Released: August 1987
US Cartridge ID: NES-MT-USA
Genre: Action Adventure
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 1 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (128k PRG)
It is not easy to overstate the influence of Nintendo’s first-party efforts over the evolutionary path of games in the decades following the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation of the company’s breakthrough hit Donkey Kong, their flagship Mario franchise (Super Mario Bros.), and the seminal action-adventure Zelda series (The Legend of Zelda), allowed the Japanese electronics firm to quickly establish itself as a juggernaut in a market that had badly waned in the years following the collapse of Atari.
While Nintendo’s golden child has often dominated the spotlight, Miyamoto was not the only force instrumental to Nintendo’s meteoric rise: equally prolific and influential was Gunpei Yokoi, the head of Nintendo’s R&D1 development team. As the one responsible for the mantra under Nintendo owes its continuing success in recent years (the “imaginative consideration of matured technology”), Yokoi headed development of the Game Boy, ROB, Kid Icarus, Duck Hunt, Balloon Fight, Dr. Mario, and one of Nintendo’s heaviest hitters, Metroid. Originally released for the disk-system attachment for the Japanese Famicom, cartridge-based ports of Metroid appeared on American store shelves with The Legend of Zelda in August 1987, following the previous month’s domestic release of Kid Icarus.
Steeped in numerous classic sci-fi tropes, Metroid tells the tale of intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran and her struggle to save the galaxy. After discovering an incredibly dangerous life form on another planet, Federation scientists transporting the organism are attacked by pirates. The specimen of this new species (dubbed “Metroid,” a combination of metro and android) is stolen, and the pirates bring it to their headquarters on Planet Zebes, intending to breed it for use as a super weapon. A full assault on the heavily guarded planet fails, leading the Federation to ask Samus to infiltrate the pirate stronghold, eradicate the Metroid species, and destroy the “Mother Brain” at the core of the planet.
Metroid features a massive open-ended world that requires extensive exploration. Unlike other games of the period using such a mechanic (The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior), Metroid is played from the traditional side-scrolling platform game perspective popular in action games of the time. Though not the first game to combine these two elements, Samus’ first adventure is far larger in scope than previous attempts, and is among the first to succeed in providing a cohesive and unified experience in doing so.
Planet Zebes’ underground fortress is comprised of a maze split into five distinct areas, including Brinstar (rough and rocky terrain), Norfair (covered in fire and lava), Tourian (the heart of the base), and the lairs of Kraid and Ridley, Zebes’ head guardians. Samus must explore each area thoroughly, searching for items that will boost her abilities.
Though strong, the heroine is outmatched by many of her foes at the onset of her adventure. The effects of the suit upgrades that Samus will discover are both cumulative and permanent, granting the mission a true sense of satisfactory progression by legitimately strengthening the character’s abilities. In addition to items that improve Samus’ maneuverability (the morph ball, the long jump), stamina can be increased by finding energy tanks, each of which will increase Samus’ maximum life by one-hundred points, as well as by donning the Varia Suit, effectively halving the amount of all damage she takes when hit.
Guns can be replaced with more effective ones as they are found: the Long Beam allows for bullets to travel the entire width of the screen, the Ice Beam will freeze enemies in place, and the Wave Beam can shoot through walls in arced patterns. Bombs that can be laid while in ball form can be found, and missiles (used to dole out maximum damage and to open heavily shielded doors) are upgraded through tanks, serving to increase the maximum number of missiles held. The screw attack will turn Samus’ entire body into a powerful weapon while jumping.
As each serves to provide access to new areas and to bolster Samus’ offensive capabilities, the learning curve remains stiff but manageable. Each of the new mechanics is introduced organically and with opportunity for adjustment, and must be thoroughly mastered in order to conquer some of the more beastly late-game challenges. Unless the player is blessed with an extraordinarily good memory, however, the keeping of accurate maps and well-maintained notes is essential for progression: as there is no in-game map whatsoever, the scope of the world combined with the relatively similar look of many rooms will serve as a major headache for those not already intimately familiar with the layout of Planet Zebes’ corridors.
Metroid‘s presentation, while plain, is extremely effective. The stark contrast drawn between the barren black backdrops and the brightly colored foreground objects convincingly portray the juxtaposition of ideas presented; the graphics clash in much the same way the vibrant and active alien culture surrounding Samus clashes with her own inward sense of isolation, vicariously experienced by the player with no direction nor help from any outside source. Through this and other similar ideas, Metroid emulates it primary inspiration, 1979’s horror film Alien, in several ways. Manipulating the player on a subconscious level, the game’s use of gender bias through the initially shocking revelation of Samus’ identity, and of the uneasy sexual tension introduced by the vaguely phallic styling of the metroids’ bodies and of Ridley’s head (similar to Alien‘s xenomorph, complete with a blatant nod to the movie’s director through the creature’s name) creates an tense and uncomfortable atmosphere through which the primitive graphics wholly support the story’s premise. The minimalistic dissonance that occupies the audioscape also deserves special mention, mirroring the lack of harmony, familiarity, and ease that the protagonist experiences.
Despite the praise that is endlessly heaped upon it, however, Metroid does have a few rough spots that irritate on a somewhat regular basis. In later areas several enemies tend to appear in small and confined spaces, causing a distracting amount of flicker, breakup, and slowdown in the graphics due to the stress being placed on the NES. Furthermore, the controls become difficult with this heavy slowdown present; while usually reliable, Samus’ movements are somewhat loose and take a fair amount of time to master, as jumping feels a little too “floaty,” and she doesn’t always tend to stop exactly where the player might expect out of a run or a jump. These difficulties can be overcome with practice, but they stick out as unnecessary shortcomings, especially when compared to the strength of the rest of the package.
Metroid is often, and deservedly, cited as the provider of the template for the modern
“Metroidvania” genre of games, bearing obvious similarities to Nintendo’s second follow-up, Super Metroid (Super NES, 1994), as well as Konami’s stellar Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation, 1997). It is certainly dated compared to later games that follow the formula established here (and as such lack most of the later refinements), but as a brilliant amalgamation of such disparate game play elements, Metroid sits among Nintendo’s best first-party offerings for the NES, and is a must-play for anyone who loves videogames.
Rereleased by Nintendo, 1992