Developed by: Nintendo R&D1
Published by: Nintendo
Feeling Like: Ripley, believe it or not
When we were nine years old, our resources were limited. Oh sure, we each had a loving family, a stable home and a great school we attended together. We had food on the table, clothes on our backs and an optimistic outlook on life. All the important things were taken care of.
But no, there wasn’t any internet. We didn’t have much cash on hand for strategy guides either – hell, we didn’t even know where to get a strategy guide at that point. Upon playing a video game together, if Dobbo and I were stuck, we were stuck. Our only hope was a walk to the corner store and hope that copious amounts of candy and chocolate would stimulate our brains enough to solve the latest puzzle that stumped us.
Metroid offered no such mercy.
Was it a gift from Dobbo’s extended family? Or a warning that, as we grew into adolescence, things would not always go our way? Completely different from the other NES offerings that we had at our disposal, Metroid was a terrifying labyrinth. There were no sidekicks to offer helpful advice, no stars to make you invincible, and no map to help you chart your progress. This was 1986, and we were in deep.
What else could we do, but poorly draw a map of our progress on a piece of paper? Ask anybody who played Metroid prior to online communities, they all drew hasty representations of each room, complete with a legend of enemies, items and locked doorways. With how massive the planet Zebes is, and only a weak blaster as your opening weapon, you didn’t have a choice. How well you progressed through the game wasn’t just a matter of timing and evading enemy attacks, but how well you searched and explored every inch, nook, cranny, landing and seemingly innocuous room.
There were no guarantees that you’d find all the health and missile upgrades. There aren’t any blinking signs pointing you in the right direction. Metroid was a genre in itself, (modernly dubbed Metroid-Vania) an open ended adventure that didn’t just scroll to the right, but left, up and down, down, down.
The cycle of seek-risk-reward was addicting, and it always involved getting lost. Enemies in new areas would routinely murder you quickly, enticing you to either backtrack to less challenging areas to see if your new abilities opened up a different path, or forced you to become at combat. The songs in Metroid are atmosphere setting and world building. Gone are the upbeat tunes of Mario, or the high adventure melodies from Zelda. These are threatening, lonely, and other worldly. There’s a morsel of hope in the Brinstar Theme, a cautious welcome in Kraid’s Hideout a bleak, isolating warning in the Title Theme.
You are alone here, and it always feels this way. The parallels to the movie “Alien” are undeniable. The emptiness of space, the harshness of a foreign planet and fear of the unknown only adds to Metroid‘s unforgettable allure. Because of the difficulty and lack of traditional level structure, each upgrade and safe room found truly feels like a relief. A respite from the dangerous outside.
The hook of Metroid would be improved in all future entries, and other franchises would take note of the allure present here. Gamers, apparently, loved getting lost in a 2D world, as long as the exploration was rewarded and meaningful. It’s easy to see why Metroid spawned a hardcore fan base, albeit a small one. I’ll never forget my time playing it with Dobbo, in awe of how hard and mysterious it was. I’ll also never forget the first time we learned that by entering “Justin Bailey” on the password screen, you can start the game with nearly every weapon, upgrade and power suit right from the beginning. Don’t judge me – we were 9 years old, remember?