Based on: The works of Ridley Scott, and a deep existential sense of loneliness.
Gaming is a medium with a pretty lousy sense of history. Granted, that history only stretches back thirty to forty years; but a lot has happened in that time, and most people would have to struggle to match names like "Al Alcorn" and "Nolan Bushnell" to their respective roles in gaming's past. So when a vigorously next-generation update to a classic series is released, it's a lovely surprise to have the original game included as a freebie. It's not unheard of, but mostly you find this sort of thing in low-profile games like Xevious 3D+G -- which is to say it might as well never even happen. So Nintendo's latest high-profile update, Metroid Prime, earns a few extra Nobility Points for offering players a copy of the 1987 original: the groundbreaking NES adventure Metroid.
Of course, we could all just be so cynical that our brains ossify and we lose our ability to love -- dooming us -- and simply make sneering remarks about how this bonus was a desperate attempt by Retro Studios to woo series purists who were averse to the 3D gameplay upgrade. Or we could refuse to lodge our heads between our butt-cheeks and marvel at the opportunity to play two great Metroids from a single shiny platter.
The original Metroid holds up surprisingly well in the early twenty-first century. Simplistic graphics and primitive (albeit well-crafted; viva Hip Tanaka) music aside, the gameplay is still mostly great. Considering how well the Metroid principle of free-form exploration and upgrading works as a video game structure, it's a surprise so few people have cribbed it in the intervening decade and a half. Konami obviously excepted, of course. Not that the world's general failure to exploit and cheapen a quality game design is a bad thing, by any means. One thing that makes the game fun even now is that we haven't had half a dozen Rare-developed Metroid clones crammed down our throats.
"Yes, it's a bit like Metroid, but we wanted to bring something new to the table. We've given the main character a few extra animations, and placed more than three thousand trinkets and doodads to collect throughout the gameworld. While these objects actually do nothing in terms of gameplay I think the average gamer will appreciate the way we've stretched four hours of play time to 60." -- alternate universe Tim Stamper, VG+CE, October 1989.
Whether or not this is true in another fifteen years remains to be seen. With any luck, developers will be so busy aping Metal Gear Solid's compulsory cinematus interruptus and linear, structured approach that Metroid's simple, enormous style will still seem fresh in 2017. Well, no, actually that would be really awful.
The story, as was so often the case with the better breed of NES games, is an exercise in existential minimalism. Mysterious bounty hunter Samus Aran must venture forth and destroy things until there's nothing left to destroy. (Helpfully, the enemy base self-destructs at the end, which makes the job vastly easier.) This requires exploring every last recess of a massive subterranean fortress and blasting scores of enemies; to speed things along her enemies have made their headquarters in the ruins of an ancient bird people civilization, who kindly left behind deadly, Samus-compatible weapons -- all just laying around. Or, more likely, suspended on thin metal pillars over lava.
And it's important for Samus to find those power-ups, as she happens to be the most poorly-armed bounty hunter in the galaxy. The manual claims she's tops as far as bounty hunting goes, which may well be and certainly speaks highly of her skills. Anyone who can shoot their way to the top armed with a laser gun sporting an eight-foot effective range is clearly one tough hombre.
Or rather, a tough chica. Despite the manual's liberal use of masculine pronouns to describe Samus, clearing the game within a certain time limit reveals that she's actually a woman. Unthinkable in 1987. Women in video games as something other than kidnapping victims to be rescued? Fortunately, the balance of exploitation was maintained; completing the game within an even stricter time limit resulted in Samus stripping to a leotard for your perverted, pixellated pleasure. Amazingly, this leotard offered the same protection against acid, fire and energy weapons as a sophisticated battle suit.
Unlike Prime, the original Metroid starts out stupidly difficult and becomes easier as you acquire better gear; by the end, Samus is a heavily-armed death dealer who can slaughter enemies simply by jumping at them, which was a novel twist on the Mario approach of dishing out murder by jumping on bad guys' heads.
Samus has the unique ability to duck into a ball and spin rapidly, not unlike Sonic?. Although unlike the hedgehog, she's good for more than a single enemy collision before her rings go flying everywhere, especially once you juice up with extra Energy Tanks. This skill comes in pretty handily, since most of the planet's interior is traversed by bombing tiny holes in the walls and rolling through them. This is also the game's greatest weakness, as a person not familiar with the game's underlying requirement of dropping bombs every damn place to progress won't make it very far before butting up against dead ends innumerable.
Technically, the point of the game isn't to explore, nor is it to find all the glitch-derived "hidden worlds" which can be reached by doing physically impossible things inside the walls of Zebes. Samus's mission is to blow up the not-necessarily-female Mother Brain real good, and that can only be done by defeating two scary monsters whose vital signs are linked to statues blocking the corridor to her/his/its inner sanctum. These monsters are referred to as "mini-bosses," a term coined with Metroid and now a common element of gaming parlance. At the time a friend of mine mentioned "mini-bosses" when he became the first on our proverbial block to own Metroid. The term put me in mind of tiny mafioso types, and I had this image in my head of little pinstriped gangers with Tommy guns. This in turn gave me a drastically different preconception of Metroid than the real deal. Just to be horrible and cruel, there's even a fake version of one boss which can be defeated to trick you into thinking you've made progress. Once the two self-styled bosses are gone, you're free to face down the Mother Brain. Assuming you can -- the game takes a sudden turn for the challenging once you enter Tourian for the final showdown.
Of course, the best part of the last area is the long-awaited appearance of the game's eponymous nemesis, the blobby Metroid. Every gamer's first encounter with a Metroid is one of those "I just peed my pants" sort of experiences - they're fast, free-floating creatures that speedily attach themselves to Samus and quickly drain her life away. They're also easily defeated once you know the trick, but the learning process is intense and panic-ridden and makes for a horrifyingly memorable event as your fully-powered Samus is reduced to a handful of exploding sprite bits. The subsequent battle with Mother Brain and the timed escape up a trembling shaft full of teeny-tiny platforms is equally classic -- a perfect cap for a great game, and still nail-bitingly intense fifteen years later.
It's a shame the port of Metroid itself leaves so much to be desired. While its inclusion as a free bonus on the Prime DVD is certainly nothing to sneeze at, the final result is a little underwhelming. (With the purchase of a GameCube, Metroid Prime, Metroid Fusion, a Game Boy Advance, and a GBA-to-GC link cable! Some restrictions may apply. Not available in all territories. May cause insomnia, sickness, spontaneous pregnancy, food poisoning or testicular shrinkage. Contact your doctor or pharmacist to learn if Metroid is right for you.) Either Nintendo didn't give Retro access to the original Metroid game files, or else the young developer was incapable of integrating a decent emulator into its game. Considering the vast, mind-blowing technical prowess on display in the main event, option two seems a bit improbable. One can only wonder why the original Metroid is available only with such glaring emulation flaws.
The likely answer: Nintendo continues its passive-aggressive campaign to convince gamers that the series is crap. A dozen perfectly-reproduced NES games are available as bonuses in Animal Crossing -- they're crisp, clear, and thanks to contemporary A/V standards look far better than they ever did back when Mega Man 2's Guts Tank was the most amazing thing ever to scroll across our TV screens. Metroid, on the other hand, doesn't begin to compare.
First, the game is presented in its US format with a password-based continue system rather than the Famicom Disc System three-save-slot version that the Japanese received. The game does retain your most recent progress as a save file, but if you want more than one playthrough running concurrently (if, say, more than one gamer is interested in playing it, or something crazy like that) you'd better break out your notepaper. That makes for a rad flashback to 1988, sure, but on the whole I'd be happier sticking to a pair of neon-blue Vans and watching a few episodes of Max Headroom, if it's all the same. Gaming has moved beyond well beyond the need for a library of obscure passwords scrawled on loose-leaf notebook paper, and this is a needless encumbrance when a better option was available. Yeah, OK, fine. We get the JUSTIN BAILEY passcode this way. But if tiny, pixellated, swimsuit-clad women are what you're after, why not just face up to your painful loneliness and buy Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball?
More offensively, the version of Metroid packed in with Metroid Prime is somewhat painful on the eyes. You'd think that one of the more stark and tasteful games of the NES era, with its empty black backgrounds and colorful but never garish level objects, would be fairly easy to look at, even for a modern gamer whose taste in game visuals has been irrevocably dulled by ten years of dun, tan, and grey Doom?/Tomb Raider? clones. Unfortunately, the game is incredibly blurry. Unlike the sharp, clean Animal Crossing NES games, Metroid appears to be running using Metroid Prime as the emulator shell (as is obvious when you access the save menu -- a high-res MP text overlay); the programmers didn't bother to switch from Prime's hi-res visuals to Metroid's native resolution but rather simply stretched the NES graphics to fit, interpolating as it went. On the NES, this wouldn't have mattered, since we all had crappy TVs and used an RF adapter anyway; in 2002/3, though, most people are gaming on bigger, clearers screens using S-Video or RGB or something equally foofy. It would be nice if the games we played were crisp as well.
A petty complaint, perhaps, but Nintendo led us through a blurry wilderness called the N64 for five years before finally leading us to the GameCube and its Canaan's Land of promised hi-res graphics. Travelling back into a harsh desert where the screen appears to have been slathered with Vaseline is a unwelcome exile. And after seeing forgettable nonsense like Clu-Clu Land and NES Soccer presented flawlessly, there's no excuse for Nintendo not to have treated such a genuine classic with a little more love. At the very least, the Metroid Prime emulation layer should have offered a little more flexibility, like customizable controls. The GameCube's stupidly undersized B button makes a really pathetic fire button for an intense game like this.
But oh well. These flaws don't ruin the game, they just detract a bit from the durability of this port. And there's always RockNES, which has customizable controls, a wide array of graphic blitters and support for multiple save states. Raise the Jolly Roger, mateys! Arrr.
Images courtesy of VGMuseum