Contributed by Astro Duck
The Best Policy and the Ugly Truth
In anticipation of Tom Happ’s Axiom Verge, the Metroidvania-inspired indie Action Platformer game that won GameSpot’s Best of E3 2014, I decided to go back and tackle a classic NES game that I have never finished: Metroid. I remembered very little about the game, other than passing the controller back and forth with a buddy when I was around nine years old. I think it bears mentioning up front: I did not finish the game without the assistance of a cheat code. This may very well upset the purists out there, so you have been warned in advance. I seriously agonized and debated whether or not I should even write this review, given that I didn’t finish the game “naturally”. I have been gaming for over thirty years, and I can accept the limitations of my skill and patience; Metroid began to frustrate and anger me, although I do not fault the game for what it is. I chose not to put the time and effort into mapping out the game and my memory is great for some things but not for others. I also used video walkthroughs in order to finally complete the game, because I knew that I would not finish what I started and after committing myself to this review, I had to at least make good on my promise. I used the NARPAS SWORD cheat, which is a password that gives the player infinite missiles and invincibility. I used it somewhere after defeating KRAID but before getting to Ridley.
If any of that offends your personal set of gaming sensibilities, I can absolutely respect that. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the skill, practice time, and dedication of gamers who complete speedruns and no-death runs in games. I watched a few of Metroid, and they were amazing. I also respect the difficulty and demanding nature of retro games, and the accomplished players who manage to complete them without assistance. I am putting myself out there, by still reviewing this classic and beloved game, and I hope you will take that into consideration and enjoy the review.
Metroid, released in Japan in August of 1986, headed west to North America in August, 1987, and landed in Europe in the January of 1988. It was co-developed by Nintendo Research and Development, along with Intelligent Systems, and published by Nintendo. It was produced by Gunpei Yokoi, and directed by Satoru Okada and Yoshio Sakamoto. Hirokazu Tanaka composed the memorable music of Metroid. Set on the Planet Zebes (spelled “Zebeth” on the intro screen), your mission is simple: destroy the Metroid and Mother Brain, “the mechanical life vein”. Samus Aran, the hero, was one of the first female protagonists in gaming. However, this was not apparent unless you managed to complete the game in under five hours, when an alternative ending revealed Samus’ gender; her bio-suit began to disappear and revealed her true, female form. The player could then play as Samus in her new found attire.
The titular Metroid are alien creatures that somewhat resemble jellyfish and they have clear membranes that house their organs and tendrils. The Metroid attach to the player’s head and restrict movement and the ability to fire your arm cannon. The game’s developers originally stated that Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror film Alien ‘inspired them’ when making Metroid, as the Metroid themselves resemble the Alien’s juvenile facehugger form. The game’s score was also influenced by Alien, as Mr. Tanaka drew on the use of silence to punctuate the setting and mood of the game’s desolate areas.
Metroid is best described as an Action Platformer. It entered new gaming genre territory by taking the vertical platforming elements of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ and combining them with the (technically) horizontal screen exploration and item upgrading/acquisition of ‘The Legend of Zelda’. Several of the game’s named areas are vertical halls with platforms and doors scattered on either side. Enemies cling to and patrol the platforms, while weird fish-like creatures that cannot be killed float back and forth to impede the player’s vertical progress. Most of the doors lead to horizontally traversed rooms full of enemies and environmental hazards like lava. Some of these rooms contain upgrades; Energy Tanks extend Samus’s life reserve, the Missile upgrade allows Samus to switch from her normal cannon to, well, Missiles. They deal more damage than the cannon, as well as grant access special red doors when fired at them. Boots allow for higher jumps, and there is a “Screw Attack” upgrade that will hurt and kill enemies when Samus flips. The Ice Beam upgrade freezes enemies when they are shot once; this helps when vertical travel requires freezing the fish-like things to advance upward.
Yet the most intriguing and entertaining upgrade (at least for me) is the Morph Ball. Reportedly created because the developers couldn’t code a crawling animation to their satisfaction, the Morph Ball (or “Maru Mari”) rolls Samus into a little sphere that allows her to explore new areas by rolling through small gaps. In some ways it has become synonymous with the Metroid franchise and is usually the key to finding new areas as well as escaping the clutches of a hungry Metroid. This is accomplished by rolling into the Morph Ball and deploying another upgrade, the Morph Ball Bomb. (I would be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to call them Butt Bombs, which is what my nine year old self and my buddy called them, much to our own amusement. Don’t judge us.) Deploying Morph Bombs is also critical for finding the secret areas hidden throughout Metroid. They are another staple of the series, and some players have even gone on to turn finding and documenting these areas into a game of its own. Sections of floor and walls can be bombed to reveal passages that access shortcuts and even developer areas that were left in the game.
As the player explores and acquires upgrades, they gain access to new areas and elevators. This leads to two sub-boss fights that are necessary to open the path to Mother Brain. The first boss is named KRAID. I can only describe him as a cross between his royal spikeness King Koopa, a.k.a. Bowser, Mario’s perennial adversary, and Wart, the final boss from Super Mario Bros. 2. I managed to finally get to KRAID after hours and hours of playing and he proved to be very challenging. He turns very quickly and fires what appear to be boomerang projectiles in an arc. He is actually harder to defeat than Ridley, the game’s other sub-boss. Ridley looks like a purple dinosaur with tiny wings (or a strange mix between Barney and Charizard), and Samus can stand on one of the lower ledges in Ridley’s chamber and blast away with minimal risk. For the record, I used the NARPAS SWORD cheat sometime after KRAID, however the natural strategy still applies to Ridley. (NARPAS SWORD is a password that gives the player infinite missiles and invincibility).
Once the sub-bosses are defeated, players can make their way into a new area to confront Mother Brain. Metroids themselves are present throughout the trip to Mama Brain. Once the Ice Beam upgrade is acquired, all it takes is a quick shot to freeze the brainsuckers in their tracks. However, they reanimate after a short period of time. The final push to Mother Brain takes place in her chamber, and it is a tough gauntlet indeed. Small orange rings (that I call Fruit Loops) materialize out of thin air and float at Samus and damage her. Turrets fire what I believe are laser beams at different angles. Then there are the Zeebetites; strange Zebes aliens encased in some type of clear pod that must be shot repeatedly and destroyed in order to pass through the chamber. Once these obstacles are cleared, Mother Brain languishes in her glass case. As Samus breaks the case and begins to fire into it, the Fruit loops and lasers are still attacking. There is also a lava pit below the tiny ledge that we are afforded at the…feet? No, cortex, maybe? Cerebellum! Wait… Anyway, Mother Brain’s doorstep is a tiny one to do intergalactic extermination on. Once the deed is done and Mother Brain is brain-dead, a time bomb is set. The player then has 999 seconds (in Metroid time) to enter the next room and ascend a series of comically small ledges to escape to the surface before…kablooey!
Players are treated to ending text that tells us we have “fulfiled[sic]” our mission to “revive peace in space”. We are then warned that “it may be invaded by other Metroid”. The credits roll and then the game begins again, and Samus will spawn in the costume that you get based on the time of your game completion.
Metroid is keen on making use of color, and to me it only served to enhance the game’s unique settings and tone. Samus wears a yellow bio-suit, and an orange/red helmet. She generally stands out against the area she is in despite that area’s color scheme. I find that it grounds and identifies the player in contrast to the alien environments of Zebes. Samus really stands out in the initial areas of the game where things are blue and gold; as the player advances to new areas, things become more alien, organic (particularly in the purple, bubbly organic section called Norfair, many players’ favorite area), and mechanical (like in Tourian, Mother Brain’s area, which resembles the works of the late H.R. Giger). Metroid is an early Nintendo game with a very unique and distinct visual style that is still immediately recognizable to this day.
Enemies retain their form but change appearance and behavior. For example, at the start of Metroid, platforms in vertical rooms, and even floors and walls in horizontal rooms, feature simple critters that I think of as electrified porcupines. They’re common throughout the game, but their sprites change as new areas are discovered. Later they appear more electrical with less of a body, and still other variations have eyes that bulge as they radiate and move. Insect-like enemies that look like flies mixed with crabs flutter down from ceilings in the beginning of the game; later, they are more mechanical in appearance, and hop around on the floor. These mutations permeate the later areas and increase in number. For me, the Metroids were the stars visually; they are larger than other enemies, float around, react quickly and directly to the player’s direction, and glow with just the right amount of color highlights. Their presence at the end of the game intensified their meaning and threat level to me. Had they been abundant since the beginning, I don’t think that they would have had the impact on gameplay and immersion that they did.
(I played Metroid on a 42″ HDTV using an AV cable connection. The image was slightly stretched, although it didn’t really impact my visual enjoyment of the game.)
Metroid is a game with a soundtrack that still shines among the storied chip tune era of 8-bit games. It is wholly reminiscent of alien and Alien, and in the best possible ways. From the low hums and beeps of the intro screen, to the adventure and heroism of early game Brinstar, to the strange odd-tempo blips in certain upgrade rooms, and then the mechanical, focused thrumming in areas like Norfair and Tourian, Metroid’s score evokes mood. The theme that plays when upgrades are found sounds somehow sad, as if finding better gear isn’t going to make a lick of difference. Metroid’s music always made me feel uncomfortable and a bit desperate, and that went hand in hand with the nature of exploring alien places and losing my bearings quite often. Disorientation and despair are never far off in Metroid, and that point is a constant that is hammered home audibly throughout the game.
Metroid was ambitious for a NES game, or at least it felt that way to me. Using the Morph Ball still feels fluid and natural to me all these years later, and is honestly my favorite part of the game (aside from the odd, alien ambiance). Shooting can be tricky, and switching to missiles (using the Select button) even more so, and whilst this is in many ways a feature of classic games, I often felt that the select button was a bit too far away, just when I needed those missiles the most.
In contrast to games like Castlevania, where jumping is very static, Metroid focuses on Samus’s airborne capabilities. She “floats” at times, and when things are getting intense and platform real estate is at a premium, that flexibility and “precision” can help or hinder. I did a horrible job of ascending the final tiny ledges during the bomb countdown after defeating Mother Brain. (Oddly enough, the timer hit 000 while I was riding the final elevator up. The game counted it as a death and failure. I had to take the final path to Mother Brain again, but this time she was dead and there was no countdown timer but I still had to ascend the final room.)
Overall I felt that there was nuance to Samus that demanded practice, and an understanding of her physics. While I was able to manipulate those physics in certain situations, there were times when things went south quickly, and I felt lost and panicked. I couldn’t keep Samus in control and I blame most of that on myself, and the rest on ambitious control physics that require more time and dedication to master than I put into the game. Metroid offers controls that want the player to respond but in an 8-bit game that couldn’t quite manage 100% delivery.
Playing a game that is almost twenty-seven years old, let alone reviewing it, is not an easy task. Aside from the technical differences and improvements in games that we have become accustomed to, someone like me has over thirty years of gaming habits (and not all good ones) to contend with. Yet I believe that I can still fully appreciate and respect games from so long ago, and not just because of nostalgia. Had Metroid upset me because of bad gameplay, ugly graphics, poor controls, and terrible music, I would have stopped playing and called it a steaming pile of digital Metroid excrement. (Do Metroids poop?)
But despite my own personal inadequacies, and inability to master the game in the time I played it, I respected it. I can fully acknowledge its triumphs. Metroid is a challenging, and at times unforgiving and punishing game that sits among similar experiences from its era like Ninja Gaiden, Ikari Warriors, Battletoads – amongst others. However, despite its difficulty, and the fact that I was a sissy by using a cheat code, I wanted to keep coming back and at least see it through because I respected it. Metroid was ambitious, atmospheric, alien and ahead of its time on many fronts. It spawned a franchise that is still loved and heralded in the universe of video games, and the struggle of Samus Aran, Planet Zebes, Mother Brain and the Metroids is one that gamers should experience at least once in their intergalactic gaming travels.
I give Metroid for the NES 6 out of 8-bits.
(Fun Fact: World Record Speed Runs of Metroid have been done in under 16 minutes.)