25 Years of NES Part 18: Metroid
Despite my love for Nintendo and the NES, I have never liked Metroid, which is undeniably one of their best games on the system. I have liked other games in the Metroid series, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are especially good, but I have never enjoyed the original Metroid. The game is simple; it combines the non-linear exploration of The Legend of Zelda with the side-scrolling gameplay of Super Mario Bros. Though it lacks some nearly essential advancements of the genre it originated, Metroid shines in its exploration. LLeft completely alone on the planet Zebeth (later called Zebes) the player is tasked with teasing out its secrets. While the game never found a place in my heart, the bulk of the gaming world seems to have loved it.
Alone on a hostile world, Metroid gives the player a simple goal: defeat Mother Brain. Taking generic plat former gameplay, like from Mario or Mega Man, and the exploration of Zelda, Metroid began one of my personal favorite types of game, the “Metroidvania.” (called so after the two biggest series to use the formula). As primitive as Zelda was, Metroid is even more so. More stark, more hostile. While Zelda retained its save function in the conversion from Famicom Disk System to NES, Metroid did not. Which meant it relied on that least lamented of bygone game conventions: password saves. Before the advent of on cartridge battery saves, games came in two varieties: those meant or able to be beaten in one sitting and those that gave the player a string of letters, numbers and symbols to tell the game where the player left off. In a game with little to track, the passwords were often short and easy to remember (I8LOD gets you to level 6 or 8 in 1943), but games like Metroid had to track what the player had found and how much the player had beat, which meant the game spit out long codes. God forbid you miswrote an l as a 1 or an O as a 0. It was a workable system, but it was far from ideal.
The passwords are more of a historical curiosity at this point, but there are other ways Metroid was hostile to the player. Zelda at least had an in game map, rudimentary as it was. Metroid has no such luxury. There are several vaguely helpful NPCs in The Legend of Zelda, but none in Metroid. In its hostility lies Metroid’s charm. More than any game, Metroid puts the player in the game world. Every discovery you make is a discovery you made. You don’t find the Princess in Mario, you run to the end of the level. There are some secrets to be found in Mario, like the warp pipes, but they are rare. Metroid’s entire world is a secret. And the sense of discovery in Metroid is the best in video gaming.
The player’s goal, other than to explore for the fun of it, is to kill Mother Brain. To do that the player must beat two mini-bosses, Ridley and Kraid. The experienced player can avoid much in doing that, making Metroid the prime target of speed-runners. It also has one of the best ending sequences, a death defying escape from an exploding planet. The main character Samus was something of a revelation. There were few female game characters that did not spend the whole game kidnapped, let alone as the protagonist of the game. The fact that she was referred to as “he” is either a deft deception or terrible translation, I know where I’d put my money. The game does not even let on about her gender unless you can beat the game fast enough. Or if you know the password to let you play in a very protective swimsuit.
In the end, Metroid suffers from the same problem as The Legend of Zelda: that a later release in the series trumped it pretty much every regard. Super Metroid is arguably the best game ever and is refined and improved over Metroid in every way. It was an ambitious and original game that strained against the limitations of the system, but it laid the foundation for games that were fully realized on the next generation of hardware.