Game-related ramblings.

History Lessons: Metroid

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Three months ago, I wrote about The Legend of Zelda, after playing it to completion for the first time. It’s still impressive today, absolutely deserving of its classic status. It also reminded me of Metroid, which released six months later in Japan but only one month later in the United States. Both games let players loose in open worlds, to explore and find upgrades that let them reach previously inaccessible places. Metroid simply trades the top-down, screen-by-screen exploration of Zelda for side-scrolling action platforming with a science fiction theme. This combination was so influential that it spawned an entire genre: the metroidvania (named for Metroid and Castlevania, more specifically the second Castlevania game, Simon’s Quest). Unlike The Legend of Zelda, I never played much Metroid myself when I was a kid, I just saw bits and pieces of it at friends’ houses. But the third game in the Metroid series, Super Metroid, is one of my favorite games ever. So I decided to go back to the beginning and play the original Metroid.

Metroid, like The Legend of Zelda before it, originally appeared for the Famicom Disk System in Japan, in 1986. A year later, a slightly simplified version appeared in North America for the Nintendo Entertainment System, without the extra Disk System features. That’s the version I played here. It tells the story of Samus Aran, renowned intergalactic bounty hunter, as she — oh, sorry, spoiler alert. Metroid contains one of the most famous reveals in the history of video games, waiting all the way until the end to show players that Samus Aran, the badass clad in an awesome high-tech battle armor suit who single-handedly saves the galaxy from the dastardly space pirates, is a woman. This is common knowledge today, since Samus has starred in many more games that are much more famous than the original, but I’d forgotten just how committed the original game is to this secret. Samus is referred to as “he” throughout the instruction manual, although it does point out that no one knows much about “him”. It’s hardly transgressive to have a female protagonist today (nor should it be) but in 1986 it was notable, and I remember my friends all talking about this shocking surprise after finishing the game. Or, more likely, after reading about it in a games magazine like Nintendo Power.

Such magazines were almost required for anyone to play Metroid, unless they wanted to draw their own maps. Samus has been sent to the planet Zebes, to track down and eliminate the space pirates who have stolen the dangerous new lifeform known as a “metroid”. The planetary defenses repulse any attacking fleets, but a single operative may be able to slip in unnoticed and sabotage the facility. Players must therefore guide Samus through a maze of subterranean tunnels, jumping through environmental hazards and battling the dangerous local wildlife, with the ultimate goal of infiltrating and destroying the Mother Brain which controls the space pirate facility. When I first started playing, I just tried to keep an image of the planet layout in my head, but quickly abandoned this as futile. I didn’t actually draw maps, but I took extensive notes about which passages and doors led where, and was able to use these to find my way around. As a kid, I never would have been able to keep track of these things, and would have relied on maps from magazines instead.

But I had a lot of fun exploring Zebes myself this time around. I quickly discovered that Metroid has certain technical limitations compared to its successors, and indeed modern metroidvania games. Areas in Metroid either scroll horizontally or vertically, never both. This means there are no large open areas or unusually shaped locations. Further, many passages are reused many times over throughout the game. Early on, I would be surprised to find what looked like a secret passage that seemed to lead nowhere. Later, I’d find a nearly identical shaft, and this time the secret passage actually did lead to a new location. I eventually realized that the game world is built out of a limited set of pieces, presumably to save memory space on the cartridge. Even within a particular corridor or vertical shaft, the positions of platforms would repeat themselves as I proceeded. At first this made Metroid seem boring to navigate, but that feeling faded the farther I explored. Despite the constraints, the developers constructed a compelling and interesting world. The repeated parts just make it even more critical to make careful maps.

Metroid also manages a creepy atmosphere, something that Super Metroid would later embrace and embellish. The starting area of Brinstar isn’t too scary, but the threatening feeling builds when venturing deeper into the lava-filled caverns of Norfair, or the lairs of the two minibosses. The music changes, becoming less melodic and more sinister. The locations themselves get weirder. Brinstar is mostly rocky, sometimes filled with vegetation, but where I expected to find rocky outcrops to go along with the lava pits in Norfair, I instead found strange bubble-like blocks, resembling living cells or even eyeballs. I slowly realized that it’s no accident that the ultimate adversary is a biomechanical computer called the Mother Brain. The whole planet feels like a living organism, in which Samus is an intruder.

The roster of enemies reinforce this feeling. While Samus is ostensibly going up against the space pirates, it’s not clear what a space pirate actually is. Most of the enemies that Samus battles are weird creatures, more like animals or insects than anything we’d normally consider an intelligent being. Are they space pirates? Or just creatures defending their home? Perhaps even antibodies defending the living planet? Even the two minibosses fit this pattern: Kraid is a hulking dinosaur-like beast who fires spines at Samus from his belly and back. Is he a space pirate? If not, who or what is he? Ridley (named for Ridley Scott, whose film Alien was an inspiration for the game) looks more like a cross between an octopus and a dragon, spitting flames at Samus that double as a defensive barrier. The game manual explains that Ridley is a native of Zebes, now under the thrall of the Mother Brain. So he’s not a space pirate, at least not originally. So where are the pirates hiding?

This mysterious tone is not the only thing I recognized from later Metroid games. In fact, I was surprised at just how many famous elements of the series started here. Controlling Samus, for example, felt immediately familiar. If she jumped from a standstill position, she stayed upright in the air and I could control her position carefully. If she leapt from a run, she’d start somersaulting, able to cover longer distances but with less precision due to her increased momentum. The choice between an upright or somersault jump carried over to Super Metroid almost verbatim. Here, as in Super Metroid, it makes for interesting platforming challenges. Samus can jump quite high, and can find a high jump upgrade to increase her jump height even further, so aerial maneuvering is a large part of the game. Devious positioning of platforms often conspire with enemy behavior to send Samus plummeting into damaging lava or acid.

Fortunately, Samus can find a slew of upgrades to help tackle the challenge, each of which have become mainstays in the series. The first upgrade players will find is the iconic Morph Ball (here listed with its Japanese name, “Maru Mari”) that lets her transform into a small ball that can roll through narrow passages. Later, she’ll gain the ability to drop bombs while in ball form, to blast open blocks that bar her passage or just to blow up enemies. Samus also quickly acquires missiles, which have limited ammo but are much more powerful than her standard energy beam weapon. The classic color-coded doors appear throughout the game: blue doors opened with a shot from Samus’ beam weapon, red doors only opened by firing five missiles at them. I expected to use missiles mostly to open doors and fight bosses, but I was surprised to find they’re actually very useful when battling many of the standard enemies too. They can move quickly, in patterns that make them difficult to shoot, and often require many blasts from the standard beam to kill. But a single missile will save a lot of headache, even if it’s awkward to switch to missiles in the middle of the action.

Early on, before Samus has found many of these upgrades, the going is tough. Samus begins with only 30 health, although she can fill up to 99 if she collects drops from defeated enemies. Later, she’ll be able to find up to six extra energy tanks, each providing 99 health, but if she dies — still easy to do if she gets swarmed and knocked into lava or acid — she’ll respawn with only 30 health. In the Legend of Zelda, Link would respawn with low health too, but there are places he could go to refill his health to full. Not so in Metroid. Samus must recover health by defeating enemies and hoping they drop a health pickup, and most of those only restore 5 health each. With enough energy tanks, topping off health requires more than 100 health pickups. It’s a laborious process, and something no modern game could get away with today. I did find that the flying enemies which constantly emerge from pipes in the floor were ideal for this, even waiting to reappear until Samus had grabbed the health or missile pickup they’d left behind, and later upgrades made the process go a little faster, but it’s still obnoxious.

Later upgrades do make things much easier. The Wave Beam is more powerful than Samus’ standard beam and can fire through enemies and walls, and its oscillating pattern makes it much easier to hit enemies, including those pesky crawlers who aren’t tall enough to be hit by her standard beam. But even more useful is the Ice Beam, which unfortunately cannot be used at the same time as the Wave Beam. It’s no stronger than the standard beam, but it freezes enemies in place when it hits them, letting them be used as platforms. This is required to reach certain areas in the game, in fact. But freezing enemies is always useful, letting Samus stop threats in their tracks, then destroy them with missiles at her leisure or simply ignore them and move past. Once I had the Ice Beam, navigating the corridors of Zebes became so much easier, and I rarely died. Unless it was time to quit, since, like The Legend of Zelda, there’s no way to save without dying first. In fact, there’s no direct save at all, but passwords are supplied upon death to let players resume from where they left off. With only 30 health, of course.

For all the help the Ice Beam provides, what really gave me an advantage was the Screw Attack, which I was able to find surprisingly early. This upgrade transforms Samus’ somersault jump into an attack, and it quickly became my primary means of combatting enemies. The most dangerous creatures swoop down from the ceiling or leap upwards in high arcs, which is annoying until you can just jump right through them. With the Screw Attack I was free to explore with minimal resistance, and — unlike The Legend of Zelda — I was able to locate nearly all of Zebes’ hidden secrets on my own.

Metroid is absolutely packed with secrets, many of which must be found in order to progress through the game. There are so many that finding a few clued me in on what to look for, and thorough searching guided me to the rest. The limited structure that I discussed above helps. I learned to check the ceilings and floors of every vertical shaft for blocks that could be shot or bombed to reveal passages. Since doors always lead left or right, never up or down, horizontal scrolling corridors tend to have fewer secrets, but whenever one led to an apparent dead end I was always sure to thoroughly check the wall with my energy beam and bombs to be sure there wasn’t a hidden tunnel to be rolled through. Most of the time, these secret locations led to more missiles. Each missile upgrade adds 5 missiles to Samus’ maximum capacity, and she can go all the way up to 255. A lot of those are rewards for defeating the minibosses, but there are still tons of missile pickups hidden around Zebes, and I found them all without any help. On rarer occasions — like with the Screw Attack — I found a much more substantial upgrade as a reward for my diligence.

Amusingly, the only upgrade I couldn’t find on my own was the Wave Beam. I eventually succumbed and looked up its location, learning that it lay hidden in one spot I’d barely missed during my explorations. At this point I had nearly every other upgrade; the only other things I hadn’t found were two energy tanks. I didn’t even know there were more of these, since Samus can acquire a maximum of six and I’d already found six. It turns out there are two more, but hunting them down wouldn’t have helped me any. Anyway, at this point in the game the Wave Beam was underwhelming. It’s debatable whether it’s worth collecting at all, in fact, since the Ice Beam is so useful throughout the game. I quickly retrieved the Ice Beam again and headed for the game’s final area, Tourian.

Here is where the titular metroids finally make their appearance. I remembered this section from when a friend showed it to me on their copy of the game when we were kids. The metroids were terrifying foes, latching onto Samus and relentlessly draining her health. The only way to dislodge them is to curl up into the Morph Ball and drop a bunch of bombs. But that only fazes metroids for a short time. To defeat them, Samus must freeze them with the ice beam and then blast them with five missiles each. I was prepared to face many of these monstrosities as I navigated a final maze, working my way towards the Mother Brain. In practice, however, Tourian was disappointing. It abandons the labyrinthine structure of the rest of the game in favor of a short, linear path. My first time through, I dodged and battled the metroids in these passages, but I soon realized that it’s far simpler to just freeze them and run past, leaving them behind. After going through a few times, I’d lost any fear the metroids had instilled.

What was stopping me instead was the final battle with the Mother Brain, which is satisfyingly difficult. It places Samus in tight quarters where it’s hard to use her Screw Attack, and automated defenses fire from all sides. Here my high missile count came in handy, as I had to use them to destroy a series of barriers before even reaching the Mother Brain itself. It took me several tries to emerge victorious here, and I admit that I couldn’t bring myself to backtrack to heal Samus from 30 health back up to her total of (I think?) 693. This was the only time I allowed myself to use the emulator’s save state function to let me start the Tourian section over from the spawn point with full health. If I’d had to manually refill my health each time, I suspect I’d have quickly lost patience with the Mother Brain battle, but as it was I enjoyed the challenge. When I finally emerged victorious I made my daring escape from the planet and sat back for the ending credits.

Here I was in for an unpleasant surprise. I knew that the ending changed slightly based on how much time players took to complete the game, and suspected I was about to get a poor ending as a result. What I didn’t know is that in the ending I got (for taking between five and ten hours to complete the game), Samus doesn’t even remove her helmet, which means I never got the famous reveal that she is a woman. There’s no way a player could finish in under five hours on their first time through the game if they’re actually trying to map things out themselves. That means that many players may have never seen this famous reveal! That seemed crazy to me, until I thought about the time that Metroid was released. Today I have too many games to play to bother trying to play through Metroid again with a quicker time, but back in 1986/1987 it was much more likely that players would do so. I know I played my NES games many times over. Also, as was common with video games, the reveal quickly became legend, reported in games magazines and passed along with word of mouth. I saw Samus remove her helmet when I watched my friend run through Tourian back then, but I’d already heard about it before that.

There was more to this legend too: people claimed that if you finished quickly enough, Samus would remove her battle armor completely. I don’t think I believed that at the time, but I’m now able to verify that it’s true. And actually, it’s worse than that. Finishing the game in under an hour — which really would be a speedrunning feat, even for someone who knows what they’re doing — results in Samus trading her leotard for a bikini. Given how many problems games still have with sexualizing women, I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising, but I was disappointed to learn about it all the same. I’d always viewed Samus as a protagonist who defies gender norms, stepping in to save the galaxy rather than waiting to be rescued like Zelda or countless other female characters in these early games. In my mind, Metroid was a game that (like Phantasy Star) dared to let a woman be as capable as a man (or more so), and didn’t make that big of a deal out of it. She saves the universe. She’s a woman. So what? To see her objectified in these endings tarnished the game’s image.

But it didn’t tarnish it enough to sour me on the game. Metroid is impressive, especially considering its technical limitations, and I’m not surprised that it spawned a hugely successful franchise. Later games improved upon the design in nearly every way, but much of the core is already here, and worth checking out if you’re interested to see where the series started. Unfortunately, Metroid suffers a similar fate to many early console games in that it’s hard to find an official release in its original form. An emulated version was made officially available for the GameCube, Wii, and 3DS, but those are all old hardware at this point [EDIT: the emulated version is also available for the Nintendo Switch, via a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online]. A remake entitled Metroid: Zero Mission appeared for the Game Boy Advance in 2004, for those who prefer a modernized take on the game. For this post, I ran Metroid using emulation via Retroarch with the Mesen core, as I’ve done for other old console games. This worked well but may have slowed down a bit more than the original hardware did when many enemies were present on the screen at once.

As I mentioned above, I love Super Metroid, but it’s actually the third game in the series. The second is Metroid II: Return of Samus, originally released for the Game Boy handheld console. I never owned a Game Boy, and wasn’t that impressed when I tried my friends’ Game Boys. So I never played Metroid II, although I’ve heard it’s really good and was one of the main reasons to get a Game Boy. It also fills in the story between the original Metroid and Super Metroid. So I’m looking forward to playing it. I’ve got several other games lined up first though, stay tuned for those. One day I may even make it into the 1990s!


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  1. Isaac Kelley

    I love the Metroid games. Metroid II is great… for a Game Boy game. It’s pretty repetitive and not as interesting as Metroid or Super Metroid (but not as same-old, same-old as Metroid Fusion) . I hear the remake for the 3DS is really good, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. The main reason to get a Game Boy was and remains Donkey Kong.

    As for availability, emulated original Metroid is available for “free” to anyone who pays for the Nintendo Switch’s online service. It was also included in the now out of print NES Mini.

    I continue to love this blog, good sir.

    • Thanks for the tip about the emulated version on Nintendo Switch. I’ve updated the post to reflect this. It sounds like you’ve played far more of the Metroid series than I have. I’ve played Super Metroid several times, but as for newer games I’ve only played part of the first Metroid Prime. I hope to visit the rest of the series for these History Lessons posts, although it will take a while given how many other games are on my list.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! Thanks for reading!

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