It probably shouldn’t come as a shock that I like the Metroid franchise (header image, twitter icon, etc), so bear with me here. I actually found this review difficult to write because of my strong feelings revolving around this game. It is easily one of my favorite games from my childhood, I still routinely listen to music form the franchise, and the 8-bit Metroid reviewed here is at least partly responsible for my good penmanship (the worst thing for an 8 year old was a password you couldn’t properly read – G and 6 were particularly troublesome). With that as a disclaimer, let’s move on to the review.
Metroid places you in the boots of the galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran on the planet Zebes. Space Pirates have captured the lifeform known as Metroid, originally from the planet SR388, from the Galactic Federation. Samus (described as a male cyborg by the original manual – everyone now knows differently) has been chosen to penetrate the space pirate’s fortress on Zebes and destroy the Mother Brain. In order to succeed Samus must navigate the mazelike interior of Zebes, collect power-ups, and eventually make it through every zone and into Tourain to defeat the Mother Brain.
Metroid combines intense platforming, precision shooting, and exploration into a game that is best described as action/adventure. Released to North America in 1987, Metroid features both horizontal and vertical scrolling sections, along with a very (for the time) non-linear world to explore. In the beginning, the player often finds themselves unable to progress through an area until certain power-ups have been acquired. This leads to back-tracking, which can be frustrating in certain games, but the sense of exploration in Metroid helps to overcome this issue. The player is compelled to go find areas that are now accessible, and overtime learns to perfect their route through the game for maximum efficiency. Backtracking is kept minimal in this game, however, and the lack of multiple interconnects between different zones serves to linear-ize the game a bit.
As an aside, Metroid’s box showcases the 8-bit graphics and features the ‘Adventure’ series badge, leading some to consider it a ‘black box’ game. The actual box is silver, similar to Kid Icarus, which denotes that the game uses a password system, so its status as a true ‘black box’ game is up for debate. Also, you should definitely track down scans of the manual – it is full of great illustration, including an awkward one of Samus holding an NES cartridge, which must be difficult to play, what with the arm cannon and all.
Samus starts off incredibly weak, with 30 energy and a beam that can only shoot a couple meters. All alone in the desolation of Zebes, Samus must adventure onwards and locate power-ups to increase her odds of survival. While her ultimate goal, the destruction of Mother Brain, awaits in Tourian which is quite close to the start of the game, it is inaccessible to the player until the mini-bosses Kraid and Ridley have both been defeated. Only once they are killed can the bridge in the statue room be extended allowing access to the Tourian elevator (yes, you can skip killing the bosses by freezing a Rio). While on the way to kill the mini-bosses, Samus will gain energy reserves, countless missiles (up to 255, of course), advanced beam weapons, the ability to high jump, and the well known screw attack, becoming an unstoppable juggernaut towards the end of the game. This gameplay style of 2D platforming combined with gathering items and exploring what new areas an item may unlock, has been termed “Metroidvania” after Metroid and Castlevania, the two most popular franchises to use this gameplay style.
Unlike some other games in the Metroidvania genre, backtracking is actually relatively light. The majority happens in the starting zone, Brinstar. You have to run around collecting missiles, bombs, the Ice Beam, and the Varia suit (well, I don’t suppose you NEED to do these things, but it would be considered normal). With these items in hand, the player can collect just about anything in the game, although potentially with some difficulty without the high jump boots. Once those items are acquired, the player is free to explore either Kraid’s Lair (Hideout I) or Norfair/Ridley’s Lair (Hideout II), and it is more or less the end of the backtracking. Super Metroid and the Prime trilogy, for instance, has a much higher degree of backtracking through previously cleared areas to find new items and abilities.
Beyond the novel gameplay, Metroid also included two features that would go on to become a standard for the franchise – sequence breaking and time attacks. While certain items are normally required to progress through a certain area (following the proper ‘sequence’ of the game), there are cases where you can bypass the necessity for certain items or feats (such as skipping the mini-bosses as mentioned above). As well, the player receives a different ending depending on the amount of time it took to beat the game. The alternate endings are most famous in Metroid for revealing the true identity of Samus (that is, Samus is a female, not male), all the way down to her bikini if your times are fast enough. Sequence breaking is a very powerful tool to help achieve quick gameplay times and see the alternate endings.
While overall the game is incredible, I would be completely lying if I said there weren’t annoyances to be found. The most grievous is your starting state after a password restore. Even if you have maxed out your energy tanks, you will always start over from a password with 30 energy. This can make it incredibly time consuming to reload your energy, adding up to 10 minutes to the beginning of a play session just to gather enough energy to survive difficult sequences. This was remedied when a save system was introduced in Metroid II, something that would have benefited Metroid immensely (plus, the game PCB has a spot for a battery, so there shouldn’t be an excuse!). In addition, the game suffers from severe slowdown that can strike at just about anytime depending on how many enemies are on the screen. This is most prevalent in Mother Brain’s room, where there is so much going on that the game is constantly bogged down trying to handle all the sprites on the screen. In addition to slowdown, this also results in significant sprite flickering as well.
Perhaps one of the most telling examples of how large and expansive this game is for an 8-bit title, is this image that I posted on Twitter recently:
Everytime I have played through the game, I have relied on freezing a Dessgeega and bomb jumping over the top of that column to reach the energy tank found on the other side. This requires good timing and a healthy amount of luck to pull off. Several people on Twitter pointed out, however, that there is a tunnel you can morph ball through to get to the otherside of the column, the entrance to which is about 200 meters to the right of where the image was taken. The fact that I hadn’t known about that after god knows how many run throughs is incredible. I am still learning things about a game close to 30 years old.
Gameplay: The gameplay overall is incredible. The controls are tight in general (spinning jumps can be a little hard to control), and the game does a fabulous job of immersing you in the desolate world of Zebes. The game is certainly difficult at times, but not overly so. Difficult parts are eventually conquered, and provide a great sense of satisfaction for getting through. The time-attack alternate endings also provide for great replay value as you try to knock time off to experience the alternate endings and see Samus in her 8-bit leotard (I only got the ‘helmet off’ ending on this play through). Of course, future games build upon Metroid’s successes and refine the gameplay, but Metroid provides the strong foundation for which countless games are built upon.
Sound: The sound in Metroid is, quite frankly, phenomenal. The music in particular is still incredibly haunting at times, especially the main title. The music, which often lacks a traditional melody, does a perfect job of setting the mood for the lonely exploration of an alien world. Entire compilations of music have been released based around the music of the Metroid series, and it almost all originated in this 8-bit title. The sound effects are maybe a little less notable; certain sound bites such as the ‘Item Fanfare’ and the like are certainly iconic and have carried over into all future entries of the series. The sound effects for attacking enemies are different variations on the standard NES ‘piff’ noise – but it really works quite well in Metroid and feels like an organic part of the soundtrack.
Nostalgia X-Factor: I have played this game through to completion a number of times, and the Metroid franchise is probably my most adored video game franchise (sorry Link/Mario). I will certainly allow for the idea that my judgement of the game is being clouded by nostalgia here, but I really do think the merits of this game still hold up today with only a few annoyances to be found in an otherwise masterful game.
Worth Playing: Absolutely. While I normally advocate for the purity of playing on the console itself, the password system and the whole ‘start with 30 energy’ thing is such an annoyance, that I would recommend emulators to any new players unless you are going to play through in one sitting.