March, I’ve decided, shall be the glorious, the wonderful, the perfect, the March of Metroid! Every review this month will be of a game in the excellent Metroid series, which is perhaps my favouritest game series of all time. There’s so much to love, so much to enjoy, and well, we might as well get it started with the game that started it all – Metroid.
Coming out all the way back in 1986 for the Famicom, Metroid was an interesting beast. It was sort of a marriage between the Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda series from Nintendo – combining the key traits of both to create a unique entity. It’s safe to say that this experiment was a success, thirty years down the line. Yeah – it’s the thirtieth anniversary of the original Metroid release! Granted, it was released a year later in America, but still, that’s no small accomplishment!
The story of Metroid concerns a bounty hunter by the name Samus Aran. They’re the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy, having taken on job and job, even ones most sane people would consider impossible, and completing them with aplomb. Their latest mission? Invade the Space Pirate base on planet Zebes, exterminate the mysterious threat of the “Metroids” and destroy the Mother Brain.
Nowadays, the big twist is pretty obvious – Samus Aran is female. One of the first and most prominent female protagonists in video games. I’ve heard the reveal was genuinely mind-blowing back then, especially since Nintendo actually took some effort to obfuscate it (such as printing her gender pronouns as male in the instruction booklet, and it’s not like the Internet was a thing back then). I discovered Samus through Super Smash Bros. on the 64, and her profile clearly stated that she was female, so I was like, “Oh. Okay, neat.”
Anyway, that simple story is the set-up for a confusing adventure into the depths of an alien world! In Metroid, Samus is initially only able to run, jump, and shoot. (Should’ve been called Jump’n’Shoot Woman!!) One thing of note is that in the area you start in, unlike in Super Mario Bros., you’re given free reign to run left and explore, which leads to the first, and most essential powerup in the game, the Maru Mori – the original name for the Morph Ball. This teaches the player two important lessons – you can explore freely, and you’re gonna be collecting a lot of gear to reach new areas with.
The assortment of items you collect is surprisingly varied, though of course, not to the extent of later games. You’ll find the Missiles, the Bombs, the Varia Suit, the Screw Attack, and more on your quest, all hidden in different locations for you to scout out and grab. While not every single one is essential, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the game without the damage-halving Varia Suit, or the wall-phasing Wave Beam.
Speaking of the Beams, there’s three kinds in this game – the Power Beam you start with, the Ice Beam that can freeze enemies for use as platforms, and the Wave Beam that, as mentioned, goes through walls. Unlike later games in the series, you can’t “choose” which beam you can use, nor do they combine – if you get the Wave Beam, and later want to switch back to the Ice Beam, well, you’ll have to go back to the Ice Beam room and grab it again.
Powerups aren’t found in dungeons like Zelda, or as prizes for defeating bosses as later Metroid games tend to do. You find them through exploration. All of the major ones are found in the open, typically behind a Red Door, and placed upon a pedestal. You can usually tell when you’re nearing one when the music changes and there’s a short, two-room-long corridor before them. Stuff like Energy Tanks and Missile Expansions, however, may need a bit more looking for – they can be hidden inside destructible blocks.
The game’s surprisingly stingy in a lot of ways – there’s plenty of Energy Tanks in the game, but you can only carry six. You need to use five Missiles to open Red Doors, when really, just one would have sufficed since they’re only there to bar passage to those who don’t have Missiles to begin with. And every time you die, when you restart, you restart with 30 Energy. It doesn’t matter that even at the beginning of the game, your maximum is 99 – you start with 30 every time you load the game.
The American version of the game used a password system in order to save your game, unlike the Famicom original which actually had a save system. Re-releases of Metroid found embedded in Metroid Prime, Metroid: Zero Mission, and even the NES Classic series for the Game Boy Advance, however, included save features, and now with the Virtual Console, you can simply make save-states. The password system had some interesting nuances, like the famous “Justin Bailey” code (which was an accident, apparently), and the infamous “ENGAGE RIDLEY” code (which hard crashes modern re-releases, so don’t do it).
The biggest problem with the game, however, is how easy it is to get lost. Far too many rooms look too similar to other rooms, or repeat themselves too many times before something different comes along. I know why it is this way from a technical perspective, but it’s still frustrating in actual play. This is the sort of game that you might want to have a map when you’re playing, but then, when you actually have a map, the game is too easy – especially if you have a map that shows you where every powerup is.
The game’s also kind of irritating – enemies are able to hit Samus when she’s passing through doors, no matter how unfair that may be, and when there’s a lot on screen the game can lag a bit. The controls take a lot of getting used to, especially Samus’ somersaults, which frankly, don’t get much less weird over the course of the series, but they’re particularly challenging to work around here. Sometimes, the game can come across as unfair – fake acid and lava pits that you’re apparently supposed to just “know” are fake can be found, unlike The Legend of Zelda which at least had old men that told you that the Magic Sword was underneath a gravestone.
Particularly damning, whenever you start over, you start from the entrance to an area. So when you’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to actually get to Kraid in his boss zone, and then wind up dying, well, better get ready to spend some time getting there again, and oh, you’ll need to grind for some energy along the way as well. Fortunately, the game’s final area, Tourian, is relatively brief, and the Metroids, while annoying, aren’t overly difficult. (The final battle against Mother Brain, however, resembles a bullet-hell more than it does a side-scrolling shoot-em-up.)
It’s fortunate that once Samus has a couple Energy Tanks under her belt, the game’s not too difficult outside of the boss encounters. It’s not easy, mind, but it’s definitely not as hard as, say, Zelda II. There’s a lot of places where you can farm for Energy and Missiles, and they’re often placed near where you respawn or just before a boss room. The game only gets easier with the Varia Suit (which, with an exploit, can be obtained very early) and the Screw Attack (which can also be obtained quite early if you’re willing to explore Norfair a bit).
Aesthetically, the game’s pretty good for an NES title. The colours and designs used help give the game an alien feel to it, even if areas within the same zone don’t differentiate enough from each other, and the music’s excellent, at one moment a triumphant call to exploration, the next a foreboding warning of dangers ahead. It is annoying hearing the sound-effect for having low health though (and you’ll be hearing it a lot).
I originally played this game in Metroid Prime, where you unlock it by beating Metroid Fusion and then connecting it to the game through the Link Cable. It wasn’t very easy to a kid like me back then. Even with a strategy guide, I was struggling, and that guide even included the early Varia Suit exploit! (Ah, Versus Books. It’s a shame they’re not around anymore.)
In this day and age, it’s much easier to play with “sort of” hacked in save features through save states, and there even exists a patch for the game that adds a map system, built-in save system, and lets you combine the Wave and Ice Beams instead of them being mutually exclusive. It’s super-easy to find maps of the game online, and using one, it’s easy to chart a course through the game that gets everything with minimal backtracking.
Has Metroid held up well? Not really. It’s difficult, frustrating, and obtuse. The Metroid + Saving patch is extremely nice (even if the map isn’t that great on its own) and eases the pain of the game somewhat.
But… I had a lot of fun playing it again. I imagine this is how Zelda fans feel about their own first game. It’s not that great, and hasn’t held up very well at all, but… you still have fun playing it regardless.
And I didn’t even grow up with this one. Maybe it’s stood up better than I thought.