Nintendo could easily interpret this summer as a sign that gamers just don’t want Metroid anymore. The numbers are in and they are very bad for Metroid Prime: Federation Force, the poor little 3DS multiplayer shooter that nobody wanted. Eurogamer is reporting that the game has landed at 15th place in the UK. North American sales have not yet been reported but nobody is expecting stellar results. Most crucially, on Nintendo’s home turf of Japan, Federation Force has sold less than 5,000 copies in its first week. All this on Metroid’s 30th birthday.
Metroid fans have plenty of reason to be worried about these flop-tastic numbers. The 2010s have seen only a single other Metroid release from Nintendo, Metroid: Other M. That game was not just a critical failure, it also sold well below Nintendo expectations. The future of Metroid at Nintendo seems tenuous. Just how many years is Samus Aran going to spend sitting on the bench after this newest flop?
However, beyond Federation Force‘s disastrous sales numbers, Metroid games and games like Metroid might currently be as as popular as they ever were. The series lives on in a few forms, if only Nintendo would notice.
Nintendo’s Sales Problem
While Metroid has a storied history here in the West, in Japan the series has tanked for decades. Though the series up until Super Metroid had a good balance worldwide, afterwards Metroid’s sales came almost entirely from outside Japan. Metroid Prime was one of the superstars of the GameCube era in America. But only 3.5% of its 2.82 million sales came from Japan (source: VGChartz). The Metroid Prime trilogy might have seemed like a winning formula from here in the west. But if we look at the numbers, Metroid Prime 3 actually sold fewer copies than Link’s Crossbow Training worldwide.
To western gamers, recent changes to Metroid are fixing what is not broken. Metroid: Other M appears to have been an attempt to make the series popular in Japan again. Rather than being a nearly-silent protagonist, a monotone Samus now narrates and shares her backstory in a more Japanese game style. Unfortunately, based on the sales, the Japanese audience did not want Other M. And North American audiences did not care for — to put it diplomatically — the changes to Samus’ character or gameplay.
It should not be a surprise that Samus has slowly become one of Nintendo’s second-tier characters.
Why Federation Force Failed
Federation Force is another attempt at reinventing the series. The assumption with Federation Force seems to be that since Zelda and Mario easily adapted to multiplayer content, why can’t Metroid? Why shouldn’t a “Metroid Four Swords” work? Well, maybe it could have. But the approach with Federation Force was misguided and off-brand. Even Nintendo seems to have realized what a mistake this game was, dumping it in August to die with minimum advertising.
In a lot of ways, Metroid is the odd duck of Nintendo’s licenses. Most Nintendo properties are bright, cheerful cartoons painted in colorful pallets. Mario games have smiling clouds and hills. Pokemon games are bundles of adorableness. Even Zelda never gets too dark. But Metroid games have a different atmosphere to them. This goes back to their inspiration, Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien. Metroid is a very moody and lonely experience full of biological horror and alien threats. These games are creepy, and not the Luigi’s Mansion kind of creepy. These are games with flesh-covered walls and shadowy bowels of strange worlds. How does this fit with Pikachu and Yoshi?
Federation Force got none of the tone correct. Its a multiplayer game so the isolation is gone. You play as chibi space marines instead of the series’ beloved protagonist. If getting Samus wrong was offensive in 2010, reducing her role to almost nothing is even worse in 2016. But beyond that: did making a multiplayer shooter on the 3DS even make sense as a concept? What hope did this game have without the Metroid brand? Since Federation Force is such a bad fit to the Metroid legacy, the branding was a gamble that did not pay off.
Oh, and take note, Konami. Metal Gear Survive might face a lot of these same problems.
Metroid Fans Doing What Nintendon’t
Just two weeks before Federation Force was about to be sold in stores, Metroid’s fanbase released their own game. Another Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R) is exactly what it says to be, a fan remake of the Gameboy title Metroid II: Return of Samus. AM2R gives the game a full make-over, including modern features like color. Developer Milton Guasti smoothed out the gameplay and most helpfully added a map. AM2R fits right between Zero Mission and Super Metroid as a trilogy of well-made 2D action platformers.
Of course, Nintendo immediate struck AM2R down. They had no choice. This free title was a copyright violation. It was competition not just for Federation Force but also for their sales of Metroid II on Virtual Console. However, the year is still 2016, so AM2R is not particularly hard to find, download, and play even weeks after the DMCA takedown notice. If anything, the notice was the best marketing Milton Guasti could have asked for, suddenly making his title into gaming news.
What AM2R shows is that there is still considerable interest in the Metroid series. Perhaps not enough interest to justify major releases. But the Metroid name still has enough value that even a game that is only a few stages away from a romhack has built a strong following. Every torrent of AM2R right now is a sign of potential sales not being mined.
Missing the Metroidvania Boat
What’s crazy is that all through this decade of Metroid quiet, games like the Metroid series have only grown in popularity. Metroid’s many children with the Castlevania series, the Metroidvania genre, seem to be everywhere. Indie games have taken up the flag where Nintendo and Konami have dropped it. Just over the last few years we have seen titles like Headlander, Ori and the Blind Forest, Guacamelee!, and Song of the Deep. Ex-Konami producer, Koji Igarashi was able to gather five million kickstarter dollars to make Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a Castlevania game in all but name.
Just on September 1st Nintendo released the popular indie title, Axiom Verge on the WiiU. Axiom Verge is a 2D SciFi title set in an Alien-esque horror setting, with a dark atmosphere. Does this sound familiar? Axiom Verge is basically a Metroid title in everything but name. Unlike AM2R, its developer, Thomas Happ, changed the setting, characters, and enough of the gameplay to avoid threats of a lawsuit. But let’s not kid ourselves. While Axiom Verge is a great game on its own merits, much of its success comes from filling the freaky xenomorphic niche that Nintendo has vacated.
Return of Samus?
Nintendo may have been smart to quiet the Metroid franchise down for the last few years. Series sales were never what the company needed, even with heavy support on multiple platforms. Starving the fans a bit got them good and hungry for a new Metroid game. Unfortunately, the new Metroid game they wanted is not Federation Force.
As long as copyright law in its current form continues to exist, fan games like AM2R can never be the future of the franchise. And no, it doesn’t matter how perfectly AM2R fits just right into nostalgia for 2D Metroid, Nintendo still has every right to take the game down. Just as fans have every right to not give a toss about Federation Force. They voted with their wallet, Nintendo.
But what fans did not vote for is no Metroid at all. You cannot confuse ambivalence about a title that barely counts as a Metroid title with ambivalence for Metroid. The series’ success outside Japan was considerable. Attempting to “fix” it only ruined what they had. People love Samus Aran. They want that character back in a great game. Unfortunately, that may never happen.
At least there’s still Smash Bros. I don’t think Samus will be leaving that roster any time soon.