No Love For Samus: A Retrospective For Metroid's 25th Anniversary

samusbadassWith countless video game celebrations kicking off around us this year, there is still one franchise sitting outside of the birthday limelight. Of all the possible candidates, Metroid's very own Samus Aran must feel like the middle child in Nintendo’s family.

Her big brother Mario got his own collection of classic games, as well as music and interviews, all compiled into a giant red box for fans to clamor over. Plus, let’s not forget the stellar release, Super Mario Galaxy 2. But hey, that was 2010. This is 2011, and with a new year, comes a new anniversary! Finally, Metroid will get more recognition. Let’s celebrate with a regional concert series that goes global, showcasing all the stellar music, in addition to releasing a new game, and some other goodies related to the series. What’s that? It’s Link and Zelda’s anniversary this year too? Alright, let’s just change those plans we made into Legend of Zelda related fanfare. Well, guess there’s nothing left to celebrate.

Oh, it’s also Metroid’s 25th anniversary this year? Listen, Samus, it’s not that Nintendo doesn’t love you, it’s just, well, you’re weird. Well, I guess we can talk a little bit about a game that revolutionized the action genre in gaming. But don’t expect any cake. This retrospective is my birthday present to Metroid.

Creating A Legacy

Metroid-Nintendo-NES-ScreenshotIn mid-to-late 1986, Nintendo released Metroid and Kid Icarus, two games that were developed around the same time, by the same people (Nintendo’s Research and Development 1 Team.) Metroid was released for the Famicom in Japan in August of 1986, and was revolutionary in many aspects. In game play, it changed players 2d perspective in an action game. Retracing your footsteps was huge at the time; something that only top down rpg-adventure games like Zelda could get away with. But Metroid combined Zelda’s exploration with Mario’s platforming to create a hybrid of gaming that has grown into a stable, exciting franchise that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets.

A large part of why the first Metroid is looked back on as not only being difficult, but just plain disliked, would be due to level design. It became very difficult to get a sense of location in Metroid, and took an incredible amount of focus to memorize every cave, corner and platform. The most common complaint people have about the game is never the game play, just the design. Though the design can be repetitious, it gives the game an experience that was rare in the early days of gaming: sympathy. Gamers could truly feel what one would imagine their avatar would feel: Being all alone in a giant scary world full of strange creatures, trying to choose where to go and hope that it’s the right way. Because, let’s face it: in life, you don’t always just go forwards. Things aren’t always what they seem, and sometimes getting lost is the best possible solution to improve your situation. If we want to really glorify this game, we can even say that Metroid is as close to a real life video game as it gets. Well, at least in theory. If I saw a giant flying purple lizard with massive teeth on the street, it’d definitely get me reversing my direction.

Achieving upgrades to armor, weapons and abilities enhances an already stellar platforming game. But players grew frustrated with two things: Isolation, and repetitiveness. Metroid had moments which literally had the player completely stuck. Two that really stand out involve the trick path that leads to an empty pit when trying to get a weapon upgrade or getting stuck between two walls that force you to reset the game. These are dirty tricks that the developers either didn’t think would cause a problem for the player, or just didn’t care. With a repetition of patterns, colors, and even layouts, Metroid is a complex lab rat maze that gave a true feeling of being all alone.

A Tale of Two Metroids

The story is fresh without overcomplicating things: Samus Aran, a bounty hunter, has been called by the Galactic Federation as a last chance effort to eradicate a creature known as Mother Brain. Mother Brain is in control of the Space Pirates, a group who wants to use aliens as weapons. These aliens are known as Metroids, jellyfish-looking, life-devouring creatures who scour the planet called Zebes. The story as a whole still holds strong to this day, and helped launch a series of sequels that were, for the most part, all given a high level of quality experiences.

While Metroid was fascinating in and of itself, it would be nothing without its science fiction inspiration and trailblazing for women’s rights. Ridley Scott’s Alien movie franchise was a clear influence, but Samus Aran, Metroid’s heroine in disguise, paved the way for future female characters in gaming to be taken seriously. Before Samus, female characters in gaming were sexual trophies. Mario rescues Peach (Ms. Toadstool if you’re nasty,) and Link rescues Zelda. Samus doesn’t need rescuing, she saves herself, and this was such a huge advancement for women in gaming. Even though over the years Samus has become increasingly sexualized, she is still seen as a role model for the female gamer, proof that women can not only hold their own on the battlefield, but look great while doing it.

 It looks great, plays strong, and even sounds fantastic; Metroid created an audio experience like non-other. The game’s soundtrack helped to create the ambiance through music that detached itself from game songs of the era. Hirokazu Tanaka, better known to fans as Hip Tanaka, said his mission was to create songs that strayed from making the player feel upbeat and happy and instead focused on creating an experience that was neither sound effect nor music. Almost all the songs in Metroid are defined by Tanaka as a “living organism,” something that would be encountered in the game itself. This defined the music for the series and was a huge step for video game music ambiance.

The Rising Sun, and Metroid's Dark Following.

Sadly, Metroid was never the hit that the Japanese clamored over, the way they do for Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. There’s a lot of reasons why the franchise didn’t explode the way it did in Europe and North America. It could be the lack of traditional foundation between player and character: playing as a strong female role may have something to do with the lack of identification. Japan, at the time, was going through a feminist movement, also known as an “uuman libu” (Women’s Liberation.) Mitsu Tanaka was one of the leaders of this devoted group of women trying to show the traditional Japanese man that they were not pleased and would not stand for a housewife role. A direct quote of hers from the NWSA Journal is something that easily could have been said by Samus: “What I want is not a man or a child. I want to have a stronger soul with which I can burn myself out either in heartlessness or tenderness. Yes, I want a stronger soul.” These words are empowering for any woman, and with Metroid, females got a chance to save the day, universe and themselves all in one fantastic story.

Straying from the female identity issue for a moment, the original Metroid game was dark, ambient, and showcased a world that was not sunshine and lollipops: something that gamers in Japan strayed away from. Most of the backgrounds in Metroid are completely black. Colors, other than Samus and the Metroids, stick to dark shades of purple, green, grey, blue, brown and red. There are no happy clouds or brightly lit overworlds. Zebes is a dingy dark cave of a world, and Japanese gamers at the time were not feeling the game’s atmosphere. These are both excellent explanations for the lack of popularity of Metroid in Japan.

Limitations of Hardware, New Type of Game Playing Born

Despite a larger western fanbase, the release of Metroid on the Nintendo Entertainment System stripped and added many things. The password system was used, whereas the Famicom version had save files, similar to Zelda for the NES. Upon dying, a code would be released for use to pick up at the beginning of the game, but would retain the same weapons and abilities. This resulted in many codes of origin that were secrets in the game, but were soon discovered, leading to heavy debate of their origins. JUSTIN BAILEY and NARPASWORD are still to this day, gamer inside jokes that started out as passwords. JUSTINBAILEY gives the player the chance to play as Samus without the suit, which led to confusion. JUSTINBAILEY has been speculated as meaning “just in a bailey,” another term for a swimsuit. Samus has green hair as Justin Bailey whereas in other incarnations she is dirty or regular blonde. NARPASWORD has different theories. Some say it’s gibberish, others say it stands for North American Release Password. The latter of the two seems more plausible. The codes both give different weapons and abilities, giving players a better shot at defeating the game in record time.

Speed was essential in Metroid games, even at times rewarding players with a glimpse of Samus with less clothes. This led to the gaming art known as speed running, where a player will try to get through the game as fast as possible to record a quicker time than another player. Metroid later abused this in later releases, giving fans a better glimpse into the mysterious identity of Samus with every release. Speed running has been as influential as the game’s labyrinth design, spawning two decades worth of clones, even influencing the Castlevania series, giving it a new coat of game play paint.

What Flavor Cake Would Samus Want?

At the time of this being written, Nintendo has not even acknowledged Metroid’s 25th anniversary once, and this is such a shame, because after reading everything here, it’s clear that we have a game that is not only an undeniable Nintendo classic, but a game that changed the way gaming is perceived. Metroid gave us a sexy but strong character that paved the way for women in gaming. The series gave us speed running, a gaming art still practiced to this day. It introduced a world that was everything that game worlds refused to acknowledge: darkness, isolation and changed perspectives. Metroid gave us alternate endings, and a yearning to see them all. Yet we have such little to give back to the efforts of the R&D1 Team that created Samus’ world. Make sure to spread the word: It’s Samus Aran’s birthday, let’s not make it a surprise party for her.

Last Updated ( 24 June 2011 )  

Michael "Miketendo" Levy

Raised on an NES, Saturday AM cartoons and sugary cereal, Michael Levy was your average 80's kid growing up. Despite having odd obsessions with bears, peanut butter, zombies and Tifa Lockhart, 'Miketendo' is also the creator of the YouTube review series: D.Y.H.P.T.G?! (Dude, You Haven't Played This Game?!)

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(Link to this comment) suzzopher 2011-06-27 15:34
I do wish Nintendo would put more effort into pushing Metroid. It's a great franchise. I know Other M was not exactly what we wanted, but it was still a good game.

I'd love a new 2.5D game in the series for 3DS or at least a 3D Classic version of Super Metroid to celebrate the series :(

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