Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be upgrading our knowledge of Metroid. All cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Where two dates or years are listed, the first is Japan and the second is North America. For more details on the history of Nintendo and the Famicom, please read Franchise Festival #49: Mario (2D).
Table of Contents
Nintendo Research and Development 1 (R&D1) division’s Gunpei Yokoi directed Hiroji Kiyotake and Satoru Okada to begin work on Metroid under the working title Space Hunter in 1985. Kiyotake and Okada had previously only worked on liquid-crystal display (LCD)-based portable Game and Watch devices, but Yokoi believed that their skills were transferable to producing a major new intellectual property (IP) for the studio’s recent Famicom Disk System (FDS) console. Yoshio Sakamoto was assigned to the project as producer, but initially let the pair of designers proceed with little oversight.
Kiyotake and Okada sought to produce a sidescrolling platformer that offered different verbs from the ones popularized by Super Mario Bros. (1985). Their starting point was the Screw Attack, a move that allowed their protagonist to damage enemies by spinning into them mid-air rather than sustaining damage as Mario would. The game’s tone was influenced by HR Giger’s creature and set design for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Unfortunately, the two developers’ inexperience led them to have little to show for their efforts after ten months aside from Samus’ complex moveset.
Producer Sakamoto leveraged the entire R&D1 team and brought in second-party studio Intelligent Systems to polish the game up during its final three months of production. Samus’ movement mechanics were scaled back so that the FDS’ limited memory could be applied to the level design, allowing the team to distinguish its labyrinthine corridors from one another through distinct color palettes. The game launched in Japan on August 6, 1986 and then on August 15, 1987, in North America on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), where the FDS’ save system was replaced with passwords alongside a handful of other minor changes.
A lengthy instruction manual establishes the series’ mythology: the year is 20X5 and space pirates have become a hazard for the increasingly-connected Milky Way. One group of these ne’er-do-wells has shanghaied a research vessel carrying the eponymous Metroid, a species ostensibly responsible for the total annihilation of planet SR388’s population. The Galactic Federation, a council composed of the galaxy’s spacefaring races, hires bounty hunter Samus Aran to track these pirates to their base on the planet Zebes and stop them from turning the Metroid into a powerful bioweapon. Samus confronts dozens of hostile aliens, including the minibosses Kraid and Ridley, on her way to destroy the pirates’ leader: Mother Brain.
Gameplay bears little more than a superficial resemblance to contemporary horizontal run-and-gun titles like Konami’s Rush’n Attack (1985) or action-adventure games like Castlevania (1986). Samus can fire her arm cannon in three directions, somersault through the air, and acquire power-ups like the Ice Beam and Screw Attack that enhance her firepower and mobility. The player is famously confronted with an impassable wall when initially moving right, as was expected in sidescrolling games of the era, requiring Samus to return to the left and pick up a power-up that lets her morph into a ball before continuing ahead. Other pathways are similarly only able to be overcome when equipped with specific gear found around Zebes.
In spite of its innovations, hardware limitations prevent Metroid from achieving the heights of its successors. The absence of an in-game map forces the player to maintain their own physical notes if they want to avoid repeatedly backtracking through largely anonymous corridors. Since there is no status screen that permits Samus to swap between arm cannon upgrades after they’re acquired, the player must also backtrack to reclaim previous weaponry when a specific upgrade is necessary for opening a path.
Even so, Metroid was a hugely influential game that established the template for an entire genre of so-called Metroidvanias. It put The Legend of Zelda’s (1986) tool-based progression system to thoughtful use through a non-linear environment that expands only once additional skills are acquired. It also offered one of the medium’s first female protagonists, deliberately obscured through the use of masculine pronouns in the instruction manual and only revealed to players who are able to beat the game in a short enough period of time.
Re-releases on the Game Boy Advance, Wii, 3DS, Switch, and more have ensured that the game has remained easily accessible for decades after its debut. 2004 Game Boy Advance remake Metroid: Zero Mission also builds on the original title’s framework with more distinctive environments, tighter controls, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)-style graphics, and an in-game map. At the time of writing, however, Zero Mission is at risk of becoming inaccessible outside of the physical release; its Wii U eShop port will be delisted when that platform is discontinued in March 2023.
Metroid II: Return of Samus (1992/1991)
The series’ first sequel featured no involvement from Sakamoto or Okada even though it was produced under Gunpei Yokoi at R&D1. Returning director Kiyotake was instead joined by co-director Hiroyuki Kimura, who was best known at the time for designing characters for Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), and Super Mario Land (1989) programmer Takahiro Harada. The latter was particularly important, since Samus’ second outing would have the unenviable goal of translating the first game’s oppressive atmosphere onto a monochromatic Game Boy screen. Metroid II: The Return of Samus was first published in North America during November 1991 and came to Japan two months later.
The story begins with the Galactic Federation sending several investigatory teams to the Metroid homeworld following the events of Metroid. When they all disappear, Samus is sent in to eradicate the Metroid species. She discovers during her visit to SR388 that the small creature that appeared in the preceding game was just a larval specimen, and that Metroids can grow into all manner of larger, more deadly varieties over time.
Enemy design represents the biggest step forward and backward in Metroid II. Challenging combat encounters are more numerous than they had been in Metroid, since the game is essentially a series of Metroid boss fights separated by constrained exploration sequences, but there is less sprite variety overall. In contrast to the tool-gated progression of Samus’ previous adventure, areas in Metroid II open up linearly once a requisite number of Metroids are hunted down and eliminated. Samus also gains the ability to fire from a crouched position and shoot downward while jumping for the first time alongside a new navigation ability called the Space Jump.
While Metroid II is less ambitious than the games that preceded and followed it, it was more successful at the transition to portable play than the Super Mario franchise had been; Samus’ future sprite would even be based on her Game Boy iteration, which itself was more detailed than the NES version to indicate ability upgrades without the benefit of color. The game would also be a successful test case for the viability of the genre on handheld devices – during the Game Boy Advance era, Metroidvanias would become more or less exclusive to this space.
Re-releases on Nintendo virtual console platforms would ensure Metroid II’s ongoing availability in the 2000s and 2010s. Following in Zero Mission’s footsteps, though, a full remake would be developed by Spanish studio MercurySteam and published by Nintendo on the 3DS in 2017. Metroid: Samus Returns reimagines SR388 with 2.5D polygonal areas and character models while introducing a counter-attack mechanic that blends well with the game’s combat-forward design. It also includes a few additional areas and encounters, including a returning fan-favorite boss character from the original Metroid.
Super Metroid (1994)
Super Metroid’s development began at Nintendo R&D1 under Yoshio Sakamoto in August 1991. The two-and-a-half year process would unite the staff of both preceding titles – including artist Hiroyuki Kimura and designer Makoto Kanoh (now producer) – while integrating new members like composer Kenji Yamamoto and programmer Mitsuru Matsomoto; in total, seventeen employees worked on the project. Sakamoto sought to create the medium’s most cinematic title yet, encouraging Yamamoto and the team’s graphic artists to take inspiration from contemporary science fiction films. The resulting SNES game would be published to unanimous praise in Japan on March 19, 1994 and in North America on April 18, 1994.
Super Metroid is set shortly after the events of Metroid II. Samus delivers a baby Metroid to a research laboratory, which is then attacked by space pirates; Metroid villain Ridley returns, grabs the creature, and escapes to Zebes during a breathless opening stage. Samus must return to the space pirate planet and recapture her parasitic charge while defeating the reconstituted forces of Mother Brain.
Though the story and setting directly evoke Samus’ first adventure, the presentation renders these elements much larger than they had previously been. Kraid and Ridley – once about the size of Samus – now tower over the bounty hunter. Zebes likewise expands on graphically embellished interpretations of Metroid’s corridors with new areas that hadn’t appeared in its NES version; each new location features a previously unseen boss, like the genetically engineered plant Spore Spawn and reptilian Crocomire. Even the final encounter with Mother Brain is more dramatic than it had previously been, as the oversized foe can only be defeated by Samus after a cutscene in which it’s wounded by the infant Metroid.
Gameplay is refined from past series entries, as Samus now fires diagonally when the player uses the SNES controller’s shoulder buttons and an on-screen map ensures that the player won’t get turned around. Map and status sub-screens likewise mean that Samus doesn’t need to re-acquire different beam augmentations when she needs to access an ability-gated area. Finally, a host of new power-ups make the player’s arsenal more versatile than ever: among others, screen-filling Super Bombs clear away enemies and walls, the Grapple Beam lets Samus swing from overhead fixtures, and the tough-to-master Shinespark ability boosts Samus rapidly along her vertical or horizontal axis when engaged.
Super Metroid is widely regarded as one of the best video games ever made. It captures the eerie tone and high stakes of a science fiction story through its audio-visual presentation, while never becoming bogged down in cutscenes or lengthy dialogue sequences. Its tight controls allow players to reliably navigate and execute attacks with precision. Finally, its addition of a map screen alongside myriad secret areas would produce the template for all future Metroidvania titles; Koji Igarashi insists that Konami’s pivotal Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was influenced by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s gear-gated progression mechanics, but its map is pulled directly from Super Metroid. Sakamoto’s masterpiece remains accessible today through the Wii, Wii U, and New 3DS virtual consoles, the SNES Classic standalone console, and Nintendo Switch Online.
Metroid Fusion (2003/2002)
In a 2010 interview with now-defunct gaming website GamesTM, Sakamoto confessed that he felt unable to adapt Metroid to the Nintendo 64. Nintendo was similarly turned down when it offered this project to an unknown third-party studio. While the license was next provided to Austin-based Retro Studios, which produced a side series titled Metroid Prime, Metroid wouldn’t receive a fourth core series entry until the Game Boy Advance was released. Sakamoto was convinced to oversee development on this platform using the Nintendo R&D1 team that had previously developed Wario Land 4 (2001). Sakamoto initially balked at his staff’s efforts to redesign Samus’ suit and offer an easier, more clearly guided experience than had been present in Super Metroid, but eventually relented and trusted their instincts. Metroid Fusion – strangely referred to in an in-game title card as “Metroid 4” – was published for the Game Boy Advance on November 17, 2002 in North America and on February 14, 2003 in Japan.
A lightly animated introductory cutscene sets the stage, as Samus is infected with a parasite called X on Planet SR388 and treated by the Galactic Federation. Samus is cured with a vaccine developed using the cells of her infant Metroid companion, giving her the ability to absorb X parasites but also making her vulnerable to damage from cold environments and fusing her skin to parts of her suit. Her suit’s outer layer is transferred to a Biologic Space Laboratory (BSL) station for study. When a mysterious explosion rocks the BSL facility, Samus and an AI partner named Adam are dispatched to investigate.
Metroid Fusion resembles its direct predecessor, but its overall structure is actually very different. Instead of finding new areas through poking at the edges of a map and independently returning to previously inaccessible areas after acquiring new gear, the player is directed by Adam to visit specific map locations that progress the narrative. The series’ traditionally open-ended level design is eschewed in favor of events reshaping the environment as Samus is hunted by an eerie doppelganger called SA-X. Aside from the ability to pull herself up onto ledges, Samus’ toolset is largely informed by Super Metroid. X-infested monsters present the biggest combat challenge, as the X parasites that float around after they’re defeated can produce new monsters if not rapidly absorbed.
Metroid Fusion was widely praised upon release, though its reputation has dimmed over time. Its characteristically strong action and eerie setting, unfortunately, are undermined by a prescriptive level design structure that falls short of Super Metroid. Though a proposal by MercurySteam to remake the project was turned down by Nintendo in favor of Metroid: Samus Returns, Metroid Fusion has been re-released on the Wii U Virtual Console and 3DS as an exclusive to early hardware adopters through that platform’s Ambassador Program.
Metroid: Other M (2010)
Yoshio Sakamoto had a difficult time conveying his vision for the series’ fifth core entry to fellow Nintendo employees. Gameplay concepts come first at Nintendo, but Sakamoto wanted storytelling and cutscenes to take center stage in his next Metroid project. With this in mind, and having recently enjoyed the Tecmo-published Ninja Gaiden (2004), Sakamoto enlisted the aid of Tecmo subsidiary Team Ninja to develop Metroid: Other M for the Wii. This was an unlikely partnership – Nintendo’s family-friendly image was at odds with the reputation for grisly violence and sexually charged imagery that Team Ninja had established in its Dead or Alive franchise – but staff adapted well to their collaboration with Sakamoto and computer-generated (CG) animation studio D-Rockets. Sakamoto laid out the story and basic design, D-Rockets produced the cutscenes, and Team Ninja handled gameplay. The project’s biggest hurdle, Samakoto’s insistence that the game be playable using a single WiiMote with only three buttons and a d-pad, was eventually overcome by Team Ninja’s ingenuity. Metroid: Other M was published in North America on August 31, 2010 and in Japan less than a week later.
The story, which is presented through more than two hours of fully-voiced cutscenes, is set between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. Samus reflects on her loss of the Baby Metroid during Super Metroid’s climactic encounter and her relationship with former commanding officer Adam Malkovich (the namesake of the AI that accompanies her during Metroid Fusion) as she explores a derelict spaceship when summoned by a distress signal. The game’s nuanced look at how people process trauma is undermined by Samus’ uncomfortable subservience to Adam, however, which extends even to putting herself in harm’s way by not using her gear until he explicitly authorizes it.
While its approach to storytelling represents a break with series tradition, its gameplay is even more unusual – Metroid: Other M is the vanishingly rare example of a third-person shooter controlled with a d-pad. This means that Samus lacks full 360-degree movement and can’t independently aim at enemies while exploring; an auto-aim instead targets the nearest foe whenever the player taps an attack button. It compensates for this input limitation with a first-person mode activated by holding the WiiMote upright, which allows the player to manually target enemies from a stationary position and launch missiles. Samus’ arsenal is rounded out with a dedicated dodge button and powerful hand-to-hand takedowns that can be activated once enemies have sustained enough damage.
The scenario is similar to Metroid Fusion, featuring five biomes on-board its Bottle Ship setting and favoring a linear narrative-directed path over unstructured exploration. Its chief distinction is the addition of first-person “detective” sequences in which Samus must look around from her first-person view and uncover some detail in her environment before proceeding. Returning bosses include Metroid’s Ridley and Metroid Fusion’s Nightmare, while new bosses include the massive magma fish Vorash and mechanical RB176 Ferrocrusher.
Metroid: Other M is Sakamoto’s most polarizing game. Though most initial reviews were negative, criticizing its dissonant portrayal of Samus and drab color palette, fans have intermittently celebrated its serious treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and snappy combat over the following decade. A port to Wii U in 2016 preserved access past its initial print run, but that eShop’s pending closure will make the game harder to access after March 2023.
Metroid Dread (2021)
Metroid Dread began pre-production in 2005 as a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion, but was temporarily abandoned due to technical limitations; a prototype developed for the DS in 2008 and circulated among Nintendo staff for feedback fared no better. Next Level Games then developed an unrelated prototype for the 3DS featuring an angular art style, but this was shelved in favor of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon following a meeting between the Canadian second-party studio and Nintendo executives. MercurySteam’s successful reinvention of Metroid II and the comparative ease of developing games for the Nintendo Switch platform finally convinced Sakamoto to give it another go in the late 2010s. Under the leadership of co-directors Jose Luis Márquez (MercurySteam) and Fumi Hayashi (Nintendo), the game was designed around the theme of “dread” and a pursuit mechanic inspired by Metroid Fusion’s SA-X enemy. Metroid Dread was released worldwide for the Switch on October 3, 2021.
Though Samus speaks less than she had in Metroid Fusion and there are fewer non-player characters than Other M, Metroid Dread’s plot is still more extensive than earlier series entries. Samus arrives on planet ZDR on a one-person mission to destroy what remains of the X parasite species and discover why the Galactic Federation’s squad of AI-controlled Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier (EMMI) units disappeared when sent to carry out the same task. Along the way, she discovers living Chozo – the birdlike species that had raised Samus before being seemingly wiped out by Metroids – and struggles with the implications of her Metroid DNA infusion.
Its presentation is enhanced with the series’ first high-definition graphics and a high framerate, but Metroid Dread’s side-scrolling gameplay template is pulled directly from MercurySteam’s previous release. Samus can grab ledges, execute a melee counter-attack, and aim freely in 360 degrees when the player holds a button. The player can also apply icons to their map for future inspection when an impassable obstacle is encountered.
Seven EMMI battles, which augment traditional boss encounters, stand out as Metroid Dread’s most significant new mechanical wrinkle. Within a designated series of rooms, Samus must escape a nearly invulnerable robotic pursuer by avoiding line of sight and making judicious use of her new Phantom Cloak accessory. Being caught by the EMMI gives the player one chance to escape by tapping a button at a random moment before Samus is skewered by the creature. Samus can acquire a single-use Omega Blaster from the surrounding area and destroy the EMMI to gain a new ability.
Metroid Dread was a major milestone for the series, rapidly becoming the fastest-selling Metroid title in the United States and outpacing total sales of nearly all prior series entries in Japan by the end of its first week on store shelves. While its success was marred by reports of abusive work conditions at MercurySteam, Metroid Dread was critically regarded as a worthy sequel to Metroid Fusion. 20 years away from side-scrolling action and dozens of spiritual successors released in the interim hadn’t dimmed the series’ appeal.
Metroid had stumbled into existence as the product of an inexperienced team’s experimentation with concepts cribbed from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) in the late 1980s. It outgrew the mixed success of its early titles with Super Metroid, a game so widely beloved that it served as the inspiration for an entire sub-genre of sidescrollers. The 2000s were a challenging decade for the franchise, as its Nintendo and Team Ninja-developed core entries were eclipsed by first-person spinoffs developed by Retro Studios. A 2017 Metroid II remake by MercurySteam finally paved a new direction for the series, however, leading to its long-overdue return in 2021. Though Sakamoto claims that Metroid Dread represents the end of Samus’ current story arc, the decade ahead looks bright for Nintendo’s most atmospheric property.
What do you think about Metroid? Which series entry is your favorite? Which boss is the gnarliest? Do you think the remakes improved on or fell short of their source material? What exactly is a Narpas Sword? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons like Celeste, Jarathen, and Cheatachu make it possible to keep producing great content!
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #121: Metroid Prime – April 22
- #122: Snowboard Kids – May 6
- #123: Drakengard / Nier – May 20
- #124: Valkyria Chronicles – June 3
- #125: Half-Life / Portal – June 17