Monday, December 26, 2022

NES Replay: Metroid

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: August 1986

I hate the momiker "Metroidvania."

I mean no disrespect to latter-day Castlevania, but Metroid came out in 1986, Metroid 2 in 1991 and Super Metroid in 1994. The first Castlevania that a similar structure to the Metroid series came out in 1997. This isn't to say that the early Castlevania games were bad. Far from it! They're great! However, they are not "metroidvanias" and didn't join the same genre for 11 years.

But if you don't call the genre "metroidvania" what do you call it? "Action-Exploring?" Too wordy. "Metroids?" Nah, that's generic. I argue that the only reason that the name "metroidvania" has stuck is because it's catchy.

Metroid is much more notable for where it ended up than where it started. Super Metroid is undoubtedly one of the best games of all time. It has a tremendous sense of place, along with ominous music and some truly creepy bosses. When your sequel is one of the best games of all time, it's hard to go backwards. When you've seen Kraid expand from taking up one full screen to two full screens, then firing pieces of his body at you, it's hard to go back and fight a Kraid that's the same size as you, you know?

The original Metroid is... fine. There are a few decisions that hamper it. For example, why exactly does Samus start out the game with so little health? You start out with less than half of your health bar. This means that your early play experience is just killing enemies and refilling your health bar up to the maximum.

There are also too many same-looking dead-end corridors. You definitely need a guide, because otherwise you'll spend ten minutes jumping from platform to platform up a long path only to find nothing at the top. It wouldn't be so bad if these corridors were interesting to look at in some way. They're not. They repeat in an endless fashion and become tedious really quick. This is a mistake that they repeated in Metroid 2 and thankfully mostly stopped in Super Metroid.

I also have to quibble about the "Long Beam." At the beginning of the game, you can shoot a tiny little beam out in front of you and that's as far as it goes. Early on, you can find the Long Beam, which makes you be able to shoot across the screen. Why? It just seems like an arbitrary idea.

However, even with these quibbles, Metroid is still fun. It's definitely primitive compared to future Metroid games and, yes, other metroidvanias, but they were definitely on to something. It was a bold direction that is completely untethered from any arcade forebears.

I mean, you could conceivably make a game like The Legend of Zelda for arcades. It would take a little tweaking, but it wouldn't be impossible. You could definitely put Super Mario Bros. in an arcade, and they did.

However, a game where you slowly explore a world and need a password system in order to keep going? No, that's unique to a home console. There's no way to monetize that without changing the entire structure of the game.

Metroid was not suis generis. After all, the NES version of Rygar covered similar territory, but the devs of Metroid didn't seem to notice the Rygar port when making Metroid. To the best of their knowledge, they were coming up with something new: A game where the screen scrolls in all directions, with no bottomless pits and permanent powerups that are required to finish the game.

It may sound sacreligious, but I believe that the best version of Metroid is Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA. It has a lot of quality-of-life improvements and fixes many of my complaints about this game. Still, the original serves as a fascinating portal, an interesting glimpse into a world full of possibilities, though it would take some time for those possibilities to crystallize.

Final Rating:


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