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).

A good part of the game involves going up and down dark, icy, vertical corridors

A big element of enjoyability of any game in the NES era were the controls. Yet another annoyance in this game is the inability of Samus to duck. This is particularly problematic since Zebes swarms with enemies that are too short to shoot from standing position which requires you to jump over them or roll into a ball and bomb them (and you need to find said bombs first). When you are assaulted on all sides by enemies jumping from the ceiling, enemies zig-zagging towards you, enemies flying from pipes in the ground, enemies crawling on the ground, all while avoiding the ubiquitous lava pools (particularly in Norfair, the second and largest section), you will realize why this game is legendary for its difficulty. Often just one hit will start a chain reaction of further hits which will drain your energy by chunks in a matter of seconds. Things get slightly better once you get more powerful weapons like the ice and wave beams, and especially once you get the screw attack which allows you to destroy enemies while jumping. Despite this, the constant running, rolling, and jumping is actually fun thanks to the responsive controls. Using the ice beam to freeze enemies to use as jumping platforms is also amusing, and a must-learn skill if you are to reach certain areas of the game. Some which are optional. Some not.

Ridley, clearly named in homage to Alien director Ridley Scott, is one of the mini-bosses

A flawed masterpiece

Like most early NES games, the enemies in Metroid are small and generic. They are also quite monotonous, with the same basic 4-5 enemy types essentially repeating themselves with different sprites as the game progresses. Even the game’s two mini-bosses have a cartoonish look to them and do not compare well with those in later NES games, though the final boss (Mother Brain) is decidedly more menacing as are the jellyfish-like Metroids. The background graphics are not much better, with much of the screen devoted to a single color: black. And yet, this strangely works. Zebes is an intimidating place precisely because of its austere, menacing darkness. It is no secret that the game’s designers were inspired by Alien but whereas countless other videogames of the era blatantly ripped off Alien’s likeness (it’s hard to imagine a game like Contra not getting a massive lawsuit today), Metroid is unique in that it reproduced no so much what Alien looked like but what it felt like. Cold. Isolated. Hostile. Inescapable. And here is where Metroid’s other great virtue comes into play: its gorgeously haunting music courtesy of Hirokau “Hip” Tanaka, particularly that heard in parts of Norfair and the mini-boss hideouts. This is some of the best NES music I’ve ever listened to, and without a doubt contributes to the feeling of desolation and despair that brings this simple 8-bit game to life.

The final stretch into the Mother Brain’s hideout is relentless

There’s a lot to fault Metroid for. It is sadistically confusing without a map. It feels like an endless slog against unbeatable odds until you have enough of the power-ups that give Samus a fighting chance against any swarm of enemies. Many of the bonuses (extra energy and missiles) which are necessary to beat the final stage are found in the most unintuitive of places. There is needless running around through places you’ve already explored. Had I played it longer as a child I would probably found it to be wholly overrated but as an adult, I think I am more prone to appreciate its extraordinary atmosphere. For a NES-era game to bring out these feelings is a testament to the brilliance of Nintendo’s design. Anyone can rip off Alien’s visual style and in the 1980s, everyone seemingly did. But it takes a masterpiece to bring out Alien’s ambience. Metroid, a very flawed masterpiece, is one of the few to have achieved it.

Fun Fact: Metroid famously featured four different endings which basically involved Samus taking her clothes off after the end credits, a rather un-feminist end to an otherwise feminist game. In the “bad” ending (more than 5 hours of play) she simply stands in her space uniform with no gender reveal at all. The “fair” ending (3-5 hours) has her remove her helmet and makes it apparent she is a woman. The “good” ending (1-3 hours) has her remove her uniform leaving her in a leotard. Finally, the “best” ending (less than 1 hours) has her wearing only her boots and a bikini. Given how famously prudish Nintendo of America was in the 1980s, this was quite risqué!

All screenshots taken from puNES emulator using the CRTGeom shader. Game played with the assistance of StrategyWiki and nesmaps.com.

Wouldn’t you strip too after hours in that clunky space suit?

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