This Week in Gaming History: Metroid's legacy at 300 Comments
Metroid has turned 30. The iconic Nintendo 8-bit adventure first debuted on the Famicom Disk System in Japan on August 6, 1986. It would come stateside on the Nintendo Entertainment System roughly a year later, as the NES began catching on with American audiences.
Co-developed by Nintendo's Research and Development 1 division and Intelligent Systems, Metroid combined the successful Nintendo platformer style with a non-linear adventure style that was still fairly new to console video gaming. It was produced by Gunpei Yokoi, who would cause workplace and school productivity drops with the hit Game Boy portable just a few years later. It didn't take long for the game to catch on, selling nearly 3 million copies worldwide.
In Metroid, you are Samus Aran, a bounty hunter tasked with invading an enemy base on the Planet Zebes. Turns out the guys in there stole several samples of Metroid aliens, a race of life-draining jellyfish with big ugly teeth. You can gain extra abilities and weapons along the way, a step up from the temporary power-ups of other games in the era. Eventually, you will encounter the Mother Brain, the final boss of the game.
In America, Metroid was the game that introduced gamers to password-based continues. While some NES cartridges would include a battery that allowed players to save their progress, a great many others did not. This required writing down long passwords in order to take up where you last left off, a concept that probably sounds insane to a younger generation used to consoles with hard drives and checkpoints. Even though it meant we had to have notebooks and stacks of looseleaf papers covered with passwords, none of us minded too much. Some passwords gave players extra abilities or costumes, one of which we will get to in a moment.
Samus Aran was tough as nails and flexible enough to roll into a ball to get through narrow spaces. This toughness was needed to defeat the game, which was a long and difficult journey for even the most seasoned players. Some jumps required landing on narrow spaces while other enemy battles required perfect aim and timing. By the time players got to the end of Metroid, it is safe to say that they felt a connection to Samus, something that happens often when a game takes a long time to defeat. Little did they know that Samus had a secret.
Samus Aran was a woman, a fact not revealed to gamers until they defeated the game fast enough to access an ending that showed as much. At this point in video game history, a female protaganist was very uncommon, especially as the lead character. The revelation created buzz with players everywhere, creating a word-of-mouth sensation that was rare for console games in the pre-internet era. To find out if the rumors were true, more players picked up Metroid and worked hard to defeat it.
The public reaction to the game's ending was compounded by the fact that some players never saw an ending where Samus Aran revealed her identity. It turned out that the level of Samus' suit removal depended on how fast the player beat the game. It turned out that within all of those continue codes in our Trapper Keepers was data that tracked the total playtime. What ending we received depended on how quickly we defeated the Mother Brain, a fact that took some time to become common knowledge.
This meant that we were often forced to play the game through again in order to see the alternate endings and eventually get the "best" ending. On the surface, this created replay value in an era where such a term wasn't really used. Looking into it more deeply, however, this essentially marked the console roots of speedrunning, a popular form of competition on retro video games today. With an incentive for beating Metroid as quickly as possible, players found ways to take shortcuts and make wide jumps in order to shave playtime off of their game, essentially creating a whole new way to play.
Characters from Metroid appeared in short-lived NBC Saturday morning cartoon Captain N: The Game Master, though the game typically took a back seat to the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda franchises on the late 1980s Nintendo merchandising train. The game was eventually followed by Super Metroid on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a sequel that most players consider superior in almost every way. That said, the original 8-bit version laid the foundation, leaving a legacy still felt three decades later.