Then and Now: Metroid (NES)

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, now with two locations, in Westport and Orange, Connecticut.

For the first time in a year and a half, I break out the defunct Then and Now column, inspired by my experiences with a game that I haven’t played thoroughly in well over 20 years. I played the original Metroid to death, beating it multiple times even before I knew what “Justin Bailey” was. Now, it’s being offered by Nintendo as a “reward”1 for Gold-level Club Nintendo members, and Aileen – who was born the same year this game came out – is asking if it’s worth it.

At the risk of sounding cocky, she couldn’t have asked anyone better.

Metroid_boxartMetroid
Original System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: August 6, 1986 (JPN)/August 1, 1987 (NA)

HOW WAS IT THEN: I am not entirely sure it’s accurate to say Metroid was nothing we’d ever seen before; any time someone makes a statement like that, there’s always that one asshole who comes out of the woodwork to mention some obscure TRS-80 game that did something vaguely similar, even though six people played it. I’m not interested in having that tired debate. I can confidently say, however, that Metroid deserves its reputation as a pioneer in the advancement of both exploration and atmospheric setting in the context of a video game.

Unlike most games from this era, Metroid was dark. The surrounding areas were mostly a dreary blue, even at the start, and the music can at times be foreboding; Brinstar’s music in particular makes it plainly clear that the player is wholly alone in this new world. Thankfully, there’s a lot of world to explore, and back in 1987, that was a big deal. The game only gave basic hints on what to do – a very small crevice that can only be entered after acquiring the Maru Mari (morph ball) at the very beginning of the game, and places that can only be reached by conveniently placed enemies lying around to be hit by the Ice Beam – with the player being expected to figure the rest out largely on their own. Exploration, and trying to find things that don’t seem to be there, is something that was heavily rewarded in Metroid, with players finding their first bombable wall and often deciding to shoot and bomb everything in sight to try to find anything from a secret passageway to new weapons to missiles and energy tanks. How many were there in the game? Who knows! Keep finding them until there’s no more to find! For a young child who wanted to find everything, this was amazing.

Despite the open-ended nature of the game, there was a progression that players were expected to abide by. The entryway to the final area of the game was located right in the first couple of corridors, hidden away by statues of the two mini-bosses, located within their own section of Zebes. The enemy diversity, even if many of them were little more than palette swaps, gave each area its own feel, an accomplishment in an era where that was an art form due to the memory and other technological limitations. Metroid was one of the few games willing to have such an open-ended feel in an era when most other games were linear, A-to-B jobs.

A read-through of the instruction book refers to Samus, the masked bounty hunter, as a “he”, which makes the games famous giveaway at the end that much more shocking: “he” is a long-haired “she”, and if the sub-one hour ending was to be believed, “she” had a hell of a bikini body to boot. We don’t need Anita Sarkeesian to tell us that this was the era where women were damsals in distress and little else; having a female lead was mind-blowing back in the 80s. It’s almost too bad that the game had such an archaic – even at the time – save system; whereas The Legend of Zelda had a battery backup, Metroid and Kid Icarus had long passwords that required perfect diction; lest one character be missed, hours of work could be lost. It’s the only real annoyance we had over Metroid when it was new; it earned its status as an all-time classic.

THEN: B+

HOW IS IT NOW: If the original Metroid were to go into the future and see what it spawned, it would feel incredibly proud of its accomplishments. Perhaps we could imagine Samus Aran going forward in time to learn that she married Castlevania’s Simon Belmont, and had children. Along with their respective siblings – Metroid II for the Game Boy and Castlevania III/Castlevania IV for the NES and Super NES respectively – they raised Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night together. They were the chosen ones, who went out and founded their own genre, which begat so many fantastic games. Cave Story, Guacamelee, Valdis Story and others have proudly worn the Metroidvania label, combining exploration with intense melee combat. Hearing a game is a “Metroidvania” almost always guarantees sales from a prominent section of customers, who can’t get enough worlds to explore, items to find, and map sections to track back to, new skills in tow.

It’s a wonderful story. In fact, one pictures Samus and Simon sitting around the table, in their old age, saying that there was no way they could compare with the skills their kids developed. It’s easy to picture because it’s true; Metroid is simply locked in its own time.

The number one thing a modern gamer would notice plugging up Metroid would be the complete lack of a map, or of any kind of assistance in finding their way through the maze. Super Metroid had maps; later games went as far as to put a big spot on the map, saying “GO THERE”. Metroid? Here’s your character, here’s a ball; you can figure out the rest. Oh, and bomb everything. That wouldn’t fly with a teenager in 2014.

There’s also the technical limitations, such as the fact that this is the only Metroid game where Samus can’t shoot anything below her chest. Even in the Game Boy game, she can kneel to hit enemies that are crawling along the ground, a notable point with all of the Zoomers, Zeelas and Novas to be found in the game. While they can be dispatched by bombing them, that doesn’t help if they’re farther away. Later games added the ability for Samus to aim down while jumping, and even to angle her gun down; there was simply no way to do that with the NES’s limitations, so it was up to the player to work around that.

To be fair, technology helps Metroid in many ways, though it requires another version of the game. Virtual Console players have at least one savestate, and anyone playing on a non-sanctioned emulator has other assorted goodies at their disposal. There’s also a plethora of maps and walkthroughs to be found, in addition to the many Metroid-centric Wikis and other fan websites to be found on the internet; back in the 80s, we had the Official Nintendo Player’s Strategy Guide, and that’s about it. It’s never been easier to beat Metroid.

The question is why anyone else would want to, and the answer to that is to ask another question: did you play Metroid when you were young? Are you like me – someone in his mid-30s, who remembers the NES era from his childhood, and grew into Metroidvania games from there? I had a blast playing Metroid recently, but that’s only because I was playing it on my 3DS, with Virtual Console savestates, and because the same guy in his mid-30s who often goes off-trail whenever he goes into the woods just to see what’s still has that eight year old boy in the back of his head, who wants to explore everything and see if there are any secrets to be found. I loved playing through Metroid again – even if I got a bad ending – but I will acknowledge that my brothers (23, 17) would be done within an hour, for good. Even I wouldn’t want to be writing down passwords at this point.

That’s probably the final straw, actually: the ending, which is an issue I have with all Metroid games. For a game that rewards exploration so much, it’s funny that the better endings are locked behind a time gate; it takes under three hours to get Samus’s leotard, which I blew away while working off 25 years of rust. Anyone trying to find anything, without doing a speed run, is going to not get the best ending. While the intention is for people to go back and get better times and more items in a more efficient manner, but for most, there isn’t going to be a second time.

Metroid was amazing in 1986. I don’t have the words to explain just how much of an impact it had on me as a child, and it’s still fun for me to go through now. But it’s a honed enjoyment, that I don’t think the average gamer is going to get today. Why would they bother? They either grew up with Super Metroid, or one of the later games, all of which are leaps and bounds superior. The only reason to go back and play Metroid is like the only reason to go to a museum: to look at dinosaurs. At least the admission’s cheap.

NOW: D+

1 – I quote that because those rewards are pathetic. Members have every right to be pissed at Nintendo

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.