Nintendo’s put together a number of retro series revivals in recent years. Most of them, namely New Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, stuck strictly to the formats of their predecessors. All were side-scrolling franchises back in the day and remained so in their Wii sequels. Core gameplay mechanics remained intact, tossed in with new ones that add freshness and depth. But not all series comebacks are quite this by the books.
Retro Studios took the Metroid series in a bold direction with Metroid Prime: the first-person realm. It was a decision that was initially met with some skepticism from the purists among the fanbase, but the results proved to the world that Metroid could still find relevance even among modern-day shooters. And how did it do so? By being bold enough to make itself a modern-day shooter… while still sticking to the core framework of its predecessors.
Therein lies the genius of Retro Studios. They have a knack for pushing well-known series into new ground while not crossing the threshold at which change becomes unacceptable. Because aiming in a first-person perspective is the most intuitive approach for shooters, Miyamoto suggested that Retro incorporate a first-person perspective. Instead of turning Metroid into just another FPS, Retro took the concept of “first-person aiming” and fit typical Metroid conventions inside of it.
The most famous example - and the case I want to focus on in particular today - is of course the Scan Visor. In side-scrolling Metroid games beginning with Super Metroid, players could scope out secret passages by planting bombs against certain breakable blocks in order to reveal their weaknesses. But this isn’t exactly very believable in a first-person game, but did Retro do away with these sorts of obstacles and secrets? Not at all!
Instead, with a gentle push from Miyamoto, they implemented a visor system that allowed Samus to change up the way she sees the world around her. With those new visors, the Scan Visor in particular, she can now scout for environmental cues through her helmet. In this way, a feature that could have died off as a classic relic of the old days wound up turning into something that felt totally modern and new. They even used the Scan Visor to implement a fully-developed log and lore system that went down as a critical marvel.
What’s more, while the block-based secret hunting of Super Metroid games was more or less a series exclusive, the Scan Visor as an expansion of that concept went on to influence the wider first-person shooter genre. Games like BioShock and The Conduit included their own versions of the idea, slightly different in function but similar in execution. We’ve even seen the idea trickle into other games, such as Assassin’s Creed and its “detective mode.”
But this was more than a case of Samus simply coming to 3D, using the best technology and console power available - it took Retro’s marriage of Metroid and modern shooter conventions to bring out those influences. Without incorporating the value of the first-person aspect of modern-day shooters, we wouldn’t have gotten the game we now know as Metroid Prime.
That’s why I’m so insistent about the creators of Zelda looking to games like Skyrim. Their massive success proves them to be shining examples of the kinds of RPG experiences players today value - more content-heavy, action-based, open-world experiences as opposed to puzzle-driven or plot-centric adventure games. And when these games, pitted head-to-head against Zelda in the holiday software wars, emerge as more popular and more widely-acclaimed, there’s something to be said there.
If their reputation with Metroid Prime speaks for them, and I think most would agree it does, Retro Studios has the broad-sightedness to tool Zelda into something that can both cater to popular modern genres and conventions while at the same time carrying on the hallowed traditions that fans cherish. The question is whether those in charge of other efforts to modernize classic franchises - and I’m not just talking Zelda HD; Kid Icarus Uprising comes to mind - will exercise that kind of discretion as successfully as Retro.