Given that we’re being met with the 30th anniversary of Nintendo’s most frequently shelved franchise this summer, I find that it’s often lost on people exactly what made these games in the Metroid franchise so great, as Samus only appears here and there in Super Smash Bros. titles as of late, and the games she stars in are largely forgotten, undersold, and underrepresented by the prolific gaming company.
Let’s start with that famous intergalactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran. Created by the man behind the GameBoy, Gunpei Yokoi, in August of 1986, Samus is a character whose narrative has been vaguely based on that of Ellen Ripley of Alien since the series’ incarnation. This stoic heroine will always be credited with being the first leading female character that was playable in a video game, unless you count the amorphous blob that is Mrs. Pac-Man (No, I didn’t forget her). While it can be argued that the first revelation of Samus’ true gender appears to be a “reward” for the player by presenting her in a bikini on a congratulations screen, I would say that it’s more important that respect and admiration for the character’s power and her heroics was all measured before players make a judgement on the identity of the person behind the armor. There is also something to be said that, through an isolationist, exploration based gameplay style, Samus’ overcomes her challenges only with her own intelligence and arsenal of weapons, granted both traits being ones she received as an orphan child with rigorous survival training by the Chozo, the most knowledgable dying race in the galaxy. But hey, at least she earned that “The Last Hope of the Galaxy” title.
If gender representation isn’t enough, the Metroid franchise has some of the most flawless environmental design and atmospheric building in gaming history. The vast, empty environments populated with individually unique monsters and music tracks that creeps into your mind in a delightful way, but in game can be mistaken for simple environmental sounds. Players find themselves exploring several planets throughout the franchise, and all express massive, vertical spaces to scale up and down to give the impression of delving into the deepest caves of a environment overgrown and lost to time. This is the case both in the vibrant 2D titles and the 3D perspective of the Prime series.
When people think of the aspects of backtracking to achieve powers and access points in a game environment, the phrase “Metroidvania” often follows in conversation. While Castlevania accomplishes the same gameplay qualities, Metroid has succeeded in all iterations by allowing players to seamlessly discover new secrets based on abilities they pick up left by the ancient Chozo. In contrast to the beginning of each adventure, the player and Samus traverse through familiar worlds expertly, and with a god-like set of destructive power while racing to find Mother Brain at the end of the game. Even a core playthrough of a Metroid game is rewarding enough, and still, it revolutionized a trend a new genre of gameplay with the possibilities of sequence breaking and speed running through classic games with simple exploits and unintentional glitches by rewarding players for their knowledge and skill being strong enough to beat the game under certain time constraints.
Considering how frequently the franchise gets abandoned by Nintendo, I don’t blame people for passing on Metroid Prime in retrospect. In 2002, it had been 15 years between games, and no appearance for Samus on the N64 outside of Super Smash Bros. In addition to that loss of faith, it’s understandable that nobody would trust Retro Studios, a no-name developer in Texas, who reportedly had endless problems with the game, to succeed. The result, however, turned out to be possibly the best release on the Nintendo GameCube, and ultimately the best use of the Nintendo Wii’s motion remote, by putting players in control of the traditional Metroid experience from a first-person perspective. These three titles weren’t simply first person shooters, though. They were puzzlers, platformers, survival horror and strategic combat games all in a single adventure with massive, varied environments just as memorable as their 16-bit counterpart in sight and sound, with additional world building lore with the introduction of Samus’ scan visor, allowing for passive storytelling in a game several years prior to the critically acclaimed Bioshock.
It’s unfortunate that Nintendo has been forced to shelf this franchise several times based on poorly timed release windows and sales that are dwarfed by the presence of Mario, Zelda and Pokemon in their pantheon of gaming icons, because Metroid has always produced some of the highest quality entries for each console it appeared on. Prior to the launch of the new side quest title Metroid Federation Force, I would have argued that Metroid fans were among the most patient, mainly due to the series’ high quality and its replay value for most titles, but fans feel they’ve now been betrayed by Nintendo with underrepresentation of Samus, and of the series they loved. I can’t particularly say this now, after the backlash the new game has received, but I also can’t blame them for the reaction since the only other game we’ve seen since 2010 starring Samus was the underwhelming Metroid Other M, which not only missed the point of the gameplay but even more so the point of Samus as a character, who was previously not simply a stoic heroine, but was a deliberate and calculated space warrior.
I’m not the kind of person to preach, but for those that are always asking for games with good gameplay, believe it or not, Metroid set a gold standard that I believe some don’t even fully understand. So it’s here after the eve of Metroid’s 30th anniversary that I say: do yourself a favor and play Super Metroid, play Metroid Prime, Metroid Fusion, even Metroid II. Any of them. They’re the most enjoyable experience you can ever have feeling alone while playing a video game. That sentence sounds way less depressing in my head than it does out loud.