Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Samus Aran…
RELEASE DATE: August 1986
If Super Mario Bros was the charming, happy-go-lucky platformer designed to sell millions of systems, then Metroid was the non-linear, claustrophobic, eerie exploration mission that shouldn’t have appealed to millions of people, but did anyway. Perhaps early adopters were hungry for any game that looked remotely appealing, or perhaps Samus’ first mission really did hit that sweet spot for a lot of gamers. Whatever the case, Nintendo and Metroid re-defined (one week before The Legend of Zelda in America!) how people viewed console games and we as gamers were all the better for it.
One year earlier, Mario had us exploring thirty-two unique stages, running from left to right with reckless abandon, and interacting with an unprecedented amount of bizarre enemies and environments. That was amazing enough from a debut game on a new console. Metroid went one further, and gave us a pulsating alien world to explore in whatever way we saw fit. The three sections, Brinstar, Norfair, and Tourian all housed a mix of challenging alien creatures to destroy and rewarding power-ups to obtain. Unlike Mario whose powers waxed and waned depending on how adept one was at controlling him, the more upgrades Samus finds, the more powerful she becomes – and stays (unless you dies and you lose all but 30 points of your energy; not a good idea). Upgrades not only increased Samus’ abilities, but they also could be used to access other previously unexplored areas. While frustrating at times to re-visit areas and slog through the same sets of creatures, it is almost always worthwhile. Extra missiles and energy tanks are pretty much necessary by the end when getting a Metroid on your head can mean instant death. While SMB was easy to pick up and play (and beat, once one knew where all the warp zones were), Metroid‘s adventure was large enough to require a password system. It was a convoluted and obnoxious password system that everyone hated, but a new feature nevertheless.
Perhaps one of the most shocking revelations of Metroid (certainly in 1986, if not in all of gaming history) was when Samus took off her helmet to reveal that gasp she’s a female! Nintendo tried to make this a secret for as long as they could, going so far as to label Samus as a ‘he’ in the manual. Of course, gamers gonna game, and the word eventually got out. The faster you beat the game, the more Samus would reveal of herself, all the way down to a two-piece bikini. Quite the incentive if you’re ten and pixelated bodies do it for you.
Metroid may hold up surprisingly well, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The controls are hit-and-miss. Most of the time, Samus moves like a dream, but other times, she’ll get stuck in lava, even when it’s possible for her to jump out; or she’ll get stuck under platforms after getting hit by an enemy; or you’ll swear she should have done a Screw Attack, etc. Also, for the first half of the game or at least before you get the ice beam, you might need a swear jar. Getting stuck between a cluster of flying enemies (especially the regenerating buggers) and watching your life drain is infuriating. It happens often enough for it to be an issue, but not so much that one can’t still enjoy the game. Lastly, some of the secrets are absolutely crazy hard to find. Who would think to search for the E-tank at the very top of the screen within the first three screens? An accidental discovery, to be sure, and most secrets can be found through common sense. But if you’re a collector and you don’t have a map or a guide, you might just blow a synapse or two searching for them.
Metroid may not have drawn in the same audience as Super Mario Bros, but it’s a fantastic game in its own right. The atmosphere is haunting, the music spare and brilliant, and the exploratory gameplay continues to provoke and challenge even the most robust of gamers. Multiple endings and a plethora of optional passwords that provide unique game variations ensure an almost limitless replay value. Metroid is a classic, through and through.