Back in the late 80s, Metroid crept onto Western shelves like those in Toys ‘R Us without much fanfare. The Nintendo Fun Club newsletter ran a simple, two page spread featuring the game, and the box art (at least in the West) like some Nintendo box art at the time was nothing really remarkable. No one could guess at the kind of impact that it, along with The Legend of Zelda and a few others would leave on the gaming landscape.
Certainly not Yoshio Sakamoto as the co-creator and director, or Gunpei Yokoi who acted as the producer, or Hirokazu Tanaka who created the haunting soundtrack opening this unassuming space adventure. They and their team couldn’t have guessed at how far ranging and influential Metroid would be. Back then, all they were told to do was create “gameplay unlike anything else seen before”.
Seasoned developers like Sakamoto and Yokoi were also confronted with their own challenges, namely a team that didn’t have a lot of experience in game development. In a translated interview hosted by Nintendo World Report (and originally hosted by Spanish gaming site, Revogamers), co-director Sakamoto recalls that Metroid initially started out as unplayable. Calling the team together and brainstorming later into development, they finally came up with the ideas that everyone around the world would know as Metroid. It was initially released for the Famicom Disk System in Japan and in 1987, came out for the NES in cartridge form.
The ideas behind Metroid had appeared in various other games notably those on PC such as 1986’s Rad Warrior published by Epyx in the US (originally The Sacred Armor of Antiriad in the UK) in which the player would don a suit of “magic” armor and locate the pieces for it to enable different abilities. Though it came out in September, a month after Metroid came out in Japan, it’s fairly safe to assume that the developers (Palace Software) likely had no clue about Metroid. However, with Metroid and the power of the Famicom/NES behind it, the game became a showcase of the kind of sci-fi inspired gameplay that would wow players everywhere.
Metroid’s 2D, side scrolling gameplay set up the player as Samus Aran, a space bounty hunter called upon by the Galactic Federation Police to help deal with threats like deadly space pirates. Unfortunately, a band of space pirates had raided a special research installation and made off with a hibernating lifeform that was recently discovered on a mysterious planet named SR388. It was theorized that it was what led to the destruction of whatever ancient civilization was there, so worrying that it might get loose and multiply was something no one wanted on their mind. Enter Samus Aran.
When Samus Aran first gets to the pirate planet, he doesn’t have any special gadgets or enhancements for his armor. All he has is his blaster, but by exploring, the player could locate upgrades for their weapons and armor enabling them to more easily destroy enemies, open special doors, and discover secret tunnels to find more goodies. Samus will be able to carry more missiles, wield new blaster modes (like a handy ice beam to freeze foes), and early on, turn into a ball to roll into tight spaces.
Each new upgrade also scales into the new challenges of each zone and open up previously inaccessible ones. For example, finding a special bomb enhancement and using it in conjunction with your ball form (you won’t take damage from your own bombs) can propel you in new directions to get to other areas. Certain doors can only be opened with special missiles or weapons, and some enemies…namely our friendly neighborhood Metroid…can only be killed with certain ones. A password system also kept track of your progress, such as items and upgrades found, and there was even a New Game + system that allowed you to start a new game with most upgrades.
What made Metroid particularly incredible was that it blended together exploration, action adventure concepts, and empowering moments into a streamlined title that gave the player a lot of freedom to explore. In some ways, it was a lot like The Legend of Zelda where every new upgrade opened new possibilities for the player, tapping into their curiosity to see just what else the game might be hiding.
In some ways, Metroid’s approach to collecting permanent power-ups and exploring locales can be reminiscent of a kind of ‘short hand’ distillation of RPG ideas which had long shared the same concepts — loot, treasures, magic weapons, armor, and the sense of empowerment and progression. In a way, Metroid itself is a kind of RPG, one with a very unique twist at the end.
Metroid multiple endings had an interesting twist. Depending on how quickly you finished the game, a secret about our hero Samus would be revealed. Those who completed the adventure the fastest would suddenly find out that the guy they were playing as Samus is actually a woman instead.
“At the beginning of development Samus didn’t have a defined gender. During development, in one of the meetings with the staff someone said that it would be a nice surprise if at the end of the game the player found out that Samus was in fact a woman. We thought it was a good idea so we implemented it. In a way, I had a “daughter” by coincidence.”
Metroid became wildly popular and would soon be followed by a number of sequels, one for the Gameboy (Nintendo’s new handheld created by Metroid producer, Gunpei Yokoi) and later, the incredibly successful Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo System which is often cited as one of the greatest games not only for the system but of all time.
The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Super Metroid’s success would also inspire not only other players but more than a few designers. A few years later, Koji Igarashi working for Konami would look to The Legend of Zelda and Super Metroid for ideas on how to bring much needed replayability to the Castlevania series, later taking the initiative into bringing that magic to life with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. By shattering the traditional “stage based” approach of other Castlevanias (with the exception of Simon’s Quest in ’86 which tried the open stage formula before with mixed results), Igarashi’s changes would determine the direction for the series for the next several years. So popular were the changes that many players compared them to Metroid’s open, 2D stage approach.
Eventually, the term ‘metroidvania’ came to embody both series’ approach to side-scrolling, open world exploration. As Rad Warrior demonstrated, the ideas weren’t entirely new or solely due to Metroid alone, but with the NES’ rising popularity and with a quickly growing console audience, its accessibility and solid gameplay won over countless players who would later hunger for more of the same.
Today, Metroid continues to inspire many others from new indie designers to a new generation of players eager to dip into the classics and find out why this game in particular keeps appearing on “greatest of” lists.
The strange thing is that although Metroid is treated like an icon in gaming, it hasn’t quite been treated with the same kind of attention that the arguably more commercially successful Mario and Zelda games have been by Nintendo. That hasn’t meant that the series has been forgotten since its Super Metroid days. For the Game Boy Advance, the Metroid was remade with Super Metroid enhancements and released in 2004. Before that, Retro Studios’ reinvention of the series as a first-person action adventure proved to be wildly successful on the Gamecube in 2002 with Metroid Prime.
The events in Prime would be continued later with Echoes in 2004, and finish with Corruption for the Wii in 2007. Still, even with a few other titles to the series’ name, the Metroid series isn’t quite as prolific as its peers. Still, that hasn’t stopped many fans from wishing that it were, an itch often scratched by other games paying homage to the series’ formula or by efforts such as a fan remake of the Game Boy’s Metroid 2 over at Project AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake).
Starting off with a humble team of seasoned and inexperienced developers tasked to create something new, Metroid’s impact and lasting appeal continues to reach across generations of players and developers thirty years later. The only question is when Nintendo will take Samus Aran back to the stars.