The Right Kind Of Challenge: Metroid Zero Mission Deconstructed

Metroid Zero Mission is one of the best GameBoy Advanced games I’ve played. Released in 2004, it still holds up incredibly well, even to today’s standards. I was never into Metroid on the NES. I played and beat the game on an emulator since I found it way too difficult. Not much has changed in Metroid Zero, I’d say it’s almost harder! Over time I’ve learned to appreciate the design of these game even if I haven’t been able to beat a single one without cheating or following a guide. Where Zero Mission excels is in its ability to take the essence of the series and distilled it down into a more mobile friendly game. If you’re not familiar with Metroid, it focus on the three core mechanics: upgrades, open world and difficulty.

The Upgrade System

The upgrade system in Metroid Zero Mission is based on Super Metriod, its predecessor, on the Super Nintendo. There are few games that I’ve played with such a perfect upgrade mechanics that naturally force you to build up youre player. The basic idea is that you start off with no powers, you have a weak weapon that doesn’t shoot far and you can jump. As you continue to explore the world, you find statues that upgrade the player. These upgrades include more powerful weapons, a rolling ball to navigate small spaces and additional health and ammo slots.

As you collect more powerups you are able to traverse more of the game’s world, solve puzzles and of course take down the bosses in the game. The upgrade system is critical to moving from one area to another. Not all upgrades are needed to beat the game. By finding secret upgrades, such as the lava invincibility, you unlock even more of the map to get 100% completion. This system works so well because of the incredibly detailed and well-designed levels in Metroid Zero Mission.

Open World

What impresses me most of all about Zero Mission is the open world and how each area becomes unlocked. At the game’s core you move through a giant maze of rooms, hallways, chambers and boss battles. Technically the entire world is open to the player but each area is blocked by a specific obstacle that requires you to upgrade the player.

When you start you’ll need to get past a small tube like area which requires you to get the ball upgrade to roll under it. At times you’ll need to shoot out blocks which means you need to upgrade to the more powerful gun with longer reach. You can get a freeze gun upgrade to freeze enemies and use them like platforms to reach places too high to jump to. The list goes on and on. While a lot of this is intuitive there are places that are so difficult to find and access even YouTube videos couldn’t help me. The majority of the game revolves around perfectly timed button presses making it frustrating.

Incredibly Challenging Gameplay

I’ve always had this love hate relationship with Metroid. The graphics, design and concept are right up my alley but large chunks of the game are so frustration I want to throw the GameBoy Advance across the room. Fast forward 11+ years and trying to power through some of these more difficult areas sucks all the fun out of the game. Ironically, this steep difficulty level is core to the series and what draws most people to it. Perhaps the most frustrating parts of the game are when you need to turn into a ball, shoot bombs which propel you up, and try to make it to higher areas in the game. The controls are just not designed well enough for this and 9 out of 10 times I miss my mark, forcing me to give up after a half dozen tries.

The bosses are equally difficult, but are still pattern based. So once you get into the flow you can make it past them. There are also times where I just had no idea where to go. During a lot of the game you end up backtracking over areas you have already visited to find one little destroyable block, or seemingly random thing out of place, just to get to the next area. These games almost require a strategy guide to get through. The only saving grace of the game are the save rooms. Lucky they are placed close enough to core areas you’ll need to access that dying isn’t a complete chore.


There is a lot to love about Metroid Zero Mission. While playing it on an original GameBoy Advance is great, I’d highly suggest playing this one on an emulator so you can at least use save points to get through it. I didn’t even get to finish this game before I wrote the post. I’m about 70% through. And while I’ve seen people say they have beaten the game in 4-5, hours I found some of it so frustrating I just gave up. I plan on working through Super Metroid, which is probably the pinnacle of the 2D Metroid series and I’ll be interested to see how far I make through as well. That being said, the game is great! Put this at the top of your list for any aspiring game designer, especially if you are looking to make an open world 2d side-scrollers.

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