As the third pillar of Nintendo’s big three alongside Mario and Zelda, the Metroid series has never wanted for a faithful fan following (alliteration not intended). With its thick atmosphere, balance between exploration and action and design that perfectly suited speedrunning the series has maintained a high level of quality for twenty-five years. That said Samus Aran has always lived in the shadow of her more commercially successful and mainstream brothers. Consider the eight year hiatus she endured following Super Metroid, her finest moment. Last year Nintendo did not miss an opportunity to celebrate Zelda’s 25th anniversary. It was Metroid’s anniversary too but Samus barely got a mention from her creators. Looking back at the three series’ console debuts on the NES it’s fair to say that Metroid is the most dated but that doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the most important games of the 8-bit era and arguably video game history.
In a raid on a Galactic Federation ship Space Pirates have stolen samples of the lethal Metroid parasites. Created by the extinct Chozo race to eradicate the equally deadly X parasite (as outlined in Metroid Fusion), Metroids suck the life force from all other living things causing rapid death to anything that crosses their path, something the Space Pirates aim to use in their crazed campaign for galactic dominance by turning them into bioweapons on planet Zebes. Federation attempts to neutralise the threat festering on Zebes have been fruitless and so they turn to Samus Aran, the galaxy’s most renowned bounty hunter who was raised by the Chozo, to infiltrate the planet’s desolate caverns and eradicate the menace.
As Samus you are plunged into the lonely, isolated and desperately hostile catacombs of Zebes and asked to explore. Immediately the game’s first major innovation becomes apparent as your progress is barred forcing you to move in a hitherto unthinkable direction, left. Every sidescroller that came before stuck to uniform left-to-right traversal and Metroid was the first game that allowed the screen to scroll in all four directions. In the same year Zelda presented an open-world from a top top-down perspective Metroid did the same from a side-on point of view. Instead of the linear succession of levels seen in other NES shooters Metroid’s world is a sprawling and continuous labyrinth filled with secrets.
You progress by exploring in search of upgrades to your armour waiting for you in the welcoming hands of Chozo statues dotted around the map. In another bold piece if invention these upgrades were not temporary power-ups like the invincibility star in Super Mario Bros. but permanent additions to your arsenal. Some improve your offensive capabilities like the enemy-freezing ice beam while others assist exploration such as the very first suit upgrade which instantly became a trademark for the series. The Maru Mari or morph ball turns Samus into a sphere allowing her to roll through small gaps in the terrain, an ability that remains undeniably cool. As you gain more abilities larger portions of the map become open to you including the lairs of the two bosses, Kraid and recurring series villain Ridley who must be taken out before you can access Tourian where the Metroids lurk guarding the path to Mother Brain.
Gameplay is a straightforward affair that mixes the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with some intense blasting action. You will encounter a wide range of hostile indigenous creatures wherever you go some of which crawl along the floor and walls, others swoop down from the ceiling. Nowhere is entirely safe and the sheer volume of enemies you’re faced with is where the game places much of its difficulty. Just crossing through monster-infested corridors during your blind exploration is an exercise in survival and any gamers used to the level of challenge found in most modern games will be frustrated by frequent deaths and what feels like an unfair concentration of nasties. If you persist you’ll get to know enemy movement patterns and develop strategies for overcoming particular species and the suit upgrades will empower you to more efficient killing. You are restricted to shooting in just two directions, forward and straight up, something you’ll have to manage in order to progress. This places low-placed wall-crawlers irritatingly out of your range and you’ll curse anything that swoops down on you from an angle but although the game’s limitations can be irksome the controls are tight and responsive.
One thing that most certainly hasn’t aged is the game’s legendary atmosphere, which is achieved through a combination of eerie, echoing musical pieces and the cold, extensive design of Zebes’ caverns. The pitch black background, something seen in so many NES sidescrollers, has never been so effectively placed to convey a sense of darkness.
So you complete your power suit, beat the bosses, infiltrate Tourian and fight your way to and destroy Mother Brain. Game over right? Wrong, the game had another trick up its sleeve and the Space Pirate base self-destruct sequence initiates leaving you with a limited time to escape to the surface in one last platforming challenge. If you survive you can pat yourself on the back for a difficult job completed and sit back and watch the credits knowing that all the surprises are behind you. But if you were a gamer in 1986 and you’d managed to complete the game quickly enough there was a final sting in the tail that represented a seismic shift in the context of video game history.
Samus Aran wears a power suit designed by the same Chozo race that created the Metroids for protection and as an aid to combat and exploration but in the story it serves another purpose, to obscure the identity of its wearer. It was naturally assumed by mid-eighties gamers that the ass-kicking hero of the game was a man. The English language instruction manual for the game even referred to Samus as ‘him’ to encourage this but players that achieved a quick completion time were in for a shocking revelation. The final screen depicts Samus in the power suit which then disappears to reveal a woman.
It’s not quite true to say Samus was the first playable video game heroine. Ms Pac-man and Clu Clu Land’s Bubbles both came first but neither of them were actually human (pretty much just circles in fact) and before Metroid women traditionally fulfilled the damsel-in-distress role in video games. Samus paved the way for characters like Chun-li and Lara Croft and while the voluptuous Miss Croft might be the most well-known gaming heroine in popular culture, gamers everywhere will always regard Samus as the industry’s leading lady. Given that Metroid’s biggest reward for speedy play is a glimpse of Samus in a bikini (the game also introduced the idea of multiple endings) it’s a bit difficult to regard her as a feminist figure but on the other hand unlike most women in games she’s never usually depicted with gratuitously large breasts. More importantly she is genuinely bad-ass.
The revolutionary idea of making a woman an action hero is one of many ways in which Metroid borrows from the Alien franchise which was an influence on the development team. Having a woman as the main character of a science-fiction horror movie was an original concept in 1978 so you could say Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is Samus’ spiritual sister. The dripping atmosphere and plot focusing on dangerous extra-terrestrial creatures inspiring the title is shared by both game and film. The closing act race to escape before a self-destruct timer concludes is also lifted from the movie and Metroid’s Ridley is, of course named after Alien director Ridley Scott. A notable difference between the two franchises is that Alien’s quality dropped off somewhat while Metroid’s never did.
Speaking as a gamer who never played Metroid in its heyday who has just completed the game for the first time I can confirm that the game does indeed show its age. There are some quirks in the design that are infuriating, such as the random appearance of enemies right on the other side of doorways making them impossible to avoid. The game also suffers from frequent slowdown and the gameplay is not as refined as Nintendo’s other major NES titles Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda both of which are more accessible generally than Metroid. In spite of that I thoroughly enjoyed playing through Metroid. The core design remains very strong and it’s addictive as hell. While it’s clearly been far surpassed by Super Metroid on the SNES and Metroid Prime on the Gamecube it remains a true NES classic, the significance of which in the history of the video game industry must not be ignored. If you’re a 3DS ambassador you can download the game for your handheld (which is how I played it this time) or failing that it’s available on the Wii’s Virtual Console. If you’ve never played the opening chapter in Samus Aran’s story I highly recommend you do.
Presentation – 9
It’s all about the atmosphere which draws you in and holds you prisoner until the end. Only some wonky translation holds it back.
Design – 8
The world is massive and taxing to negotiate filled with secrets, dead-ends and wild goose chases.
Gameplay – 8
Solid run and gun action let down ever so slightly by technological restrictions. The ability to shoot in eight directions in Super Metroid was a significant improvement.
Graphics – 8
Stark and hostile. Alien landscapes really look alien and some of the enemy sprites are very detailed.
Sound – 10
A masterclass in musical arrangement used to build atmosphere and tension. Some tunes are simply classics.
Difficulty – 9
Unrelenting for newbies to say the least. Later suit upgrades do make things a bit more manageable though.
Longevity – 8
It should take a few hours to beat on the first attempt. The multiple endings are more than enough to inspire repeat plays.
A classic in every sense of the word not just for being a brilliantly designed and intensely engaging game but because it innovated in ways that had massive influences on the industry. Maybe a little archaic now in some respects but highly enjoyable nonetheless.