Back in the eighties, before Al Gore invented the Internet, word of mouth was the best tool to anticipate whether a game was any good. Unfortunately, positive schoolyard buzz often came with major spoilers. Such was the case with Metroid and its landmark ending, a milestone for digital heroines. Mercifully, there are other reasons why this early game in the Nintendo Entertainment System’s decade-long run is helmed as a classic.
Console fare was pretty rudimentary when I first popped Metroid in my Nintendo Entertainment System (known back in the day as “the Nintendo”). The game looked like a basic platformer: jump around, shoot down enemies, and avoid getting hit. However, I eventually reached an area with two paths available to me, and then a door I couldn’t open. When I got to my first dead-end, I realised the adventure was non-linear, akin to The Legend of Zelda, and I knew I had a long journey ahead of me.
The plot of Metroid is simple. You play as bounty hunter Samus Aran. Your mission: head to planet Zebes, and prevent Mother Brain from using the metroids, energy-draining life forms, as bio-weapons. To reach the villainess, you have to kill her two trusted lieutenants, Kraid and Ridley. To have any chance of defeating them, you have to upgrade your equipment with power-ups hidden all across Zebes. It seems Samus decided to go to work with cardboard armour and a cannon that shoots only three feet ahead of her.
As you venture through the different monster-filled chambers, Tanaka Hirokazu’s eerie score adds to your experience, enhancing your feeling of danger, isolation, and claustrophobia. The soundtrack to Metroid doesn’t just consist of a bunch of funky tunes you listen to while beating up bad guys, like in Double Dragon and Bayou Billy. It comprises some of the best music in video game history. Ever played a game in which the score accelerates when you’re running out of time, plunging you into sudden panic? Imagine one in which the music has a similar effect all the time. A muted play-through just isn’t the same.
Every game has its flaws, though, and Metroid is no exception. For one, the layout of Zebes is insanely confusing. Any player serious about finishing the free-style platformer will have to draw a map to avoid getting lost in its giant maze. I personally hate games that make you pause and draw or write stuff on paper. A simple rectangle showing your approximate position in the world, like in The Legend of Zelda, would have helped alleviate the issue. Of course, nowadays, you can be a dirty, dirty cheater and look up a map on the Internet.
Adding to the confusion are the recycled elements throughout the game. Save for a palette swap, platforms, floors and ceilings all look the same, and enemies often share the same movement patterns, despite their differing visuals. A little more variety would have provided a better sense of progress and exploration. If it seems like I’m asking a lot of a 1986 platformer, remember that Mega Man, released just a year later, features entirely different designs for each of its levels. Compared to that, Metroid feels a bit like Mother Brain hired the laziest interior decorator in the galaxy.
On a relate note, imagine my surprise when I learned Mother Brain is literally a brain in a jar. I guess I expected her moniker to turn out a nickname of sorts because she’s a criminal mastermind or something like that. Semantics aside, passed the initial cool factor, her design makes for a disappointing final ordeal. After hours of fighting and dodging hundreds of fast-moving enemies, shooting a giant and extremely static cerebral cortex feels somewhat anticlimactic.
Metroid has been ported to the Wii virtual console, but the developers omitted the one change for which I was most hoping: a simple map screen that unlocks as you explore the different levels would have improved the platformer considerably for me. On the bright side, the virtual console’s save feature is a huge improvement over last century’s ye olde password system. As such, Samus’ introductory adventure remains a solid buy for any gamer nostalgic about the eight-bit era, you know, before Steve Jobs invented the computer.