The Complete History Of Metroid
Nintendo hasn’t always waved the ‘family fun’ flag as vehemently as it does today. Indeed, upon its release, Metroid stood out from the kid-friendly titles of the mid-Eighties. Nintendo’s push into the children’s market only really began later with the introduction of the Super Nintendo, which we suspect had a lot to do with the fact that Sega was grooming the Mega Drive to appeal more to adult gamers. In varying capacities and over several console wars, Nintendo clearly strove to uphold the family-based image it had carved for itself, but when it chose to dip its toes in ‘adult’ gaming waters, with Metroid, Nintendo proved it could do so with aplomb.
The Metroid saga begins in 1965 when, shortly after completing his degree in electronics at the Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, a young Gunpei Yokoi joined Nintendo. After a period dabbling with playing cards and electronic toys, Nintendo set its sights on the coin-op market and made Yokoi instrumental in spearheading that transition. While his name became synonymous with Nintendo’s most successful hardware creations, including Game & Watch, Nintendo Famicom, Game Boy, and the company’s most high-profile failure the Virtual Boy, the Nintendo technician in those fledgling years also oversaw some of Nintendo’s earliest Famicom and coin-op titles, and Metroid is one of his most popular creations.
The game surfaced on Nintendo’s Japan-only Famicom Disk System on 6 August 1986. The external disk drive that connected to the machine’s cartridge slot ran off three-inch floppy diskettes. At the time of Metroid’s release, the new-fangled add-on was struggling to strike a chord with Famicom owners, but with the extra storage capacity the disks offered, Nintendo knew it had the means to create two epic adventure games for its machine and hopefully turn the system’s fortunes around. First up to bat was The Legend Of Zelda, and second was Metroid six months later.
At that time, it was fair to assume Nintendo didn’t have a hard or fast plan for how best to market Famicom or its Western counterpart the NES. It would have been foolish to release only cute, kiddie titles on the machine and alienate potential older gamers so early in the console’s life, and with games such as Casino Kid, Mad Max, Friday The 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street and Sweet Home appearing on the system, Nintendo fully understood this. Only with retrospect can we appreciate Metroid as a unique Nintendo game. Still, in terms of gameplay and design it was trailblazing, ambitious, and, like its floppy stable-mate Zelda, offered console owners the then-unprecedented opportunity to explore the wonders of open-world environments.
Perhaps the reason Metroid shares none of the chirpiness so piquant in later Nintendo titles is that Shigeru Miyamoto, the brainchild behind much of Nintendo’s more childlike characters – including Donkey Kong, Mario and Yoshi – had no involvement in its creation. Arguably, his only contribution to the original Metroid was the hiring of designer Yoshio Sakamoto, who worked alongside Yokoi as director of the game. That, and Miyamoto’s signature design style of course. It’s rumoured Sakamoto was looking to make a name for himself at Nintendo and felt the best way to do so was to create games that were unique and atypical of those being made by Miyamoto and his team Entertainment Analysis and Development (EAD). So, with the help of Yokoi, composer Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka, character and scenario designer Makoto Kanoh, and Hiroji Kiyotake, who is credited with designing Samus Aran, Sakamoto set about making a game in strong contrast to Miyamoto’s style.
When breaking down Metroid’s theme, it’s clear from where the game drew inspiration. As fans know, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien played a big part in the look and style of Metroid. The game’s grotesque alien designs look amazingly similar to HR Giger’s classic creatures, and the levels share the bleak isolated appearance of the film sets.
Moreover, the game’s protagonist, Samus Aran, is a strong female central lead, much like Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, in the film. The revelation that Samus was female shocked fans in 1986. Placed in context, however, it was a first for a home videogame series, and a revelation that was only revealed if the player escaped the self-destruct sequence within a strict time limit following the final confrontation with Mother Brain. The game even throws up a red herring by referring to Samus as a he in the game manual, although discrepancies between videogames and their instruction manuals are commonplace, so little can be read into that. As you can imagine, few people discovered the gender bender, only learning the truth five years later with the release of Metroid II on Game Boy.
Given its Alien-inspired story and look, Metroid became a huge hit in the West despite the US cartridge version being slightly inferior to its Eastern counterpart. Whereas the disk version featured an internal save game function enabling fans to effortlessly save their progress, Nintendo decided not to include a battery in the US cartridges and so the poor gamers in America and Europe were left to use an archaic password system instead. However, as fans quickly discovered, despite the initial inconvenience of fumbling with pen and password, the save system actually brought with it its own benefits and led to one of the most famous videogame cheats of all time. When inputted, the fabled ‘Justin Bailey’ password code enabled players to start the game with an entirely different-looking Samus: de-suited and complete with moss-green hair (though the games depict her as a blonde), a bright pink leotard and armed to the back teeth with power ups. However, as the internal makeup between the Famicom and NES differ slightly – NES being the lesser of the two machines, with fewer peripherals, region lockout and substandard sound output – Tanaka’s wonderful atmospheric score suffered slightly in the US translation.
In terms of story, Metroid is far darker than any other Nintendo series. Metroid follows the tale of an orphaned bounty hunter known as Samus Aran, who, throughout most of the games, is concealed inside red-and-gold armour known as the Power Suit. In her first appearance in the original Famicom title, her skinny limbs, large spaceship-like head and ability to roll into a ball almost gave her the look and feel of a robotic bipedal insect – light years away from the pretty young woman hidden within. In later games we discover that the suit is the creation of a peaceful bird-like alien species called the Chozo who helped raise Samus after her parents were killed by pterodactyl creature, and leader of the space pirates, Ridley. Now a bounty hunter, Samus has devoted her life to the enslaving of space pirates and the destruction of the energy-sapping parasites known as Metroids.
While Metroid feels a little primitive by today’s standards, when returning to the game you’ll recognise the strong formula for which the series is now renowned. A template of multi-faceted gunplay, wonderful adventure and platforming gameplay, and a gripping narrative have helped the series endure for over 20 years and gain a passionate legion of Nintendo fans. And that’s not all: the Metroid gameplay has since gone on to inspire the direction of many other popular videogame franchises – most notably Castlevania. The classic 1997 PlayStation title Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night spawned the portmanteau ‘Metroidvania’ as an umbrella term for all the Castlevania titles that adhere to Metroid-style gameplay.
Fans had all but forgotten Metroid by the time Nintendo finally released a Game Boy sequel five years later. And although Metroid II: Return Of Samus did garner numerous plaudits and critical acclaim, the public seemed less enamoured with Samus’s portable outing.
As well as appearing on a new console, Metroid II was also developed by a new dev team: Hiroyuki Kimura and original character designer Hiroji Kiyotake both took to the director’s chair. It’s rumoured that at this time Yoshio Sakamoto chose to take a back seat from the series while he focused his attention on bringing together the right team and story for Samus’s Super Nintendo debut.
But back to Metroid II. The story this time centres on Samus travelling to the Metroid home planet SR-388 to defeat the Metroid Queen. In terms of gameplay – probably in order to suit the attributes and technical limitations of Game Boy – Metroid II is far more linear, which many fans found difficult to accept. The game features hardly any exploration, Samus’s goal being to simply hunt and eradicate a preset number of Metroids in order to progress. Augmenting the game’s emphasis on action, Samus herself is bestowed with a bevy of new weaponry, and, when in her ‘ball’ state, gains wall-crawling abilities. Also, to compensate for Game Boy’s black-and-white display, the Samus Varia Suit was also rethought slightly. At certain points during the game, Samus needs to switch between two different suits, so her Varia Suit had to be made distinguishable by design and not colour. This explains the oversized shoulders, a now-iconic look for the suit and Samus herself following the popularity of the Prime trilogy. The monochrome issue is also why Samus’s arm cannon changes shape whenever she switches between its various fire functions.
Although it wasn’t as commercially successful as Nintendo had hoped, and despite its linear approach to gameplay, Metroid II is now considered by fans as a great handheld debut for the franchise, and a tasty appetiser to what many would consider the pinnacle of the series: the aptly titled Super Metroid.
Released for SNES in 1994, Super Metroid proved another hit for Nintendo and its new 16-bit machine. With the directorial reins handed back over to Sakamoto, and the fantastic story that delves a little more into Samus’s tragic past, not to mention the impressive grunt of the new console, meant the stage was set for a return to form for the series. Following on directly from the events of Metroid II, Super Metroid followed Samus’s mission to hunt down her arch-nemesis Ridley, who has fled the newly rebuilt planet Zebes with the last remaining Metroid. Super Metroid’s gameplay recalled the labyrinthine caverns and open-world gameplay of the original, only decorated with lavish colour palettes, detailed sprite work, and some extremely smooth SNES animation.
Once again the series placed its emphasis on exploration, only this time inside screens teeming with secrets and hidden rooms to explore. And like Metroid II, far more consideration was given over to Samus’s weapons and suit abilities through various upgrades, which not only played a part of the gunplay, but also in the puzzle solving. And to round everything off nicely, Nintendo also introduced a roster of memorable villains for Samus to face as well as a return for the screen-smothering Mother Brain and Ridley.
Featuring on the box art, Ridley is a character Sakamoto was hoping Metroid fans would most embrace, pulling out all the stops to make him integral to the story. At the start of the game, Samus arrives on Zebes, where she discovers Ridley has broken into the research facility, killed all the scientists, and stolen the last remaining Metroid, which, at the finale of Metroid II, she decided to save and mother – yet more Alien plot similarities. When Samus finally confronts Ridley at the base, after a quick fight he flees the facility with the Metroid in tow, leaving Samus mere minutes to escape before the entire place explodes. It’s an epic and memorable lead into the game and remains an iconic SNES moment.
With an estimated 2 million copies sold worldwide, Super Metroid was unlike anything else on SNES, and with Nintendo riding high on a wave of success after the likes of Super Mario World, F-Zero, Pilotwings and A Link To The Past, SNES owners were eagerly waiting to snap up the next title to come charging from the publisher’s stable. Looking like no other Nintendo game of its time served the game well as it stood out from the crowd, and when the positive magazine reviews started flooding in and word spread of its brilliance, the series’ popularity skyrocketed. But once again Metroid fans were forced to wait patiently before Samus resurfaced.
It still amazes many fans that Metroid never got a Nintendo 64 release. After all, Mario, Star Fox, and even Pilotwings enjoyed 64-bit sequels, so why not Metroid? Perhaps the reasons lie with the hazy internal goings-on at Nintendo at the time. Following the commercial failure of Virtual Boy, Gunpei Yokoi resigned from Nintendo and started up his own company, Koto Laboratory, before his tragic death in a road accident in 1997. With no leader at the helm of R&D1, it’s possible the Metroid series was put on a long hiatus while Miyamoto and Nintendo focused on their new console and also decided what to do with the Metroid franchise. Supporting this idea is Nintendo’s decision to hand the series over to American developer Retro Studios, a brave move that could have proved devastating for Metroid.
Fans were concerned upon hearing that Metroid was going 3D, skipping a console war, and being handled by an external studio in the US. However, their fears were allayed when they learned that Sakamoto would be joined by Miyamoto in what marked his first direct involvement in the series. Despite being a colossal eight years in the making, the eventual game that came from this partnership was another glorious high for the series. Although it shirked numerous deadlines and was rumoured to have had a catalogue of issues during development, Metroid Prime, released for GameCube in 2002, was a perfect 3D debut for the franchise.
Metroid Prime marks a significant change in the series. Not only is the game 3D, but it’s also played from a first-person perspective. Interestingly, it’s widely reported that the first-person shooter idea was suggested by Miyamoto himself. Disappointed with Retro Studios’ efforts and the game’s camera, he apparently ordered the developer to rethink the game, suggesting the action be played through the eyes of Samus herself and that the various suits be represented by coloured visors. The first-person shooter approach meant the attention to detail of the helmet’s HUD had to be astonishing, and to Retro Studios’ credit they did a great job of making you feel like you’re actually inside Samus’s Power Suit – even when she did her ball-morphing routine and the game switched to third person.
Prime, it seemed, had everything covered. And yet despite the bold change in perspective and the jaw-dropping visuals, what really made Prime so impressive was just how well the open-world gameplay of Metroid and Super Metroid had been carried across to 3D and the FPS genre. Such freedom was practically unheard of in the genre, in console games at least. Players could finally immerse themselves in the freakish world of Metroid, get inside the head of their heroine and get up close and personal with the game’s monsters. Prime was well received by both the gaming press and Metroid fans in its day. In a time of less-than-perfect Nintendo titles, such as Super Mario Sunshine, Star Fox Adventures and Mario Kart Double Dash!!, Prime stood out as the best GameCube game from Nintendo. And for a period, in the West at least, it was Nintendo’s most important title.
Given that the series was hitting the height of its popularity in 2002, it should come as no surprise that Metroid saw no less than five more games appear on various Nintendo consoles within the following four years. The first of these was Metroid Fusion, which was actually released the same year as Prime. While Metroid director Yoshio Sakamoto helped guide Retro Studios during the development of Metroid’s first three-dimensional outing, he had also longed to create a true follow-up to his magnum opus Super Metroid. Of course, he was keen to continue the story in two dimensions, which left him no option but to develop the sequel, titled Metroid Fusion (aka Metroid IV) for Nintendo’s then-newest handheld Game Boy Advance. Fusion may have been the creation of Metroid stalwart Sakamoto, but the gameplay is more akin to the style and gameplay of Metroid II. In fact, the game is probably even more accessible and more linear due to the fact that Samus is joined by a computer aide called Adam – said to be a robotic replicant of Samus’s old commanding officer – and progression is mission based, which nullifies any sense of exploration.
The story details how Samus is forced to fuse with the Metroid she’s been fostering after returning to SR-388 and becoming infected by a deadly parasite. The result of this fusion gives Samus all-new Metroid abilities and a new underpowered suit: the Fusion Suit, which is less powerful than the standard Power Suit but does offer added agility. Presently, Fusion is the final Metroid game in terms of story chronology. However, in 2005 a DS sequel, titled Metroid Dread, was said to be in the works, but more on that later.
Two more Metroid titles were released in 2004. The first, Metroid Zero Mission, landed on GBA in February and marked a couple of firsts for the series. In keeping with the 2D Game Boy Advance titles, Sakamoto was in the driving seat once again, but this looked set to bring the original NES game right up to date with the graphical finesse of Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. Zero Mission is a fantastic remake of the original NES game that makes wonderful use of all the extra power inside its new host console. It also has one rather special ace up its sleeve for fans: once Samus defeats Mother Brain, the game continues to reveal an extra section that allows the player to control Samus in her Zero Suit, which is basically just a blue jumpsuit.
Following the release of Metroid: Zero Mission, attention returned to the GameCube after Retro Studios released its three-dimensional follow-up to Prime the following November. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was another excellent title only really let down by its disappointing multiplayer deathmatch section. Apart from that, the gameplay remained pretty much untouched from Prime. Retro Studios added some new enemies – most notably Dark Samus – two new Power Suits (Dark and Light), and a unique dark and light element to the gameplay courtesy of the new setting, planet Aether.
Echoes retained the same level of quality of Prime, but sadly failed to garner the same level of sales at retail. And being released shortly after the launch of Halo 2 certainly didn’t help. Following the release of Echoes was a bizarre but brilliant Metroid-themed pinball title for DS. The game is said to have come about after Kensuke Tanabe felt Samus’s ability to morph into a ball would lend itself to a pinball spin-off. He approached UK developer Fuse Games, who worked on Mario Pinball Land, to develop the idea. Packed with the DS Rumble Pak, Metroid Prime Pinball brilliantly fuses the world of Metroid Prime with pinball. It also makes great use of the handheld’s dual screens and touch-sensitive abilities, whetting appetites for the first ‘proper’ Metroid game to appear on the system.
Unusually for Metroid, DS fans only had to wait a year because in 2006 Metroid Prime Hunters was released. Nintendo and Retro ambitiously dropped the handheld series’ traditional 2D side-scrolling perspective in favour of the three-dimensional first-person shooter view from Prime and Echoes. On paper, with the DS stylus and dual screens, the new direction made sense, but in practice it didn’t work as well as fans had hoped. While the game did a great job of squeezing the atmosphere and gameplay of the GameCube titles into the humble DS, the problems resided in the game’s fiddly controls, which required a combination of both the D-pad and stylus to move Samus. To the game’s credit it does improve on Echoes’ lacklustre multiplayer section, and, control issues aside, it’s still an enjoyable Metroid outing.
The final game in the saga, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, was released on the Wii in 2007 and represents the conclusion of the Prime trilogy, continuing six months after the events of Echoes. Taking its cues from Metroid Fusion, Samus is again infected by a deadly substance – this time the radioactive matter known as Phazon – and is now fighting to save her own life while also trying to stop the Phazon threat from spreading to other planets. Unlike Hunters, it doesn’t suffer in the handling department, with many fans saying it has the best controls out of all three games. Like the other Prime games, Corruption adheres to the open-world Metroid formula and serves as a fitting end to what can only be considered one of the best videogame series of all time.
The only other Metroid title we should pay tribute to is the still-unconfirmed and rumoured-to-be-in-development DS follow-up to Fusion; Metroid Dread. This portable title has been spinning around in the rumour mill since 2005, back when Game Informer announced Nintendo’s Intelligence Systems was working on a new 2D Metroid game for DS. There is still no word from Nintendo whether or not the game is in development, but in 2007 interest was reignited when IGN discovered a telling message hidden in Metroid Prime 3 that read “Experiment status report update: Metroid project ‘Dread’ is nearing the final stages of completion.” But two years on we’re still waiting for the game to appear.