The Completist Presents: Metroid – A Love Letter to Samus Aran
Metroid! Need I say more? Why would I bother writing about a game that has been written about pretty much ad infinitum? Even by myself no less! It’s simple, I once again feel like I have something constructive to add to the conversation about this incredible game. Not only that, but I also feel like 1 More Castle needs an injection of Metroid into its veins. Tom Hall wrote a nice piece about how the N64 needed a Metroid game. And Eric Congdon wrote an interesting piece on the character of Samus herself. But other than that, there isn’t much else on Metroid here. I plan on changing that right now and probably again in the future.
Metroid, the original NES game, has been a part of my life for over 25 years. Because it ‘s such a special game to me, I’m going to do something a little different this week. Rather than doing my normal step by step experience of playing a game from start to finish (because frankly, everyone has already seen this game played to death), I want to focus on some personal stories and feelings I’ve had with it over the years as well as some history about the game series and its inception. Consider it my “complete” life story on Metroid. I will get into the areas of the game and my experiences with them (mostly the end), but not in my typical, linear, super detailed fashion. I feel that anyone interested in retro gaming knows Metroid fairly well. I don’t need to rehash a play through of arguably one of the most influential platformers of all time, am I right? Go here if you want to see insane game play:
So that being said, I will start by going out on a limb. I’m going to say that Metroid (the original anyway) is an under rated game. Now I know there are some people who may agree with me but seriously, many more of you are probably wondering how I can make this claim. Metroid you would probably say, is highly regarded and esteemed in every way! To this point, I would have to agree. However, I think you have to compare the original Metroid to its descendants. When people talk about Metroid now days, which game do they typically talk about? Generally it’s Super Metroid for the SNES. For some reason, Super Metroid is put up on a supreme pedestal of platinum as the ultimate “Metroidvania ” game. Now I’m not saying that Super Metroid isn’t a great game. It is. But perhaps my trepidation towards it stems from the fact that I didn’t play Super Metroid until 2003, so the nostalgia factor is moot. But honestly, from an experienced retro gamers perspective, it just seems to lack the charm and simplicity of the original. Disagree with me if you want, but the original Metroid is a more “pure” and streamlined experience than its somewhat bloated second sequel.
My next reason for thinking that Metroid is under rated pertains to the entire series in general (so you can now forgive me for bashing Super Metroid). Think about it, whenever people talk about Nintendo’s flagship franchises what do they talk about? Mario, Zelda and Metroid, in that order. And it’s always been this way since the very beginning. Need proof? The proof is in the profit, and profit always follows popularity. Since 1986 there have been countless Mario games, 27 Zelda games and a mere 11 Metroid games. The longest span being the entire N64 era or a total of 8 years between Metroid titles! Nintendo is partly to blame for this, mainly because it is well documented that they don’t have much belief in the series as a whole. But I guess if you want to put a positive spin on this situation, you could use the philosophy of less is more. I am happy to say that I have played all but two of the Metroid games which I can hardly say for the Zelda or Mario series. I would also acknowledge that due to the infrequency of the Metroid titles, they haven’t had to trod out the same concepts as many times, thus the Metroid games, in my opinion are often of higher quality than Nintendo’s other two flagship franchises.
The history of Metroid and the inception of the original game also play a role in why there has been less and mostly infrequent titles in the Metroid franchise. The series started out as second tier competition right from the start. Back in 1986, internal competition at Nintendo caused by a young Shigeru Miyamoto and the huge success of his Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong titles, led Nintendo’s former poster boy, Gunpei Yokoi to contemplate creating a new hit game of his own. Yokoi, who created the “Game and Watch” series and in 1989, the Game Boy, was also responsible for games such as “Ice Climbers”, “Duck Hunt” and “Excitebike.” The older Yokoi (who also created quite a few of Nintendo’s hit toys back before they ventured into video games) even served as a mentor of sorts for Miyamoto, giving him tips on game design during the production of Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong. Yokoi’s own games sold well, but they paled in comparison to the behemoth success of Super Mario Brothers.
Yokoi was tasked with putting together a core team of 4 to create what would become Metroid (the total team eventually consisted of 13 people). He brought in Kid Icarus and Balloon Fight designer Yoshio Sakamoto (who remains responsible for Metroid to this day) for director, Hiroji Kiyotake for the design of Samus herself as well as the bleak and gritty enemies, and Makoto Kanoh who served as assistant director and scenario designer. Kanoh was also responsible for the dark and nefarious tone of Metroid’s massive environments.
The team then decided to make a courageous and risky move. Instead of following in Miyamoto’s footsteps or making a clone of Super Mario Brothers, they chose to do something completely different. They decided on an action, collection and exploration premise with a dark, atmospheric, sci-fi concept inspired by ( in no small part) Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie. According to a July 2009 article in Retro Gamer Magazine, Sakamoto himself is quoted as saying that Alien and particularly the creature designer on the film, H.R. Giger, were a huge influence on both Metroid’s creatures and tone. If that isn’t enough, they even named a boss after Ridley Scott himself! And in a funny twist of fate, the sequel to Alien, “Aliens” was released the same summer as Metroid with Sigourney Weaver dressing up in a big, yellow, robotic suit to battle the mother alien in the climactic finale. Quite the interesting turn of events I would have to say!
The next bold design concept was the decision to make the game non-linear. Up until this point, non-linear games were almost unheard of. Yes, there was Zelda which always seems to get all the credit but in reality, Zelda and Metroid were released within six months of each other and developed at nearly the same time. Of all the elements that made Metroid great, this was the killer idea that spawned countless clones and copycats and eventually, an entire genre of game called “Metroidvania” which is based solely on the Metroid non-linear game play formula. Guacamelee being the most recent example that comes to mind.
If you want to see a totally awesome, complete map of the game you can check it out here:
Or you can always go for the classic, original instruction manual version below. Definitely not as detailed I must say:
So that leaves us with the actual word “Metroid” and its origin. The team wanted a name that would reflect the tone, atmosphere and environments of the game. To achieve this they decided to combine the words “metro”, for underground transit and “android”, for Samus and her cyborg-like resemblance, into one cohesive word: M-E-T-R-O-I-D. And as we all know by now, and as you can already see by the connection this game has to Alien, they decided to make another unorthodox choice: the protagonist, Samus Aran, is female. However, this detail was kept a secret for the purposes of the different tiered endings. If you read the games original instruction manual, (see above) Samus is even referred to as a male, interesting indeed.
The last, but not least, appealing facet of Metroid is of course, the story. Wait, the original Metroid has a story? Yes, a fairly detailed one as a matter of fact (on a side note, this origin story was greatly expanded upon in the three Metroid Prime prequels, which I enjoyed immensely). If you sit at the title screen long enough you get this cryptic message:
That’s it. That’s all the actual game gives you. So from the sounds of it, you will be fighting one Metroid and a Mother Brain. And who the hell are the Galaxy Federal Police? Hold on, let’s back up a second. I have a confession to make. As a kid, I never actually owned a copy of Metroid. I borrowed the game from a neighborhood friend of mine so I never had the instruction manual. And even though I own a copy of the game today, I still don’t have the manual. I had to download a PDF online to finally get the expanded Metroid back story that I had never read before. I’d like to share it with you, in all its awesome, fruity, 80’s instruction manual glory:
You know what I love about this story? They actually explain what the purpose of the maze is and why there are all these weird creatures everywhere. Everything apparently exists for a reason. Imagine that! Even though you never actually meet the space pirates in this game (but you do in Metroid Prime and oh man, are they a frightening bunch), you can sure as hell feel their presence through all the countless drones they have guarding mother brain in this huge, subterranean labyrinth. How many old school console games bothered to give you that? I never read instruction manuals much back then so I’ll probably never know….
Now that I’ve rehashed some of the history of Metroid, I want to turn to my personal journey with this game over the past 25 years or so. As I said earlier, I never actually owned the game as a kid. I had to borrow it or play it at a friend’s house. There were two main places in my neighborhood where I could get a round of Metroid going if I so desired, you can see them below:
Click Image to Enlarge
My earliest memories of playing Metroid came from my friend Brad’s house. He was a hardcore Christian and unfortunately for him, I had a family full of agnostics and atheists. We would frequently get into arguments about Adam and Eve vs. Evolution where his response would be to pull out a Bible and mine would be to retrieve a National Geographic with a pullout section on the evolution of man from lower primates. Those arguments typically didn’t end well. Luckily, we had Metroid to normalize our friendship. I’ll never forget the first time we popped the cartridge into his NES with that familiar metallic click, followed by the title screen with that dull, heartbeat thud of menace, courtesy of the opening music score. It was terrifying, like I was about to be sentenced to hell on another planet. What was I getting myself into? I’ll tell you what, a non-linear, treasure trove of creepy, atmospheric environments, power-ups galore, and three challenging bosses. Oh and let’s not forget decades worth of secrets to discover. Literally. After all, I never actually obtained them all until 4 months ago when I replayed through the game for probably the 10th time.
In those early days I never progressed much past Brinstar and Norfair. Every time I found myself descending down an elevator to either Ridley or Kraid’s lairs, I would progress a few steps, get scared and immediately head back up, hoping to find more power ups before re-descending down the road to Hades. And am I not right? Was I not the only one who felt this way upon gravitating down that lift? Kriad’s area was less menacing and the music was a gorgeous 8-bit philharmonic of sound. But Ridley’s lair was daunting indeed: hellish visuals, insane jumps, brutal enemies, lava and then there was the music . Slow, but harboring a sort of inevitability. Like some terrible beast or force that cannot be escaped, but approaches you with unhurried steps. Just hearing it made me want to dive beneath the covers of my bed.
Fast forward 15 years and I am a wiser, braver young adult (or so I thought). It was 2003, I was 23 years old and I had just moved home from college and into my parent’s garage. Fortunately, my parents were the best and allowed me to turn said garage into a sort of bachelor pad for myself, my brother and many of our friends. At the time I really had no clue what I was going to do with my life, which of course led me to do what a lot of lost young adults have done; I spent a year of my life playing an MMO. No, it wasn’t World of Warcraft. It was a wonderful little space sim called Eve Online.
So you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Metroid. Well, a lot actually. You see, EVE can be a very slow paced game at times. I chose to be a “miner” in the game which would require hours upon hours of sitting out in deep space, staring at an asteroid while your ship slowly melted it away with a laser. Does it sound like watching paint dry? It’s a little better, but it still left me with an incredible amount of down time. So I thought, why not play a second game while I’m playing this game?
Enter Metroid. I no longer owned a Nintendo (I had sold it in the mid 90’s and regretted it ever since) and the TV was too far away for me to play both games at once, anyway. So I bought a second video card for my pc, hooked up a third monitor (because I already had two EVE accounts going at once) and started researching retro game emulators. I settled on Nestopia which at the time was the most accurate as far as I could tell. I next picked up an old CRT monitor at the flea market, hooked up a gravis pad and bam, I was playing Metroid again. And it was glorious. Every time I started mining an asteroid in EVE I would have about 10 minutes of time to spend with my little emulated joy. It was in this time frame of my life that I not only nearly mastered Metroid, but I also got back into retro gaming in a BIG way.
I remember finally being able to thoroughly explore the areas I had never dared venture before. I remember finally beating Riley and Kraid and their entire areas in one sitting and flipping out because I had accomplished something I’d never done before. I remember finding scores of secret passages, all wound together in the scenery. Most of them I never knew existed, back when I was a kid. I remember getting the screw attack and being able to kill all those stupid flying enemies that always knocked you down those deep, dark passages that took forever to ascend. I remember getting the wave beam, heading down to the final depths of Tourian and totally forgetting that you are toast without the ice beam! And of course, I beat Mother Brain myself, for the first time.
Ahhh Mother Brain. This leads me to my final, most cherished memory about this game. But to get to this memory we have to travel back in time again, to the early 90’s. Ironically, to the beginning of the 16 bit era. You see, my friend Nick who lived down the street, had just gotten a Super Nintendo for Christmas and as a result, his younger brother Andrew had received the old, hand me down Nintendo to put in his room. So while Nick and I were playing games like Final Fantasy IV and Turtles in Time, Andrew was playing games like Solar Jetman and Metroid. But sometimes, those old shoes just fit better. Know what I mean?
It was late one night, we were having a sleep over, and for whatever reason me, Nick, and Nick’s other brother Chris decided to venture into Andrew’s room. We discovered that he was playing Metroid and he was near the end.
“I’m about to head down to fight Mother Brain!” He exclaimed.
I was petrified. Up until this point, I had never even fought Ridley or Kraid myself, and I’d never seen Mother Brain.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” I said
“Yep, we’re going now!” Andrew said.
We crowded around the TV and away we went, Andrew at the helm, ready for the ride of our lives.
Andrew raced across the final “blue” stretch of Brinstar, ignoring the angry Skree’s and Rio bugs that charged him from the chasm above as the familiar, groovy chip tune buzzed in my head one final time. He blasted the red “missile” door five times and it whoooooped open. He shot the two statues of Ridley and Kraid, which sent a hidden bridge shooting across the pit. He rolled across and the elevator to hell awaited us. Down we went as the familiar Metroid chimes rang, my first time about to witness Tourian in all its sinister anonymity. What was about to happen? I’d only heard stories of the evil that lay below. They were the games name sake, The “Metroids.”
We arrived in Tourian, sinister, hellish music playing over a palette of grey. Down we went, but something was immediately wrong. Within two steps of the elevator an angry, green and red jelly from hell raced our way. He pounced on Andrew, a death grip from the head with seemingly no escape.
“Roll into a ball!” Nick shouted.
Andrew rolled into a ball but the creature was stuck and our life was draining fast.
“Try your bombs!” I shouted.
Andrew drops some bombs and the creature bolts back.
“Freeze him with your ice beam!” Shouts Chris.
Andrew hit the creature with his Ice Beam and it froze in place.
“That was a Metroid!” I yelled.
And more were on the way as Andrew continued down. One, two, three more and to the bottom, another door blocking our way. But this one required ten missiles! Andrew blasted his way though, a blue room, strange balls of energy, lava and more Metroids! One, two, three, four, and another door with five missile blasts and we were through!
Next were more abrasive balls of energy, and a zig zagging drop through a vertical corridor of death. “BUMP”, “BUMP” as Andrew smacked into the rings.
“Stop hitting those Andrew!” I yelled. “You’ll never make it to the end!”
After a seemingly endless loop, we finally reached the bottom only to find three Metroids lying in wait.
“Hurry! Through the door!” Nick shouted.
I counted down the missiles as they fired and the Metroids drew closer.
“Hurry!” Chris screamed.
Last shot, and we’re through! Right as the Metroid came in for the kill.
Next was a room of pipes, lava and seven Metroids! Andrew froze them with the precision of a sniper, rolling past the last jelly to the freedom of the blue door in front of us.
Then, like the game could read my pulse, the music kicked up a notch. A fast beat with an unmistakable sense of urgency. This was it, this was the Mother Brain.
“What are those things?” Nick said.
Slimy containers of goo blocked our path with hordes of angry energy rings and shots from what seemed like a hundred guns all in unison. This was impossible!
“Shoot them with missiles!” Nick yelled.
One went down, then two, then three, four, five and, a chill went down my spine.
“There she is!!!!!” I screamed. “It’s Mother Brain!!!”
“Hurry Blast her!” We all yelled in unison.
Andrew jumped to the narrow platform directly in front of her and started blistering her with a missile storm that would make Ronald Regan proud. One after another they hit their target. Again and again, shot after shot but it never seemed to be enough. A stray bullet hit Andrew from behind and he fell forward into the lava pit in front of Mother Brain.
“No!!!” We all screamed. “Get back up, hurry, she’s almost dead!”
Andrew jumped and flipped, his energy leaking like water from a broken fish tank until finally, mercifully, he landed on the sweet spot. That little, obscure ledge right in front of the bitch. It was time to finish the job.
“Finish her!” We all yelled.
Bang, bang, bang, bang and BOOM!!!!!!!!!
“WOOOOOO YAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!” We all screamed together. “It’s over!!!!”
But wait, there was no time for celebration. A time bomb was set and we had to escape. Fast, before everything blows up! An epic countdown to oblivion, just like the end of “Aliens.”
Andrew raced up the endless vertical tower of far too small blue platforms, fell once but reached the top with time to spare.
“Up the elevator!” We screamed in perfect harmony.
Andrew leaped to the last platform and ascended the elevator, leaving the planet Zebes behind and my dream of seeing Metroid through to completion a beaming reality. We had done it!
And what reward did we get for this insane journey through the unknown? Why the same reward you get at the end of the original Alien of course. The female protagonist takes off her clothes!
So much for empowering women….. Well, what do you expect from a sci-fi game designed by a bunch of nerdy guys? Speaking of nerdy guys:
And so my “Love Letter” to Samus Aran is complete. Her contribution to gaming will forever be felt (even without the bikini). I just personally wish that Nintendo would take the Metroid series a little more seriously. In order for it to survive, I think the series should head back to its roots, pure and simple. The best move Nintendo ever made was ironically due to their disbelief in the franchise. They outsourced development of Metroid Prime to the American company, Retro Studios (which they promptly bought once they realized what they had) because they were at an impasse with what to do with the series. Retro managed on their first try, to do something that Nintendo wasn’t able to do, which was taking the core mechanics of what made the original Metroid great, and implementing them into a 3D world as seamlessly as if the DNA from the original game was injected into Metroid Prime’s Genome . The game felt like Metroid all over again, a feat that has failed for so many retro franchises over the years.
We need to cherish games like the original Metroid. Bringing them kicking and screaming into the future isn’t always easy, but it can be done effectively if the right people are behind the helm. Either way though, no matter where the Metroid series goes, at least I’ll know that I will always have the original game, in all its gritty and tenacious spirit, to play on a rainy day. From the classic, moody landscape of “Brinstar”, to the atmospheric seclusion of “Norfair”, down to the symphonic depths of Kraid’s lair, on to the putrid, devilish hole of Ridley’s Hideout, to the final terrifying battle of Tourian and the Mother Brain herself. Give us this, and the series will endure.
Author’s Note: I’d like to give a special thanks to editor and chief of the castle, Eric Bailey. He posed a question on Twitter not too long ago that simply said: “What is the scariest moment you can remember while playing a Retro Video Game?” My reply was: “The first time I fought Mother Brain!” That simple question got me thinking and was the eventual catalyst for the creation of this article. Keep asking those inspiring questions Eric.
Author’s Note 2: If you are looking for an incredibly detailed synopsis that pretty much covers the story for the entire Metroid series and then some, check out this insanely awesome forum post: