One of the great joys I’ve found with keeping this blog is in delving into gaming history and picking up classic titles that I’ve hitherto never played. To some I’ve spoken to, the fact I’d not experienced these games is equal to some sort of gaming heresy, but not growing up with any sort of consoles until the PlayStation era will do that to you. And yet, it’s impossible to escape the influence some of these games have had and still have on the modern videogame landscape. Take the subject of today’s review, for example. Metroidvanias are more popular than ever and it’s easy to see why – as a genre it encourages exploration, it acts as a vehicle for environmental storytelling, and can be done in a very minimalistic way in order to save time and resources. And yet, for all the examples of the genre I’ve played, I’ve not yet dove into where it all began with the original 1986 title, Metroid.
Metroid (GBA [reviewed], NES)
Released Aug 1986 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
Genre: Metroidvania | HLTB: 7 hours
The initial Metroid experience is hostile and barren. It’s perhaps the most oppressive atmosphere in any NES game. Your introduction to Samus Aran sees her stand alone in the middle of the screen, gun-arm outstretched. Spike-backed enemies crawl around the walls next to you, constricting your immediate movement. The environment around you is an uncanny mix of alien rock, crowned by carven heads that glare with toothy grins speaking of an as-yet unknown civilization. Beneath your feet lie cold metal blocks, evidence of some sort of modern life. Behind Samus, the background is pitch black, offering an unchanging, stark sense of isolation. The only life that punctuates the darkness is bestial and harmful; it quickly feels like everything is out to get you, and Samus certainly can’t take many hits so you’ll rapidly learn to see every encounter as potentially fatal.
This is Metroid’s first, great triumph. Perhaps more than anything else, the atmosphere in the game is the most enduring element of the game. The sense of unease and loneliness that it crafts plays into everything about how you find yourself interacting with the world of Zebes. Often I think these kinds of games are more about adventure and excitement as you explore a slowly opening world, but Metroid takes a far more slow and thrilling route. In truth it owes more to media like Alien than it does to anything else; enemies are frequently capable of taking out huge chunks of your health and you spend a lot of time entirely alone in bleak, empty chambers. It’s invested in making you have to take things slowly, to consider and think about any combat situation you commit to or to ponder how to navigate wherever on Zebes you find yourself.
One feature that’s missing from Metroid which is a staple of most Metroidvanias is a map. Some might immediately balk at that, but like many NES games, Metroid was groundbreaking and tried to do something that the NES cartridges were just a little unequipped for. It opens up a discussion on whether you want to have an authentic experience when playing Metroid. Back when I reviewed The Legend of Zelda I talked about the quote-unquote “proper” way to play the game and how the modern re-releases of it have created an entirely different experience to the way it was originally played. Metroid has some of this but the lack of both an in-game or an in-box map means that anyone playing it now can still have in common with someone playing this back in 1986. The lack of a map can be especially jarring for a modern player as most games with a map will record it for you – indeed, even Metroid as a franchise has long since moved onto doing that – and the only solution to that available is to draw your own map as you go. It’s beautifully archaic, a relic of tabletop gaming, but doing so is an almost liberating feeling; sure, you could just look up a map and use that, and that’s perfectly valid, but for my money the act of creating your map as you play is one of the most personal and intense means of engaging with Metroid. Exploration is a cornerstone of the metroidvania genre, but having to involve yourself with it to this degree adds a level of immersion that subsequent games simply don’t have.
As with many NES games Metroid is very sparse on in-game story. If you don’t have the manual (and you somehow have no prior knowledge of one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises) then there’s little the game gives you to work with beyond you’re clearly some sort of armoured space adventurer, who has landed on a hostile planet and finds themselves locked in battle against both the native creatures and a small range of boss monsters. Why, or even who or what the titular Metroid is, remains entirely unanswered by the game. Of course, Metroid is a nearly 40 year old franchise at time of writing so I’m sure you probably know by know what’s really going on here; namely that our hero is the bounty hunter Samus Aran, and she finds herself on the planet Zebes in order to defeat a horde of space pirates and their captured stock of metroids, floating brain-sucking monsters that pose a huge danger to the galactic federation. Rather than serving its overarching narrative, Metroid is generally happier to let the players read into the environment and draw their own conclusions. Different parts of the planet have tilesets which imply the kind of place you find yourself in, from the harsh reds and rocks of the Norfair lava caverns to the deep blackness of the caverns around Brinstar. The most striking is the late-game area Tourian, which is a harsh metal installation that squats deep beneath the surface of the planet, a constructed interloper amidst the rugged Zebes landscape.
Of course you can’t just spend all your time mooching around, admiring the work put into crafting Metroid’s world. As the codifier of the genre, naturally you can only explore so far before you come across some kind of roadblock and you’ll have to turn around and trundle off in some other direction. Your goal is to find some kind of upgrade that lets you overcome whatever is impeding your progress; in Samus’ case, this includes new suits to let you survive in more hazardous environments, augments to your armour to let you jump ever greater heights, and the series staple Morph Ball, which allows Samus to sink into a ball-form and roll through crawlspaces. Secrets are hidden liberally around the world, so players are encouraged to poke around everywhere to try and uncover more missile packs or extra energy tanks. Players are also pushed to be inventive in how they use their upgrades; one upgrade to your gun is an ice blast which can freeze enemies in place, turning them into makeshift platforms, and clever timed laying of bombs can cause Samus’ Morph Ball form to bounce to otherwise unreachable spaces.
You’ll need to gather as many upgrades as you can, not just because of having to get past the platforming challenges put before you, but also because Metroid is hard as nails. This is classic Nintendo gaming at its best, where powerful enemies and mobs of projectiles are thrown at you with barely any abatement. Metroid is definitely one of those games to avoid if you’re averse to dying a few times, especially as you respawn in a weakened state, necessitating your spending time to defeat easy enemies and farm energy and missiles back. Hazards like spikes and lava are abundant, and dear lord but the boss fights are practically like bullet hell games with the sheer volume of lethal stuff lobbed at you. In the grand tradition of hard games though, there’s a lot of joy to be had in the simple gameplay loop of Metroid and dying is rarely too onerous. The endgame is as close as the game gets to being frustrating, with the final boss being a particularly irksome fight, but I think by that point the game has earned a tough finale.
Sometimes it can feel a bit tricky to evaluate classic games. Even without having nostalgia for it, there’s occasionally a sort of implied reverence that beloved older games are assumed to have; that goes double if the game in question has some huge sense of impact or influence around it, and you’d be hard-pressed to call Metroid anything other than massively influential. It’s not just the ur-game for the entire Metroidvania genre, but it’s also pretty much the codifier for all creepy alien imagery in the games that would follow it. It defies the problem of older games being difficult for modern gamers to get to grips with because the map-making you’re expected to do is so integral that it becomes immersive. The one main gripe I would have against it is the difficulty level, which does sometimes spill over into oppressive, but the sheer quality on display around it works to lessen the pain. Metroid remains a powerful, minimalist statement, an impressive triumph of design that demands your attention long past the point of minding the lack of flair or player-friendly features of a modern game.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.