The original is still a blast. And I am not just talking about ice beams and hand rockets. Go ahead and mention the name Metroid to any self-professed video gamer pushing 40 and you will see their eyes start to glaze over and a wide smile spread across their face as their mind drifts back to memories of planet crawling, ice blasting and monster mauling through an alien labyrinth of secrets.
NES Metroid | Classic Defined and Redefined
It’s true that clichés such as classic, seminal, groundbreaking and ahead of its time are wildly overused in this current era of nouveau retro chic, where old movies, clothes and even garbage is recycled and rebranded as something new and interesting and everyone is rediscovering the lost awesomeness of their childhood.
There are now whole shows devoted to finding toys and games from the 1980s, an overall freaking great time to be a kid, with some of the most insane cartoons and related playthings ever created: G.I. Joe, Transformers, M.A.S.K., He-Man and, of course, Star Wars. Why did my brother ever give my old toys away to my neighbor? Who. Destroyed. Them. All. Insert nerd-rage-quit here.
That magical time was also when cartridge gaming took a Superman-sized leap from relatively blocky battles on the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and venerable Commodore 64, to this strange new gaming system from Japan that had pumped plumbers pounding mushrooms and monsters, dastardly ducks and dogs in the high grass and some robot moving disks or something like that.
But what makes a system, as we all know, is not just the upgrade potential for graphics and sprites, it’s the games.
NES Metroid | The 8-Bit Era
So when analyzing the quality and broader contributions to the genre of 1987’s Metroid, one of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s (NES) early titles – along with other fondly recalled games like Super Mario Brothers, Kid Icarus, Castlevania and others – the often associated terms delineating appreciation, nigh reverence and craftsmanship that stand the test of time are more than appropriate.
Why? Because the game stretched the limits of what an 8-bit piece of machinery can do. It ignited imagination through exploration in every direction, a blueprint that has captivated millions of people and spawned sequels across some half-dozen systems.
That doesn’t even include the toys, shirts and cosplay community which has spent just as many hours lovingly crafting massive, spherical shoulder armor and a viciously-verdant blaster arm as creeping through creature-infested worlds looking for the next powerup.
NES Metroid | Genre Melding Greatness
So how did Metroid not just become such a hit on the NES, but connect with the emotions of players?
To answer that question, you have to look at how many things the game got right. Stellar graphics, atmospheric music for the different subterranean regions with sinister-sounding names like Brinstar and Norfair, bonuses for creativity, a plethora of hidden areas – and then ultra double super secret areas and a pulse-pounding final battle, including the possibility of multiple endings depending on the time it took to finish the game.
Chiefly, Metroid achieved its entertainment aim by weaving in entry level elements of other types of games – role playing and adventure. Granting new abilities and rewards by exploring and, after getting them, enabling access to previously unchartered areas – make for an experience that is an alchemy of what game makers to this day strive to recreate. These are memorable wow moments along with a steady dose of fun. And Nintendo did this without nearly as many pixels and polygons at their disposal.
One thing that immediately set Metroid apart from its predecessors was its non-linear gameplay and focus on exploration to progress to new areas. And rather than getting temporary speed or power boosts, the game, in what amounts to an RPG-lite dynamic, rewards you with more health and new weapons and abilities the farther you go, which, consequently, will then enable you to get to new areas or defeat previously unbeatable foes.
NES Metroid | Story
The plot of the game is kind of comical. The rather generically-named Galactic Federation must send in a lone bounty hunter to the planet Zebes to recapture the dangerous and potentially deadly Metroid creatures, which the pilfering Space Pirates have stolen and plan to use to rule the universe.
The federation, unable to defeat the brazen buccaneers, sends in Samus Aran to breach the planetary defenses and the pulsating puppeteer behind the scenes: the crazed cranium, the cerebral cortex at the planet core’s vortex, the Mother Brain.
Metroids are so dangerous because they can latch on to anything and suck its life energy down to nothing, a plundering parasite that leaves nothing in its wake but dried husks and broken dreams. They are immune to standard laser blasts, wave blasts and direct hits with the most powerful missiles.
The voracious vampires’ one Achilles heel: their gelatinous, veiny forms become brittle when frozen, and can be shattered with five quick missile shots. A kind of hilarious plot hole: throughout the entire game, though, you never actually see a space pirate. But I digress.
NES Metroid | Game Play
At the outset, you start out clad in a red and yellow robotic, armored exoskeleton and green gun arm on the right side. Even on standard definition televisions and with the restriction of late 1980s technology, Samus looked wicked cool. The controls were intuitive and easily allowed you to run, jump and aim in nearly every direction.
Metroid has no tutorials on screen. When you start, if you moved to the left first, you are quickly rewarded with your first upgrade: the morph ball. It allows you to roll under objects, into pipes and areas only half your original size.
Your weapon, however, at this point is relatively weak compared with the arsenal you will collect later, and only shoots halfway across the screen. It takes several shots to defeat the larger enemies which crawl on the walls and drop from the sky, strange amalgams of spikes, wings, jaws and claws, with names that bespeak their array of kill moves, such as Zoomer, Skree and Ripper.
NES Metroid | Atmosphere
Even at early stages of the game, the environs feel foreign and foreboding, dangerous and alien. The walls and platforms in the beginning shine like cold, blue steel or glinting, golden-tinged rocks and are peppered with all manner of squirming, swooping and buzzing beasts. In some cases, they pop up from a pipe just as soon as you blast them to bits. Though that might seem maddening, they can help you restock your ammo with the energy and missiles they leave behind.
High climbs up and down and elevators act as bridges between the different worlds. They add a palpable sense of scale, a feeling like you are getting farther and farther away from light and safety, with the possibility you could even get lost or stuck.
Each world has a theme and associated sound track. Some areas feel ancient, full of white marble blocks and columns. Then there are others made of purple, green solidified bubbles, or red hieroglyphs.
The music varies across these realms. At some points it is plodding and jarring. In other areas it is melodic, yet menacing. And lastly, in the final area, it is terrifying as the sound seems to ooze from the walls, through pops and spurts of bubbling molten lava.
Even the power-ups you get are held by seated alien statues that seemed inspired by the creatures from Alien. They hold a red ball that, when blasted, gives you access to abilities that will enable you to take on the two mini-bosses, Ridley and Kraid, and their deaths would later open the path to the Mother Brain.
Depending on how many energy tanks and missiles you have accumulated and unearthed, those battles can be close. The winged, purple Ridley-a cross between a demon and a dragon-shoots mini scythes in alarming arcs while the green and bloated Kraid, a synthesis of an alligator and Jabba the Hutt, attempts to impale you with a trio of spikes bursting from his corpulent chest.
NES Metroid | Upgrades
As the game progresses, Samus picks up an array of new powers and armaments, including the long beam. It can shoot all the way across the screen. The ice beam can freeze creatures and Metroids. The wave beam can shoot through walls. The high jump boots are helpful. The varia module, which decreases damage by half and changes the armor white, and bombs that allow miniature explosive attacks in ball form. Then there is the one to rule them all, the screw attack.
That attack occurs when you jump and flip, which turns Samus into a whirling, nigh indestructible ball of buzzing energy tendrils and slices through any standard enemy, in many cases by the bunches.
But in order to even get these goodies and beat the baddies, you need to do more than just rush headlong through blue and red bubble doors with guns and missiles blazing. You need to roll into every nook and cranny, drop into every lava pit and shoot at every surface because the game is replete with hidden blocks that will disappear when bombed or blasted. In some cases, you have to freeze a guy in the air, jump on him, then bomb that spot to even find the concealed crevice to wriggle into.
There are also energy tanks hidden in areas that have no business being there and tease you in the beginning because you have no chance to get them. I will never forget the fun sitting with my friends Adam and Chacho and us taking turns bombing the heck out of every new area and going ballistic at each new place we found, exuberant and triumphant after getting stuck for hours and finally uncovering the proverbial secret panel in the least expected spot.
NES Metroid | Exploration
Now, remember, this was before the advent and extensive adoption of the Internet and smart phones, enabling in most cases easy answers in seconds for even the most vexing questions. In order to explore Metroid to its fullest, we had to consult the oracles of dorkdom at the time: the official Nintendo strategy guides, which gave detailed maps and tips to aid the adventuring noob and elite nintendja alike.
But then as we venture deeper into Metroid lore, there arose to the fore hushed whispers of super duper advanced techniques that could be learned to allow access to areas even before you have the proper items or, now even my spine tingles at the very mention of this, whole secret worlds that were not even on the map.
For example, if Samus shoots open a door and then places himself (er, we will get to this later), in the space, and lets the door close on him, he can do what’s called the wall-door technique. By quickly moving the d-pad up and down, Samus would shimmy his way up the wall until a space opened up. Doing that could get to areas too high to jump or to areas not even on any formal maps, with doors that led to darkness and oblivion. Samus could also, if properly timing his ball bomb blasts, bounce himself to heights unattainable by even the highest jump.
NES Metroid | Ending
While these were all amazing and led to hours of fun and decades of allegiance, Nintendo saved the biggest surprise for last. After delving into the area of the Metroids, freezing them, evading the sentient and clingy doughnut rings and ion cannons and berzerking against the regenerating conduits giving the Mother Brain life, you could finally fire a fusillade of fury at her glass cage and, after breaking through, unleash hell on the scarlet, furrowed countenance of the matriarch herself.
But rather than acheiving glory and greatness for your gruesome gamesmanship, you instead got a timer, counting down to the apparent ultimate destruction of the planet. You then had to ascend, in just a few harried and harrowing minutes, a seemingly endless state of minuscule platforms to get to the elevator and to eventual freedom. I couldn’t do it. I cracked. Folded under the pressure.
My sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat kept me fumbling and falling down. The brain was going to win. But then, with a steely glint in his eye, my friend Adam, with as much courage as he could muster, told me to give him the control. “I can do it,” he said, his voice a bulwark of quiet confidence. I handed him the control and watched epic history unfold. Like the hero in all the tales of old, he coolly completed the life or death mission, jumping with adroit precision up the exploding, blaring and quaking column, never missing a platform.
As he neared the top I think we both held our breath, silently praying he wouldn’t fall. Even the slightest break in his concentration would have meant disaster. But then he hopped past the final obstacle and onto the elevator. The music finally changed to more harmonic tones and we got to see what was the reward for restoring peace throughout the galaxy.
A larger, more detailed Samus appeared on the screen as the music was momentarily more serious and militaristic, and then our adventurous avatar took off his helmet and we found out that the he… was a her. The character we had been playing with turned out to be a buxom space babe. In some of the several endings available, our heaving heroin even appeared in a bathing suit. The surprise, well, took us totally by surprise and became the subject of much joshing and debate around the playground. We even found out about a code, called Justin Bailey, where we can play the game as the green-haired vixen.
NES Metroid | Rating
Excelsior, true believers. This game delivered in all the ways that counted. To create a game with so many twists and turns, grabbing a gamer’s sense of adventure throughout while crafting an ending both thrilling and satisfying-Metroid gave players a sense of completion. It still somehow burrows into our collective psyche to create a yearning to return to the familiar depths of Zebes and the warm feelings of our own childhood.
5 out of 5
by Brian Monroe