Part 1 - Metroid: Zero Mission
Well, that’s a bit of a misnomer actually. I did boot up Zero Mission, but as I played through the first half-hour I realized that, well, @vehemently you were 100% right. From what little I had played of the first Metroid, I could tell that this was a very different game — not just with the map and QoL enhancements, but with the art style, atmosphere, and the way it was making me feel. After a while, it didn’t seem right starting this journey this way, so I put my Wii U away and pulled out my 3DS to attempt, one more time…
Part 1 (for real this time) - Metroid
If were to describe the first Metroid in a single word, it’s hostile. Most of the games the series has inspired present the player with treacherous, confrontational worlds — but very few of those I’ve played (well, aside from one, which I’ll get to) are as actively hostile as this one. This isn’t limited to the enemy creatures, but they certainly embody it — and they create an environment where direct combat tends to take a back seat to careful platforming and avoidance. Everything moves in predictable patterns; once you commit those to memory, you can weave Samus through corridors and rooms with, if not ease, a very satisfying kind of hyperfocus. (It does help that — and I’m not sure if this is authentic to the NES original, though considering the lack of memory it would make sense — the game seems to slow down when too many objects are present on screen.)
One possible justification behind this observation could be, “well, this is an old game — they’re all like that.” I disagree though; I don’t think Metroid plays like an “old” game. The original Legend of Zelda is hard, but its secrets are meant to be little rewards for exploring; its overworld design propels Link forward. The same with the NES Mario games; they’re hard in a very arcade-y way, but they’re actually built with skip after skip worked in. Metroid doesn’t feel like a converted arcade game, nor like an exploration game. It feels like it’s trying to chew you up and spit you out again, with invisible floors above acid pits and brutal, relentless enemy movement and crucial upgrades locked behind secret after secret. And I love that.
(There’s a comparison I’m itching to make, but I’m restraining myself. We’ll see how long that lasts.)
The exception to that is the titular metroids. The game puts a lot effort into making them terrifying, and it succeeds. They’re gated in the final area — by which point you’ve explored the entire map, faced two challenging bosses and virtually every other enemy the game has to offer. Remember how I said that every enemy moves in a predictable pattern? Well these don’t; they make a beeline for you, attach to your head, and immediately start sucking the life (or, well, energy) from Samus’s body (or, well, suit… maybe). The only way to detach them is to curl into a ball and drop bomb after bomb, then immediately freeze them. And you have about a split second to do so before they reattach. They are horrifying and monstrous, in a way very few video game enemies have ever felt to me. The fact that they’re framed as largely innocent of any kind of malice — just organisms with a drive to survive manipulated by evil forces — also makes them feel strangely tragic. Let’s put a pin in that. Perhaps, just maybe, there’s more to them than it seems?
Incidentally, I did do three things to make the game a bit more approachable for me. First, I read the manual, helpfully available on Nintendo’s website. It always surprises me just how much information game manuals from the 80s and 90s held — much of the reason that these games might seem obtuse to modern players is that a lot of essential info is just written down, to be delivered outside the game itself. Every power-up is listed, all the enemies and core mechanics, and, especially importantly, the way to kill Metroids once you reach them. Also, lots of really beautiful illustrations! I love NES-era pixel art, but some of the strangeness of these creatures does get lost in it — I think their full weirdness (especially Ridley’s, who apparently has a bunch of long eyes all down his snout??) can only really be appreciated in these sketches.
The other two things are a bit less… authentic, shall we say. I decided from the start that the 3DS’s restore points were fair game, and, after trying to map it a bit and starting to feel my millennial-zoomer-cusp brain respond with aggravation at the lack of immediate reward, I looked up a map. I’m sorry! But… agh, can’t make that comparison yet, can’t make that comparison yet… one of my favorite games ever became that way because I allowed a wiki to be fair game, and I don’t think I could have made it through this experience (or enjoyed it as much as I did) without doing so.
And I did make it through! All in all, my 3DS clocked in the run at just under 5 hours — so I did get to see Samus’s face in the end. And let’s talk about that for a second; the manual goes to great lengths to hide Samus’s gender. As does the game itself; when Samus dies, her suit just explodes into bits, seemingly with nothing inside. In a way, it makes Samus seem almost like an android, a robot, nothing but the suit that’s enabling her survival in a harsh, unforgiving planet that also happens to be her birthplace. (And let’s put a second pin in that: death animations are going to come up a lot when I talk about future Metroid games — they’ve always felt weird to me in quite a few ways). Mother Brain, also, is referred to as “he” in all the supplemental text — something that we may be coming back to when she reappears. In any case, I’ve seen all the ending screens; the game treats the reveal of Samus’s gender as a parlor trick. “Surprise,” it says, “you were a woman this whole time.” And of course, finish faster and the game delivers some fanservice. Let’s put a pin in that too.
Also yes, according to the manual, Zebes is where she was raised. Metroid is about a homecoming: a return and, in a way, a liberation of an overtaken world. All the artifacts, the power-ups (as the manual calls them, though “upgrade” is the term that would come into vogue) seem to inherently fit Samus; she requires no training, no additional expertise, nothing but the materials she finds to make use of them. And this lays out the power fantasy that makes Metroidvania games so compelling for me as a player — the reduction of an environment from impossible to challenging to easily traversable as more and more of it is uncovered. That fantasy is incredibly bold here, largely because the game itself is so simple. Obstacles that took me painstaking effort in the first hour or so melted with the help of the wave beam, varia suit, or especially the screw attack. It’s almost… like… oh goddammit, here it comes. At least I’ve never denied being a walking stereotype.
The game that the first Metroid reminds me of, more than anything else, more than Alien or Axiom Verge or any other sci-fi horror game or film or property in existence, is Dark Souls. This game felt like Dark Souls. This exact arc, the backtracking, the slow escalation of a finely-tuned power fantasy, the world — hostile to the point of actively trolling the player, constantly treacherous and unsafe, with pitfalls and trapdoors and enemies placed just-so to destroy you when you feel safe — it’s eminently familiar to me, to the point where the reason I was able to make it through this time was the two years I’ve spent playing and replaying my way through the Soulsborne canon. I reached a point about an hour or so in, as I kept falling through invisible floors into a lava pit, where I thought “this game just wants to fuck with me.” In that moment, I had a vision of a giant Bloodborne werewolf jumping out from its invisible post off-screen to push me off a cliff to my death — and it clicked. I knew where I was, what I was here to do, and exactly how the next few hours were going to go. A bit later, I realized I could cheese Ridley by chilling in the acid beneath his platform and shooting the wave beam upward — again, Souls as hell. (Or maybe Souls is just Metroid as hell.) In any case, it was history.
Now since I changed plans a little bit, I think I’m going to revise both the list and the order I’m going to play these in. I don’t really want to jump back into Zero Mission right away; some space, I think, would be good. I also don’t want to play three versions of Metroid II in succession — and I am actually going to try the original Metroid II, since it seems like this was actually the more challenging one. In any case, edits will be made to the original post. And so, that one’s coming up next, likely pretty soon. Most games will probably get a halfway post and a finale post, but for these quicker ones, I’ll only make the halfway one if I have enouugh to say.
(Oh also, I might rename the thread. “Another Metroid 2(021) Replay” just won’t leave my brain alone.)