Every time Nintendo releases a new system I await the time when they bring out their old guard for new games. So far, the Switch has delivered on the much-anticipated new Zelda, and announced the new Mario. However, the franchise I am the most anxious to hear from every time is Metroid; a series of superb quality, which has often gone underutilized by Nintendo.
Although Mario and Link see a new adventure with every console, Metroid’s heroine Samus Aran is generally an afterthought. The first game was on the NES and was massively popular, but when the Super Nintendo came out, the next Metroid game was relegated to the Gameboy. It wasn’t until a few years later that a full SNES Metroid sequel came out and even after that game’s exceptional quality and critical acclaim, the series was left out of the N64’s library entirely.
The series’ triumphant return on the Gamecube with the Metroid Prime series was a real draw for the console, and the series picked up a couple of neat Gameboy Advance and DS games, but although the Wii saw the last of the Prime games, it also had by far the worst entry in the series Metroid: Other M, a poorly written, poorly executed, mess of a game, which has for many years now left the series hanging on a sour note.
It seems that Nintendo really doesn’t seem to know what to do with the series, as evidenced by the recent release of Metroid Prime Federation Force, which tries something new, but is so far removed from the other games that it may as well be a different entity altogether.
The Metroid games do a fantastic job of conveying a feeling of deep isolation. The worlds you explore are inhabited by only one person, and the entire ecosystem is out to destroy the intruder, you. Gameplay is based around exploration, rewarding creativity and problem solving with power ups and upgrades that unlock more of the planets to explore.
This was the very first video game series I played and it holds a very special place in my life. The series had endured so well for so long and very few entries have aged poorly. I would love to just dive right into the games that mean the most to me, but I think it prudent to start from the beginning to get a full picture of how this series developed and evolved.
In the distant future, alien races have joined forces to form the galactic federation. However, as deep space exploration developed, outlawing factions arose to form the Space Pirates, a ruthless organization bent on control of the galaxy. The most recent victims of the Space Pirates’ conquest are an ancient and advanced civilization known as the Chozo, whose reach once extended across the galaxy. The Chozo citadel planet, Zebes, is now the Space Pirates’ center of operations.
While exploring a ruined Chozo facility on planet SR388, Federation Police discovered an organism held in captivity, which the Chozo called a Metroid, a life force draining parasite. Fearing the consequences of the Metroid being used as a weapon, the Federation takes it to be held in secure captivity on Earth, but while in transit, the Space Pirates raid the Federation ship and steal the Metroid, returning to their Zebes base.
Desperate for a quick response to stop the pirate’s plans, the Galactic Federation calls upon Samus Aran, a formidable warrior, a feared bounty hunter, and sworn enemy of the Space Pirates. Trained in the ways of the Chozo and clad in an advanced power suit gifted to her from that ancient race, her mission is to infiltrate the Pirate facility within planet Zebes, eliminate the Metroid parasite, and destroy the base.
Similar to The Legend of Zelda, the story is almost entirely secondary to the game, however the context it provides is nice and helps add to the experience of the game as a whole.
Like most games from this era, just about the entirety of the story comes from the manual. The only bits of story you get in game are a brief screen stating your objective, and a small blerb at the end. There are some pretty amusing relics in the manual though, such as the part in the story that says the galactic federation was formed in the far off year of 2000, or how all descriptions of Samus state that she is a man.
By now it is thoroughly well known that Samus Aran is in fact a woman. The parts of the manual referring to her as a man are a relic from development when the game was going to be called Space Hunter. I’ve heard this reveal described as a subversion of gender roles and expectations, and as a small whim on the part of the developers late in production that they thought would be neat. I think that the intent of the reveal of Samus’s gender is not really as important as the effect it may or may not have had. If you played this and thought, “Wow, my mind is blown!” that’s just as much a legit reaction as, “Hmm, neat.” In my youth, I remember not really being affected by it all that much. I recall being told that Samus was a girl and thinking that was pretty cool, and that it made her a more unique hero among video game protagonists. These days I think of Samus as a shining example of how being a badass knows no gender. Much like Ellen Ripley in Alien, being a woman doesn’t make Samus more or less of a cool hero. She’s just pure, uncut awesome through and through, and a standout character whose actions speak much louder than words.
Metroid is a sidescrolling platformer that sees you navigating the caverns of Zebes to find the Space pirate main base and destroy the central computer, Mother Brain. The focus of the gameplay is exploration. You are given many areas to explore from the start, but most are locked off until you find the right weapon or tool to continue.
Throughout the planet are the means to upgrade Samus’ weapons and energy. Missile packs and energy tanks are littered in every area, and are always a pleasant surprise to come across when searching for the way forward. That said, the maze like structure of the game has its setbacks. There is no real map to work off of and many areas look almost exactly the same. This makes is very easy to get lost. If you aren’t making a map you’ll get stuck, and following one online kind of spoils the fun of the exploration. But, Even though getting lost is a problem, the critical path is never truly inaccessible. If you come to a roadblock and try an alternate path you’ll be lead to the critical tools to continue.
Seeing as this is the first game in the series, the puzzles are not quite a complex as they get in later games. You’ll eventually learn which walls are likely to hide secrets, and the best strategies for the enemies. Patience and exploration are rewarded, and at the end of the game you should be decked out with tons of missiles and defense upgrades.
Each of the game’s environments are distinct and memorable, with their own enemy designs and assets. However, even though the levels are distinct from each other, there is a lot of repetition within the areas that can get you lost. The levels are not as clearly laid out or as well designed as in later games, which should go without saying, but this is area where the nostalgia goggles can blind most gamers. To a veteran Metroid player the areas will be easy enough to recall and navigate, albeit with some strain depending on how well you remember the layout, but for newcomers, the first game’s graphics can be a bit of a hindrance when trying to find your way.
There is one aspect of the game that is a major issue. In the original Japanese release, you could use the Famicom Disc System to backup three save files, but everywhere else the game uses a password system. This is another game with a long and complicated code with numbers, symbols, uppercase, and lowercase letters, which makes them hard to remember, hard to write down, and a pain to input. Fortunately, most re-releases and ports of the game will have the ram to hold onto a password even after turning off the game, like the GBA port and unlockable versions in Metroid Prime and Metroid Zero Mission. But, if you’re going with the NES original, you’ll have to contend with this old-fashioned password system.
Metroid’s presentation is simple, but effective. Again, the levels are distinct and the unique enemies in each area give them character. The graphics are not the best the system could provide, however it is necessary to remember how early in the system’s life this game came out. Its graphics are simplistic in the same way the original Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda are. They’re simple, but iconic. The levels are varied and do a good job of keeping you on our toes, even if some areas get a little repetitive and tedious to navigate.
Hirokazu Tanaka’s music is memorable and classic. It complements the levels very nicely and help to intensify the game’s atmosphere. The music in the main area (Brinstar theme) is up beat gets you energized for the game ahead, the theme’s for the boss levels are more intimidating and serious, the pirate base, Turion, has an ominous theme that heightens the tension before the final confrontation, and the ending theme is appropriately triumphant.
All in all the presentation is solid. There are some visual glitches that may pop up, however in my experience those have rarely been more series than some minor color mishaps. Though not exactly cutting edge on the system, the graphics and music come together nicely and make for a quintessential NES experience.
The original Nintendo Entertainment System has a pantheon of classic games and Metroid Draws from them, while still making an entirely original experience. It harkens to the first Zelda with it’s armor and weapons, and draws on the fast action and platforming from Super Mario Bros, but the combination of these traits is all Metroid. Although the game has it’s fair share of stressful quirks and outdated designs, it has held up remarkably well for what it is. This space epic left an impact that became a critically acclaimed and fan favorite series that has endured generations of consoles, something not many games can lay claim to, and for me, It will always be a favorite on my NES.