There are three video game series that are currently MIA. You probably know them. F-Zero hasn’t had a new installment since 2004. Star Fox hasn’t had a new installment since 2006. And Metroid hasn’t has a new installment since 2010—2007 if we choose to discount Metroid: Other M. We’re here to talk about Metroid today.
Of those three series I mentioned, Metroid has the longest history, dating back to the original Metroid on the NES in 1986. If you’d like to keep track, the series will turn 30 on August 6, 2016. That game made some significant waves by revealing at the end that Samus Aran, the player character, is a woman. It was one of the first games to feature a female protagonist and definitely one of the first where the female protagonist’s gender is irrelevant to the story.
Hold that thought for a bit. I’ll also say that the material I’m talking about here is limited to the games alone—there are comics that supposedly expand on Samus’s backstory, but do so while conflicting with some pretty important plot points in the actual games. Furthermore, I’m choosing to discount Other M for a pair of reasons: I haven’t played it, and, from what I’ve read, it seems like an anomaly in the grander scale of Metroid games.
The two games I’m focusing on are Super Metroid, released in 1994 for the Super NES, and Metroid Prime, developed by Retro Studios and released in 2002 for the GameCube. Though it’s a bit hard to believe now, there were precisely zero Metroid games released between those two games. Samus Aran made two appearances in Super Smash Bros. titles during that gap.
I recently finished a replay of Metroid Prime via the Prime Trilogy that was released as a downloadable title for Wii U, but for simplicity’s sake I’m working with the GCN edition. I’m currently in the middle of my first-ever playthrough of Super Metroid using the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. It’s fascinating how similar these two titles are, especially considering Prime was handled by a different developer entirely.
What both games absolutely nail is the balance between the feeling of isolation and an enjoyable gaming experience. The glut of zombie and/or post-apocalyptic games that have been flooding the market for years often go all-in on the former at the expense of the latter. In all honesty, it’s a pretty simple task to create a sense of isolation for the player. It’s a significant part of any survival horror game and even a few action games. You can go for hours without even seeing an NPC to talk to in games like Fallout 3, though you do have the option of recruiting a traveling companion.
That’s something a lot of those games do to, in a way, subvert the isolation. Two examples that come to mind are Resident Evil 4 (Ashley) and The Last of Us (Ellie). It’s executed pretty well in the latter title, as the banter between protagonist Joel and Ellie served to lighten the mood in times where riding solo would have been nervewracking. It made the game fun and easy to play for long periods. But trekking through the Bethesda Fallout titles can get real boring real fast with no one to talk to, even if they accurately portray that feeling of loneliness.
And then you have these two Metroid games, in which you are Samus and only Samus for the entire duration of both. Super Metroid has a bit of a monologue from Samus at the start of the game to set the scene, but Metroid Prime doesn’t contain a single word of dialogue at all. None! You’re the only human you ever see. The Space Pirates you encounter care too much about killing you to bother with stopping to talk. There’s never a Shakespearean moment where Samus feels the need to recap whatever may have just happened for the benefit of the player. There’s never a need to speak–so she doesn’t.
You are isolated. But the games themselves are still exciting, not only because of the ability to explore, but what you’re exploring. This is particularly true in Prime, where the environments squeeze every last bit of processing power and graphical prowess out of that tiny little Cube. 2002 wasn’t exactly a time where HD was the norm, but exploring the crumbling Chozo Ruins and the icy Phendrana Drifts sure made it feel like it.
Prime had a lot of small graphical touches that made it clear Retro Studios was handling the franchise with respect. Once you emerge from the water, the leftover droplets take a few seconds to roll off your visor. Walking through steamy areas fogs your vision. Energetic explosions offer you brief glimpses of Samus’s reflection in her own visor. You can even see Samus’s own bones whenever you peer through her X-Ray Visor.
That’s not to say Super Metroid wasn’t equally impressive for 1994. The X-Ray Visor obtainable in that game functions differently—it’s used to determine whether walls are breakable (by displaying the weapon icon that can be used to break them) or transparent. But there’s so much attention to detail in that game where running into a dead end is just an excuse to use the scanner so you can see that small hole the Morph Ball can fit into.
Elements like that give these two games the sense of exploration that makes them so enticing to come back to. I was barely able to put Metroid Prime down despite having played through it long ago and I’m feeling the same way about Super Metroid right now. People don’t often find criticisms with Metroid games, but a common one is a perceived overreliance on “backtracking.” What is backtracking?
I know what backtracking is; rather, I know what people see it as. Badly-designed games suffer from it in many ways. As a means of arbitrarily lengthening gameplay, sequences are inserted into the game where you have to return to a previously reached point in order to advance the story. A few of the later Zelda games are victims of this, but on a smaller scale since at least (in most cases) they’re still entertaining.
It never feels tedious in the world of Metroid. I’m always excited to keep exploring, because each time I get something new I want to try it out. The game rewards you for it, too. Shortcuts, upgrades, expansions, all of these are often only found upon very close examination with something you may not have had earlier in the game. Metroid Prime adds a further dimension to it with the scanning system, a mechanic not present in any of the prior Metroid games.
Available from the start of the game, you can enable Samus’s Scan Visor, which will highlight things you may scan in your immediate radius with an orange or red (signifying something important) icon. Orange icons often provide minor context, such as computer screens. The red icons can unlock doors and signify that something is a breakable material (like the X-Ray Visor in Super Metroid), but their main function is to fill out Samus’s Logbook.
The Logbook is split into five parts:
- Many of the game mechanics fall into this category, such as the health/ammunition pickups Samus can collect as well as save stations, Samus’s gunship, and so on.
- Every enemy you face falls into this category, including bosses.
- Chozo Lore. Messages on the walls of the Chozo Ruins region fall into this category. The entires flesh out what happened on Tallon IV before Samus’s arrival and even contain a few prophetic references to her.
- Pirate Data. Computer terminals across Tallon IV fill this category. They detail the circumstances of the Pirates’ arrival/research and, later, their consternation with Samus Aran, including one hilarious log where they try to duplicate Morph Ball tech.
- The twelve Chozo Artifacts necessary to complete the game fall into this category–sort of. What actually fills the log are the hints for each one which can all be scanned at the same place.
The Logbook is, essentially, the source of the story for the game. With no dialogue, it’s up to the player to piece together the bits and parts in order to determine the whats, whens, and whys. Of course, it’s entirely optional. But it’s all there for the taking. You’re free to blaze through the game, shoot everything in sight, and not give one hoot about why you need to do it. You’re just as free to walk through the game, scan everything in sight, and figure out just what the hell happened to Tallon IV. Any option in between is just as possible—a level of freedom not achievable were you to just select Story On or Story Off at the start of the game.
Everything, really, is up to the player. That’s what keeps the isolation from being overwhelming. You are your own company, and you’re pretty good company. Exploring every nook and cranny, trying to see if there’s a new shortcut to hit, everything is your choice and your choice alone. Samus Aran is a capable bounty hunter with a wealth of tools at her disposal; it only makes sense that’s it’s fun as hell to play as her.
That brings me to that point I brought up at the very beginning about her gender being irrevelant. At no point in either Super Metroid or Metroid Prime is it ever capital-I Important that Samus Aran is a woman. The Space Pirates getting their asses unequivocally handed to them by Samus never once state in one of the Pirate Data entries how frustrating it is to get “beaten by a girl.” In fact, only one log at all refers to her gender explicitly, identifying her as a “female hominid […] heavily armed and extremely dangerous.”
It’s never unrealistic or surprising that Samus Aran is a woman. She is never obligated to prove herself to anyone. It’s the logical endgame of progressive video game writing, something I talked about in my review for Transistor. It’s not tokenism. It’s not exploitative. It’s just perfectly natural within the context of the game. Like I said, the Space Pirates don’t seethe about being beaten by a girl. They seethe about getting beaten, period. That’s realistic.
For nearly 30 years, Samus Aran has been the only female “mascot” for a flagship Nintendo series. For this reason, it’s particularly disappointing that there hasn’t been a new entry in her series since Other M. But as stated earlier, the wait between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime was eight years. So waiting can often be worth it.
The question is, though: who’s going to make the next Metroid? Retro Studios handled the Prime trilogy, moving to work on the Donkey Kong Country Returns franchise once their work with Prime wrapped up. Team Ninja (of, ahem, the Dead or Alive games) worked on Other M. It’s arguable that Retro is batting 1.000 with the critical and commercial successes of both the Prime trilogy as well as the Donkey Kong Country Returns games. As of now, they’re currently working on an undisclosed Wii U title which will likely be revealed in a month at E3. Here’s hoping we get to see the return of Samus Aran—it’s been too long already.