What makes Metroid so special? What is it about this series that has captivated fans these past twenty years? Is it the open alien worlds, the sense of isolation and exploration, the pure action of platforming (and first-person) adventuring or the ever-eerie atmosphere?
We all have our own reasons why Metroid is fun and entertaining. One of the endearing traits of humanity is our thirst for exploration and discovery. Our curiosities drive us to look around the next corner ahead and push the boundaries of what we can see and do. By stepping into the space boots of Samus Aran, we're taken to distant alien worlds and let loose to explore and survive the hostile mazes populating the game world. Every game in the series has boasted its own intricate universe to explore (well, except Metroid Prime Pinball) and is pure sci-fi bliss.
Samus Aran is the poster-girl for bounty hunting. Always preferring to work alone, she rarely makes contact with other humans within the games. As we guide Samus through her adventures, this solitude gives players an immediate sense of isolation and places the game world firmly centre-stage. With the general lack of other humans to be found, players can almost taste what it's like to be the first human being to explore awe-inspiring alien worlds. It's an entire playground for explorers and adventurers (despite the equally-dangerous alien creatures prowling around).
The atmosphere of a fictional world can make or break the experience. I'll take a moment to express a personal view here. I generally try to avoid hating things in life, but there is one aspect in the world of entertainment I'll never enjoy - horror movies. I absolutely despise the horror genre, mainly for the (usually) sick and twisted depiction of human suffering. I will never see how that can be a form of entertainment. This is all thanks to a nasty run-in with the movie Aliens way before I could stomach the concept. Surprisingly, the Metroid series has often been compared to the Alien franchise for similar recurring elements. Yet I don't in any way find anything in Metroid as repulsive as horror movies in general.
This is probably due to Nintendo's general stance of not including particularly gory, frightening or sickening elements in their games, but I find the Metroid series infinitely better for it. It's a Nintendo-style thriller. While there might be a touch of horror elements in the series (freaky-looking monsters, drab and dreary environments, etc.), I've always rested easy that the thrill and tense moments can be enjoyed without worrying about any boring old clichés sliming their way in to ruin the experience.
For the most part, Samus is the only human character we need to worry about, and with her formidable Power Suit ever-present we're always given the chance to keep her safe. Players also very rarely see other humans suffering at the hands of hostile alien lifeforms, and when we do we're given a chance to take the fight right back to the enemy. It's a brilliant feeling to mix suspense, adventuring, excitement and discovery genuinely together.
Here's an example. The following eerie, foreboding and absolutely fantastic audio clip perfectly represents the Metroid atmosphere and sends a chill down my spine - in a good way - every time.
Taking this point even further, I've discovered how Metroid can actually create positive associations with otherwise negative elements of life. The series has always employed a dark, sombre tone in both looks and audio. But rather than create a depressing mood, scenes like the landfall on planet Zebes in Super Metroid - complete with pouring rain, a sky filled with swirling grey clouds and the distant crack of thunder and flash of lightning - can fill players with excitement of what lies ahead (or below). So does the landfall on Tallon IV in Metroid Prime, with a lush jungle environment experiencing a perpetual monsoon. Let's not forget the Torvus Bog of Metroid Prime 2 or the icy winds of Metroid Prime Hunters' Arcterra region either. Delving deeper into the games further cements that excitement.
After immersing yourself (and enjoying) the likes of Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, what happens when you next experience a dreary, cloudy and rainy day? What does it remind you of? None other than the adventure and atmosphere found in Samus' daily life, and the amazingly absorbing worlds she visits. While it's hard to express this feeling in words, it's a fantastic testament to the series' creators (and a great way to see psychology and gaming collide).
The imaginative aspects of Metroid have also served the series well. Japanese developers tend to dream up amazing gaming worlds brimming with inspiration. From the very beginning, Metroid's fictional setting was off the chart - here we have a metal-clad warrior employed by a futuristic galactic government to wipe out a band of extra-terrestrial pirates while watching out for life-sucking parasites. If that wasn't whacky enough, the warrior could change into a metal ball at will and somehow had enough room in their armor suit for up to 255 ballistic missiles. Don't forget the ability to generate virtually endless explosive bombs while shaped like a metal ball too...
Creating these remarkably unrealistic settings took away any restrictions on the imagination - and as the series progressed it brought nothing but gaming goodness. The game worlds were shaped around Samus' abilities, and everything fit together as intricate non-linear worlds. Exploring these dynamic worlds and solving puzzles on your own is an incredibly rewarding and fun experience. Locating a new ability often opens up a can of worms for exploring previously-inaccessible areas and delivers a great chance to fully explore the environments without rushing through the game. Samus' foes varied greatly too; the Space Pirates alone changed their appearance in most games.
Another element of the magic I can't overlook is the musical department. The Metroid series is well-known for its use of moody, quiet, poignant and sometimes ridiculously simple themes - always striving to be as alien as the worlds they represent. Metroid music sets the imagination on fire and is consistently impressive. It's a vital and necessary part of the Metroid atmosphere. Here's another taste of an instant mood-setter (I'm playing favourites here with Super Metroid):
When game designers and developers let loose their imaginations, we see the fruits of their labour in everything - gameplay, music, atmosphere and even story. Haunting, desolate environments and foreboding, isolating experiences are Metroid's bread-and-butter, and in the gaming world every one of those traits defies their real-world definition's negative connotations. Who would have thought that a simple video game series could accomplish that?
Metroid is just good old plain enjoyment. It's a brilliant mix of everything good in the gaming world, and a good deal of immersion gives the imagination a terrific ride. A classic Japanese catch-phrase used in the marketing of the games in Japan sums it up nicely - METOROIDO OMOROIDO! (Metroid is fun!).
Written by Falcon Zero on 13 September 2010.