Metroid: how to make an atmospheric masterpiece

Among the countless Alien rip-offs in gaming, this is one of the few that got it right

Metroid cover

Not everything in life is politics and economics. I will be be adding the occasional cultural content to this blog including music, movies, and retro gaming, the latter which I have been recently spending some of my spare time on. Enjoy this first post and there will be more to come!

Ok, I must confess that I never owned Metroid. It was already two years old when I first got an NES around 1988 and looked decidedly antiquated by the standards of later NES titles. Although I may have rented it a couple of times, this was not a game that was easy to get into and it quickly became a bit too daunting to invest more time into it. But in the age of emulators and online strategy guides, I recently decided to take a plunge into the depths of Planet Zebes and lead the intrepid intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran (one of videogame’s first female heroes, though you wouldn’t find out until she took her mask off during the end credits) into the adventure that launched one of Nintendo’s most famous franchises.

The birth of the action/adventure game

First some history: Metroid was Nintendo’s first true action/adventure game, intended to bridge the gap between the side-scrolling jump-fest of Super Mario Bros. and the adventure and RPG elements of The Legend of Zelda, all three of which were released the same year. Particularly unique about Metroid was its non-linearity: there are no levels in the traditional sense, the game is one giant interconnected whole. The seemingly endless corridors and shafts of Zebes were often dead ends, and most areas required you not just to reach a certain item but to backtrack your way to where you started. For example, the entrance to the game’s final section (Tourian) is found not too far from the starting point but you’ll first need to find and beat the two mini-bosses, Kraid and Ripley, to go through. Frustratingly, the game did not include any in-game mapping feature which means the unaided explorer was forced to map the game the old-fashioned way: with pencil and paper. Even then, there is a chronic same-ness to the different areas of Zebes, with the layout of many corridors being identical to each other giving you no sense of whether you had already explored that area or not. Many areas are also only accessible by shooting or bombing “false” floors or ceilings. And yet if you are to map the whole game, hours will have to be spent exploring every corner of the game’s five main sections, only the last one which is mercifully linear (and where you first encounter the game’s eponymous enemy, the Metroids). Continue reading