I wrote this in 2015 and thought I could put it up on Gamasutra. But I didn’t push it because I’m not really a game-dev or anything. Just some guy with opinions. I was just perusing some of my files and found it again. I might as well put it up. It’s got a lot in common with my Metroidvania post, so please ignore that.
When Metroid was released in 1987, I was 7 years old. I did not have a Nintendo, but my best friend across the road did. Or, his dad had one, and he had bought Metroid hot off the shelf. On some -what felt like- magical nights, I was invited over for dinner, and after dinner we got the privilege of watching his dad struggle through the labyrinthine alien world of Metroid. When he had given up, my friend and I got the anxiety-inducing opportunity to pick up the controller and see how far we could progress. I will never forget this time of my life because it was such an impactful experience; to have played Metroid in it’s heyday.
Metroid has become an iconic game (and IP) as we all know, but the original Metroid has somehow been relegated to a bygone era, and is often (but not always) overlooked by game journalists and youtubers with a love for games. Many developers and video game fans give homage to Metroid, but have they really played the original? Sure they’ve played Super Metroid, (still one of the most amazing games ever made), and they might have even picked up the original posthumously, but there is something about playing the right game at the right time that gives one insight into how brilliant Metroid really was. In a way, yes, I’m arguing for a nostalgic hermeneutics of game analysis. In the digital world, time goes pretty darned fast and what happened in the 80’s can seem ancient to what’s going on now.
Metroid’s 8-bit graphics and sounds and its side-scrolling maze crawling style were so compelling that it practically became a genre in itself with a bit of help from the Belmont clan. But labels like ‘Metroidvania’ or ‘retro’ don’t live up to the complex experience, the unique feel, that I had as a child playing this game as a kid in the 80’s. We played this game without guides, without the Internet, without life experience and certainly without hindsight. The game was so strange and fantastic for its time that no simple retrospective label or genre can capture what it meant to so many of us that were in that special window of time when a wild Metroid suddenly appeared.
These days we have this genre called ‘horror’ games. Games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and the Dead Space series that are designed specifically to induce fear and excitement. Would people these days put Metroid in this genre? Probably not, but I certainly would because Metroid did not lack in the fear factor. Man, it scared the bejeezus out of me! The moment you stumble accidently into Kraid’s lair you are hit by the most bizarre and disorienting chip-tune song ever produced in 8-bits. Even hearing the song to this day gives me the heebie-jeebies. As you go deeper and deeper Kraid’s lair, having no idea where you are going, trying to scribble little maps onto non-college ruled notebook paper, the song continues to drone on repetitively in the background inducing a hypnotic feeling of intense claustrophobia whose only parallel can be found within the level’s design. We had no idea what we were doing or what we would find behind the next door. Nobody did at that time! (remember, no Internet)
What are the mechanics it introduced or at least popularized? Well for one, you could go back and forth between rooms. That was crazy for an action game of the time! It wasn’t linear. Super Mario Bros. could only go forward. Metroid was open-world, but unlike RPG’s of the time, it was an action game. It was twitchy open-world fun. It also popularized the gating element of not being able to pass to a part of the map to progress without having found a certain item. Contrary to most game historians (whoever they are), Symphony of the Night (1997) was not the originator of this style of design. Don’t get me wrong, I sunk more hours than I care to admit into SoTN, but Metroid was the brainchild behind the genre. It should really be called Metroid-esque. Or maybe giving an honest grudging glance over to the world of Hyrule, perhaps “Zeltroid” would be more appropriate? I remember clearly making games on paper with my friends in elementary school during recess with the same mechanics and qualities because we were that crazy about Metroid, and 1987 beats 1997 by a full decade, Alucard.
What about difficulty? Dark Souls, or its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, (both of which I absolutely love) have been crowned the kings of difficulty of gaming, despite their director Hidetaka Miyazaki saying numerous times that his games aren’t about difficulty. Newer generation gamers might not know it, but Metroid had difficulty in spades. In fact, Dark Souls’ mechanics can be described as basically a 3-D Multiplayer “Metroidvania” (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em). Like Dark Souls, Metroid didn’t hold the gamers hand. Metroids don’t have hands. There are no mini-maps nor are there are “saves” to reload. You just have a password or continue option after you die that will restart you with whatever upgrade items you found and 99 health and 5 missiles. Basically you are revived almost dead, and depleted of ammo. Souls can be retrieved, but can you remember where you died in Metroid when all the rooms look only slightly different from the ones next to them? Spending souls (and reaving them) is for sissies in the original Metroid world; it was you, your skills and your memory.
If you’ve gotten this far in this read, you might be thinking I’m like that laughable (old?) guy telling the youngsters about the good old days when (insert activity) was much harder than what kids these days have to deal with. True, I am getting a bit old, but you gotta remember that there are classics in every medium whether its literature or video games, and it’s Metroid, not Super Metroid, or any other later game, that laid the groundwork for the genre, kiddos. If you are older than me, or have the youngster gall and have a better example of a “Metroidvania” than Metroid, make sure your article is as snarky as mine, if not more so!, so I can feel justified in my dismissal of it. Jokes aside, I am sure there are other many other examples of great mechanics in games that Metroid drew from, but please, let’s make sure we aren’t forgetting about the Great Grandmother Brain and her relationship to her progeny when talking about the lineage of one of the greatest game genres ever. Taking the historian’s perspective, getting the context in which the game was born, is just as important to understanding the game, as playing it. Pop in some 80’s tunes. Turn off your computer. Put your phone away. Forget everything your know, or think you know. Jump into your Delorian, and give the original Metroid an honest try.