Saturday, May 23, 2009

Metroid: Platforming, Puzzles, Powerups, and Pirates

Metroid NES title screenEerie caverns. Grotesque monsters. Secrets around every corner. Tricky jumping puzzles. Laser beams. Futuristic suits of armor. Space Pirates. A girl in a bikini.

Welcome to Metroid.

Metroid artToday, Metroid is known as one of Nintendo's most popular and successful video game series, spanning several different systems and appearing in both 2-D and 3-D format. The games' hero, the bounty hunter Samus Aran, is renowned as one of the strongest (and, for a time, one of the only) female protagonists in video game history. Even gamers who have never played a Metroid game are likely to identify iconic enemies such as Ridley the space dragon, the cranium-in-a-tank known as Mother Brain, and the jellyfish-esque, energy-sucking Metroids themselves.

Back in 1986, however, Metroid was but a single game, an action-packed 2-D platformer shrouded in mystery. Nobody knew what a Metroid was until one was clamped onto their face, and legions of gamers gasped in surprise at the end of the game when it was revealed that the hero they had been playing as was not actually a tough cyborg, but a woman in a space suit.

Metroid NES endingOf course, not everybody discovered this on their first time through the game. The Metroid games hold many secrets, and a hallmark of every game is the existence of multiple endings; which one you see depends on your performance.

In the 2-D Metroid games, you see progressively better endings as you beat the game in shorter amounts of time. In this case, "progressively better" equates out to "Samus wears less clothing." Because loading times are a factor in the 3-D Metroid games that can throw off speedrunning, the ending you receive is instead determined by the percentage of item pickups you collected throughout the game. The Metroid series is rife with hidden and hard-to-get-to powerups, and in fact the later 2-D games consider both completion time and item collection when determining which ending you get to see.

Screw Attack artAmong these powerups are an ice beam that can freeze an enemy solid, the ability to morph into a ball (fittingly, the "Morph Ball") and roll into narrow spaces you couldn't otherwise fit into, an x-ray visor that lets you see through walls, power bombs that can blast right through certain floors, a suit that allows you to survive in even the hottest temperatures, a missile laucher that can lock onto multiple targets at once, a grapple beam that allows you grab onto some kinds of objects and swing across long gaps, and the Screw Attack, which lets you spin-jump into enemies and tear them apart like a buzzsaw.

Despite being around as long as Mega Man, Metroid has not been nearly as prolific... but, perhaps as a result, the relatively few games that have been released are generally of good quality, if not spectacular quality. Here's the rundown of the Metroid games that have been released so far (fans of the Alien movie series should notice some striking similarities with the first few games, and I assure you it's no coincidence):

2-D Sidescrolling Games:

Metroid (NES, 1987): Space pirates have captured a number of newly discovered (and highly dangerous) creatures called "Metroids" and are planning to use them in a scheme to conquer the galaxy. Samus plumbs the depths of the planet Zebes on a mission to eliminate the Metroids and defeat the powerful Space Pirates Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain.

Metroid (NES) screenshot: Battle with Mother BrainThis is easily one of the most challenging Metroid games thanks to the confusing labyrinth of nearly identical tunnels and vertical shafts, and the game's unforgiving nature doesn't help matters (collecting enough powerups to return to full health is both overly hazardous and interminable). The graphics may not be much to look at by today's standards, but they and the music create the perfect atmosphere, and the game as a whole sets the tone and the precedents for the entire series.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB, 1991): Samus is sent to the Metroids' home planet, SR-388, to eradicate the threat of Metroids once and for all. There she encounters never-before-seen breeds of Metroids and the Metroid queen. Samus slays every last Metroid except for one, a hatchling that she takes back to be studied by the Galactic Federation that sent her on this mission.

Metroid II screenshot: Item RoomIt may not be the most diverse Metroid game ever, but with the minimalistic soundtrack, sudden Metroid attacks, and some very large, ominously empty areas, Metroid II has "sci-fi survival horror" written all over it, and that's a very good thing.

Super Metroid (SNES, 1995): Shortly after the baby Metroid is handed over for scientific study, it is stolen by the resurrected Space Pirate Ridley. Samus returns to Zebes to search for the infant, facing off against a host of new enemies and a few familiar foes from her past.

Super Metroid screenshot: First battle with RidleySuper Metroid is widely considered to be the greatest game in the Metroid series, and many consider it to be the greatest game ever made (or, at least, the greatest game ever to grace the SNES). The game oozes atmosphere: the detailed graphics push the limits of the SNES, the soundtrack is incredibly tense, creepy, and heroic in all the right places, and the abilities Samus gains and the challenges she faces are thoroughly fun.

Metroid Fusion (GBA, 2002): After the events of Super Metroid, Samus returns to SR-388 to assist with a scientific expedition, but she becomes infected by something called an "X" parasite, which can copy the form of its host. Samus soon discovers that the research station orbiting SR-388 has been overrun by the X, and it is her job to stop the X from spreading beyond the station, which might not be so bad... except an intelligent copy of her is on the loose inside the station as well, and it will do everything in its power to stop the real Samus from succeeding.

Metroid Fusion screenshot: Climbing over electrified waterMetroid Fusion is more linear and plot-driven than any other 2-D Metroid game, which has its ups and downs. Fusion is a very solid game with a lot of creativity and some extremely tense moments, but the truth is that Super Metroid is a very, very hard act to follow.

Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA, 2004): This is a retelling of the original Metroid that incorporates many of the abilities and powerups introduced in the later games and adds several new sections and more plot (and, of course, the graphics and music have been modernized). Though several of the areas are the same as in the original, enough has been changed so that Metroid and Metroid: Zero Mission are two totally different gaming experiences.

Metroid: Zero Mission screenshot: Battle with Kraid

3-D First-Person Games:

Metroid Prime (GC, 2002):
Taking place between Metroid and Metroid II, this game sends Samus on a mission to track down resurrected Space Pirate Ridley (are you sensing a pattern here yet?) and discover what nefarious operations the Space Pirates have in the works on planet Tallon IV. Of course, there are Metroids involved, but a radioactive substance, "Phazon," comes into play as well. As it turns out, bad guys get bigger and badder when exposed to Phazon...

Metroid Prime screenshot: Derelict space station hallwayAlthough not all fans of the 2-D Metroid games enjoy or are able to comfortably play the 3-D Metroid Prime series, Metroid Prime is about the best 2-D-to-3-D transition one could hope for. The feel of the game might not be as dark and creepy as some of the other games, but, comfortingly, there are plenty of hidden items and classic powerups and huge boss battles, the attention to detail is great (for example, water runs down Samus' visor after jumping out of a lake, and her blaster starts smoking after being fired too much), and the music is the right balance of atmospheric and energetic.

Metroid Prime Hunters (DS, 2006): Taking place between Metroid Prime 1 and 2, Samus races against six other bounty hunters to discover the secret of "Ultimate Power" hidden in the Alimbic Cluster, a place where a great evil has been sealed away... Samus uses her ship to travel to different locations within the Alimbic Cluster and frequently runs into the other bounty hunters, who she must defeat in order to secure this "Ultimate Power" for the Galactic Federation.

Metroid Prime Hunters multiplayer screenshotHunters has been described as a "love-it-or-hate-it" kind of game. Given that Hunters is a first-person shooter on a portable system without a mouse or joystick, aiming is performed using the stylus on the touch screen (unless you can aim well enough using the control pad to avoid the stylus, which seems unlikely), and many gamers (such as myself) find this to be highly uncomfortable. Others, however, have praised the precision of the control, so you'll just need to see for yourself how you'll fare.

The primary focus of Hunters is really its multiplayer mode, which allows you to play as Samus and her six rival bounty hunters with their unique abilities. Multiplayer mode is generally looked upon quite favorably, but feelings about single player aren't as positive: level designs and boss battles are often repetitious, and--unlike in virtually any other Metroid game--there are multiple locations where you can die instantly. Once again, either you'll love it or hate it.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (GC, 2004): Following the events of the original Metroid Prime, Samus is now dispatched to the planet Aether, which has been split into a "Light World" and a "Dark World." Samus fights the Ing, an alien race capable of possessing creatures (as in a ghost possessing a host), and she faces off against Dark Samus, her evil doppelganger.

Metroid Prime 2 screenshot: Battle with IngConsiderably darker (both visually and conceptually) than Metroid Prime, this sequel is up there with the original Metroid as one of the most difficult games in the series. Jumping between Light Aether and Dark Aether to access new locations and find powerups can be confusing, and the very air of Dark Aether constantly chips away at your health. However, MP2 offers some of the most innovative ideas to come along in a while in a Metroid game, and it's probably the most frequently creepy Metroid game since Metroid II, though your results may vary.

MP2 also features a multiplayer mode that isn't terribly different from the single-player experience; it probably won't keep you busy for too terribly long, but it can be fun to compete against others to see who's the master of the game.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii, 2007): Planets throughout the galaxy are being overrun with Phazon, and both creatures and landscapes are becoming hostile due to Phazon corruption. Working alongside the Galactic Federation, Samus must battle the Phazon-mad Space Pirates and travel from planet to planet to stop the corruption from spreading.

Metroid Prime 3 screenshot: Samus' gunship in SkyTownMP3 takes a chance on full voice acting (the first instance of this in the series), which is surprisingly well-done (and yes, aside from a few grunts of pain, Samus remains a silent protagonist). In a way, Hunters feels like a necessary precursor to this game: the motion-sensitive Wii controls are well-executed and seem to have received far fewer complaints than the stylus for the DS, and the use of Samus' gunship to fly from planet to planet has been expanded into a more integral part of the game. There are more than a few throwbacks to previous Metroid games, as well, but also more than a few boss battles that are all too reminiscent of Metroid Prime in particular.

is a good, solid conclusion to the Prime series, but there's enough unrealized potential and a few flaws here and there that hold it back from being the incredible game it could have been.


Metroid Prime Pinball (DS, 2005): As you might guess from the title, this game features Samus in Morph Ball mode as the pinball on a series of pinball tables inspired by various locations and boss battles from the original Metroid Prime. There's a limited multiplayer mode, but the real fun of the game is found in the single-player mode, where you can ram into a giant rock monster or go bowling for Space Pirates.

Metroid Prime Pinball screenshot: Phazon Mines
Metroid Dread
Perhaps you have heard rumors of a game called Metroid Dread, a nonexistent game people have been buzzing about for years. Whether it was just a rumor to begin with or an intentional hoax, Metroid Dread doesn't exist; don't worry your pretty little helmet off.

Outside of the Metroid games, Samus appears in all three Super Smash Bros. video games, and you can see cameos by both Samus and a Metroid or two in games such as Kid Icarus, Wario Land II, Super Mario RPG, and others. (There's a full list of cameos at the Metroid Database.)

Metroid has changed and evolved over the years, but at it's heart, Metroid is a game of exploration, platforming, powerups, creative boss battles, quick thinking, and quick shooting; in a way, it's a little like the sci-fi counterpart of The Legend of Zelda, but with some of the creepiest monsters and locations you can have in a game that technically isn't of the "horror" genre.

If you've missed out on Metroid, there are plenty of opportunities to play the games. The original Metroid is an unlockable bonus in Metroid Prime; it was also re-released for the GBA in 2004, and it became available on the Wii's Virtual Console in 2007, along with Super Metroid. Metroid II is still a fairly common find anywhere old Game Boy games are sold. The other games in the series are modern enough that you're likely to find at least a few of them in your local video game store. And, while there may not be any new Metroid games coming out right now, I think it's safe to say we haven't seen the last of Samus Aran.


JoeReviewer said...

The Metroid reference is also brought up again in Kid Icarus: Uprising as a staple enemy. They even outright admit it in a fun little bit during one of the later levels. Really gave me a good laugh.

Flashman85 said...

Aha! I was wondering if they'd do that. Cool.

Unknown said...

The exchange goes something like this:

Pit: The Komaytos look just like little Metroids!
Viridi: SHHHHHHHH!!! Don't mention that!
Pit: What? I just said that the Komaytos looked like...
Viridi: That game universe has nothing to do with THIS game universe! That's how rumors are started!

It was a pretty hilarious exchange.