The Link-Up Spell: Saving the galaxy with the Metroid series
She was the first popular video game heroine ever and saved the galaxy over and over. Join us while we celebrate the Samus Aran legacy in this Metroid special!
Metroid is a franchise synonym of space adventures and lugubrious ambience. The series, set in alien landscapes and otherworldly planets, narrates the missions of the chief heroine armed with a special combat suit, Samus Aran, a character who also broke records and expectations with a revolutionary gameplay and for being one of the first heroines of this media.
For this and way more, we honor today one of the Nintendo black sheep with a well deserved chronology. After the warm welcome of the Mega Man article, I had to visit my Library to recollect all the data and memories of the Metroid legacy, to share with you all the best of the best of the Samus adventures. Press Start, my comrades!
The Beginning: The hunt of the first Metroid
The Family Computer (Famicom) console was released in Japan on 1983, guaranteeing an immediate success for Nintendo. Long files on the stores showed a high demand of the product and the rebirth of the video game industry was at the corner. But, the home digital entertainment language was starting to morph from the Arcade conversions to more profound experiences. In this case, the multiple development companies started to think “out of the box” to grant new ways to play, breaking the few templates available. Later, the Famicom arrived in the West under the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) banner, reviving the video game fever in our audiences.
One special dev, Gunpei Yokoi, became a stellar minds on the Nintendo facilities. Having pioneered the portable games with the Game & Watch series and the mighty Game Boy, he was one of the true innovators of the company. The rising enterprise knew he could hit another big score with a Famicom project, so they assigned a small team to make the magic flow.
In typical Nintendo fashion, the creation process started from scattered gameplay ideas that later were filled with explanations and lore. In this case, the blockbuster success of Super Mario Bros. set the norm for platform games, which were meant to be completed from left to right, running and jumping, but Yokoi and his team (including director Satoru Okada and developer Yoshio Sakamoto, who these days is still the chief for the franchise) saw this as an opportunity to create something new. From this idea, they designed the map in vertical, too, to give the player a multi-level lair in order to improve the exploration aspect. The “morph ball” ability and the high air time style of the jumps were also added to support this change into the mapping reading (also because animating the crouching animation was troublesome).
During the middle of the production, the dev team wrote a back story and a whole setting heavily influenced by the legendary Alien movie. It was in this moment when the robot-like avatar became a woman, to the surprise of the gaming industry.
In the first chapter of Metroid, Samus Aran is a human bounty hunter equipped with a powerful Space Suit travelling and earning its life as a mercenary. During the time of this game, the Galactic Federation which rules all the colonies is dealing with serious threat made by a band of Pirates, which found the secret of a parasitic species known as Metroids in one of Federation-owned ships.
These lifeforms, retrieved from a lone planet, were intended to be researched as an energy source; however the Space Pirates found a way to use their powers as biological weapons. Ruled by the merciless Mother Brain, the rogue group built a fortress in the cavernous planet Zebes. Samus, hired by the Galactic Federation as a last resort, must travel to the dangerous lair and destroy everything to save the galaxy.
While rudimentary in its execution, due the lack of maps and directions, Metroid became a hit, selling nearly 3 millions of units. The calculated platform game play, open map navigation, great sprite design, claustrophobic sound design and concise atmosphere eclipsed the notable limitations on the title, gaining high scores on the specialized press coverage. Also, bosses like Ridley and Mother Brain became the iconic headaches for other Samus quests.
In this game, players had to discover new areas on a non-linear progression, with tons of upgrades, power-ups and new skills available in hidden places. The new items, incorporated to Samus suit, are then used to open other areas in the game or to destroy the enemies. Another interesting trait is that there are not characters to interact around the game, giving it a brooding and isolate atmosphere throughout the whole playing time, a feat that carries on in nearly all entries.
The legacy was set: Metroid proved that video games could be a deep medium to move players in new ways and helping to introduce new women as playable characters, instead of the typical damsel in distress.
Metroid II: The Return of Samus
Gunpei Yokoi had the wonderful Game Boy idea, and after the success of Metroid, it was a matter of time that the series had a second part in the brand new portable system.
It arrived in 1991, and became a direct sequel of the original one. Named Metroid II: The Return of Samus the protagonist is sent by the Galactic Federation to eradicate the Metroids in their home, the Planet SR88.
The reduced screen became a challenge for the dev team, so the main objective was set to keep the player entertained and focused while exploring the huge volcanic planet. Each of these Metroids encounter were programmed as boss stages, with each parasite slowly increasing the difficulty due the evolution stages of its lifecycle.
Without color, Yokoi team resorted to bigger sprites and different environments to help with the locations. Metroid II is marked as one of the best looking games of the classic system.
Sometimes overlooked as a difficult game, for its hardware limitations, the second entry of the series is still a strong title. Recently, it was released as a remake for the Nintendo 3DS, co-developed with the Spanish team of Mercury Steam, with plenty of improvements. Unofficially, a lone programmer finished a remake for PC called AM2R, updating the graphics in 32-bits style, obtaining great reviews from the press.
The legend arrives: Super Metroid
With these first titles, full of experimentation and will to improve, Yokoi and Sakamoto team decided to make the definitive Metroid game, getting the Super Nintendo (SNES) as the space ship to launch their dreams within the franchise.
With the Metroid II test, the dev team proved that the silent cinematic edge could perfectly merge with the heavy atmosphere of the series, meanwhile the oppressive environments of the original one carried on to get improved with better hardware. During two and a half years, the result of these aspects was poured into a single game that became one of the highest renowned titles of the whole Nintendo catalog: Super Metroid.
Set immediately after the Game Boy entry, Samus must return to Planet Zebes to find the Space Pirates hideout completely rebuilt after their first clash. Some familiar ambience is took from the original game, while revamping some areas and adding new ones, refreshing the mapping and immersing the player with a sense of progression.
Gameplay is refined at best, employing the button layout of the SNES to map skills and tighten the experience. A map to track the progress and new weapons were added to improve the Metroid formula. Art direction, graphics, music and sounds were also greatly updated, resulting in one of the best titles of the 16-bit era, hands down.
The game was met with critical support, sadly it arrive late and had to compete with Donkey Kong Country and the PlayStation launch, undermining the sales. It was then a cult hit for many indie developers, inspiring, along Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the adventure platformer style, known as “Metroidvania”. Also, it is a popular choice for speedrunning competition, for its great mapping and refined game design.
After all this years, Super Metroid is a highlight of the video game industry. A must play for all gamers.
The Metroid Prime trilogy
Sadly, the Nintendo 64 (N64) did not have any Metroid entry in its catalog. After the incredible effort made with Super Metroid, the team led by Sakamoto after the tragic passing of Gunpei Yokoi around 1997 were not convinced of the few ideas assembled, so they passed the 32-bit era without one single title until new and more powerful hardware arrived.
The response was inside the tiny GameCube console, the N64 successor, but this time, the Texan company Retro Studios handled all the production with artistic collaboration from the Nintendo headquarters, including Yoshio Sakamoto and Super Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto.
The first title, Metroid Prime, had to deal with several critics during the first video showings in which the traditional 2D platforms were exchanged to first-person 3D environments. However, after the first weeks, the low expectations were sweep out by the strong design inside this grand adventure.
Rather than a traditional action first-person shooter, like the contemporary Halo or Quake, Metroid Prime intended to put the players inside Samus Aran’s helmet within the main concept of the franchise: exploration and discovering through non-linear maps. The merge was incredibly successful and garnered commercial success and repeated it’s placing in several Game of the Year nominations.
The story unfolds slowly through tiny bits thanks to the Scan Visor feature, encouraging the player to be aware of the surroundings to find new clues. On the other side, the 128-bit Nintendo tiny lunchbox was powerful enough to support high visual effects and a detailed soundtrack, while rendering huge maps which required several backtracking from the player. The map of the desolate Tallon IV planet, built with plenty of corridors and caverns gives a very vivid edge. Thanks to all of this, Metroid Prime is still heralded as one of the best games ever designed.
In 2004, Retro Studios prepared a sequel, called Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, with a new story and another planet to explore. The mechanic revolved with a light and dark dichotomy, reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, but with the twist of a relentless nemesis: Dark Samus, who will face our heroine in the Aether planet as a constant boss. The technical department was further improved and included a multiplayer mode to expand the replay value.
For the Nintendo DS portable, the Metroid Prime: Hunters opened the Wi-Fi Connection service and the inclusion of new characters. Thriving with more action than exploration, this first-person shooter used the stylus and the touch screen to deliver another form of playing. Each one of the bosses Samus has to face in the main storyline is unlockable for the multiplayer game and they all had different styles and weapons. A pinball game was also released on this system.
The third chapter of this subseries, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption landed in 2007, on the Wii console. Besides employing extensively the motion controls to shoot and interact with the game’s environments, the third part revamped the UI and the button mapping to fasten the game experience. Years later, the Wii console saw the release of the entire trilogy in one disc, with special bonuses, under the name Metroid Prime: Trilogy, with adapted motion controls.
Furthermore, Nintendo will revive this subseries very soon with the advent of Metroid Prime 4. The game, announced in the E3 2017, is currently under development for Nintendo Switch by a new team, instead of Retro Studios.
The Game Boy Advance years
Parallel to the release of the Prime subseries, Yoshio Sakamoto directed two titles for the Game Boy Advance (GBA), more akin to the traditional 2D scheme. The first one, titled Metroid Fusion, landed on the market in 2002, the same day as Metroid Prime, in a new story that involved an infection by a parasite. After a surgery, involving some Metroid vaccine, the X parasite change Samus’ suit and allows her to absorb their power.
In Fusion, the story unfolds at a slow pace, but it certainty involves a dash of terror, very reminiscent of the Alien movies. While shorter and easier (one of the main critics), the journey of Samus inside the Biologic Space Labs research station is one of her most frightening missions to date. Gameplay was simplified to meet the button layout of the GBA. If you have not experienced this game, I urge you to check it out, another of my favorite games of all time.
Two years later, the first game was released as a remake, named Metroid: Zero Mission. After the more narrative-driven Fusion, the reimaging of the legendary NES entry was a breath of old-school revival. Besides the complete reworking of the Planet Zebes map, the ending has a new after-game segment with a powerless Samus strip of her iconic armor. After beating this adventure, the original Metroid can be played.
The last Metroids
The last years for the franchise were particularly hard. Metroid: Other M, for the Wii, and Metroid Prime: Federation Force, for N3DS, were destroyed by the reviews for many different reasons, including their differing from the core elements of the series.
However, it seems the franchise is having a well-deserved rebirth, with the recent acclaim of the Metroid: Samus Return remake and the future Metroid Prime 4 release, the great Samus Aran will be back to save us once again from cosmic annihilation.
So it concludes our museum today! I hope you remembered some good memories conquering the horrendous depths of the Planet Zebes with our pal Samus. As usual, now is your turn, which is your favorite Metroid moment? Join us in the comments and discuss what makes this franchise so special! Also, if you want me to tackle another video game series for a museum, just ask me and I will gladly write about it!
The Link-Up Spell is a weekly Toilet ov Hell column about music, movies, books, retro video games and guaranteed Elfic nonsense. If you want to contact the author to send your material, mail us at toiletovhell [at] gmail.com with the subject “The Link-Up Spell” or message him on social media.