Level Up: Metroid
Oh, the eerie, otherworldly atmosphere that can exude itself through the NES. Metroid proves that even worlds limited to 25 colors and 5 sound channels can effectively immerse the human mind. While a minimalist aesthetic may have been forced on the developers due to weak hardware, Metroid is far from unambitious.
For many players this game was the first to force them to think outside of running from left to right without dying. The revelation that planet Zebes is one sprawling map is mind-blowing and intimidating for many. Metroid is credited for the creation of the side-scrolling exploration genre, but as with many first forays, it wasn’t without flaws. The game is ruthless. There is no map system, no dialogue or in-game hints, you start with almost no health, and many corridors stretch on and on only to lead to nothing of use. Yet, even these frustrating aspects add to the immersion by cementing an ominous mood.
The first moments of Metroid are its most important as they immediately stir a desire for exploration in the player. The left to right mechanics of Super Mario Bros. are self-evident to even the least experienced player, but the exploratory game has no such advantage. Players who attempt to proceed to the right will eventually find themselves at a crevasse too tight to get through. It takes a trip all the way back to the beginning to find the required morphball power. This power-up, one that is central to the mechanics and structure of the entire Metroid series, is found one screen to the left of the game’s starting point. You could have had the thing from the beginning if you had just thought outside-the-box and gone left, but the designer’s message is clear from the outset: explore every direction, every nook and cranny and you will be rewarded, but if you try to proceed blindly forward your road will be long and full of circles. The prospect is both daunting and invigorating. Some players are turned off the second they reach a dead-end, while others are so inspired by the spirit of exploration that they find more than even the developers intended with sequence-breaking “secret worlds” and speed-runs.
Today the open-world genre is so solidified in gaming culture that it’s hard to imagine the importance of teaching a player to check their environment. But there’s still a lesson in this moment in design-history. The message of a game is most clear when delivered through gameplay. It’s not always necessary to beat the player over the head with arrows that point the way, dialogue cues and every other method of hand-holding prevalent in games today. Games at their best use the devices unique to their medium to deliver their message. Every time a magic arrow points the way we are reminded that we are playing a video game, not experiencing something first-hand. Our minds will accept the terms of a video game world, but design choices that break those rules while insulting the player’s intelligence are in bad taste and break the illusion.
That’s not to say that Metroid couldn’t have used a little hand-holding. While those first moments are a lesson in subtle-yet-effective design, the rest of the game falls quite short of poetry. You’ll find yourself fighting down seemingly endless corridors thinking you’ll be rewarded with some astounding power-up, only to reach a dead end. And those enemies you just fought through? They’re all back. They must’ve spontaneously regenerated when you looked away. Fact is, you’ll be lost, low on health and on-edge more often than not.
Yet these frustrating design choices often make the victories more triumphant. The lack of a map, the existence of dead-ends, the scarcity of health and ammo, it all adds up to an environment of true hostility. The visuals are abstract enough to evoke a truly alien world, and the creepy melody of the item rooms can send chills down one’s spine. These visual and aural qualities add to the oppressive atmosphere that the gameplay provides. The pervading feeling of the threatening environment makes finding weapon upgrades, passing obstacles, conquering bosses and generally becoming the master of your environment all the more satisfying.
While it’s not as perfect as say, Super Metroid, the original Metroid holds an esteemed position in video game history. As the main progenitor of the ‘Metroidvania’ genre, its influence is widespread and obvious. What made Metroid special initially, the revelatory shock of a game without clear boundaries, has faded as many games carried the torch onward. But its creepily inexplicable atmosphere remains undeniable to this day. Couple it all with the fact that Samus, the robot-suited-protagonist, is revealed as a woman at the conclusion, and you’ve got a game that flips the gaming paradigm of 1986 on its head.