret areas, provided you're paying attention. Overall, Zero Mission is just a better, more satisfying experience all around.

But at the same time, Zero Mission didn't bring anything new to the table. Structurally, the game resembles Metroid. In terms of aesthetics, weapons, and powers, Zero Mission relies heavily on Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion (with good reason—Nintendo reused the Fusion game engine to get Zero Mission made as quickly as possible). The biggest additions to the storyline simply tie together plot threads from existing Metroid games. Other than the ability to play as Samus in her skin-tight zero suit, there's nothing really new here for Metroid veterans. Zero Mission is a great game, but if you're a diehard Metroid fan, you've seen all this before.

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Metroid Fusion

People love the traditional 2D Metroid games, which is why it's easy to forget that there aren't very many of them. In fact, if you discount remakes, there are only four: there's Metroid and Metroid 2, which appeared on 8-bit software; there's Super Metroid, which graced the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid '90s; and there's Metroid Fusion, which appeared on the Game Boy Advance all the way back in 2002.

That's crazy. Thankfully, if Metroid Fusion really is the last entirely brand-new 2D Metroid we're going to get, it's a fitting cap to the series. In order to tell the tale of Samus' struggles against her alien clone, SA-X, and the Federation's attempts to breed and weaponize Metroid offspring, Metroid Fusion is surprisingly and uncharacteristically linear (navigation stations explicitly tell the player where to go next, keeping the story moving).

It's not a problem. New weapons like the ice and diffusion missiles shake up combat, while Fusion's Samus is more capable than ever—for the first time in series history, she can climb ladders and grab ledges. The X Parasites, which Samus must collect after defeating in order to prevent them from transforming into new enemies, add a new wrinkle to Metroid's combat. Level layouts change dramatically as the game progresses, forcing players to find new routes to previously discovered areas. SA-X, who stalks Samus throughout the game, adds a whole new layer of tension to the traditional Metroid formula, too. Like a survival horror game, if Samus wants to survive SA-X's deadly attacks, she'll need to run and hide when SA-X comes calling. Often, that's easier said than done.

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Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes didn't have as much to prove as its predecessor. Metroid Prime already made it clear that the classic Nintendo franchise could survive the transition from 2D to 3D just fine. As a result, the second Prime doesn't feel quite as fresh or interesting as its predecessor.

Thankfully, Metroid Prime 2 distinguishes itself in other ways. Unlike the first game, it takes places in two separate dimensions—one light, one dark—which share the same general layout, but feature different enemies, objects, and environments. That paves the way for some excellent puzzles and some unbelievably tense moments, especially since Samus can't hang out in the dark world for an extended period of time without frying her suit.

Oh, and did we mention that Metroid Prime 2 is a lot harder than other Metroid games, too? You won't defeat Dark Samus and the Phazon-collecting Space Pirates easily. That's good news for grizzled Metroid veterans. For everyone else—including Metroid Prime 2's designers—it's a turnoff, and probably the main reason Prime 2 isn't regarded quite as highly as its predecessor.

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Metroid

Like we said before, Metroid hasn't aged well. If you've never played a Metroid game, go with Metroid: Zero Mission instead. It's the more accessible product.

But that doesn't mean it's more impressive. Metroid isn't just an NES title, it's a relatively early NES title. The expansive Super Mario Bros. 3 came out in 1988. Graphical standouts like Kirby's Adventure and Batman: Return of the Joker debuted in 1991.

By contrast, Metroid made its first appearance in 1986. In video game terms, that's practically forever ago—yet look at everything it accomplished. The graphics might be simple, but the game oozes atmosphere. Despite the NES' limited power, Zebes feels like a living, breathing world. Even with blocky sprites, Metroid effectively captures Alien's sense of looming, inevitable dread. On a console dominated by straightforward platformers like Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., Metroid introduces non-linear, exploration-based gameplay. It even has time to throw in a plot twist—if you beat the game fast enough, Samus takes off her helmet, revealing that she's female.

All that, and Metroid single-handedly invented an entire genre, too. And yet, the beginning of the whole "Metroidvania" craze feels almost like an afterthought. Metroid isn't polished, but it is stylish. In terms of both art direction and game design, it remains one of Nintendo's crowning achievements.

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Metroid Prime

We shouldn't have been concerned. Super Mario 64 proved that Nintendo-style platforming translated just fine to the third dimension. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, the series' first 3D outing, proved so popular that other Zelda games ripped it off for the next 20 years. Doom, Quake, and Half-Life proved that first-person shooters had legs, while Halo established that the genre could work on consoles in addition to PCs.

But as we've established, there's more to Metroid than combat, and diehard fans worried that Retro Studios—at the time, a brand new company—would transform their beloved franchise into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi shooter. Boy, were they wrong. Retro Studios designers quickly realized that, in Metroid, "the challenge of the game [is] finding your way around." Combat is just a diversion.

Everything in Metroid Prime supports that view. The series' tried and true upgrade-and-explore gameplay loop returns, bolstered by arguably the best level designs in Metroid history. Bosses are treated like puzzles, not dexterity challenges. The lock-on targeting system makes combat fast, fluid, and easy to follow. Samus' scan visor, which unveils information about the environment and propels the story forward, is such a natural addition to the franchise that it's impossible to imagine Prime without it.

Oh, and the first-person perspective that got everyone all riled up? It ended up making Metroid Prime the most immersive Metroid game ever. Even today, Prime looks great, thanks to impeccable art design, while little touches—like the way Samus' visor (and your view) cloud up when she walks through steam, or how her face reflects in the glass when there's a bright light—make it feel like you are Samus. Metroid Prime doesn't actually take players to another planet, but boy, at times that's pretty easy to forget.  

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Super Metroid

Metroid laid the foundation. Super Metroid built the castle. Everything Metroid established in 1986 (with help from Metroid 2: Return of Samus in 1991) comes back to play in a major way in 1994's Super Metroid. Many of the enemies, including Mother Brain and the Space Pirate leader Ridley, return. Like Metroid, Super Metroid takes place on Zebes, the Space Pirates' homeworld. Many familiar weapons, like the ice beam and the screw attack, make repeat appearances. Super Metroid even uses some of the original game's locations, although they've been spruced up with better graphics.

But Super Metroid is more than the sum of its parts. This is the game that transformed Metroid from a space-themed action-platfomer into a fully-fledged space opera with a thrilling opening escape scene and a climax that involves a surprisingly heartbreaking sacrifice. The lush 16-bit graphics give each one of Zebes' six locations a unique vibe, helping bring Samus to life as a character, and really sell the impact of each one of the famous bounty hunter's weapons. The huge, continuous levels sell the scope of Samus' journey. Everything is unique, too—no two screens look alike, making exploration easy and fun (and just in case you get lost, the auto-mapping system removes any remaining drudgery from traveling from place to place).

In short, the only problem with Super Metroid is that there isn't more of it. But hey! That's what sequels are for, right?