A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
-Ash to Lambert, Alien
“The following is a contributor post by the ABXY Mage.”
Metroid. Everybody has heard of it. It’s one of Nintendo’s most famous franchises. People went insane over just the logo for Prime 4. It’s a big deal, both to the fans and in the annals of gaming history. But, where did it all start?
I’m kidding. Everyone knows it started with the original Metroid. But, what do you remember about the original Metroid? If you haven’t played it recently, or very much, chances are, not a lot. Could you explain how the Samus Aran saga began? Why are the Metroid so important? If you’ve played any of the other games in the series, you’ve probably had questions of your own about certain aspects of the plot and its origins.
As is the case with many NES games, most of the backstory is found in the instruction manual.
Eighteen years ago, in the year 2000, planets from all across the galaxy got together and formed the Galactic Federation. Unfortunately, as we all know, the interplanetary trading and tourism eventually lead to the birth and attraction of space pirates. Okay, to be fair, when this was written, it was 1986 and we still had fourteen years to form a galactic congress with alien planets. Totally possible. Alright, let’s get serious here.
In the year 20X5, scientists discovered a new and unknown life-form on Planet SR388. Found in suspended animation, they learned that the organism will reactivate and multiply when exposed to beta rays. The entire civilization of SR388 was destroyed, and scientists theorized that the unknown cause could be this new discovery, which the researchers named “Metroid.”
For some reason, the Federation decided that this new life-form, that could have destroyed an entire civilization, needed to be brought to Earth for further research. While en route, the ship was attacked by space pirates, and the Metroid were stolen.
Fearing that the space pirates would use the Metroid as a biological weapon, the Federation Police set out to locate and destroy the pirates’ base. When it was found on the planet Zebes, the Federation Police launched several attacks. But, Zebes is a natural fortress, and the pirates are resilient.
Out of options, the Federation and Federation Police decide on a risk. The plan is to send in a lone hunter who can infiltrate the pirate base and destroy the biomechanical Mother Brain, who is controlling the defenses of the fortress, and who it is assumed planned the theft of the Metroid.
Enter Samus Aran who, because of her record of completing missions and collecting bounties previously thought impossible, is widely considered the best of the space hunters. Now, as Samus, it is your mission to penetrate and decipher the maze of Zebes, take down the space pirates, and defeat Mother Brain.
Riding high on their several successes throughout the mid-1980s, Nintendo decided their next project would be a side-scrolling shooter, action-adventure game. Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems were enlisted to develop the next big Nintendo blockbuster. The ideas that lead to the creation of Metroid would prove to be not only unique but highly influential.
Metroid was a pioneer in many ways. It stands as one of the early examples of a game with multiple endings. Since these endings are based on how long it takes you to complete the game, it was also one of the first to become popular for speedrunning. Those who complete the mission quickly enough are treated to another of the game’s trailblazing features: the revelation of Samus Aran’s identity as one of the first female protagonists in video games.
It was one of the earliest games to feature scrolling to the left. In fact, it scrolls in all four directions. And, since the game is one giant map, it’s not like there are “levels” where you sometimes go right, sometimes left, sometimes up, sometimes down.
Metroid’s non-linear play and need for certain items forces the player to retrace their steps, using their power-ups to reach previously inaccessible areas and to scour the environment for secret passageways. The final area isn’t even accessible until you find and defeat the first two of the game’s three bosses.
It was also one of the first games, along with The Legend of Zelda, to include power-ups that weren’t temporary (think the power pellets in Pac-Man or the star in Mario). Metroid introduced many staple abilities for the series including the Morph Ball (called Maru Mari in this game), the bomb, the ice beam, the wave beam, and the fan-favorite screw attack. Many of the abilities were imperative to finding secret passages and defeating certain enemies.
And thus, the Metroidvania seed was planted.
The 8-Bit Review
Metroid is supposed to take place on a fortress planet called Zebes and it’s a huge, maze-like map that takes you through weird rocky areas, sand, lava, regenerative stone, possibly organic, bubble areas, spikes. There’s quite a bit of variety on Zebes and these seemingly simple terrain designs actually hide many secrets, a lot of which can easily be missed. While the environments are varied in design, the background is always space black. There is no background in the entire game. Also, for all of the interesting and strange color combinations in the game, there are also areas with just white or grey rock of some kind.
There are also a good number of enemies that not only look different from each other but also behave differently from each other. Samus, while looking very good, does not have the best animations when moving. Her legs don’t seem to ever go in front of her. She kind of does the James Brown tiny step, run-dance thing when she moves, but with heel kicking mixed in.
Mother Brain looks great. While having little animation besides pulsating and flashing eyes (I think), the wires and probes that are plugged into it, and its case, all make it very creepy. Unfortunately, the same can not be said about Kraid and Ridley. While their designs are pretty good, they seem too small and their animations are limited and plain. Considering there are only three bosses in the whole game, Kraid and Ridley really could have been more impressive.
The music in Metroid is… interesting. There are basically zero songs that you would just put on to listen to. There are a couple that you could listen to outside of the game, but for the most part, the music is for the game only. It was made to add to the atmosphere. Unlike the catchier tunes heard in most games at the time, Metroid’s soundtrack supported the game more like the score in Lord of The Rings. You aren’t whistling that soundtrack either, even if you do like to listen to it separately from the films, but it works for what it is.
Metroid uses silence as a weapon, keeping the player on their toes in the unfamiliar environment they’ve found themselves in. The music can change, seemingly without reason, ratcheting up the suspense for what’s ahead. It’s unpredictable at first; almost alive.
Having said that, several of the songs could drive you insane if you had to listen to them for too long, and for as often as you go through previously explored areas, some of them can get downright annoying by the end. This is all dependent on how long it takes you to beat the game, but consider how good the Castlevania soundtrack is and remember that it came out the same year Metroid did.
The sound effects leave a lot to be desired. Before I talk about what my problems with them are, let’s get this out of the way really quick: the bomb drop and screw attack sounds are both awesome and excluded from the rest of this paragraph. Most of the sounds you hear in the game sound like slightly evolved Atari sound effects. It’s a lot of high beeps and low, grainy or muted beats. Whereas the music can add to the overall feel of the game, I feel like the sound effects, for the most part, can take you out of it.
While extremely rare, like many other games of its time, Metroid can slow down a bit when there’s too much going on at one time, usually in the form of enemies onscreen. Along the same vein, blocks of graphics can also occasionally black-out. The biggest mechanic I struggled with was executing the screw attack every time I wanted. For some reason, sometimes, Samus just jumps normally instead of screw attacking. It might not be velvet, but everything works the way you need it to. Otherwise, it’s the space adventure we were promised. You point, you shoot, you jump, you roll, you bomb, you kill, you panic, you experience the same difficult frustrations as every other NES gamer, but we will get more into that a little later.
Metroid is one of those games where having the manual is absolutely imperative for a chance at success. It literally tells you that you have to look for secret passages and what power-ups are essential to completing the game. While the instruction booklet does provide the story and the helpful hints, it doesn’t really give the player much direction on what to do or where to go when they start. The game doesn’t either. There weren’t really tutorials in the NES era aside from level design tricks. Metroid doesn’t have levels, so aside from forcing you to explore “left” to find the morph ball at the beginning, there isn’t much handholding. There isn’t any. Metroid treats the player like one of those birds that just gets kicked out of the nest and forced to learn to fly from instinct.
Metroid is hard. There are no two ways about it. It tasks you with conquering an entire fortress planet on your own, and it starts you with very little information, no direction, a frustratingly short beam to shoot, and hardly any health. And, to top it off, there’s no security blanket of a map for you to rely on. The map in the manual is a more of a taunt than help. Expect to draw your own map.
Having no direction and no power-ups are not only annoying when it comes to finding areas you can’t get to yet but want to, but these also make the early parts of the game very difficult. Enemies respawn, and you constantly go back and forth through areas you’ve been in before, having to survive over and over again. Or, like many, die over and over again.
In the time before the internet, if you didn’t have the instruction booklet, you’d be hard-pressed to complete the game for the first time. For one, it tells you there are certain abilities that are all but necessary to beating the game. There is literally only one way to kill the Metroids later in the game, and it’s extremely possible to get to that point without the correct weapon. So have fun with that.
When it was first released, Metroid was probably considered–for a non-arcade game–one of the most repayable games available. It was one of the first games with multiple endings, after all. Plus, one ending showed Samus in her pixelated bikini so dudes were all about that, I bet. Not only did completing the game faster and faster unlock these different endings, but beating it under a certain amount of time allowed you to play the game again without her power suit.
Perhaps the difficulty and desire to “figure it out” drove people to go back to it again and again. I can only speculate. What I can say is this: in the current era of gaming and the ability to so easily play games from previous generations, Metroid does not have the replayability it might have once had.
With a high focus on exploration and dependence on power-ups, Metroid helped create a new genre. With its surprise ending, and surprise reveal, it gave birth to another Nintendo mascot, a beloved hero, and a powerful female protagonist. It still stands as a unique game as there still aren’t enough Metroidvania games out there.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
In the modern gamescape, Metroid is most likely remembered either with childhood nostalgia or with memories of anger and discouragement. The password system was especially heartbreaking when something was written incorrectly or illegibly.
Upon its release, Metroid was lauded for its atmosphere and feeling of isolation. This could be due to the fact that throughout the entirety of the game, Samus only encounters enemies. Maybe it has to do with the deep tunnels and long corridors that must be traversed or the blackness that makes up the background of every screen. Regardless, Metroid is all about its atmosphere, which for the time it more than delivered on. It’s difficult enough to be a triumph to complete but engaging enough to keep you playing.
However, personally, I don’t feel like Metroid has aged as well as some of its contemporaries or as well as some of its sequels. It’s harder and slower than it should be.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
The ABXY Mage leads a double life of unfathomable smoothness, if his expertise in jazz is any indication. Music maker, fandangoist, writer, you can find this hip cat as ABXY Reviews on Twitter and on YouTube.
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