Metroid (and Metroid Zero Mission)
This word is tossed around a lot when it comes to NES games. Indeed, a lot of NES games were groundbreaking titles unlike anything else people had seen on the Atari 2600, Colecovision, or any other system prior to 1985. Super Mario Brothers was revolutionary because it offered a game with a size unlike 99% of the previous generation's games. Zelda was revolutionary because it had a massive open world with secrets to explore in every nook in cranny, offering an adventure so vast that it had a battery installed in the game to save one's progress across multiple sessions without the need of a password. But what if we took both these games and mixed them together? We perhaps get the most influential game Nintendo has ever published on the NES. This is Metroid.
Metroid was unlike anything else when it came out in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System. It barely had any precedent at all on home consoles at that point. The game had no score at all. It didn't even have levels (even Zelda had those to an extent). No, Metroid was truly a world you could explore to your heart's content. It seemed like there were secrets hidden everywhere, like there was no end to the game at all. Nowadays, the map of Metroid seems tiny, but back then it seemed to be a massive, sprawling, never-ending adventure.
You start Metroid in the middle of a place called Brinstar. You control the little orange-and-red "space robot". He can jump shoot up, left, and right. He can't duck, he can't shoot down, he can't jump on enemies or shoot farther than a few feet from himself. In other words, you seem very limited and outmatched at this point in the game. Enemies are too close to the ground to be shot. You only start with thirty health and die in just a few hits. This is intentional.
You head right, as anyone in 1986 or 1987 coming off of Super Mario Brothers would. Enemies crawl around the ground and swoop down at the space robot (maybe he's named Metroid?). You find out that shooting the blue hatches opens them and allows you to go into the next room. You keep heading right until...
What's this? You're officially stuck. Remember, "Metroid" as we're calling him now can't crawl or duck, and the passage is too short to walk under. You TRY to duck under this passage, but pressing the down arrow doesn't seem to do anything at all. This means, at this point, there's absolutely no way to clear it. Out of desperation, you move left and realize that unlike Super Mario before it, Metroid allows you to go left. And if you keep going left, past the point in the game you started at, you'll find this:
The game pauses for a moment as a jingle plays. This is the Morph Ball, sometimes called the Morphing Ball or Maru-Mari. The game doesn't show you what this strange ball-shaped item does with a text box or anything. It doesn't even tell you what the name of it is. But after collecting it, you'll soon find out that the passage you entered this place with is too high up for Metroid to jump to. The passage below you is too small to walk under either. So you try to duck again by pressing down on the D-Pad again, and this time something happens. That strange sphere seems to allow you to turn into a ball once collected! Now you can roll under the passage and get out of the area you got the item in. You immediately remember the narrow passage from earlier and start running right again, and this time, you're able to clear it. Then, Metroid truly starts.
After this experience, you find out that Metroid is no Super Mario Brothers. This is a game you're going to have to pay more attention to. A game where you're going to have to spend countless hours looking for secrets that help you progress further in the game. You'll find obstacle after obstacle; blocks you can't break because you can't shoot down, red hatches impervious to your beam, areas too high to jump too, etc. Eventually, you'll find items like the Bombs, which are in Morph Ball mode and can be used to break blocks below you, Missiles that take out enemies quicker and let you open those red doors, and High-Jump Boots that let you jump higher than before. The Metroidvania genre is born.
Let's back up a bit. What are you supposed to do in this game? Basically, there's a group of space pirates on the planet Zebes who are using and breeding life-sucking, jellyfish-like creatures called Metroids (yeah, you're not actually named Metroid, like how Link isn't named Zelda) to try to take over the galaxy. The galactic police have sent the bounty hunter Samus Aran (that's Metroid's real name) to defeat the space pirates alone. The brain behind the operation (pun intended) is the "mechanical life-vein" Mother Brain, who is basically a cybernetic supercomputer with extensive databases and networks throughout the planet. Her two main henchmen are the "mini-bosses" Kraid and Ridley, who live in their own lairs below Brinstar and Norfair respectively. While exploring the early parts of the game, you'll most likely come across a room with two statues and an inescapable pool of lava should you fall in. This is the road to Tourian, Mother Brain and the Metroids' hideout and the final area of the game. You'll need to come back to this place once you kill Kraid and Ridley. Then, once you shoot their now-flashing statues, a bridge will be built leading to the final stretch of the game. But first, you'll need to find them, which is easier said than done.
Now is a good time to mention that the original Metroid on Famicom and NES didn't have a built in map. The game has five main areas to explore: Brinstar, a hub that connects most of the places together and is also the area you start out in, the firey Norfair, Kraid's and Ridley's lairs, and Tourian. That's quite a bit to keep in mind while playing, and in 1986 and 87, there was no Google to look for maps on. Your best bet was to draw out your own as you went along, or get Nintendo Power once that became a thing. That wouldn't be much of a problem if the game was easy to navigate on your own. Metroid requires you to take random shots in the dark until something works. For example, you may need to bomb a completely random floor tile in a random room that looks just like the hundreds of other floor tiles you've seen in the game to access a route to a boss's lair, or shoot out a random ceiling to access a crucial item. That's bad on its own, but Metroid also likes to blatantly copy/paste rooms over and over again. In Kraid's lair, for example, there are over a HALF-DOZEN rooms in the first shaft of the game that start out IDENTICALLY! This makes the game very frustrating to navigate around blindly, and coupling that with tougher enemies that hit harder in the later areas means that you'll end up dying a lot without making much progress.
And that leads to another thing: dying. Dying in Metroid is brutal. Throughout the game, you can find energy tanks that increase your max health by 100 HP. Despite that, however, every time you die Metroid will start you off at the beginning of the area you died in with only 30 HP, the same amount you started with when you first arrived on Zebes. That means that you'll have to spend dozens of minutes of your time shooting enemies and grinding the health refills they occasionally drop. Each health pickup restores 5 HP, and the drop rates are very, very low. You'll likely spend your time standing in one spot next to an enemy spawner holding down the B button to shoot until you collect enough health to continue on exploring. There are no other ways to recharge your energy or missiles. This happens every single time you die, and you don't stand a snowball's chance in Norfair surviving unless you grind for health. The energy tanks do refill your health to the max, but there are only a few of them in the game and once you run out of them, you'll have to grind. This is EASILY the worst part about this game. Metroid is brutal, with hard-hitting enemies, instant death pits, and cheap deaths aplenty (you can even get killed during room transitions). This sucks the fun right out of the game for many people. I've gotten to the point where I almost never die in a playthrough, but even if you load up your game via a password you STILL start with 30 health and have to grind. This isn't fun. It's just padding.
Throughout your journey, you'll find many more items to help you reach places you couldn't before. I've already mentioned the Missiles, Energy Tanks, High-Jump Boots, and Bombs, but there are much more than just that. Alongside Samus's peashooter he gets at the beginning of the game, he gets three more basic guns. The Long Beam is the only beam in the game that stacks on top of others in the game. This simply allows Samus's bullets to travel across the entire length of the screen instead of disappearing a few feet from his face. The other two beams, the Ice Beam and the Wave Beam, can't be used with each other. The ice beam will temporarily freeze enemies and allow Samus to use them as platforms, though they require twice as many shots to kill. The Wave Beam can travel through solid objects and travels in a sine wave pattern, finally allowing Samus to shoot the ground-based enemies shorter than him. Sadly though, the Wave Beam is somewhat pointless in the game as the toughest enemies in the game, the eponymous Metroids, can only be disposed of once frozen and shot with five missiles. Speaking of missiles, they are completely separate from the beam weapons. Missiles, unlike the beams, have limited ammo. You can increase your maximum amount of missiles you can carry by collecting more missile tanks scattered about the world, each one bumping the limit up by five. These missiles become quite important when it comes to the bosses and the final area of the game. You simply press the select button to toggle between the beams and missiles, and that's as advanced as inventory management gets in this game.
You also have items like that Varia Suit and Screw Attack. These are completely optional and good bonuses for those who were able to find them. The Screw Attack charges your running jump with electricity, allowing Samus to instantly kill almost anything just by jumping into it. The Varia Suit (which can be seen in the second picture) is a pink palette swap of Samus that simply doubles his defense. The suit will become much more utilized in later games, but here it simply acts as a defense boost.
Let's talk about those mini-bosses, Mother Brain's henchmen Kraid and Ridley. Technically, you're supposed to fight Kraid first, but the game is so open-ended and nonlinear that you can fight them in any order without the game stopping you. Kraid's lair is incredibly hard to navigate. The enemies do a ton of damage and the layout of the place is so confusing that it's nearly impossible to find Kraid without a map. It's so BS that you even find a fake version of the boss. Who does that? EVENTUALLY, you will find the real Kraid, though. He's easily the harder of the two. He'll shoot spikes out of his stomach and through his toenails at you without mercy. The best plan of attack here is to freeze the center spike in place, drop into Morph Ball mode, and spam bombs that'll hopefully blow up in his face. Hopefully you'll have enough energy to damage-boost your way through the fight and have Kraid die before you do. When he dies, you'll get 75 more missiles and begin the worst section in the game.
There is a tower in the chasm that leads to Kraid's boss room made completely of breakable blocks. This tower is no wider than one block and goes up for several screens. You have to shoot a hole in the block tower, shoot the blocks above you, and keep jumping until the blocks respawn below your feet. This requires precise timing and persistence, as if the blocks respawn ON TOP OF you, you'll take damage and be knocked back, falling off the impossibly high tower and having to start all over again. This is outright terrible game design. I have the timing down now that I've played the game for years, but initially this seemed completely impossible. This has absolutely no reason to be in the game other than to pad the length and frustrate players. You're better off committing suicide back at Kraid's room and respawning back at the beginning of his lair.
Navigating through Norfair will eventually lead you to Ridley's lair. His lair is a lot more straightforward and less labyrinthine than Kraid's, but the enemies are even more aggressive and dangerous to make up for it. Once you find Ridley, he's super easy. Simply freeze his fireballs midair (he won't shoot more until they unfreeze) and pump him full of missiles. Then he just dies and you get 75 more missiles. Yeah, if you couldn't tell, these first two bosses are terrible. This is one of the most broken boss fights in any game I've ever seen. I don't think I've died to this guy a single time before. But that's okay. The game more than makes up for it in just a few minutes.
Before we get to that though, I want to tell you all about what this game means to me.
One of my first games ever was Super Metroid, and it immediately became my favorite game. I was only four or five years old (I can't remember if it was 2010 or late 2009) when I started playing it with my dad (he did most of the playing anyways), and that experience really influenced my gaming tastes for the future. We did get stuck a few times, though, and used YouTube walkthroughs to help us. Sometimes the tab would be open and I would click around YouTube and watch the videos that they played. I couldn't really read at the time and just clicked the videos based on the thumbnails. Thankfully I didn't find any naughty things I shouldn't have been watching, thank God. What I did find was a different Metroid game. This game looked AWESOME to me back when I was little. It looked like Super Metroid, but the graphics weren't as good. I really wanted to play it. I assumed, based on the inferior graphics, that it was an older game, but I thought at the time it was the original Metroid. I now know it was actually Metroid 2 played on a Game Boy Player. So my dad, bless his soul, persuaded his brother to give me his old NES and went to the now-long-defunct Star Video and bought a used copy of Metroid for me. This was back in the day when you could buy expensive NES games like Metroid and Castlevania for like five dollars, which is what he paid for those two games. Only one problem though: the NES didn't work. At all. It was in the shop being repaired for what seemed like an eternity, and I spent much of my time laying on the sunroom floor, staring at that silver Metroid cartridge, waiting for the day to play it.
When the NES finally was fixed, I eagerly popped in the game once my dad set the system up, and... I got this. I was completely wrong; the Metroid I wanted was actually the SECOND game, not the first! I was only disappointed for a second though. I really liked this game. I was terrible at it but I played it a lot. Though I still really wanted to play Metroid II, but it would be five years before I would have the chance to.
My dad started up a caramel business in 2013 for reasons I don't want to get into here. He leased out a building that used to be a diner called The Villa to use the commercial kitchen in to make the caramel and sell it at farmers markets. Nothing was sold out of the building, so my sister and I had the entire front of it to ourselves. The front of The Villa was a piece of garbage, though the kitchen was perfectly fine. Every spring there would be a giant puddle of water in the middle of the place, and during the winter there would be no heating or anything. There were also no bathrooms. My parents didn't trust us kids home alone yet, so we had to stay there for hours at a time while my dad and his business partner Jon (same Jon as Atari Jon) made stuff. Our only entertainment was a couple of my sister's Barbies, the NES, and like seven games. One of which was Metroid. I remember playing that game quite a bit there and I have fond memories of repeatedly starting new games and telling myself I was going to beat it this time, only to get stuck in Kraid's lair and quit every single time. Still, it's a fond memory.
I eventually got good enough at this game and beat it, though I gave in and used a map. I think I was 11 when I did this on the 3DS Virtual Console. Nowadays I can beat the game effortlessly with a map and well enough without one. I have had a map of this game and its direct sequel hanging on my wall for years now. I do love this game, though I will admit it has not stood the test of time.
Anyways, let's see what Samus is doing.
As you leave Norfair and make your way back to the statue room, you realize how powerful Samus has become. Rooms that you once struggled with now are cakewalks. As you climb the same vertical shaft you did at the start of the game to get to Tourian, you feel really good about how far you've come. As soon as you shoot the statues and build the bridge, though, that feeling of power turns into one of pure dread and helplessness.
This is Tourian, the final area of the game.That green thing is a Metroid, this game's namesake. These are the toughest enemies in the game by far. They dart towards Samus with unparalleled speed and latch on to him, rapidly sucking his energy away. The only way to escape is to lay down bombs and hope the Metroid loses its grip. To kill one, Samus must freeze one with the Ice Beam and shoot it with missiles five times. Metroids are always generous enough to drop loads of missiles and energy when they die. And you'll need every bit of them you can get for the final battle.
This is the final battle. Before this, Samus must shoot down several "Zebetite" barriers that can only be destroyed by missiles, which is a pain in itself. The fight against Mother Brain, though, stands alongside the block tower as the most frustrating part of the game. You'll need all the energy you can get to stand a chance here. The floor is lava and the platforms are small. Cheerio-like Rinkas and acid turrets are shooting at you as you try to pump Mother Brain full of missiles. These nearly-unavoidable attacks will send Samus into the lava, which is very hard to get out of. And remember, if you die here, it's back to the start of Tourian with only thirty health. Eventually though, you'll blow up Mother Brain, who will set off a self-destruct sequence that'll blow Tourian to smithereens. The last room of the game involves Samus climbing to the top of a large shaft on tiny platforms while a timer ticks away. If you make it to the top of the elevator and have beat the game fast enough, you'll see one of the most shocking moments in video game history:
SAMUS IS A GIRL?!?!
This came as a shock to many back in the day. You almost never saw a woman in the leading role of a game before. In most games at the time, women were the damsels in distress meant to be saved by a male character, like Princess Peach or Zelda. They were almost never badass, awesome space bounty hunters. The game's manual even keeps this a secret by referring to Samus using only male pronouns, which is why I used them in this blog up to this point. This game was incredibly progressive at the time, not just for influence but for women's representation in games. And though the whole goal of "beating the game faster so more suit comes off" isn't GREAT by today's standards, I suppose you have got to walk before you can run.
So that's the end of Metroid. Has it aged well?
This game is frustrating in almost every way possible. I might like it, but I would never, NEVER recommend this game to someone playing the series for the first time. To the right kind of person, though, I'd recommend this game with a map. For most, though, Metroid is nothing more than a historical curiosity for those who just want to see where the series started.
In 2004, however, Metroid recieved a full, ground-up remake for the GBA: Metroid Zero Mission. I won't be going into too much detail with this game (I might cover it more in the future), but I will say that it does improve almost everything from the original. The map is incredibly faithful to the original game, but slightly different, though that has the unfortunate side effect of making the game incredibly short. There are now save rooms and places to recharge your health and ammo. The secrets are more well-hidden and the levels better designed. The bosses are actually bosses this time, and there's more of them. Items and abilities from Samus's later adventures are here too. It even has a special surprise twist at the end. This game is pretty good and completely replaces the original, even going as far as including the original game as an unlockable when you beat the game on any difficulty.
Zero Mission, unlike the original game, is a GREAT place to start with the 2D Metroid series. A little too great. You see, I actually don't care much for this game because I feel that it thinks I'm stupid. Metroid Zero Mission, to ME at least, seems like "Baby's First Metroid". Unless I'm trying to collect everything, I don't think this game is much better than "good". I seem to be the only person to think that, though, so please don't listen to me and play it.
And that wraps up Metroid and its remake. These games are good, don't get me wrong, but as far as the 2D Metroid series goes, every other game in the series beats them to a pulp. I still pull out Metroid every few months and have a blast with it, and Zero Mission has been growing on me more and more the past few months since I got a repro cart for my GBA. All the 2D Metroids are great games, but these two are slightly less great than the rest, at least to me. This shows us, though, that there is a lot more to look forward to in the series. And that's coming very soon.
Next week: Metroid's flaws are ironed out in my favorite Game Boy game, and Samus starts two new eras of 2D Metroid twenty-six years apart.
I hope you are enjoying Month of Metroid so far. This took me a long time to write! Hopefully you guys like this and consider trying out the Metroid series. It's not my favorite series ever without a reason.