Original version: メトロイド, released on 1986/08/06 for Nintendo Famicom Disk System
Recommended version: メトロイド ゼロミッション, released on 2004/05/27 for Game Boy Advance
After the platforming goodness of Super Mario Bros. and the open world exploration of Legend of Zelda, Nintendo mixed the two together to create another one of the most influential games of all time.
Metroid was the brainchild of Yokoi Gunpei of Nintendo’s R&D 1. Whereas Miyamoto Shigeru thought of a game as a medium in which a player could derive entertainment, Yokoi thought of a game as a tool with a central, focused concept. The name Metroid is a portmanteau of “metro,” because most of the game takes place underground, and “android,” because the protagonist Samus Aran wears a mechanized suit.
Metroid was inspired by the movie “Alien;” this is apparent in the naming of a boss as Ridley, after “Alien” director Ridley Scott. The atmosphere of Metroid is creepy and unsettling, in a good way. Even at the very beginning you are greeted by an other-wordly theme against a dark and foreboding background.
And from then on, little changes. Metroid pits the protagonist Samus Aran, a lone bounty hunter, against the entirety of the planet Zebes. You are utterly alone in an intricate network of underground tunnels. You have no one to rely on except yourself. You will face countless terrors and you must destroy Mother Brain before the galaxy is overrun and consumed by the diabolical parasites known as Metroids. And if you fail, all of civilization will crumble and fall. Have fun!
The game does a great job making you feel alone and hopeless. But at the same time, it makes you appreciate just how awesome Samus and the power suit are. You will grow more powerful throughout the game, finding items and powerups that will not only enable you to access new areas, but also increase your chance of survival. And you will need increased chances. Metroid is a darn difficult game, and the last area of the game doesn’t take any prisoners. In the home stretch you’ll be facing multiple metroids. They are fast, difficult to attack, and very difficult to get off if they latch onto you. The end boss Mother Brain will fire dozens of projectiles at you simultaneously, and what’s more, after you destroy it you’ll have to escape Zebes before the self-destruct timer runs out. But if you do, you’ll be treated to a surprise.
That’s right. The galaxy’s baddest bounty hunter is a lady. This was a big deal in 1986 because it played with gamers’ expectations. Many of them assumed that such an amazing warrior must be a bad dude.
Of course, because this was a Japanese game there had to be a bit of pervertedness mixed in. If you beat the game quickly enough Samus will make it amply clear that she is, without a doubt, a woman.
The nature of the Japanese language allowed the manual and advertising to make no commitments because pronouns are almost always unnecessary. In English, on the other hand, there is no way to avoid using pronouns, so in the English manual Samus is referred to as “he.” (Also, the ending –us in Latin is usually masculine.) This likely annoyed a few players but it wasn’t long-lasting. Everyone loved Samus. Samus’ gender reveal had a huge impact on the medium; within only a couple years of Metroid‘s release we saw more and more female protagonists in games, such as Maria from Ghost Lion, Turbo Girl from Turbo Girl, and everyone’s favorite Chinese operative, Chun-Li from Street Fighter II.
Oh, and the music was great.
It’s easy to see the divergence between Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda— the designers intentionally made LoZ opposing in philosophy. From there, it’s easy to see how a fusion of the two (with plenty of new ideas added) resulted in Kid Icarus and Metriod. Both Kid Icarus and Metroid were from a side view and relied heavily on a combination of platforming and shooting. Kid Icarus didn’t have very many secrets in its levels, with its side areas visible and easily accessible. But its fortress stages were mazes reminiscent of Death Mountain from LoZ. Metroid, on the other hand, had a world that was simultaneously open-ended and expansive, and cramped and suffocating. Metroid had no mazes because the whole world itself was a maze.
Metroid, just like Zelda and Kid Icarus, succeeded in translating RPG gameplay mechanics into an action-oriented adventure. None of these three games had experience points or leveling, and all combat was in the normal play area. But character progression was still there–it was just represented visually. LoZ had items and an inventory screen, and Link could collect heart containers to “level up” his HP. The inventory was so streamlined in Metroid that Samus didn’t even need to buy items, nor did she have an item screen. She just wore her items on her suit and they activated automatically. The closest thing there is to item switching is pressing SELECT to toggle between the beam gun and the missile launcher. In this way Samus herself becomes your shield, weapon, and tool for traversing the environment. Metroid can be thought of as either the RPG purified to its essence, or the Platformer expanded to its limit.
Speaking of the environment, gaze agape in gaze-mazement at the monstrosity below.
No matter how far you zoom in or out, it’s difficult to appreciate the sheer size and scale of the world map. It’s terrifically easy to get lost while playing, and drawing a map (or looking up one) is a must. But the game starts you off small. When you first start the game, your instinct is, of course, to walk right, just as you would in any other platformer. You can continue right for quite a ways but you eventually come to an apparent dead end. There is a small space which you could crawl through but nothing you do is successful.In level 1-2 of SMB there is a similar dead-end with a crawlspace, but in that case you could either break the bricks to bypass the small space, or if you were small Mario you could fit under. But Samus has none of these options.
Eventually the player turns around and walks left, thinking that they missed something. Once you return to where you started you notice an area off to the left that you didn’t notice before. Entering this area reveals a special item which plays a triumphant jingle when you get it.
This little corner you’re in has the same crawlspace as before, but this time pressing down allows you to get through. This sets the tone for the game. You have to expect the unexpected, toss aside your assumptions and inclinations, and you have to keep a lookout for special items or anything that’s out of the ordinary. Knowing this, you once again walk right and you’re off to explore.
The world is split into discrete and distinctive sections. Brinstar is the central area that connects to most other areas of the game. Below it is Kraid’s lair. To the east you find Norfair and, below that, Ridley’s lair. Finally, in the upper-left lies Tourian where you face the final boss Mother Brain. Mother Brain’s chamber is directly above the starting point in the game, so it feels like everything comes full circle.
There are subtle touches that give you some sense of what to do. For example, there is an empty room in which two great statues stand guard over a chasm. You have no idea who these two menacing figures are, but it doesn’t take much work to guess that these statues represent guardian monsters who can grant passage. This lets you know that you need to look for these creatures and then return to this room.
Metroid is full of dead ends like this. Once you do the required thing, you can return to the room and progress further. These stone statues represent Ridley (left) and Kraid (right), two of the three bosses in this game. While looking for them you’re bound to find many other items, such as missiles, the ice beam, the varia suit, and many others. One very cool thing about Metroid is that it allows you to get items out of order, to skip certain items, and to even bypass certain parts of the game with various methods of trickery. The designers intended the varia suit to only be accessible after you get the ice beam and high jump boots, but it is possible to get it with only one or the other.
By the way, “varia” is a mistransliteration of “barrier.” I always assumed that varia was just the feminine form of the Latin adjective varius/varia/varium meaning “varied.”
Metroid was mind-blowing in 1986. It redefined what a console game could be. It’s a creepy sci-fi horror game which pits you, a lone fighter, against a planet crawling with the most savage creatures and hostile environments. The bleak atmosphere and high difficulty truly make you feel outnumbered and outgunned. It’s simultaneously a relief and a boon to find upgrades and special items. Then there’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes with finally beating the game. Unfortunately, you might give up in aggravation before you get there.
Metroid is deeply flawed. The main flaw is that many of its secrets are too well hidden. The difficulty of combat is also high, with enemies packing a whallop. You only begin with 30 HP out of a possible 99. The game only returns 30 HP to you after you die or load a saved game, even when you’ve expanded your health to over 600, essentially forcing you to farm for health and missiles repeatedly. It can take half an hour to get up to full health.
A lack of in-game map requires you to draw a map on paper, or have impeccable memory. But most areas look the same so it’s usually difficult to differentiate them in your mind. Some rooms are almost identical to each other. The game provides a couple of vague hints here and there, but not nearly enough to make the game feasible to beat. For example, there’s one area with magma/acid that doesn’t hurt you, but there’s no indication that this area is different. You just have to know, or take a leap of faith, or–most likely–accidentally fall into it. This is simply bad game design. I wrote in my article on LoZ that most important items are not completely hidden–NPCs will give you a hint, no matter how vague, that helps you to acquire it. In Metroid there’s no such assistance. You really do need to bomb every wall. What’s worse, you’re able to explore most of the world after acquiring only two items and missile tanks so it’s overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing. To be fair, many powerups are sitting out in the open for your benefit.
Later Metroid games did a better job of helping the player a decent amount. In 2004 a remake/reboot of Metroid was made called Metroid: Zero Mission which addressed all the issues in the original.
Metroid: Zero Mission is not just an update of the original, but a full remake with new areas, new powerups, a new storyline, and new game mechanics from entries such as Super Metriod. Samus can now shoot in eight directions and even shoot while crouching, for example. Samus is less floaty than in previous titles, making combat more fast-paced, and holding the R button to fire your alternate weapon is more convenient that cycling through weapons. ZM is full of small touches, iterative changes, and thoughtful tweaks.
The most immediately noticeable change is that the map was greatly simplified.
Whereas Metroid almost never helps you, Metroid: Zero Mission almost never leaves you alone. The game periodically tells you where to go next, although to be fair it doesn’t tell you how to get there. It’s usually not too difficult to figure out how to arrive at your next destination, considering how walled-off the world is. Whereas Metroid allowed you to explore about half the map after getting two powerups, Zero Mission doesn’t even allow you to explore a quarter. And when you get a new item there are very few places that you can go back to. The brilliance of Metriod or Zelda is that getting a new item makes you reconsider every area you’ve visited previously. After you think carefully for a moment, you return to an area with the applicable obstacle and progress past it.
Such tight control over the exploration and progression in the game also gives you the feeling that you’re not allowed to progress in your own way. Truthfully, there are more ways to break sequence in Zero Mission (11) than there are in Metroid (8), but it doesn’t feel like it because there are a couple of times when the game deliberately places an obstacle in your way when you make an attempt. But we should be grateful that we’re not dealing with Metroid: Other M, which only has one opportunity to break sequence. Sequence breaking increases the replayability of a game because there’s no way that a new player can discover and exploit all of these branching paths. If a new player does unintentionally break the sequence, it feels like you are outsmarting the game–the designers meant for you to have this feeling. Speedrunning was widespread by the time ZM was released and the developers included many shortcuts for those eager enough to find them. Most players won’t know what’s going on, but it’s very nice that the developers put in a little extra for the speedsters.
Another feeling you’re meant to have is tension. The Metroid games are not strictly horror games–there are no zombies or serial killers pursuing you, nor are there any jump scares or Guillermo del Toro monsters. But there are plenty of moments in the game that are either outright scary, or unnerving. On your way to get the super missiles for the first time, you notice that the way has been cleared by a burrowing… thing. You have no choice but to follow the tunnel deep into the ground where you are confronted by an enormous wasp called Imago. Earlier on, in Norfair, you can see a wriggling larva, presumably the same creature, off to the side. It’s creepy.
Zero Mission doesn’t always have the same feel as its predecessors, however. Planet Zebes is depicted here at an earlier time, before the planet was mostly dead. The world is teeming with life, and the more colorful palette reflects this. The most obvious way that Zero Mission breaks from tradition involves the Chozo statues. Some statues hold powerups, just as in the original, but others add information to Samus’ in-suit computer, giving her directions through the caverns.
There are seven such Chozo statues in the game. A frequent complaint is that such help from the Chozo statues works against what Metroid games try to accomplish. Metroid games are meant to be a brave crusade in an expansive and scary world with little-to-no help. The player is meant to feel a sense of isolation and barely-surmountable odds. But with these statues all over the place, you never really feel alone. So goes the complaint. But the statues’ help never gives you all the answers. Unlike in ZM‘s sister game Metroid Fusion, there’s no commanding officer telling you exactly where to go and what to go. The statues do often tell you where to go, but not how to get there. And the destination is often given in a way that deliberately puts you in a situation where you have to think for yourself. Sometimes you can’t reach your next destination unless you veer off the main path to find a hidden power-up, or find a hidden tunnel that grants you passage to the next area. Also, not all the chozo statues are mandatory. And sometimes you are able to explore on your own (especially later in the game) and find hidden upgrades such as missile tanks before continuing on the path that the Chozo statues laid out for you. All of this means that the navigation points are meant essentially as tools, not as crutches.
Also, at best this complaint is only valid for the first half of the game; ZM uses these statues less and less as the game goes on, and even shows a few smashed statues as if to warn the player that they can’t take this help for granted. I love that the assistance dwindles over time.
One of Zero Mission‘s goals was to provide a balance between Metroid‘s sprawling open world and Metroid Fusion‘s uncompromising linearity. Because this is a remake of the original Metroid, it’s fair to suppose that many persons who play ZM have never played a Metroid game before, meaning that ZM has to be a good starting place. Therefore the design of the whole game is streamlined for both accessibility and efficiency.
Here’s a video of me playing the first ten minutes.
Many of the changes are welcome. For example, in Metroid it was a slog to get from Ridley’s lair to Tourian but in ZM a conveniently-placed tunnel provides an easy shortcut. The developers seemed intent on making the main mission easy and linear so that new players don’t get lost or aggravated while also planting plenty of secrets and hidden paths to satisfy veteran players. The placement of secrets in ZM is very well done, often requiring not only exploration but smart use of special items. ZM also offers compromise with its story, offering brief but visually striking cutscenes, and a few paragraphs of text, but allowing most of the story to be told through subtext.
There are several points in the game where the player is funneled through an area to ensure that they can’t leave before grabbing the special item in that area. This is the case with the Power Grip–it is physically impossible to leave the area without the Power Grip, meaning that a player who doesn’t notice that it’s there and attempts to leave won’t be able to. This prevents aggravation. Remember when I wrote about the pool of acid in Metroid that doesn’t harm you, but the game never notifies you? Well, in ZM you’re dropped into a pool of acid after getting the Varia Suit so that you can’t help but learn that the Varia Suit is impervious to acid. This is brilliant game design that Metroid didn’t have nearly enough of.
With all of this in mind, I think that ZM‘s linearity can be forgiven. Besides, if ZM is the first Metroid game that you ever play (which is my recommendation), then the low difficulty and linearity will ease you into the series so that you can tackle a higher difficulty level. And after surviving LoZ, aren’t you ready for a break?
The best feature in ZM may also be its most controversial. ZM features an epilogue that rips you out of your comfort zone and rewards you in the end with a massively satisfying payoff. I don’t wish to give away too much, so I’ll just say that Samus is robbed of her power suit and has to get it back. In the meantime she has virtually no offensive capabilities, and you have to rely on stealth to survive. One interesting thing to note is that during this section, Samus crawls through ducts.
The developers of the original Metroid intended Samus to crawl in the power suit, but they had difficulty animating it so they replaced crawling with the Morph Ball powerup (and the game was better for it). But in ZM they finally had a chance to implement crawling during this sequence.
The epilogue is surprisingly unpopular because it’s too different from the rest of the game. But this isn’t a fair criticism. The whole section enhances the gameplay because it causes you to appreciate just how cool Samus is, and how cool her power suit is. Once Samus retrieves her power suit you’ll be immensely satisfied to experience what happens next. And that, I think, makes the whole section worth it. There’s also a scene that reveals some of Samus’ backstory.
Here’s one of the game’s definite flaws. I have to warn you that the final boss in the game, a robotic Ridley, is disappointing. I don’t know if the developers intended it to be a moment of comic relief, or if they took it seriously. Fortunately, the escape sequence after that is exhilarating. There are a few other flaws. The Kraid and Ridley fights are basically a repeat of the fights in Super Metroid, which presents a no-win situation. If you play ZM first then you’ll be disappointed when you face Kraid and Ridley in Super Metroid. But if you play Super Metroid first, you’ll be disappointed during ZM. But to its credit, most of the other boss fights are great. The music in ZM is also disappointing, as one would expect from a Game Boy Advance title. The GBA had no dedicated sound chip so it ran audio off the CPU. This wasn’t a problem for low-intensity games, but a compromise had to be found for heavier titles.
What could arguably be called a flaw with the Metroid series as a whole is that progression comes from Samus becoming more powerful, not necessarily from the player becoming more skilled. The demand made on the player is exploration. If the player survives the difficulty of exploration, then Samus becomes better at combat. But what prevents this from being an outright flaw is that exploration is one of the main draws of the game. Exploring provides you with the tools that you need to explore further to find more items to explore further. All the while, controlling an increasingly powerful and agile Samus is almost a bonus for all your hard work. In the epilogue of ZM, you have to rely on your own skill, not on the upgrades in Samus’ power suit. Even after getting your suit back, the enemies don’t drop any health or missiles when dying, which means that you need to continue to rely on your skill. This is a tremendously smart way to not only give new meaning and context to the gameplay, but also shows that Metroid doesn’t have to be a mechanically disjointed experience. During the epilogue you need the powerups that you found earlier in the game, but it’s not just about Samus being strong–it’s about you as a player being strong too.
Beating the game once unlocks several extras, including an easy and hard difficulty level, as well as the soundtrack, a gallery of bonus pictures you unlock based on how quickly you beat the game, and even the original Metroid. There’s much more that I could say, but really I’ve gone on for long enough. Metroid: Zero Mission is terrific, and you ought to play it at your earliest convenience.
Metroid: Zero Mission is available for purchase on the Wii U. A physical copy can be purchased here. If you have a copy already, you can download a backup rom here and play it with mGBA.
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