Feature Article

Metroid Established A Framework The Franchise Has Never Properly Explored

On the anniversary of the original Metroid's US release, we remember what made the original unique, rather than a mere awkward prototype for Super Metroid.

Metroid is a classic game that is often understood as a clumsy run at the ideas that would be perfected in Super Metroid. However, older tech and design sensibilities do not merely limit, they also facilitate. Metroid’s particular virtues can be obscured by the impression that some sequel or remake does what it was trying to do better. While there is a clear lineage between them, Super Metroid has distinctly different sensibilities than its predecessors. Super Metroid is not a refinement. Rather, it emphasizes certain elements of a potentially wide genre space. Revisiting Metroid with an open mind and clear eyes shows a world of possibility that Super confines.

There's no getting around the fact that Metroid can be difficult to revisit. It was treading new ground in a time that had foundationally different sensibilities than now. It can come across as unfair, even cruel, and it is without the more contemporary affordances of a map and plainly stated objectives. That bareness, though, is a strength, making its hostile alien world more difficult to comprehend. While new abilities increase survivability, the world never really becomes safe in the way it can in later entries. Infinitely spawning enemies, deliberately confusing layouts, and the lack of clear markers for items make the world strange and at least a little unknowable.

While Metroid is without plot except in the barest gestures, it does have an arc. As Samus descends deeper into the planet Zebes, the more metallic and cold the environment becomes--until she reaches its source, the horrific prison of flesh and metal that is Mother Brain. A metal heart beats at the center of a wild world, a steel poison creeps through plant-covered capillaries. It's legitimately poetic, but relies entirely on imagery to make its point. Even the notoriously silent Super Metroid is more explicit.

Metroid II is distinctly more linear, actively blocking off areas with impassable acid until players kill a specific number of the remaining metroids. It loses the interconnected ecology of Metroid, but gains a razor-sharp horror. Its areas are just as expansive as its predecessor, but can only be seen through the game boy's small vertical screen. Samus dominates the frame, but rather than making her powerful or larger than life, it makes the world around her seem that much bigger. So little can be seen outside of Samus that anything could be lurking around the corner. The movement is heavy, rather than the effortless-looking speed of future games. Samus's objective too--simply to murder every remaining metroid--is explicitly destructive. The game's most lasting element, the ending where Samus spares a baby metroid, gains a riveting power because of all the violence that came before.

Super Metroid is clearly a sequel, but it also locks in the possibility space of what these games would become. Likely the biggest addition in Super Metroid is a map. Of course, this affords many conveniences. Players can see exactly where they are in the game’s vast network of rooms, tunnels, and underground pathways. They can find unopened doors, look over explored areas for potential missed items. All this, though, makes the space more knowable, more able to be contained and understood. A map is not a thematically neutral change, but one that foundationally alters the player's relationship with the environment. Super Metroid also introduces less floaty, more aerobatic movement. Players can charge mighty leaps and jump from wall to wall, opening up the hostile world in quicker ways. It's a speedrunner's classic for a reason, but it also dulls the sharp edge of Metroid's natural splendor.

Super Metroid casts a far larger shadow than the two games which preceded it. Even within the franchise itself, Super is clearly the largest influence. Zero Mission remakes the original Metroid to have a more Super-like structure. Fusion does take some structural ideas from Metroid II, with its discrete areas that are unlocked by narrative beats rather than new items or abilities. However, the movement, abilities, and even tone are largely lifted from Super Metroid. Even Prime, which is a big change, broadly moved the Super formula to 3D. The influence feels more visible outside of Nintendo's hallowed halls. From Hollow Knight to Symphony of the Night, from Iconoclasts to Axiom Verge, Super Metroid looms large over nearly every video game of its kind.

This is not to say that these follow-ups have no innovations or particular character. I enjoy Hollow Knight's sense of crumbling yet lived-in space, populated with many people rather than just creatures. Castlevania's RPG systems have become cornerstones of the genre. There's also nothing wrong with straightforward revizitation. However, the fixation on Super can be limiting as much as it is inspiring. Looking a little further back, even at stone-cold Nintendo classics, can reveal a new world of what these games can be.

Fortunately, there are a few games I know of, and likely many more I don't know, which pull on Metroid's alternative futures. Overwhelm reverses Metroid's basic structure. With every boss its protagonist defeats, enemies gain abilities. Power-ups do not exist for this invader with a gun. One death resets everything, though the game has robust accessibility and difficulty options. It's a game that turns up and heightens Metroid II's open hostility. Rain World places the player as one part of an interconnected and dangerous ecosystem. Rather than a violent outsider, Rain World is about being one of the creatures that Samus would kill or pass by. As these small critters, you will hibernate, hide, and eat. On the surface it plays as subversion, but there’s enough of Metroid in the game’s sprawling and frightening world to echo with resonance.

Playing classic games can often reveal how they break the rules they helped set up, highlight the parts of it that were left behind rather than iterated upon. Metroid, and Metroid II, embody that curious contradiction. They are paradoxically highly influential and celebrated games that feel a little forgotten. While some games rediscovered Metroid’s roots, doing so required them to push back the omnipresent assumptions that Super set up and seek inspiration outside of the tenets of standard game design. That sounds simple, but it can be a big leap. It’s a shame that more games haven’t taken it.

Image of Metroid Famicom box art via Wikitroid.

Grace Benfell on Google+

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