Metroid – NES
Release Date (NA): August 6, 1987
Developers: Nintendo, Intelligent Systems
Nerd Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Reviewed by The Cubist
I’ve been putting this one off long enough. I stuck it in the NES a couple of weeks ago to refresh myself and at the time considered it a daunting task to tackle this seminal 8-bit behemoth. Metroid may not have been the first game that utilized many of its unique concepts, but it was the first to put them all together in a manner that made for both a successful title in its time as well as a recognized landmark of video gaming even today. Many games with a so-called “open world” owe their existence to the success of Metroid.
Vaunted platformers had already been around for a few years before Metroid, but Metroid eschewed head-jumping and short-term powerups and instead leaned a little more towards realism with guns (lasers), long-term abilities that are required to finish the game, hidden areas that must be found to progress, and a more accurate portrayal of real-world physics, namely the ability to walk to the left. Taking an equal role to one’s proficiency in combat was a player’s desire to explore. Exploration is a huge facet of Metroid as nearly all useful items are hidden and some, such as the Ice Beam, Morph Ball, and Missile, are needed to complete the game. The lack of linearity can be frustrating at times but a few homemade maps make the process remarkably easier.
None of this may sound all that impressive for the folks that grew up with PlayStations and N64s as their first consoles, but anyone familiar with what 99% of other video games were like in the mid-80’s will realize Metroid’s significance. Titles like it still remained uncommon in the 4th generation and it took awhile for developers to really latch on to these new styles of play. An apt description given by Nintendo mentions the genesis for Metroid created by a desire to combine the adventure and continuous improvement of the character as in The Legend of Zelda combined with the action and jumping elements of simpler platformers like Super Mario Bros.
Now that I’ve rambled on about the history and significance of the game, let’s take the time to discuss some of the details for those of you who may have passed over this masterpiece for whatever reason. The player stars as Samus Aran, an intergalactic bounty hunter whose mission it is to infiltrate a planetary fortress filled with intergalactic pirates who are preparing to use “the metroid” as a biological weapon to suppress their opposition. This fortress, known as Zebes, is a massive and labyrinthine structure with a handful of distinct sectors that possess their own set of aesthetics and enemies.
While the difficulty rises sharply near the conclusion of the game, their are several periods of relative calm. The battles with the 2 sub-bosses as well as a few scattered rooms can also pose a significant challenge but luckily there’s plenty of breathing room and chances to explore without hordes of foes endlessly pouring in. There is no save system, but there is a password system that will allow a player to start back at the beginning of an area with all powerups/improvements and achievements in place.
Samus spends much of her time tracking down items to help either access new areas (missiles, ball, bombs, wing boots) or improved weaponry (ice beam, screw attack, long beam, wave beam) to assist her in defeating enemies. A few of these are “hidden in plain sight,” but several of them require extensive exploration such as moving around in ball form and using several bombs to make it to the opposite side of walls. Adversaries themselves pose the most immediate and severe threat but the complexity of the map design is also an element to constantly monitor and negotiate.
The fortress is connected by a series of corridors, elevators, and plain old doors (and not-so-plain old doors that require missiles to open). It’s easy enough to tell the main areas apart from one another in addition to some of the main “shafts” from which several rooms branch out from, but as one descends deeper into the planet individual rooms become harder to tell apart and many areas look almost identical to others. The lairs of the sub-bosses themselves, Kraid and Ridley, make extensive use of repetition and areas that are just barely out of reach to wear down the spirits of the most enthusiastic player.
Controls are straightforward and intuitive. A jumps, B shoots. Samus has an above average jumping ability, and apart from a few deliberately hard areas, I don’t imagine anyone having any serious issues with control. Everything is kept simple and there don’t seem to be any strange spots where controlling inadequacies and untested level design come together to form impassible paths as can be the case in many of these longer, more ambitious earlier titles. I do wish there was a way to switch between the Ice Beam and Wave Beam powerups; these are the only two that the player cannot possess simultaneously. Luckily there is a second Ice Beam hidden elsewhere should one override the initial powerup with the Wave Beam. Why luckily? Well, if you’re like me, you might actually be glad to rid yourself of the first Ice Beam. It can be indispensable in a few places but it is far from the ideal offensive weapon, yet it is instrumental in defeating the metroid (or is it metroids?) late in the game.
I hesitate to say that the graphics are among the best of what the NES has to offer, but the limited technology is made full use of to create utterly alien landscapes. The purple, bubbly texture of the Norfair region is iconic when it comes to not only Metroid but 8-bit gaming as a whole. There’s the occasional flickering and slow-motion effect when too many sprites are on the screen, although this is something I’ve come to more or less accept about the ol’ Nintendo and I’m more desensitized to it than others.
The soundtrack of Metroid also stands out, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s up there with my favorite chip tunes, it is an effective body of work that serves nicely to enhance the mood of isolation and the unknown. Sparse arrangements make use of sound effects more than actual notes and at times the beeps and clicks of the score blend into the events taking place in the game. Several appropriate themes are used to denote certain areas, and arguably the most familiar track is the quiet, ominous set of sounds played whenever Samus enters a transitional area.
The ending of the game is perhaps just as memorable as the rest of it albeit in a totally different way. The fight through the metroids is extremely difficult, followed by the confrontation with Mother Brain which can be overcome with patience and strategy. And just then, when you think you’ve finally finished, comes the biggest surprise of all: Zebes is collapsing and you’ve got to get out of there FAST. For the final portion of the game, Samus has to make her way up a series of ever-shrinking platforms in a set time limit. Depending on one’s jumping prowess the feat can range from maddening to child’s play. The ticking clock adds intensity to the situation, but the player has more than enough room for a few errors while finishing with time to spare.
Lastly, Metroid continued to break some ground with its ending as well as how the ending was handled. The biggest reveal that SAMUS IS A GIRL probably isn’t news to anyone anymore, however some people may not be aware that multiple endings are available depending on how quickly one completes the game. Even today “speed-running” is a popular activity among enthusiasts of older games and the concept of blazing through a game as complicated and as involved as Metroid was virtually unheard of at the time.
I am of the persuasion that Metroid is still a game that can hold its own even today but those who grew up on Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario 64 are unlikely to agree. Sure, the graphics have aged, but the concept and level design will still be a treat to those who have never played. Controls are simplistic but responsive and there are no standout flaws that take away from the experience. Maybe I’m partial because I can actually remember sitting around playing this on Christmas Day when I was 6 (a full 4 years after its release). Still, it’s difficult to ignore the monumental leap forward that Metroid represents and the impact whose ripples can still be seen today. I would without a doubt recommend this game to any serious gamer, and if you’re a fan of the NES/SNES era, you owe it to yourself to own and play Metroid without further delay.
Until gaming itself is irrevocably revolutionized by the use of holograms or other crazy technology that puts the notion of consoles and controllers in the past, Metroid is one of the finest video games you’ll ever play.
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