The Retrospective: Metroid (NES)

Well we continue on our adventures through the past this week with the very first of a long running series that I’ve already covered the first 3D entry of. Metroid is a series that, as I’ve discussed before, acts as, both mechanically and stylistically, the hardest-core franchise of Nintendo’s line up. The Metroid series is gritty, difficult, and dark, and stands in tremendous contrast to the other offerings from Nintendo.

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And for that reason, it’s always stood as a title on my list of games to play for this column that I always looked to with a bit of dread. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Metroidvania wing of side scrolling action games, and it usually just amounted to an immense dislike of frustrating gameplay, even if it’s well designed, rewarding frustration. I play games to experience something emotional. My favorite genre is the RPG, which offers elongated, personal journeys with stories and characters and the like. It certainly isn’t the only genre I enjoy, but it should show what exactly it is that I play games for.

So not really knowing much about what Metroid was about, I thought I’d give it a try and see how it fared. I had heard good things about the atmospheric effects present in the early 2D entries, and that was likely what made me put it on my list to begin with. The Metroid series is certainly beloved and I admit to having a bit of curiosity as to why. So here we go. Retrospective time.

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The legacy surrounding the Metroid is, of course, very well documented. One of the first major series to come out of Nintendo, the Metroid games astounded and disturbed their players in the early days. On the NES and SNES, both available Metroid games played with their atmospheres and pacing to give players something truly different from the norm.

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In an age of high scores and mechanics born from the arcade mentality, the first Metroid could certainly be described as experimental, as it did away with many of the early conventions. It could be argued that this game paved the way for the rich side-scrolling shooting genre that followed (it certainly predated Mega Man). For many people, the best gaming comes in these tightly designed, mechanically sound packages, defined by twitch gameplay and forced training. In a way, this kind of game comes down to muscle memory more than anything, as they usually encourage repetition and pattern memorization to succeed.

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With that all in mind, I began playing Metroid (which I received as part of the 3DS ambassador program) with a somewhat preconceived notion that I likely wouldn’t get too into it. After all, I tend to be uninterested in games that make me frustrated above all things. My thought is that if I don’t have a positive emotional response to a game, it isn’t really worth playing, unless of course there’s some compelling reason to do so beyond just beating the game. I have been known to go out of my happy zone to get a platinum trophy or two, and I can certainly think of a few games that, for whatever other reason, seemed to break that pattern.

But Metroid proved pretty early on that it was determined to test my patience. Oh lord, was I just smitten to find that Samus’s cannon range was only about a fourth the length of the screen, and that there was literally no way to attack enemies directly in front of my sprite, as most enemies are too short for Samus’s range and she can’t crouch and shoot at the same time.

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But this is all part of the mechanical design, I suppose, as I soon learned that getting through the levels would prove to be a far greater strategic challenge than I had anticipated. I suppose this is a note in the game’s favor, though, as it does prove that much of Metroid’s design can be described as early brilliance. Each separated room demands a specific set of difficult tasks that basically needs to get memorized. Any damage taken is a dire catastrophe, and every rare piece of energy regain is absolutely cherished.

This is a game that demands the player put on a scavenger’s mindset. You pray that not a moment of stupidity befalls you, as any piece of failure feels definitively like your fault. Of course, you can get stuck in horrible chain reactions of damage, as the 1 second post-hit invincibility shield paired with a forced thrust with every enemy hit can lead you bouncing from enemy to enemy.

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And yes, I saw that damned game over screen more time that I care to admit. This was not a game I was particularly good at, and I often found it laughable how hard it was to just get up those goddamn vertical steps, even after doing it a hundred times before. I often felt cheated by the seemingly unfair patterns of the enemies. The prizes at the end of every challenging segment certainly helped me feel like putting in the effort, but I soon discovered that I was constantly getting locked into chocking zones that damaged me to death without any chance of escape.

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And this was perhaps the game’s most damning sign of age. For every moment of level design brilliance, the game is marred by moments that seem to break the flow without any chance to prevent certain death. Of course, the game should be celebrated for its ingenious formatting, which gives the game a wonderful exploration element. An element that, I might add, still lives on today in games like Knytt.

I’m willing to bet (and you all can likely confirm this), that Super Metroid is a far improved game, with all the positive design elements present without the many problems. I’ll play that game someday, so I guess lookout for that on a future installment of the Retrospective.

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