I discovered Metroid rather late, in 2002, when Super Metroid was mentioned in the Top 100 Games of All Time in EGM’s 200th issue, ranking no less than #1, beating the likes of Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania and other well-known video game series. Perfect timing, because I had already exhausted my to-play game list at the time and I’m looking for a new game. The result was almost a month of sleepless nights. It was one of the best games I’ve played, and I was glad I had came to know the game.
Metroid is Nintendo’s signature space combat game series. It was a stark contrast to Nintendo’s typical family-friendly games like Mario, Pokemon or Zelda. However, the games are still conservative in terms of violence, so most games garner a Teens rating rather than an M (Mature) rating.
The Metroid games chronicle the adventures of Samus Aran, and Samus isn’t just anybody’s character. That is because Samus holds one of the most shocking secrets of the 8-bit era. In the first game, aptly named Metroid (1986), Samus shed her armor at the end of the game, and behind the ass-kicking one-man army inside the armor, is, in fact, a girl, officially making her the first lady of gaming, existing long before everyone were enthralled with Lara Croft’s tomb raiding.
The game was named after the Metroids, an alien creature that has the ability to suck the life force of other living things. In the original game, these creatures were being experimented by an evil group of space pirates because of their abilities before Samus broke into the operation and stopped the operation for good.
What makes Metroid a great series? I was thinking about this the other day, and decided that to make things a bit more organized, I decided to list down the strong points of the series:
Metroid is known for its unique approach to level design. The idea is to come up with interlocking levels, starting with a linear path leading to several locations where some areas are inaccessible or dangerous at first, until a certain progress is achieved. It also allows for hidden rooms, because an ordinary-looking wall may not really be what it seems. So, while it seems that you’re always reaching dead ends, you may not be looking hard enough. And just when you thought you had fully seen the full lay of the level, opening a mysterious door will lead to yet another massive dungeon later in the game. Metroid’s layout in reality is one gigantic maze.
The Metroid areas are usually subdivided into levels, each one having its own ecosystem and having their unique properties. For instance, in Super Metroid (1994), Norfair is a volcanic spot, so it’s overflowing with lava, and is extremely hot. Samus’ armor will not be able to withstand this, and I learned it the hard way. Moreover, getting the required gear is not a simple treasure hunt. Norfair was reached by falling thru a deep chasm at the end of Brinstar, and it took me nearly a week to locate the Varia Suit needed to survive Norfair. The game, in fact, is teasing by offering the Hi-Jump Boots, which might help me get back up there. The jump is still not enough, though, and just when I thought I found what I was looking for when I found another Chozo statue, I was disappointed to find out that it was just the Spazer.
I think part of the appeal of Metroid is the feeling you get of being plunged into an alien world. You never know what secret or danger lies ahead in the next room, or feel being lost or in a long way from familiar territory, or know where the bosses are located, some of which are cleverly hidden.
For most games, the plot is just an add-on, included only as a cheap excuse for the pointless existence of the game. This is typical of war games, where you just pick a random location where violence is a standard way of life, create an enemy generator and then skin them with the residents of the area and then design the lead to be anyone that is skilled with can hold a gun or maybe another weapon that shoots. Then just glue them altogether with a plot where you need to obliterate everyone to achieve peace on earth and goodwill to men. Yeah, right.
Metroid’s plot is made effective because of one reason: the characters aren’t one-dimensional, they are real and have distinctive personalities.
Samus’ character is designed to be enigmatic in nature, concealed behind her armor, and revealed partially through brief snippets in the games. Starting in Metroid Fusion (2002), Samus’ character began to open up, and I probably belong to the minority who actually likes this change of direction, particularly with Samus’ self-brooding in Fusion.
The same can also be said of other recurring characters in the series. You’ve got to admire the persistence of the space pirates led by Mother Brain and her band of cohorts as they perform dangerous experiments initially on the Metroids and later on, with Phazon, a dangerous mutagen found on a crashed meteor, and their fixation for designing cleverly hidden laboratories on desolate planets that has long been abandoned by an ancient and lost but advanced civilization named Chozo, which will ultimately be their undoing.
Caught in the middle are the Metroids, which are originally docile creatures. A recurring event in every game is how the Metroids saved Samus every time.
Later, more characters will be introduced in the series, and the game is actually the result of the interaction among all the characters in the series, including some minor characters, such as the friendly creatures who teaches Samus some abilities, and even Samus’ own airship.
The story was narrated with a clever mix of text-based narration and something like a partial cinematic, in which you have partial control over the scene. There’s nothing like the scene where Samus is nearly decimated by Mother Brain, meeting SA-X for the first time, destroying one of the space station capsule in the BSL lab or seeing the broken canister after killing Ridley.
I was initially enraged when I found out that Metroid Prime (2002), the next-generation update to Metroid, will be a first-person shooter (FPS). It’s a disrespect to the series, because the emphasis of the series isn’t really about gunning a huge army of space pirates. I was relieved, however, because the exploratory aspect of the series was retained. Sure, Samus has a gun, and she still needs it to fight enemies and bosses, but their usage isn’t just limited to offense, they also have their environmental uses. In fact, one of Samus’ “weapons” is not used for offensive purposes at all: the X-Ray in Super Metroid, and the Item Scanner in Metroid Prime.
Putting the game in third dimension has its advantages. The environments feel richer, and it makes the game more challenging because it’s harder to locate the hidden rooms and passageways. And the boss battles are more epic.
Still, with the explosion of the 3rd dimension in gaming, I was stricken with inexplicable sadness. 3D allows for more freedom of movement, so some games became easier. In 2D, the player’s movements are severely limited, just left and right, with vertical movement through the jump action, and putting the hurt on enemies requires rigorous precision. It’s my philosophy that the best games are the ones that provide a challenge, like Megaman, Castlevania (whipping stuff is cool!) and Contra. Not to mention the boss battles, because you need to find out the weakness of the character, and find ways also to dodge the barrage of projectiles that it hurls onscreen, almost spreading out ¾ of the whole screen. Samus’ morph ball form is also used as a defensive stance.
Finally, another unique feature of the Metroid games is the escape sequence. There’s nothing like an adrenaline rush as the self-destruct mechanism of the place suddenly activates, complete with ticking countdown timer, the whole place starting to crumble, and navigating your way through labyrinthine paths and tricky platforms as you try to make a mad dash to the exit. Most games feature at least two of these.