Games | NES | Metroid

Article by Jake Alley? | September 24, 2010


Developer: Nintendo
U.S. Release: August 1986
Format: NES

Metroid is widely regarded less as a masterpiece than a foundation. Much like Mega Man, people tend not to really have a whole lot of love for it beyond gratitude for its paving the way for a sequel. Why bother with Mega Man when you can go play Mega Man 2? Why play Metroid when you can just play Super Metroid? To a certain degree, itís a fair criticism. Super Metroid is undoubtably a superior game to the original (and, arguably, to anything else you can name). As much as it seems to improve on the original in every way, however, there are some key differences that set them apart, and some lessons still left to be learned in the original.

Letís begin with what everyone knows about Metroid. It is, of course, the original example of a ďMetroidvaniaĒ game. Which is to say, we have all the trappings of a standard platformer, but rather than a linear series of straightforward levels largely consisting of increasingly challenging jumps, we have a huge interconnected maze of hallways and shafts forming a single contiguous mass that players spend the entire game exploring at their leisure, obtaining handy tools from defeating bosses which open up new areas for exploration and allow backtracking for hidden power-ups. People also are fond of pointing out the big reveal at the end of the gameóthat under the funky space armor, it turns out Samus is actually a woman. Even if youíve never played Metroid, these two facts have most likely been hammered into your brain.

Funnily enough, though, theyíre both wrong. Samusí famous strip tease, and the resulting ability to replay the game wearing only go-go boots and a purple leotard (which bafflingly seems to protect her just as well as the armored suit) is the reward earned for completing a speed run of Metroid. Anyone who isnít cheating and using a walkthrough or map to plow through isnít going to see that. Rewards like this werenít yet a common component of games, either. Without any outside influence, one would only see the gender-flipped Joker look hidden under that bulbous red helmet after playing through several times, committing the optimum path through to memory, as NES owners were prone to do. A fair number of people only saw suitless Samus after being told of the famous ďJustin BaileyĒ password. Even then, as that code gave players the alternate costume and enough power-ups to proceed directly to the end game, one could theoretically misinterpret this as a chance to play through as Samusí girlfriend, the oddly-named Justin Bailey.

More importantly, while it does have a single homogenous map, Metroid does not follow a lot of the conventions of later imitators. There are only three bosses in the game, and killing the first two only unlocks the path to the last. There are only a handful of power-ups which expand Samusí exploratory abilities, and they can all be rounded up quickly right at the start of the game.

Whatís particularly interesting, however, is how little you have to work for the really important items. The oddly named Maru-Mari, later known as the Morph Ball, can be obtained within five seconds of starting the game. Itís sitting right there, out in the open, immediately to the left of where you start. The first missile upgrade is similarly just sitting there, right in the open in the middle of a hallway. Another, the ice beam, can be obtained from two different locations, both of which open up quite early. For the vast majority of the game, every location can be accessed freely, the only obstacles being the deadliness of the monsters along the way, and the amount of slogging back and forth it takes to reach them. While hitting the two door-locking bosses is eventually required, the playerís main goal is largely locating and collecting an impressive number of power-ups which have no exploratory use. They simply make it easier to avoid dying while looking for more.

Exploration in Metroid really is exploring. There is no in-game map. Paths that require certain items to be fully explored quietly deny the fact until the player has travelled through several screens. Quite a number of rooms are completely hidden by false walls, floors, and ceilings, not to mention unlabeled barricades that must be bombed through, and a few require the development of a less-than-obvious technique. As a general rule of thumb, however, the game will subtly suggest these techniques by clearly making visible seemingly inaccessible areas, or having wall-hugging monsters dip into hidden pathways. Finding the Varia upgrade in particular is no easy feat. It requires freezing a monster in mid-air with the ice beam to use as a stepping stone to jump up into what appears to be a completely solid ceiling, in the middle of a totally unassuming hallway.

Metroid also deserves credit for the behavior many creatures exhibit. When other games were still giving enemies very fixed behavior patterns, meandering about and shooting with no real concern for what the player was doing, Metroid features a number of enemies who actively react to Samusí actions. Some wait on the ceiling, swooping down as the player passes underneath. Others sweep along the ground, rising back up in time with the playerís jumps. Then of course thereís the most notable creatures in the game, which appear only in the final area: metroids.

Every game in the Metroid series features the titular creatures in some form or another, but in the original, they are really something special. Killing one requires two weapons to be used in concert, one of which has a limited ammo supply. That alone would be bad enough, but dodging metroids is next to impossible. While they have a certain floatiness to their movement, the instant a metroid is on screen, it will immediately rush straight at you, glom onto you, and start sucking down your HP like a fraternity initiate at a beer bong. They release their deathgrip only after an extended period of the player generally panicking and dropping bombs like thereís no tomorrow, just for a brief window in which to try for that special weapon combo once more.

What makes this tactic especially nasty is that metroids typically approach from below. While Samus can aim straight up, itís impossible to ever shoot down. This makes the descent towards the final boss a decidedly paranoid affair, taking blind leaps from platform to platform, constantly keeping a finger on the trigger to blow away those big green jellyfish the instant one appears.

While that final metroid-filled shaft is perhaps the most memorable portion of the game, itís one of several deliberate uses of atmosphere to be found. Despite the humble bare-bones approach of the game as a whole, it actually makes a pretty impressive effort for the time of piping ominous music into certain areas, and giving different regions their own distinct feel, with unique visual elements and an interesting habit of recycling behavior patterns for enemies, but drastically changing their visuals to suit the local biome. While there is essentially no mechanical difference between the spiky wall-huggers found in the sparse cavernous maze in which the game begins and their bug-eyed cousins found in the greener reaches of Brinstar, the change in visuals helps give the impression that one has reached some strange, exotic new land.

Of course, the most interesting thing to be found when exploring Brinstar is a concept unique to the original Metroid. As previously mentioned, there are two bosses who must be found and defeated to open up the passageway to the end game. Killing them yields no special fanfare or rewards beyond clearing a path dozens of rooms away. Anyone who isnít exploring everything they can, however, might find that passage still sealed after seemingly accomplishing this however, because much like a paranoid dictator, one of these bosses, Kraid, has the presence of mind to employ a body double. Roughly in the area you would expect to find him, thereís a monster which looks just like his statue, has a decent amount of HP, and otherwise comes across as a fully legitimate boss fight. But no. The real Kraid is hanging out in a secret underground bunker, which is comparatively well-hidden. Itís a wonderfully clever notion, which no game has run with since, at least not with so much legitimacy. Yet, despite Super Metroid proving thereís no shortage of these doubles, itís the other boss, Ridley, who keeps showing up. Apparently having a famous namesake counts for more than originality in the space pirate business.

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