My Experience So Far: I have a very odd relationship with Nintendo’s flagship series. All of them. It’s a little difficult to pin down the nature of this relationship, but generally stated, I have a tendency to play (and love) all of the oddball entries in Nintendo’s canon while ignoring the biggest, most important games in a series. Consequently, there are many stand-up classics that I have never played (and hopefully, that means I’ll get to them in the course of writing this blog).
I never owned an NES as a child. I got into gaming with a grey-brick Game Boy (and my relatives’ Atari 2600), and when I got a real honest-to-goodness home console, it was a Sega Genesis. This is probably where my awkward relationship with Nintendo originates.
So suffice to say, I had never really spent any quality time with Metroid. If I played games at the house of a friend who had an NES, it was usually a game like Super Mario Bros., in which we could take turns, or World Cup Soccer, in which we could pummel the hell out of each other while pretending to play a sport.
There’s something about Metroid which evokes solitude, and I never had that with an NES.
What makes it a classic? Samus Aran’s original outing on planet Zebes is probably best known for a couple of things: the mood it creates, with its countless subterranean corridors and eerie, machine-like ambient music; encouraging exploration as a primary play aesthetic by populating this world with approximately a hojillion secret passages; the surprising reveal at the end that you’ve been playing as a girl this whole time.
Metroid, just like The Legend of Zelda, was one of the pioneering forays into open-world gaming. You can go almost anywhere on the map right from the outset, with only a handful of areas being cordoned off until you pick up the super jump boots or the morph ball bomb. There are plenty of items that you don’t HAVE to pick up–in fact, one of my few complaints against the game is that the three best powerups–things which I would say are essential to beating Mother Brain–are locked behind secret passages. If you don’t know where to bomb/shoot, you’ll never stumble across the Varia Suit, the Wave Beam, or the iconic Screw Attack.
You can debate amongst yourselves whether this bit of level design was a Dedication to a Pure Core Aesthetic of Play or an Excuse to Sell Strategy Guides, but speaking personally as a man who has lots of games he wants to play in his adult life, I could not be bothered with it. I pulled up GameFAQs without a second thought and figured out where I needed to go to get the items I needed to fill Mother Brain full of missiles.
As a child, I would have gotten a book of graph paper and a pencil, and I would have made a map of Zebes myself, and I would have gotten immense pleasure out of the exercise.
Here’s the thing about Metroid, though–that exploration and discovery may have been the core play aesthetic when it was originally designed, but even if you subvert that by goin’ to the ol’ GameFAQs as I did, it’s still an amazing game. The platforming controls are super-tight, the difficulty curve is pitch-perfect (Castlevania caution in the early levels, Mega Man recklessness once you’ve powered up).
Metroid even feels modern, thanks to the way it handles its checkpoints: Every power-up you grab is an item you’ve earned permanently. If you die, you’re sent back to the beginning of the area you were currently in (of which there are only five), given a meager, meager amount of health, and instructed to claw your way back up to full energy tanks. But–and this is the key–you keep all your stuff. Did you just barely make it to the Ice Beam before dying? That’s cool! As long as you touched it, it’s yours forever.
Metroid is compelling because it lays one rule on the table very clearly from the outset: there is a kind of progress that the game will never take from you.
That one simple concession to the player is something that makes Metroid very easy to play as a gamer used to auto-saves and frequent, generous checkpoints. There are no “continues,” no “lives,” not really–there’s no way to get a permanent game over.
Should you go back and play Metroid if you missed it? Yes. Emphatically yes. The gameplay holds up as well as that of Zelda, Mega Man, or Castlevania, the aesthetics are still remarkably potent (alright, so the 8-bit music can’t creep you out like Dead Space can–turn off all the lights in your living room and play with the sound way up and try and feel like you’re not nine years old again), and it’s a glorious challenge worthy of any retro gamer. Pull up GameFAQs and snag a map like I did, it doesn’t matter. It won’t affect your experience much.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE– This, I think, is the best thing about the original Metroid: if you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to kick it old-school, if you wish the 8-bit music were just a trifle more intricate, if you can’t possibly play a Metroid game without a map in the pause menu, if you are FINICKY, geez… There is a game for you!
That’s right, in 2004, when Metroid Fever was sweeping the nation (or… not), Nintendo released Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA. The game is essentially a retread of the original Metroid with fancy new graphics, updated mechanics (i.e., a map), and a gratuitous sequence in which you play as Zero Suit Samus. I played Zero Mission back when it first came out, and that’s part of the reason I didn’t get around to playing the original until now.
It might be a little harder to get a hold of a GBA game now than it was five years ago, and many of you probably don’t have a GBA anymore (or even a DS), but I can definitely say that Zero Mission is worth your time.
At this point, everyone with aspirations of being a Renaissance Gamer probably owns at least ONE Nintendo system. The original Metroid is available on most of them. I think that most of you will probably find it rewarding and enriching to seek this one out and give it a go.