Known for a claustrophobic atmosphere, a taunting style of level design, and for featuring one of the first woman protagonists in videogames, Metroid has been a crucial part of the Nintendo family for almost 30 years. This August marks the game’s 30th anniversary (although it didn’t come to the States until 1987), and to celebrate Nintendo is… releasing a game that doesn’t even star Samus Aran. What?
When Metroid Prime: Federation Force comes out later this year, it’ll be the 12th game bearing the Metroid name since 1986. It’ll be the first since 2010, though, when the underperforming Metroid: Other M brought a temporary halt to a steady stream of Metroid games that ran throughout the ‘00s. Federation Force will be unique because, barring some kind of surprise, Samus won’t be the playable character. Instead players will take control of one of a squad of space marines whose abilities can be customized between missions. They’ll be able to join up with three other players for co-op action, a first in a series that’s always been about one single woman facing insurmountable alien odds. When you read a description today, months before release, it doesn’t really sound like a Metroid at all.
Of course that’s part of the history of Metroid games. Metroid has constantly experimented with and expanded upon its core ideas. Almost every new Metroid game has been met with quizzical looks from fans when first announced, but when the games are actually released they’re typical met with great enthusiasm. Metroid has always innovated within its own loose boundaries, and perhaps Federation Force will help forge a new path for the series without completely discarding its identity. Or perhaps it will wind up at the bottom of these rankings whenever we update them.
Let’s look back at the first 11 games to come out with the Metroid name on them, weighing them against each other in hopes of declaring one the best Metroid of all time. And since Metroid might be the greatest videogame series ever, it’s entirely possible that the game that tops this gallery is also the greatest game ever made.
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11. Metroid: Other M: Other M is widely regarded as the worst Metroid for a number of reasons. Instead of the silent, stoic warrior of most games, Samus is shown as emotionally fragile and conflicted as she deals with the fallout of losing the baby metroid she rescued in Metroid II. Instead of losing her various abilities for mechanical reasons, and forcing the player to gradually unlock them in a way that makes sense in the story, she's simply forbidden from using most of her powers until her commanding officer gives her the approval. Even if you could look past those narrative missteps, though, you'd still have to contend with the game's awkward shifting between perspectives. It's mostly in third person, but you regularly have to slip into a first person view to target specific enemies or find hidden objects, and it often disrupts the flow of the action. It's also perhaps the most linear Metroid ever, which counteracts the whole point of Metroid. Other M just doesn't feel like a Metroid most of the time, putting it squarely at the bottom of this list.
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10. Metroid Prime Hunters: Hunters suffers from a mismatch of ambition and technology. After the success of the first two Metroid Prime games on the Gamecube, Nintendo understandably wanted to make a spin-off for the DS. It was hard to make a first-person game satisfying with the DS's control scheme, though. To compound that awkwardness, Hunters made heavy use of the handheld's touchscreen. So not only was the game hampered by the lack of joysticks, it also asked you to pull a hand away from the buttons to occasionally tap the screen. It looked great for the DS at the time, and successfully brought the atmosphere of the Prime games to a handheld, but it wasn't exactly fun to play.
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9. Metroid Prime Pinball: This isn't a traditional Metroid at all, but the way it incorporates series trademarks into a video pinball game is often very clever. Samus has been turning into a ball since the very beginning of the first Metroid, and it's almost surprising it took close to 20 years to put her in a pinball game. It might be a goofy aside to the main games, but it's a fun, weird game in its own right.
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8. Metroid II: Return of Samus: The first Metroid sequel deviated from the standard template slightly: instead of several distinct regions that could be accessed and explored as you collected specific power-ups, it had one big world that would gradually expand as you accomplished certain goals. Chalk that up to hardware limitations, along with the repetitive graphics and music. Metroid II felt enough like the first game to appease diehard fans who had worn out their original Game Pak, and actually had a significant impact on the story of Metroid. Its story feeds directly into the next two games in the side-scrolling, non-Prime series.
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7. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes: Echoes is a great game. That's how good the Metroid series is: the seventh best one is still great. Compared to the first and third Prime games, though, it's just a little bit wanting. Dark Samus isn't distinct enough beyond the standard "evil doppelganger" enemy type, and the infamous Sky Temple keys feel like padding. It's also really hard, even for a Metroid. It's still a gorgeous, smartly written game that expands on the advances made by Metroid Prime.
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6. Metroid Zero Mission: This 2004 remake beefed up the original Metroid for the smaller but more advanced tech of the Game Boy Advance. It preserves what made the original Metroid so special while making it more palatable to a modern audience. Some of the peculiarities of the original are ironed away, and various items and mini-bosses are introduced, including an area that's not in the original game at all. The only reason it's not higher than the original is because it's not as groundbreaking.
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5. Metroid Fusion: One of two Metroid games released on the same day in November 2002, the handheld Fusion remains a delight today. While its release date buddy Prime rebuilt Metroid in the first-person, Fusion finally gave players a faithful side-scrolling follow-up to Super Metroid. It's a deep, satisfying return to the type of Metroid everybody knew and loved at the time, but also one that helped set the table for the future, introducing a few concepts and one character that would return in future games. It also helped the Game Boy Advance introduce a novel new way of interacting with consoles: if you bought both Prime and Fusion and connected their hardware together, you could unlock new features in both games.
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4. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption: The swan song for the Prime series jumped from the Gamecube to the Wii, finding a wonderful new control scheme along the way. Casting aside the slight narrative and structural mistakes of Prime 2, Prime 3 both returns to the strong environmental storytelling and sense of wonder found in the first Prime game. It also updates the control scheme for the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo without losing any of its thrilling nature. It uses the Wii remote in common sense ways that make the already bewitching world even more transformative, while also offering us the most beautiful glimpse yet at Prime's universe.
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3. Metroid: The original NES game gets a bad rap today. It's developed a reputation as a flawed game whose foundations were rebuilt into one of the best series ever through its sequels. That's selling our old friend short, though. Everything you need in a Metroid game is right there from the very start: a large variety of weapons, a sprawling world with areas that can't be accessed until you find specific power-ups, a lead character who grows exponentially stronger as the game progresses, and the need for constant back-tracking and free-roam exploration. The lack of a save battery was always a problem, but if you were careful when writing down your passwords it was possible to not lose too much time to that finicky process. When it was released Metroid was just as crucial as The Legend of Zelda at expanding the scope of what games could do, and it remains one of the most important games ever made.
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2. Metroid Prime: Fans were wary before Prime came out. There hadn't been a new Metroid in eight years, since Super Metroid was released, and it felt like Nintendo was exhuming a beloved but discarded franchise solely to cash in on the first-person shooter craze. How could a FPS replicate the exploration and back-tracking vital to a series that had only ever been a 2D side-scroller, fans asked? The answer: shockingly well. Prime felt more like a Metroid than anybody could imagine, and is still eminently playable today, over 13 years after it was released. Prime was also a pioneer of environmental storytelling, relating most of its tragic backstory through the dozens of info screens that can be optionally scanned throughout the game. It's still the most vibrant version of the Metroid universe, and really, it's a toss-up between it and number one on this list.
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1. Super Metroid: Super Metroid didn't just perfect what the original had innovated. It innovated on its own, introducing some of the most iconic abilities to the game and expanding how we could move within its world. Even when you're going backwards you're always going forward, and the addition of save points turns an already addictive formula into something that will literally deprive you of sleep. Metroid Prime might be as successful at its goals as Super Metroid, but Super Metroid gets the nod because of its importance and sheer unassailable quality. It's probably the closest any videogame has ever gotten to perfection.