After what seems like an eternity since the last “traditional” Metroid game (which was 2002’s Metroid Fusion for Game Boy Advance), a new entry emerges: Metroid Dread. I use the term “traditional” loosely, as the 3D shooter Metroid Prime series is now some 19 years old, and in fact, more time has passed between then and now than the original Metroid and the first Prime title.
After 19 years of waiting for another entry in one of the classic “Metroidvania” franchises (and even more if you don’t consider the linear Metroid Fusion to be Metroidvania), the hype was incredibly strong…
Except that it wasn’t.
All Tuesday and Wednesday on Twitter, “Nintendo’s $60 game” was trending, where users initially compared the value of Metroid Dread at 60 dollars to Sony’s first-party games (like God of War) or other AAA “open-world” titles at 60 dollars. Later on, the comparisons began to get increasingly silly, but the point was that many users (Sony fanboys not the least) felt that a 60-dollar price tag implies a certain level of production that Metroid Dread simply didn’t have.
In economic terms, a product’s value is whatever people are willing to pay for it. The costs incurred by the manufacturer don’t determine market value for the consumer. There are plenty of people willing to pay 60 dollars for Metroid Dread, so therefore it’s worth 60 dollars, at least right now. Just like how a cool pair of headphones can be worth 200 dollars even if they cost next to nothing to make.
However, I didn’t buy the game despite enjoying the franchise because I indeed felt like 60 dollars was too much.
Allow me to elaborate because this wasn’t the result of comparing Nintendo’s offering to another publisher’s, but because of the game itself and the genre it occupies. In the 26 years since the release of Super Metroid, the genre that was originally defined by the Metroid series has expanded and even become oversaturated. In that time, we’ve seen Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (and thus the other half of the genre name) become a cult classic, and its many derivatives become mainstay titles on handheld platforms and, even more importantly, within the indie game scene.
The switch to handheld was the first erosion of perceived value in the genre. After the rise of the PS2 and the hegemonic dominance of 3D game design, 2D titles continued to find an audience on handheld platforms, primarily because handheld platforms during the 6th generation of game consoles (PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox) were significantly less powerful than home consoles and were in many cases unable to produce the same sort of gameplay and graphics. 2D, however, was still possible on handhelds, so the Game Boy Advance got a slew of 2D games, some great and many others great examples of shovelware. Among the great games were three Castlevania titles and one Metroid game that continued the Metroidvania genre while the home consoles focused on 3D games in the same franchises.
That continued on into the Nintendo DS and the PSP, which both featured Castlevania entries (of course, in the case of the PSP it was a collection of 90s games re-released, but they did find a good home on a handheld). I’m very appreciative of the effort put into these games, but certainly, back then, handheld games were priced lower than home console games as a matter of convention. Nobody expected to pay more than 40 dollars for a handheld game. That pricing difference continued to the last handhelds released, the 3DS and (my beloved) PS Vita.
The gaming press certainly pushed 3D over 2D in the 90s (much to my chagrin and despite the unfortunate fog-laden graphics of first-gen 3D), but moving 2D games to mobile did more to affirm the perception of lower quality than the press did through propaganda. 2D design all but disappeared for a decade, kept alive by handhelds and the occasional Nintendo release before the ascendancy of the indie scene.
2D games were on handhelds because they were cheaper to make, required fewer development resources, and didn’t need powerful hardware because they didn’t have “good” graphics. At least, that was the perception.
But, that perception was at least partially correct, as the indie scene would prove. Metroidvania became a staple, even a darling, of indie game development primarily because it could be produced on limited resources by a small team. Metroidvania is particularly effective in this space because there is often less to design than a more linear 2D game. You don’t need to create dozens of unique and perfectly tuned levels; you simply need engaging “areas” that will be re-tread repeatedly as the player gains powers and explores. You can effectively double or triple the use of much of the game’s graphics and level design.
Indie games, in turn, sell in general for far less than AAA games on the same platforms, and this margin is increased by the fact that indie games frequently go on sale for more than 50% off. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, produced by Koji Igarashi, who was central in the development of Symphony of the Night, retails for 40 dollars, but I bought it for 9.99 on a sale.
The same goes for other genre games I’ve played over the last few years: Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, Chasm, Strider, and Guacamelee. In fact, I’ve never paid 60 dollars for a game in the genre, as the older games from the 90s I bought used.
Metroid Dread looks like a great game based on what I’ve seen, but what it seems to have is the same gameplay I’ve been paying very little money for over the last two decades.
It’s a great example of the power of markets to shape value perception and price points, and how competition can deliver great value for the consumer. It’s a bit like the ebook market. There are many publishers that would love to charge 24 dollars for an ebook, but the market has essentially made 9.99 the cap for most books, and consumers that read a lot of ebooks tend not to want to pay more than 4.99 for one, since independent authors are willing to compete on price, selling their books in the 99 cents to 4.99 range.
So, in the end, it’s not just the comparison to a AAA game with photorealistic 3D graphics that makes Metroid Dread feel overpriced at 60 dollars, it’s just how many other games with similar gameplay and graphical fidelity are sold for so much less. In theory, your time shouldn’t be worth more or less simply because the production quality is higher or lower. If you’re having fun, that should be what matters, but our perception of value often doesn’t include time, the one thing we can’t get more of, for whatever reason.
I suppose I should talk a bit more about time before I conclude. Metroid Dread clocks in at under 12 hours if early reports are to be believed. That’s right on par for games in its genre, but lots of games in the 60-dollar range are much longer, but again, one vector is not quite enough to describe value, in my opinion. I’d personally rather have 12 hours of great gameplay than 50 or 100 mediocre hours that are filled with empty traveling. If a 60-dollar game wastes my time, that’s worse than no added value as it is taking time from me that I could spend doing something else. In fact, it could put the value of the game to zero for me (which is probably why I don’t play many mud-genre Ubisoft games—they are literally worthless to me). Most consumers, however, are used to making a value judgment based on price to quantity. Sales on Nintendo games are rare, too, so I don’t know when or if I’ll get Metroid Dread or if I’ll get it used. If it was just 20 dollars cheaper, I’d probably buy it as a premium example of the genre. Otherwise, it’s just like asking me to pay thirty dollars for a CD when every other band sells theirs for less than 20.
I kind of wish I were an indie game dev, but I’m just a (not-so) humble author: