One Giant Leap, 1986: Metroid

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: the bounty hunter Samus Aran explores the alien planet of Zebes in Metroid

In last month’s article, we examined Super Mario Bros., the game that really put the platformer on the map. From here on out, developers are working from a common framework when they make platformers1. They understand the basic mechanics of the genre. They know that jumps should be alterable in mid-air, that you should jump higher if you hold the button down longer, that you can scroll the screen to make smooth levels larger than 256 x 240. So, with these basics covered it’s time to see what else you can do. What does it look like when “a complete, competent platformer” is your starting point, rather than your endgoal?

One answer is Metroid. Technically, from a mechanics perspective, Metroid is a platformer. But during the NES era, frankly most games were platformers. Super Mario Bros. was an immediate and obvious sea change. Even Metroid‘s biggest mechanical difference from SMB (shooting) was an exceedingly common choice during this era. “2D platformer, maybe with guns” was just the basic template for video games in the way that “open-world game with guns2, icons, and a skill tree with exactly three branches” is today.

So Metroid has to differentiate itself another way. It does so mainly through its structure. Unlike most games of this era, Metroid is not a side-scroller. From the very first screen, you’re encouraged to go up, down, left and right to explore the 1986 version of an open world. As you explore, you’ll encounter obstacles that you can’t get past, and powerups that permanently change what you’re capable of, allowing you to bypass those obstacles. In Metroid, you aren’t simply progressing on a set path towards your goal. You have to actively figure out what paths are even open to you, and develop a working knowledge of the game world. In this way it feels extraordinarily different from something like Super Mario Bros.

I promise not to do the whole “look at how this old game wordlessly teaches the player how to play!!!!!1” thing like it’s still 2013 in this series, but I have to indulge exactly once for Metroid because it’s legitimately impressive for the era. The game’s opening screen spawns Samus in the center, rather than on the left, subtly suggesting that you can go either direction, rather than the traditional right-only approach of Mario. If you fail to notice, you’ll pretty quickly reach a dead-end on the rightward path, a tight passage you can only cross with the morph ball powerup. You can find this, of course, by going left instead. This short passage efficiently teaches players the core rules of Metroid; you can move in any direction, you will need to find upgrades to progress, you will run into dead-ends that you must revisit once you’ve collected the appropriate upgrade.

The first screen of Metroid

Unfortunately, this is the last time Metroid is even remotely player-friendly. The thing about wordless design is that it wasn’t so much an intentional choice back then as simply the way things were done, and for every brilliant piece of efficient design there’s about 10 lbs. of bullshit. For instance, you’ll soon run into red doors, which unlike the blue ones don’t open when you shoot them with your regular beam. A little later, you’ll pick up your first missiles. “Great!” you might think. “I’ll bet this opens those red doors!” Then you’ll shoot one with them, and it won’t open. It won’t even react. “Huh, I guess something else opens it.” Turns out, nope. It was the missiles. You just need to shoot the doors five (5) times, and the first 4 shots will look like they’re doing nothing. Also you only get 5 missiles to start. I don’t think there’s a single person in history who organically learned how these doors worked. The first kid learned about them through Nintendo Power and it spread through there.

And it gets worse. Metroid has some other telegraphed gates that you’ll need powerups to pass (ledge too high? Guess you’ll want hi jump boots. Cracked panels in a morph ball tunnel? Looks like a job for bombs). But mostly, the way forward is hidden through fake walls and such. Bomb a regular-ass tile, identical to its neighbors, and maybe it’ll let you through to a secret area. Or maybe this one bit of lava, unlike all other lava, is fake and safe to fall into, and below it is the way forward. These are secrets every bit as obtuse as Mario’s, but unlike in that game many of them are 100% essential for completion. There are key upgrades hidden behind these. Metroid just straight-up doesn’t play fair.

Why would you even think to bomb here? That’s lava below! And yet you have to in order to progress. Wild.

And even if crawling through every single tile and bombing them to see if they’re fake sounds like your idea of a good time, Metroid just isn’t all that fun to explore. You start out exceptionally weak. Your basic attack covers maybe twice, three times your own width, if that. You can’t hit enemies crawling on the ground (and boy are there a lot of them). You can collect extra health tanks, and eventually develop quite the reserve, but if you ever die you’ll respawn with just 30 HP, with all of your tanks empty, so I hope you like grinding! Some of these problems eventually go away; you can collect a long beam to make your attacks actually cover the whole screen, and you can collect the wave beam to hit enemies on the ground. Of course, the wave beam is mutually exclusive with the ice beam, and you need the latter to complete the game, so don’t get too attached now.

However, I didn’t choose to write an article on Metroid just to dunk on a 35-year old game. There’s a reason there’s an entire genre (“Metroidvania”) named after this game3, after all. Even if the execution here sucks, the core idea is very strong. A game about exploration is going to scratch a very different itch than a game about a linear obstacle course. Every powerup opens up just a little bit more of the world, and you get to feel smart when you remember that locked door or inaccessible ledge from an hour ago that your new upgrade lets you bypass. And even in games that aren’t strict Metroidvanias, this core idea of organic, mechanics-based “keys” is a fundamental element in video game design4. There are a lot of great Metroidvanias out there that are worth playing, even today, both modern and classic. Unfortunately, the grandaddy of them all just isn’t one of them.

Stray Observations:

  • It’s kinda neat how floaty Samus’s jump is, even before you get the hi jump boots. It really sells that you’re in space.
  • The final boss fight is insanely hard. Even at full energy I wasn’t able to beat it. There’s not a whole lot of room to maneuver, and you need to hit her with a frankly unreasonable number of missiles.
  • I started using maps fairly early (basically as soon as I learned the game doesn’t play fair; if it won’t why should I?). On them, I noticed something called “Fake Kraid” hidden inside Kraid’s lair. Frankly, I don’t even want to know.
  • I guess I should at least mention how Samus being a woman is kind of a big deal, especially for the era? I don’t know how many Feminism Points your game gets for it when the incentive for a perfect run is getting to see her in a bikini at the end, but I guess it’s both better than nothing and better than it could have been (hi Other M!)

Other 1986 platformers of note: Game development was a fast process back in the 80s, so the reverberations of Super Mario Bros.‘s success were immediate. We won’t lack for games to talk about in these sections again until we hit the 21st century, and in fact I will probably wind up skipping some notable games.

First off, Super Mario Bros. 2. Though, maybe not the Super Mario Bros. 2 you might be thinking of. This SMB2 was quickly thrown together, using many of the same assets as the original. It was never brought over from Japan, however, on account of being absolutely bullshit hard. SMB2 is a straight-up mean game, adding elements like lethal poison mushrooms (a shade darker than the helpful super mushrooms) and warp rooms that can only send you backwards. Nintendo would instead reskin a future, unrelated game with Mario sprites and release it as Super Mario Bros. 2 internationally. The Japanese SMB2 would later be included in the SNES compilation Super Mario All-Stars as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, which is generally the name it carries outside of Japan to this day.

Something’s fishy about that mushroom…

1986 also saw the release of Castlevania. With a muted color palette and a horror aesthetic, Castlevania aimed for a slightly older audience than most NES games. Mechanically, it features the older, fixed jump arcs of the arcade era, rather than the malleable jumps of most games post-Mario. Maybe an intentional choice to be “realistic”, given the darker tone? Outside of the NES, we also see the release of Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the Sega Master System. Alex Kidd proved to be a huge success on the upstart console, being programmed directly onto later iterations as a pack-in game. Although the Master System was a distant second to the NES, Sega would later breakthrough with the Mega Drive/Genesis; surely their famous mascot Alex Kidd would join them?

…right?

Next Time: It’s Jump ‘n Shoot Man! More commonly known as Mega Man.