In 1977, a toy developer from Nintendo named Gunpei Yokoi was traveling on the Shinkansen when he observed a bored businessman playing around with his LCD calculator. Seeing him press the buttons to pass the time gave Mr. Yokoi an idea: what if there was a watch that doubled as a miniature game and could easily fit in one’s pocket? He brought this idea forth to his superiors, and three years later, the fruit of their labor resulted in the first in their newest product line: Game & Watch. In 1980, the experience the average person had with video games was limited to the arcades, so they could barely fathom the idea of being able to carry one around from place to place. Naturally, they became a huge hit, selling millions of units while paving the way for other companies, such as Tiger Electronics, to try their hand in this blossoming market.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Yokoi, leading Nintendo’s oldest research and development team, helped develop the controller for what would become their debut gaming console: the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System). It wasn’t too long after the console’s launch that he was asked by the management to create video games for it. He and his team began to work on a pair of action titles, one of which would be dubbed “Metroid,” a portmanteau of “metro” and “android” – a dual reference to the game’s underground setting as well as the protagonist’s robotic features. Heavily inspired by the Alien franchise, Metroid would later go on to become a beloved classic with its non-linear design and emphasis on atmosphere, eventually selling over two million copies worldwide. Many still hold it as one of the best games in the NES library, but has it held up well with time?
Analyzing the Experience
In the year 2000 of the cosmic calendar, representatives from many planets banded together, establishing a congress called the Galactic Federation. This resulted in a successful, interplanetary exchange of cultures, and an age of peace and prosperity soon followed. It wasn’t to last, however, as many spaceships ended up being accosted by pirates. As a response, the Federation created a police force composed of some of the galaxy’s bravest warriors. They would receive large rewards for successfully capturing pirates, allowing them to make a living as bounty hunters.
It is now the year 20X5, and a new crisis has arisen. Pirates have attacked a deep-space research ship, seizing capsules containing lifeforms from Planet SR388. These creatures, Metroids, have the ability to latch onto any other organism, draining their life energy in seconds. Allowing the space pirates to breed Metroids as biological weapons would ensure civilization’s demise, as these parasites are hypothesized to have caused the extinction of all life on their home planet. The Federation’s police force launched an attack on their base of operations on Planet Zebes, but the resistance proved too great for them to handle. As their last-ditch effort, the police force decided to send a lone bounty hunter to infiltrate Zebes, and destroy the mechanical lifeform controlling the fortress and its defenses: Mother Brain. The person chosen for the job is Samus Aran, considered by many to be the greatest bounty hunter of them all. It is now up to Samus to defy the odds and restore peace to the galaxy.
This brings us to the gameplay. Throughout most of the eighties, a significant chunk of console games were two-dimensional, sidescrolling affairs with a heavy emphasis on precision platforming. Although this description can be used to sum up the gameplay present in Metroid, there are a few key differences which set it apart from its contemporaries. To begin with, instead of having to navigate a series of short levels, this game features a single large one divided into five areas. At almost any given point, it’s entirely possible to backtrack to every single location in the game. In an era when most platformers featured the simple goal of getting to the end of the stage, invariably accomplished with the equally intuitive method of going right, this was quite the mold breaker. Indeed, in titles such as Super Mario Bros., it wasn’t even possible to go back the way you came, as the earlier parts of the level would disappear into the void of time and space, never to be traversed again (at least until you started a new session).
This open-endedness extends to the level design as well. While most games from the eighties that featured a degree of exploration blocked progress though obstacles one had to use specific items on to circumvent, Metroid opts for a different approach with the various power-ups scattered throughout the underground. That is to say, the inability to reach certain areas of the game are more likely to stem from being unable to jump high enough or not having a certain weapon in your arsenal. In practice, this is a much more organic way to get players to search earlier portions of the game than having the plot demand they do so.
In addition to these enhancements, you can also find many energy and missile tanks throughout the game. You start the game with 99 units of health, and every time an energy tank is procured, an additional 100 is added until you have six total. Furthermore, Samus’s primary means of fighting enemies is provided by a power suit the bounty hunter always wears during missions. It allows the protagonist to shoot beams or missiles. The latter does more damage and can open doors the beam cannot, but you can only carry a limited amount at a time. Collecting a missile tank will increase the maximum capacity by five with 255 being the cap.
Unfortunately, as innovative as this game is, there are a few aspects that hold it back. For starters, there is no map. Although many adventure games from around the same time also lacked an in-game map, most of them at least had areas that looked different enough so players could get the lay of the land with enough practice. That is not the case with Metroid; almost every room is a linear corridor whether it’s a tall shaft or a long hallway. For the most part, their only distinguishing characteristics are the varying color palettes. Coupled with the fact that many vertical rooms have several exits, it can be difficult to keep in track of which rooms you have explored, and if you fall down a pit with no way to get back up, it’s very easy to get lost.
What also doesn’t help is that the controls are a bit unpolished. It is a good thing that this game features no bottomless pits because the physics engine is a little suspect. Every time the game required me to jump onto small platforms proved tricky. They’re hardly the worst controls out there, but at times, it feels as though you can’t get them to behave consistently.
Although I will give Metroid credit for being one of the first 2D platforming games where you can actually aim up, you are unable to shoot down or diagonally. This becomes a problem surprisingly often, for the protagonist of this game lacks the ability to crouch, meaning that enemies on the ground can initially only be hit by jumping from a lower level and shooting in midair. Instead, pushing down makes the character enter what is known in this series as morph ball mode, allowing the bounty hunter to enter narrow passageways. The reason behind this decision was that the pixel artists had a difficult time animating the character crawling, so working within the limitations they were imposed with, they came up with one of the franchise’s most famous mechanics. Although it’s certainly creative, you can only attack while in this form by laying bombs, hoping the explosion catches the monster. To be fair, they aren’t difficult to time once you know how, and it is somewhat mitigated by most of the stronger enemies being airborne or matching Samus in height, but it still makes things feel more cumbersome than they need to be.
Interestingly, unlike many other games where your main method of self-defense is shooting, your power beam has a limited range. There are three beam upgrades to be found in this game: the long, ice, and wave beams. The long beam does exactly what one would expect; allows projectiles fired by Samus to keep traveling until they hit a surface or an enemy. The ice beam freezes enemies with the first shot, and damages them with the second. The wave beam makes the shots travel up and down, passing through walls. Although it may sound as though the wave beam solves the issue of being unable to aim at enemies on the ground, there is no reason to get it at all. This is because enemies frozen with the ice beam can be used as temporary platforms, and some areas are inaccessible without it. It’s also practically mandatory for the final area where you face off against the titular Metroids and discover that they need to be frozen before you can damage them. You may be wondering why you wouldn’t just simply get both beam upgrades. The reason is that although the long upgrade applies to both the ice and wave beams, the latter two can’t be combined. It would have been nice if there was some way to switch between them, but as it stands, you can only use the most recent one you obtained.
A minor issue I found plaguing the experience concerns the room transitions. In most games, when you’re switching to a different part of the game, you are invulnerable, and enemies are unable to act. Such is not the case here; if there’s an enemy in the previous room heading in your direction when you’re in the doorway, you take damage. Someone reading this may ponder why one wouldn’t just defeat all the enemies before leaving, but the problem extends to the next room as well. If any enemies are about to fly into the doorway or a security device is shooting in its direction, you also take damage. As long as you’re in this state, enemy attacks are unavoidable, and you don’t want to take too much damage in this game.
The reason for this is that there is no quick, renewable way to completely refill your energy or missile supply; the only way to do so is to continuously defeat enemies until they drop units that restore them by a small amount. Granted, there are areas where enemies continuously respawn, and a savvy player could save a conveniently placed energy tank until they decided they decided to proceed with the endgame, but it doesn’t really help solve this glaring problem – especially because at the beginning of each session, you start with a mere 30 health. This is arguably the biggest flaw with Metroid, as it could mean a large portion of one’s playthrough is dedicated to a task that doesn’t add any real substance to the experience.
So although the experience of playing Metroid is largely tedious and dull, there is one aspect I admire: the implementation of multiple endings. Depending on how much time you take to complete the game, you are treated to a scene where you see Samus looking away in disappointment or standing triumphantly. Because games from the eighties weren’t exactly known for having plots deeper than “kill the bad guys,” this was an effective way to add replay value. Moreover, if you complete the game in no more than five hours, you learn that the fearless bounty hunter you were controlling for the entire game is a woman. Although it may be difficult to fathom these days, this was an absolute bombshell back in 1986. I myself even remember as late as 2002 when I caught a classmate off guard when I informed him that Samus is female. What I find intriguing about this twist is that it wasn’t planned when the project began. Instead, the idea for it came about around halfway through when a developer asked a fellow staff member, “Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?” The rest of the team liked the idea so much that the vote carried, thus creating one of the medium’s most iconic female leads.
Drawing a Conclusion
Metroid was not the first title to encourage players to explore and find items in order to progress, as King’s Quest and many other adventure games of its ilk predate it by a significant margin. What Metroid managed to do was successfully transplant the adventure-game ethos into an action-oriented genre in a way that was largely unprecedented. In turn, this blazed the trail for an entirely new subgenre which would become the basis for many true classics. For that, Metroid deserves the praise it gets, and for an NES game, it’s amazingly atmospheric. When it comes to the decision of actually playing it for oneself, however, I’m hesitant to recommend doing so. On one hand, I can see the appeal of wanting to experience what would eventually become one of the medium’s most fascinating series from its humble beginnings, but the reality is that I don’t think most people approaching this game after having experienced its sequels first would get very far without giving up in frustration or feeling as though they’re completing some sort of homework assignment.
At the end of the day, Metroid feels like a prototype to its sequels rather than a true predecessor to them. You could do a lot worse if you decide to give it a try, but by this point, it’s more of a vital piece of the medium’s history than an essential gaming experience. It’s hardly worth the trouble of tediously grinding health with each new session and running around a maze with few notable landmarks just to learn a fact about the protagonist that is now common knowledge.
Final Score: 4/10