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"METROID: ZERO MISSION"

Classic game builds on game classic

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Nintendo’s Metroid has always been more popular in the United States and Europe than in Japan, but I’m really not sure why. The series follows the adventures of Samus, a female microbe-massacring bounty-hunter/astronaut, in some truly incredible space armor.

Samus started her career in the 1980s on the original Family Computer, but she has also appeared on Game Boy, Super Famicom and GameCube. Her latest outing, “Metroid: Zero Mission” for Game Boy Advance, takes her back to her roots.

“Zero” is a lavishly updated, strikingly reformatted and generously expanded version of the original “Metroid.” The game takes place on the planet Zebes, in the same pirates’ lair as the original adventure, and the basic floor plan has remained the same. You will find the same halls, doors and tunnels right where you left them 16 years ago, if you played the classic game.

But Game Boy Advance is far more powerful than the Famicom. “Zero” looks more like the Super Famicom game, with bright colors, detailed characters and shining doorways. And while it may have the same basic map, enemies and weapons as the first game, the look is all new and improved.

Nintendo has more than improved the graphics; “Zero” has new secret rooms and weapons. And there’s more.

But here’s the deal: A bunch of space pirates have captured floating jellyfish-like creatures called Metroids that can be bred to use as weapons. Samus’ job is to search their base, kill the Metroids and save the universe.

Along the way, she will run into benevolent tick creatures, spiked insects, somewhat sentient flaming bugs, bats and a giant dragon beast that fires spikes from its stomach. And the list of creatures goes on.

So Samus lands her space ship in this enemy base and the place looks mostly deserted. At this point, Samus is pretty weak. She can run,jump and shoot, but as she moves through the base, she finds ways to upgrade her armor, giving her new abilities.

She finds missiles that enable her to blast enemies and break through doors. She finds an upgrade that lets her curl into a ball and roll through narrow passages. And that is just the beginning.

As she gains new abilities, Samus can reach remote areas of the base. Soon she’s fighting bigger, badder monsters. The original “Metroid” ended when Samus battled a brain in a jar named Mother Brain, but Nintendo has added more real estate to the enemy base. Once you finish with Mother Brain, an entirely new section of the base opens.

Know what? Even with the new territory, the game ends very quickly. “Zero” takes place in a big world, but it is a very short game. Skilled players will finish in four or five glorious hours — but this can be remedied.

Throughout the game, Samus comes across statues with encoded messages that give her new objectives. Reach these structures, and they update a map that shows where your next object will take you.

The original “Metroid” did not have a map; players found their way through that game by stumbling around, which made the game much longer.

I’d suggest that if you want to extend the fun in “Zero,” eschew the map-peek unless it is a last resort.

In the meantime, “Zero” is an authentically great game with wonderful sights and sounds.

Yes, most of it is from the original game — but with the improved graphics, you finally get to see the action in the untechnologically constrained way that the people who designed the game must have imagined it in their heads.