October 12, 2015
NES30 #5: Metroid
By the time Metroid was released for the NES in 1987, platform action games were pretty well known and fairly popular. A game about an armoured bounty hunter tracking down a dangerous alien organism on the planet Zebes initially didn't seem too groundbreaking or attention-grabbing. That was before players discovered Metroid's stunning open world. The whole game environment is there from the beginning, but some parts of it are maddeningly inaccessible. Go in a different direction, however, grab a new special ability or attack, and suddenly those inaccessible areas became entirely available. It was a massive, very welcome development for the genre: a non-linear platformer.
The game was developed by Nintendo's Research & Development 1, under the careful guidance of producer Gunpei Yokoi. The emphasis of the game was not action but exploration: a careful, measured expansion of the game area, one zone at a time.
The game was also an aesthetic masterpiece. Everything added up to make the game an oddly atmospheric one. The tone was claustrophobic, the sparse musical score vaguely unsettling, and protagonist Samus Aran's careful exploration very, very lonely. Few games, particularly ones as early as 1987, have managed to present such a bleak, creepy feeling under such pronounced technical limitations.
Players were successfully completed the game were in for one final surprise, as the game's final moments revealed that the hero, Samus Aran, was in fact a woman. It feels a rather odd, tokenistic twist these days, but back in the 1980s it seemed revolutionary: a female action hero, clearly as talented and powerful as a man, and visually indistinguishable once her armour is on. It was a small gesture towards equality, but I think a very effective one.
The Metroid saga continued with a GameBoy sequel in 1991 and a Super Nintendo follow-up in 1994. That follow-up, Super Metroid, was arguably the best instalment of the entire series. The original is still exceptional, however, and laid the groundwork for the franchise.