Heresy though it might be to say in the face of Star Wars prequels and Matrix sequels, the best science fiction films are rarely those with the most money and the biggest names. Consider the original Terminator, Alien, and Star Wars installments: all films made with real imagination and vision, by directors who knew exactly what they wanted to emphasize to create the maximum effect, and exactly what to leave out as extraneous nonsense. By creating lean, ingenious films that concentrated on the basics (albeit basics often far more advanced than anyone else's work), Cameron, Scott and Lucas changed the expectations of generations, and set the groundwork for later, larger-budget sequels that further illustrated the simple brilliance there in the first place.

In space, no one can hear you scream

    Of course, the reader should have little difficulty extending the above argument to Gunpei Yokoi's seminal 1986 NES game, Metroid. Countless thousands have played through the original, countless more have played through the Game Boy sequel, and Super Metroid, the SNES installment, may well be the greatest 2D sidescroller ever made. Certainly the series as a whole has left a huge mark on gaming, both in spiritual-descendant games (Castlevania: SotN , etc.) and in a generation of gamers eagerly awaiting the return of Samus Aran. (The amount of hype generated by the scant few seconds of rendered footage from the upcoming Metroid Prime may well set a new high in marketing bang-for-buck).

One of the Mechanist's legs was malfunctioning, it went click-whirr, click-whirr.

    Still, it's illuminating to reexamine the very first game that started things off, and try to isolate the exact ingredients that made things really tick in the first place. And while it would be easy to throw out jargon such as "non-linear level design" and "vast, immersive environments", there are other, more direct adjectives that suggest themselves: Elegance. Simplicity. Style.


    But let's review the basics first: Metroid's protagonist is one Samus Aran, a bounty hunter assigned by the galactic police to track down and destroy the "metroids", a mysterious life form from planet SR388, which have been stolen by space pirates who intend to destroy galactic civilization. All this information is limited to the game's instruction manual; the nearest the game itself ever gets to spelling this out is in the attract mode.

    Who could resist such a charmingly phrased request? Samus immediately heads off to the planet Zebes (as it's referred to in the manual) armed with a largely ineffective, short-range gun, and nothing else. Gameplay is a mixture of exploration, platforming, and scrolling combat (vertical as well as horizontal), similar to countless other early NES action games. Samus fights hordes of enemy monsters, area bosses, gains new weapons and new abilities, and ultimately saves the day... which is a far too glib summary of what was, at the time, still a relatively new field.

It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.

    Perhaps the biggest and most noteworthy innovation of Metroid was the level design, or rather, the lack thereof. Rather than Super Mario-eque specific levels, or even Zelda's mix of overworld and discrete underworld dungeons, Metroid consists of a huge network of scrolling tunnels and passages that the player moves back and forth through in order to find the next target. "Back and forth" is a key phrase here, since unlike all NES sidescrollers before it, Metroid allowed players to walk back to where they'd already been, rather than hiding all previous terrain behind the impervious left edge of the screen.

    Metroid uses its backtracking ability to great effect, constantly forcing the player to come back to seemingly innocuous areas they'd passed before in order to use newly acquired weapons to unlock new regions. For example, the lair of Kraid, first of the two mini-bosses, is a scant few screens over from where the player starts. But players need the distant bomb weapon before they can open the path... and even so, it's not immediately clear what terrain is vulnerable to bomb attacks. Similar backtracking requirements abound in the game, to the extent that players may often defeat the second mini-boss, Ridley, before they even begin to locate Kraid.

"One is poison and the other is not," said the Giant. "Guess right and I'll take you into Fairyland."

    Indeed, Metroid may be the most non-linear sidescroller ever made for this reason - other non-linear sidescrollers, such as Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night, have a large number of barriers that can only be passed by finding the correct item or beating a required boss in a given sub-area. Once Samus acquires bombs, high-jump boots, and the ice beam, all of which can easily be acquired within the first half hour of play, virtually the entire game world has been unlocked. This unprecedented degree of freedom almost works as a statement of design philosophy: Metroid isn't about solving puzzles or defeating enemies as much as it's about exploration, and that exploration itself is the player's own reward.

    But what makes the caverns and corridors of Zebes worth exploring? First and foremost, sheer size: Metroid was simply mammoth for the time, and even today it doesn't take significantly longer to traverse Ocarina of Time's Hyrule than to cross Metroid's Zebes. Map layout is exceedingly intricate, with hidden passages and crevasses concealed behind nearly every rock, wall, and lava pit imaginable. True, most of these passages only lead to yet another missile container, but merely discovering these secret gives the player a surprising sense of satisfaction.

I always get the shakes before a drop.

    The art design of individual levels is similarly excellent: although every screen ultimately amounts to little more than a collection of platforms, walls, and pits, the feel of the levels manages to morph from empty, airless tunnel to cramped lava flow, from desolate technological ruin to teeming biome. Cheap programming hack or no, it's amazing what a competent designer can do with a simple palette-swapped tile, or the subtle change of Samus' visor color when missiles are armed. It's also worth noting that in many ways, Metroid's design stands out from most Japanese games of the time: enemies aren't cute or cuddly in the least, unlike Super Mario Bros., and yet still manage to be appropriately sci-fi without being overly generic. Samus' sprite is relatively large and detailed by NES standards, and superbly animated, from the mad dash of a run to the classic somersault while jumping. Sound is similarly spare but solid where it counts. Music is largely unobtrusive, even ambient in spots, and effects range from the clatter of Samus' feet on the ground to an insistent warning beep when Samus' health is low: all in all, a perfect example of developing the right strengths in the right places, and letting the rest go hang.

    Unlike latter action RPGs, Samus gets no experience from killing enemies, aside from the occasional energy or ammo refill. Still, combat manages to be a fairly exhilarating affair, thanks to tenacious enemies and some killer weapons. First and foremost, enemies in Metroid are tough: even the weakest enemies take multiple hits from Samus' beam weapon before they're destroyed. Movement patterns range from completely brain-dead to extremely quick target locks, but nearly all enemies manage to be troublesome if they player's not careful. Not only do the simple crawling enemies make platform jumping problematic, but they're impossible to kill on the ground until Samus acquires bombs, and even then they're generally more trouble than they're worth.

Degrandpre asked, "More exploding mice?" Zoe had never heard the expression.

    On the other hand, Samus' weapons were startlingly innovative for their time, and still manage to be more useful, on the whole, than most armaments in modern games. The classic Maru Mari allows Samus to become a small round ball, fitting into previously inaccessible cracks. Bombs can be used to kill low-profile enemies, but they're also useful for opening up secret tunnels or allowing Samus to jump when in ball form. The Ice Beam freezes opponents, which is useful for neutralizing powerful enemies, and for turning those enemies into makeshift platforms to access new areas of the game. Lastly, the great and powerful Screw Attack turns Samus largely invincible when jumping, and brings a great deal of satisfaction to anyone who ever wondered "why do I get hurt when enemies touch me, but not vice-versa?" Add to this the simple speed and agility with which Samus moves - high, fluid leaps that can change direction in mid-air, fast but accurate movement over ground, and solid collision detection - and you've got a game where just running around fighting things is extremely fulfilling.

    While no game is perfect, even Metroid's faults manage to be charming, although it's plainly apparent in retrospect that Metroid could have used more play testing before release. Graphical glitches (although not serious ones) are not uncommon, most usually related to incorrectly colored tiles showing up in the walls and floors. More annoying are certain gameplay quirks: as useful a weapon as the ice beam is, it's worth noting that equipping it actually makes Samus less powerful, since enemies must now be hit twice as often to be destroyed. And some errors are just insipid: Ridley, the second mini-boss, often exhibits a flaw in his attack pattern that allows Samus to stand right next to him and blast away without fear of ever being damaged.

She didn't know she had died.

    Still, it's a testament to the overall greatness of the game that Metroid veterans, upon recalling or replaying the above bugs, will laugh and smile about the absurdity of it all rather than griping. Metroid simply has too many high points for its stature to be diminished by time or subsequent games. Few who have plumbed the depths of Kraid's recursive lair, or discovered the hidden energy tank in the ceiling of Brinstar, or destroyed Mother Brain, only to fall down again and again while trying to escape Tourian, will ever forget it... or forget finding out that Samus Aran, battle-hardened cyborg bounty hunter, was a woman in an aerobics leotard under all that armor. One small blow against chauvinism, one great leap for gaming-kind.

Retrospective by Chris Jones, GIA.
Developer Nintendo
Publisher Nintendo
Genre Action
Medium Cartridge(? kb)
Platform NES
Release Date  1986
63 screenshots
ProducerGunpei Yokoi
Character DesignerShikamoto
MusicHip Tanaka
Full game credits