Given it has a remake that gets rid of nearly all its issues and makes its adventure, which is in essence quite good, accessible and fun to modern gamers, revisiting the original Metroid is only justified by the curiosity to catch a glimpse of the franchise’s start in its pure state
Sometime in the future, a mysterious species is discovered on the surface of planet SR388, a world that once housed a mighty civilization. Given scientists suspect the newly found creature is somehow linked to that collapse, they decide to take the captured being to a research facility. Sadly, the ship is soon attacked by a gang of vicious Space Pirates, a criminal organization of high intelligence and feral behavior that acts all over the cosmos. During that event, the specimen is stolen. Aware of the danger that the life-form could represent if used as a bio-weapon, the Galactic Federation – a governmental body that tries to maintain peace around the universe – begins a thorough search for the destination of the villains.
After a while, they narrow it down to the hostile planet Zebes, where the Space Pirates have built their headquarters and are attempting to replicate the creature. As exterior attacks on the base fail time and time again, galactic leaders opt for a different strategy: send in a lone bounty hunter, with an artificially enhanced body, to destroy the fortress from within and achieve, with one arm-canon, what an entire army could not.
The dangerous life-form is, of course, a Metroid; and the hired warrior is none other than Samus Aran herself. And it is with that setup that, in 1986, Nintendo launched the first installment of what would go on to become one of the industry’s most influential, beloved, and critically acclaimed franchises. It goes without saying that, with efforts such as Super Metroid and Metroid Prime widely available, the original intergalactic NES adventure easily comes off as a quest that is bare-bones and somewhat rough around the edges.
Nevertheless, at the time of its release, the debut of the property was, for many reasons, a remarkable work that, despite not really inaugurating a genre, was both engaging and an achievement that showed games could do more than simply entertain, for with the right tone and the appropriate design choices, the still infant format could also have the power to suck players into the worlds it built.
That capacity to immerse may, in fact, be the main element that allows Metroid to still hold some value from a modern perspective. Because although the game has a much improved remake – the Game Boy Advance’s Metroid: Zero Mission – that boasts cosmetic changes as well as features that make the experience far more accessible, it is interesting to see, by going through the original outing, how a console as primitive and limited as the NES could produce a gripping atmosphere.
As the saga’s first chapter, it is obvious Metroid introduces a lot of elements that would go on to define the franchise: it carves a rich lore in stone; it gives shape to three fearsome villains of monstrous appearance and uncanny intellect; it sets the pillars for a gameplay style that is non-linear and highly focused on exploration; and it brings forth many of the signature abilities that would become an integral part of Samus’ character. The most resonant part of its legacy, though, is certainly its focus on hooking gamers into its claws.
The immersion, and the tension that comes along with it, emerge from various points. First and foremost, there is the feeling of loneliness that permeates the quest; after all, Samus has been sent alone to stop the Space Pirates, and in order to do so she has to, without any sort of external help, navigate through dark caves brimming with menacing foes and deal with the dangers that lurk around every corner.
The daunting and maze-like structure of Zebes only serves to accentuate that idea of isolation, as it drives home the point that the only way out of the labyrinth goes through a confrontation with the leaders of the evil army that are replicating Metroids for sinister purposes. Finally, the game is carried by a very well-constructed soundtrack that, in its alternation between classic tunes and moments of anguishing silence, musters an aura of dread that is similar to the one usually found in horror movies, transforming the whole of Metroid into a playable claustrophobic thriller that takes place in outer space.
It is with that spirit as its centerpiece that Metroid lets its quest unfold. When Samus steps onto Zebes for the first time, she will hold only a couple of skills: a humble jump and a weak gun whose projectiles do not reach targets that are very distant. To infiltrate the core of the Space Pirates’ fortress, however, she will need far more than that.
Consequently, as anyone familiar with the franchise should know, gamers will explore the planet’s caves while looking for upgrades to the character’s suit, such as the missile, which enables her to unlock red-colored doors; the morph ball, which allows the hunter to sneak into tight spaces; the bomb, which creates tunnels by blowing up weakened sections of the walls; as well as more straightforward enhancements, like more powerful beams, extra missiles, and expansions to the energy tanks of Samus’ armor. Most pieces of equipment that are uncovered work towards opening the way to new portions of the world, and it is entirely up to players to figure out – via a whole lot of exploring – where they can be used once acquired.
Metroid, therefore, is a journey where every single second that passes is dedicated to making Samus get closer to her goal and, given the adventure’s difficulty, guaranteeing the character is powered up enough so that she is ready for the strong enemies and inhospitable environments Zebes contains. That quest is made especially notable due to how structurally intricate the planet is.
Its five regions are big, featuring countless tall shafts and long corridors; furthermore, at any point, the amount of doors players can access is big enough to give one plenty of options in terms of where to go. Naturally, many of those exploits will lead to dead-ends or places that cannot be reached with the assets the character has available at the time, but that is part and parcel of a Metroid quest, and since there are eight energy tanks, dozens of missile expansions, and even some suit upgrades that are – to a degree – optional, these detours can yield valuable items, so there is a good deal of incentive for gamers to go all out in their exploration.
That freedom and lack of linearity are undeniably enchanting, and Metroid is fully aware that those are its greatest traits; so much, in fact, that the game boasts about them from the get go. As soon as players start up the quest, for example, they are met with the option to go either left or right, as developers immediately announce that the title’s contents break away from the predominant mold of the time.
Similarly, the entrance to the adventure’s final and brutally challenging portion lies not too far away from that initial location, revealing not only that the exploration of Zebes’ map does not follow any rules, but also that backtracking is an integral component of the game. In spite of that refreshing nature and although its gameplay, at heart, still remains strong, Metroid – like many games of its era – suffers quite a bit under the light of a contemporary analysis due to a myriad of reasons.
In fact, some issues that plague it were even noticeable upon its release when put in comparison to other efforts of the time, but have grown to be more blatant with the passing of the years. That qualification is valid for the game’s graphics, performance, bosses, and – to some extent – its controls too. The visuals are lackluster because of the total absence of backgrounds, as the scenarios of the caves of Zebes are merely painted black; in addition, some sprites, such as those of Kraid and Ridley, are effectively ugly.
Furthermore, the game stutters considerably when various enemies come into view, as the NES is unable to process so much on-screen movement efficiently, a shortcoming that becomes frustrating when one considers there are more than a handful of corridors that have a quantity of bad guys that is big enough to cause those slowdowns. And the three battles against the major figures in the Space Pirates’ ranks have such an odd balance between annoyance and simplicity that they verge on being broken.
When it comes to the controls, Metroid presents issues in two areas. Firstly, there is how Samus does not crouch, meaning that she cannot perform low shots. The lack of that functionality could have been easily forgiven if all enemies stood as high as her canon; however, quite contrarily, the game is actually filled with creatures that are shorter than that, turning the bringing down of even the weakest foes into a dumb and anger-inducing challenge, as players have to wait for those beings to climb onto walls or jump so they can be hit.
Secondly, the physics involved in her jumping motion are rather suitable for an action game, a label to which Metroid qualifies during most of its run; unfortunately, the quest also has a lot of segments that present very tight platforming challenges where falling leads to loss of progress, in the case of tall shafts, or drops into corrosive acid, in the case of corridors. Due to that, there are moments when players will be expected to execute maneuvers with levels of precision that Samus does not give them, forcing them to rely on luck or go through a trial and error process where receiving punishment will not feel like a result of their own mistakes.
Simultaneously, from a modern standpoint, some of the characteristics Metroid has regarding presentation and design can be the source of a lot of pain. On a small scale, whenever new equipment is obtained, the game does not explain what it does exactly, leaving it up to players to guess what item they have found and how to activate it. Likewise, despite the labyrinth that Zebes is, there is no in-game map, a likely result of technological limitations; because of that, it is very easy to get lost, as rooms found in the same region look a whole lot like each other and all gamers – at some point – will be left aimlessly wandering around an area looking for a specific place.
To make matters worse, a lot of points in the adventure expect players to bomb portions of the walls or floors in order to advance; sadly, there are often no indications whatsoever that such an action can be performed, as weak blocks do not visually differ from the ones that are unbreakable, forcing gamers to either guess, deduce with little evidence, or rely on a guide.
Finally, Metroid, like most of its NES peers, is a very hard title: its bosses are tough; its enemies and hazards brutally damage Samus if she does not have an upgraded suit; and there are no points dedicated to healing, as the character depends on energy orbs dropped by foes in order to recover her energy. Additionally, the game is positively harsh in the punishment it dishes out whenever Samus dies.
Not only is she returned to the starting room of the area where she was defeated, a standard procedure during those days and that leads to the need to retrace the hero’s steps all the way back to the point of her defeat, but she is also revived with a very small amount of health, nearly one-third of a single energy tank. As such, if they die, players have to spend a ridiculous amount of time battling enemies over and over again just so that they can climb back to a respectable health level, a time-consuming process which is not really fun.
Given it has a remake that gets rid of nearly all its frustrating issues and that makes its adventure, which is in essence quite good, accessible and fun to modern gamers, revisiting the original Metroid is only really justified by the curiosity to catch a glimpse of the franchise’s start in its pure state. Those who choose to do so, will be able to witness how an NES game was able to succeed in creating an astoundingly immersive atmosphere inside a technically limited scope, and they are bound to find the game’s mixture of action and non-linear exploration to be engaging to a certain point.
Nevertheless, they are also likely to come across a myriad of issues in presentation and design that severely harm the overall experience. Metroid is a strong game, and it is certainly one of the system’s most alluring efforts, whether one takes into consideration the franchise it spawned or not; however, time has not been too kind to it, as it has amplified the problems that existed on the day of its release and brought new shortcomings to light.