Power Armor and Parasites
Samus Aran, the Metroid Franchise, and its Permutations
A look into the history of the revolutionary Metroid series and all of the games within.
Throughout the 8- and 16-bit era, strong female characters were rare, and strong main female characters even more so. If a female character wasn’t being kidnapped she was probably, at best, part of an ensemble. For some examples of the latter in a brawler context, see Blaze from the Streets of Rage series, Maki from Final Fight 2, or Lucia and her contortionist fighting stance from Final Fight 3 [ 1 ]. Even now, strong females are under-represented in video games.
One example of such a character in the earlier era is Samus Aran from the Metroid series. Upon its 1986 release, Metroid was a breath of fresh air for a number of reasons. First off there were no princesses to save; instead, in the future, the fate of the universe is at stake. A ship carrying the titular Metroid parasites is flying through space. Evil space pirates have taken the Metroids from their home planet of SR-388 and are researching methods to multiply them. The Galactic Federation manages to track the space pirates to the planet Zebes, originally called Zebeth in some translations; Metroid gave us “s/th” debates decades before Final Fantasy VII made it cool [ 2 ]. The pirates manage to repel the Federation’s efforts to get the Metroids back.
The gameplay was also something that hadn’t often been seen prior to Metroid. At the start of the game, the player was required to go left to collect a power-up that will enable them to begin to truly explore the game. Metroid wasn’t the first game to allow the player to travel in more than one direction—see Berserk for an early arcade example—but placing the first power-up to the left is an example of “guiding without guiding” [ 3 ]. In the absence of an explicit tutorial for the game, old-school game developers would have to get creative in teaching game mechanics to people who may not have—or wouldn’t bother to read—the manual.
The original Metroid was a refreshingly non-linear game. Collecting various power-ups increased your strength and allowed you to explore more of the game, but there wasn’t much of an intended sequence or order to the game. There were two minibosses, Kraid and Ridley. Ostensibly, Kraid was the “first” miniboss, but defeating Ridley first was considerably easier.
Metroid was also one of the first games to have varying endings depending on how quickly you beat the scenario. In this case, Samus’ pose changed depending on the time you took to get through the map, ranging from turning away in shame to revealing a two-piece bikini under her suit. It’s worth noting that, as memetic as “Samus is a girl” is now, it was shocking in 1986. This was due in part to the fact that both the English and Japanese manuals refer to Samus as being male, despite Japanese being a language where it’s easy to eschew gender pronouns altogether [ 4 ]. While we may never know for sure—there are countless examples of the English manual-writing hand not knowing what the video-game-development hand is doing—it’s highly likely that this was an attempt at misdirection on Nintendo’s part [ 5 ].
Metroid was always more popular in the U.S. than in Japan, a fact that would inform and influence the development of later games in the series. Regardless of where the popularity came from, Nintendo had another hit on its hands. It would take roughly five years to produce a sequel, and when it arrived, it wasn’t on the NES, but the Game Boy. Metroid II: Return of Samus has an unusual story for the series, in that it’s one of the few games where the Galactic Federation is unambiguously on the offensive.
Note that “on the offensive” doesn’t mean “competent.” After the events of the first Metroid (note that, as other games in the series were released, they were placed between Metroid and Metroid II in the timeline), the Federation decides that the Metroids are too dangerous to be allowed to continue to exist. They send a recon team to SR-388 and the team is never heard from again. After sending two more teams to the planet and losing contact with them as well, the Federation engages its pattern recognition skills and comes up with an alternate plan: send in someone who has previous experience dealing with the Metroids—namely, Samus—to eliminate them once and for all.
Exploring the caverns of SR-388 and advancing in the game is a bit different than in the first Metroid. You still collect power-ups to expand your strength and movement capacity, but the macro-level advancement through the game is much more rigid than in the original title. Throughout SR-388, you’ll come across damaging acid. Each area has a certain number of Metroids in it and killing all of them lowers the acid, allowing you to advance to the next phase. On a more micro level, though, the game is still Metroid, as you can take on the Metroids and grab power-ups in almost any order.
Metroids are a surprisingly small portion of the gameplay of the series named for them. They tend to be an end-game menace, almost a MacGuffin in a fashion. That’s not the case in Metroid II, where you’re faced with a Metroid less than 10 minutes after beginning the game. The game is also the first to explore the Metroid life cycle. As you progress through the game, you’ll battle different Metroid mutations, each with their own abilities and, in some cases, weaknesses.
Metroid II is also the first Metroid game in the U.S. to use battery backup as opposed to a password (the Japanese version of the original Metroid was a Famicom Disk System game that allowed saving), which would carry over to the rest of the series [ 6 ]. Also making their debut in this game are recharge stations, a way to easily refill your energy and missiles at specific locations instead of having to farm power-ups from enemies.
Metroid II was a big seller in its day, becoming one of roughly 30 Game Boy or Game Boy Color [ 7 ] games to make the Player’s Choice lineup (Nintendo’s late-’90s name for its Greatest Hits lineup, currently known as Nintendo Selects). Despite that, though, the game was relatively forgotten until 2011, when it was released as a 3DS Virtual Console title.
Despite this setback, compared to the five year wait for Metroid II, the third installment in the series, Super Metroid, arrived in a relatively speedy two and a half years in April 1994. At 24 Megabits (a whopping 3 Megabytes: 0.003GB), it was the largest game the Super Nintendo had seen to that point. The plot picks up immediately after the end of Metroid II. It seems Samus has a motherly side after all, because after eliminating what she thought was the last of the Metroids, she comes across an egg, from which hatches a cute baby Metroid that helps her escape SR-388. Realizing its scientific potential, Samus brings the baby to the Ceres Space Station and goes off in search of more bounties to hunt. Almost immediately after she leaves, the station is attacked, the scientists are all killed, and Ridley, one of the minibosses from the first game, makes off with the baby, with Samus in pursuit. The journey takes her back to Zebes, the site of the first game. There she fights foes old and new to save the baby and the world.
Super Metroid returns to the less linear gameplay of the original. There are some familiar locales, but this isn’t just a remake of the first Metroid (we’ll get to that later on). This iteration of Zebes is bigger, with more territory and power-ups. There are new bosses, and familiar foes Kraid and Ridley got on the Starting Strength program and are much larger than you’ll remember them being from the first game. In terms of progression, while there is an “intended” route, there are a number of alternate paths through the game depending on your skill at executing various tricks. While it’s slow, a technique called Infinite Bomb Jumping has almost limitless exploration capabilities, and a wall jump technique was more powerful in terms of getting to places than the developers may have intended. It’s this variety that has given the game such staying power; the game has a vibrant speed-running community, with new strategies and routes continually being developed. Even playing through it the “intended” way is an experience, however. The game is one of the highest-rated titles in history, and it accomplishes this with minimal in-game exposition, and no dialogue at all outside of Samus’ monologue at the start of the game [ 8 ].
Such leanness in storytelling would not be found in the next 2-D entry in the Metroid series. Released on the same day as Metroid Prime (which we’ll cover in a bit), Metroid Fusion has more story and dialogue than any Metroid game before it. Samus gets infected by a parasite called X. Since the infection is directly in her Power Suit, the infected pieces are cut away, but Samus nearly dies anyway. Metroids were the only predators of the X. As such, a Metroid vaccine is injected into Samus, which has two side effects. She becomes immune to further X infection, but also becomes vulnerable to cold, much like a Metroid. Meanwhile, there’s an explosion in the Biologic Space Laboratories (BSL). It says something about how much of a badass Samus is, how idiotic the Galactic Federation is, or both, when the latter decides that Samus, even in her weakened state, is the best option to investigate the explosion.
Whereas Super Metroid took place in the massive caverns of Zebes, Metroid Fusion is much more claustrophobic, taking place entirely within the confines of the BSL. The game is also one of the most linear in the series. As you play the game, you’ll be guided by a computer named Adam, which Samus named after one of her now-deceased commanding officers. Adam guides you to specific Sectors of the BSL, at one point briefly giving you the illusion of choice before cruelly yanking it away with dialogue along the lines of, “Now you can go to one of two sectors, but oops one of them will kill you because it’s so cold.” It’s not until after you beat the game that you’re given free reign of the BSL to go back and collect any items you missed.
Further, “items you missed” consists of Energy Tanks, Missiles, and Power Bombs. Major upgrades cannot be passed, as you receive them by defeating bosses (who are also mandatory) and absorbing the X that they leave behind. The game keeps a bit of the Metroid feel by telling you where to go, but sometimes withholding exactly how to get there. There are points where the game doesn’t even tell you where on the map your next objective is, leaving you to roam the confines of the sector you’re in to figure it out.
Metroid II had a proto-survival horror feel to it, with Metroid shells strewn about, letting you know you were close to a Metroid of some kind, but not divulging exactly where or what kind (at least the first time you played). Metroid Fusion continues in this vein, with the explosion’s source menacing you at various points, in a manner reminiscent of other survival horror monsters such as the Nemesis from the Resident Evil series, or the Terminator from the film series of the same name.
Metroid Prime: Reinventing the Series
At the same time Metroid Fusion was released, the GameCube saw a first-person Metroid adventure hit the shelves. Metroid Prime begins with Samus intercepting a distress signal from her foes, the Space Pirates. It seems that the Pirates on the frigate Orpheon were slaughtered by their own genetically modified subjects. Battling the queen of the parasites, Samus knocks it into the core, resulting in the destruction of the ship. Afterwards, Samus chases a mechanical version of Ridley to the planet Tallon IV, where the main portion of the game takes place. After exploring the planet and re-acquiring her power-ups (which were disabled during the escape from the Orpheon), Samus discovers the source of a material called Phazon: Metroid Prime.
The gameplay shifts to 3-D, but it’s still Metroid, down to the Morph Ball (using it causes the game to switch to a behind-the-ball perspective). You collect, or re-collect to be technical, power-ups that let you explore more of Phazon IV. There are also multiple visors this time around, including a Scan Visor. The Scan Visor can be used on enemies to reveal weak points; you can also scan objects in the environment to learn more about the planet and the Space Pirates. Using this approach, the game offers more story than Super Metroid, while not forcing it down your throat a la Metroid Fusion.
Like both Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, there’s an intended sequence through the game, manifested by the developers fixing “glitches” and alternate paths with subsequent re-releases. While plenty of bugs are fixed in various games (especially PC games) with patches and re-releases, the Metroid Prime re-issues are one of the first examples I can think of where glitches that seemingly only helped speed-running and sequence breaking were targeted for elimination.
Echoes Carries On the Legacy
While a certain subset of the Metroid fanbase will insist that the series is all about having multiple ways to accomplish the main objective, the developers have, by and large, felt differently. In 2004, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was released. Echoes once again finds Samus playing Princess Charming to the Galactic Federation’s collective dude-in-distress. This time around, the Federation loses contact with a Marine ship that was in an altercation with Space Pirates near the planet Aether. Samus is sent to investigate, and it turns out that Aether is giving off lightning storms that are interfering with communication. The storms also damage Samus’ ship. On Aether, Samus encounters creatures called Ing, as well as a doppelganger, Dark Samus.
A big theme in Echoes is light and dark, and to that end, Samus has a Light Suit and a Dark Suit. A substance called Dark Aether continually drains Samus’ health when she’s inside it without the Dark Suit. Additionally, each suit has its own Beam, and many enemies are weak to one or the other.
Another big theme in Echoes is the fact that the developers tried very hard to disallow any sequence breaking. While the ways to circumvent the game world in the first Metroid Prime were fixed, it turns out the developers weren’t entirely successful in their goal; there are a number of items that can be acquired out of order [ 9 ].
At about the same time as Echoes came out, Nintendo remade and expanded Samus’ original adventure with Metroid: Zero Mission on the Game Boy Advance. Zero Mission is a retelling of the original game, with many of the features (in-game map) and new power-ups (Space Jump, Speed Booster) of later Metroids. As compared to the original game’s lack of a true sequence, Zero Mission has a number of intentional alternate paths through the game for those crafty enough to seek them out. Zero Mission does a fine job of also shoring up a bit of a plot hole in the first Metroid—namely, that you never fight any Space Pirates. A cutscene when you enter Tourian explains this discrepancy in Zero Mission—similar to the first Metroid Prime, the plan to weaponize the Metroids actually worked too well, and the Metroids slaughtered all the Pirates in the area. The game also has a new second half, as you effectively play Metroid Gear Solid after defeating Mother Brain, sneaking around the Space Pirate Mother Ship to avoid detection—and without your iconic armor, to boot. If you’ve never played either the original Metroid or Zero Mission to this point, the latter is a far superior way to experience Samus’ first endeavor.
Metroid Prime: Hunters
While Nintendo was careful to call the Metroid Prime games “First Person Adventures,” a Metroid game for the DS was much closer to being a proper first-person shooter [ 10 ]. Metroid Prime: Hunters features increased interaction with other bounty hunters of various races, some of whom have a history with Samus. The plot revolves around the Alimbic Cluster in the Tetra Galaxy. The Galactic Federation relays a telepathic message to Samus, asking her to investigate an “Ultimate Power.” Other bounty hunters intercept the message and head to the Cluster to see what the alleged “Ultimate Power” is.
While Metroid Prime 2 was the first Metroid game to feature multiplayer, Hunters was the first game in the series to truly focus on it—indeed, the introduction of other bounty hunters was done in part to facilitate this. The game was as much a DS tech demo as anything else—a demo called “First Hunt” was packaged with the DS at its launch.
Another DS game released in 2005 was Metroid Prime Pinball, which is more or less what it sounds like. The game re-tells the first Metroid Prime story in pinball form, with a few Metroid mechanics thrown in; Samus’ ability to morph into a ball was the inspiration for Prime Pinball [ 11 ].
The Trilogy Completes
The final portion of the Metroid Prime trilogy was released for the Wii. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption revolves around three planets and several other locations. Samus is informed that other bounty hunters who have been corrupted by Phazon have gone missing on their missions. Samus, who herself has been corrupted by Phazon, travels to several planets to find out what happened to them.
Samus acquires a new technique in this game: “Hypermode” [ 12 ]. Samus can convert an energy tank into Phazon, temporarily turning her invincible and giving her an array of powerful attacks. Later on, though, being in Hypermode for too long can turn Samus corrupt (hence the name of the game), leading to a Game Over.
The second Metroid game on the Wii was controversial, to say the least. Metroid: Other M was an attempt to make the series more popular in its native Japan. Unfortunately, as with many attempts to expand beyond a core audience, it was less than successful, failing to attract new fans to the series while turning away the U.S. fanbase. The best that can be said is that the Japanese reaction wasn’t as visceral as reaction in the U.S. was [ 13 ].
Other M’s plot, or more accurately, Samus’ treatment within said plot, was the cause of much of the hatred. Samus finds herself on a Galactic Federation Battle Ship, taking orders from her former commanding officer, Adam Malkovich. Metroid Fusion established that Samus saw Adam as a father figure; Other M made people wonder what she saw in him to cause that. Additionally, there is a late-game moment that got people up in arms. That moment happens as Samus once again comes across her old nemesis, Ridley, whom she thought destroyed in the explosion of Zebes at the end of Super Metroid.
For whatever reason—maybe the fact she thought he had died in a planetary-level explosion, or the fact that Ridley was the one who killed her mother—Samus freezes up this time, even though she’s handled Ridley any number of times before, until another bounty hunter bails her out and she, in turn, snaps out of her brief moment of PTSD. A lot of the controversy centered around the fact that people didn’t think Samus, of all people, would ever freeze up at that moment, especially since she’s fought Ridley a bunch of times before. Some of the issues were down to localization—the voice director insisted that Samus’ voice actor speak all her lines in a monotone, for instance [ 14 ]. Also, Team Ninja, which developed the gameplay, went on record as stating that the story was all the doing of Yoshio Sakamoto, one of the creators of Metroid [ 15 ]. When the developers of Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball are falling over themselves to distance themselves from how a female character is portrayed, you have probably done a poor job.
The gameplay of Other M was more positively received, although due to Team Ninja’s influence, the combat is less Metroid and more “Ninja Gaiden featuring Samus.” You still collect E-Tanks, missiles, etc., but instead of killing enemies to refill your supplies, you utilize a rest move to slowly recover.
Despite a rocky recent history, Metroid is still alive and well, thanks to the Nintendo Switch title Metroid Dread, a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion that ratchets up the tension that made its predecessor so popular and once again returns to more traditional gameplay and storytelling styles that the franchise is best known for. In fact, Metroid and its sequels are hugely influential games that don’t receive enough credit for their innovations. Indeed, the genre the game invented is commonly called “Metroidvania,” owing to the fact that many of the Castlevania games shared characteristics, such as side-scrolling exploration and item collection. However, it’s interesting to note that the Castlevania game responsible for that portmanteau contributed “Was a Castlevania game” and not much else to what people commonly think of as a Metroidvania. More on that, though, in the next installment, as we explore the digital anthropology of that likewise storied game series.
- “Not even the Screen can contain her—as Samus strides forward from Metroid Prime into the Lego medium.” Jared If Only I remembered … Flickr.com https://free-images.com/display/lego_metroid_prime_escape.html
- “From NES to Gameboy, GameCube, to Switch with few exceptions, the brand is seminal. Samus has been synonymous with Nintendo for generations. Shutterstock. Albacete, Spain; May 15, 2020: Wii U home video game console. Famous Nintendo brand entertainment system. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/albacete-spain-may-15-2020-wii-1732286563
- “Samus has been fighting aliens and space pirates since the earliest days of the NES.” Screenshot Metroid. Nintendo NES. Nintendo. 15 Aug 1997.
- “The Adventures continue in dramatic fusions of first and third person narratives, on the Switch.” Screenshot Metroid Dread. Nintendo Switch. Nintendo. 8 Oct 2021.
Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.
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- Harris, Craig. “E3 2005: Metroid Prime Hunters Creator Interview – IGN – Page 2.” IGN, Ziff Davis, LLC, 19 May 2005, http://www.ign.com/articles/2005/05/19/e3-2005-metroid-prime-hunters-creator-interview?page=2.
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