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The Shifting Narrative Structures of the Metroid Series

I’m going to say something very subjective and hyperbolic: Metroid is one of the strongest series of all time and is also criminally overlooked. I had no idea how much I would love this series after somehow deciding it wasn’t for me. I have held onto this weird aversion to games from the SNES and NES era, as if games from before my childhood were too difficult to try and pick up? This has slowly eroded in my adulthood as I’ve played modern homages to those games and found that I was extremely wrongheaded with my assumption (which was based on 0 play experience mind you). 2021 has been a year for remedying this and I’ll write a bit more about that in my year end wrap up. Suffice it to say that I felt much more confident in firing up Super Metroid for the first time in preparation for Metroid Dread’s release. I’m so glad I finally crossed it off my to do list and I played through Super and Fusion in quick succession. It was a great way to tackle a new entry in the series, being able to understand how the design has evolved to its modern iteration. The remarkable thing is that each game has completely different approaches to the Metroid template and shows how new designers attempt different techniques in balancing exploration and storytelling, in both cutscenes and the environments.

Super Metroid Kraid

Super Metroid is representative of how the priorities in game storytelling have shifted since its release in 1994. Aside from the opening text, the game communicates its story nonverbally. One of the great things that has been lost with the advent of more expressive technology and the move toward “cinematic” narratives is expressing emotion through 2d character sprites. The menace of Ridley and the tragedy of the baby Metroid are communicated only with movement, lighting and sound but somehow relay the emotion more effectively than most modern games. It’s something intrinsic to the medium that’s been lost on a triple A level but luckily is being reclaimed in the indie space. The story though is sparse and segmented story scenes are relegated to the front and back of the game. That same technique is used to communicate the Super Metroid’s progression as well. Before playing I had assumed the game was very open and that I would get lost trying to progress through the game. Super Metroid though is a masterclass in level design, it guides you to each new ability and boss fight through its environmental cues. The Metroid series established a widely used template; rooms with sealed gates that are only opened with certain types of abilities. Green doors can only be opened with Super Missiles so you are stuck only moving through blue or purple doors until you find the ability. The gates make the game surprisingly linear as you are fed through available doors until you seemingly stumble upon the ability or boss fight required to move forward. It’s more rewarding though because once you acquire the ability you as the player are then required to follow the breadcrumb trail back to the formerly inaccessible door. It feels almost like an ah ha moment, a feeling of finding a specific puzzle piece on your own even though it’s the game handing you the piece and subtly telling you where to put it. You’re rewarded for breaking with the game’s flow to hunt for secret power ups using your abilities. It makes Super Metroid feel less linear superficially even when you’re being funneled down a set path. It puts the agency of finding that path in the players’ hands rather than putting big arrows showing them where to go.

Super Metroid is the ultimate form of a vibe game, using an excellent score and environments to really give the unfamiliar planet a sense of place. The planet Zebes is hostile, filled with terrestrial creatures and inhabiting space pirates trying to kill you. Super Metroid isn’t scary, Samus is too powerful and health pickups are too common for you to feel a sense of complete danger, but it’s certainly eerie. There’s no safe place to go as you descend through lava, sand, and abandoned spaceships trying to retrieve the stolen Metroid. You get the sense that this planet is largely uninhabited as the majority of the environments are undisturbed natural areas. As such you’re an invading force and the creatures don’t take too kindly to your traipsing through their home. The extra terrestrial places are even spookier, unnatural metallic bases furnished by the invading Space Pirates. The ghost ship is a highlight and is the only environment to actively play tricks on you. It’s pulled directly from Sci-Fi horror as projections of Metroids appear randomly as you explore. The rundown technology also attacks you as you probe for its secrets. How did this ship end up here? What cargo was it carrying and what experiments were they performing here? The ominous music adds to the eerie environment, echoey drumming and synths soundtracking the ghostly apparitions. Really the whole soundtrack is filled with dark and ominous tones and it absolutely bangs:

Metroid Fusion B.O.X.

The next game, Metroid Fusion, continues to incorporate that eeriness but with adding new body horror. The environment moves to an expansive and abandoned space station named BSL, always a good move for Sci-Fi horror in my opinion. Samus had a bad interaction with a new creature, the X, that fused with her body. Her power suit is removed and infected leaving her with a mutated (and very cool) new body suit. It’s got razor edges and seems living, transforming Samus into an otherworldly being. Her Power Suit on the other hand becomes a living creature, SA-X, with its own mysterious goals. This new creature is an almost invincible enemy which must be avoided at all cost. It’s an incredibly cool twist even if it doesn’t amount to much other than a few segments where you have to hide or run away from the SA-X. Those sections are fun but since the locations are set there’s not too much horror attached to them. You know the SA-X will only appear when the game telegraphs it so you’re not worried about exploring the station. BSL Station was the ground for all sorts of bad experiments. The environments are filled with the remnants of this, whether it’s caged animals, broken machines or even a frozen Ridley. The backgrounds communicate a history of BSL and leave the story of what went down here vague enough for the player to fill in. 

Metroid Fusion SA-X

It’s a series highlight even though the actual plot of the game is lackluster. You’re constantly checking in with your computer to receive updates on the station and location of the SA-X. The whole time Samus is wistfully reminded of her old commanding officer and recounts “pleasant” memories of him consistently talking down to her. It’s really bad and the inevitable twist is that the computer is both a program of that commanding officer, Adam, and looking to preserve the SA-X lands with a thud. Good thing this game is still a solid Metroid so you can go on and ignore the story. Fusion has the same progression as Super with plenty of new ways to interact with the environment. The boss fights are all a step above and proved to be much more challenging than in the previous game (goddam that Spider boss). The only catch here is that the path is much more explicitly laid out. Checking in with your computer literally highlights where to go next so the feeling of open exploration, even if it’s not really open, is missed. I didn’t get those same moments of joy finding my path when the game was telling me exactly where to go.

Metroid Dread Map Room

And now 19 years later, a once cancelled Metroid Dread released and brought more modern gaming storytelling alongside its updated gameplay mechanics. It’s remarkable how the core loop of exploring and upgrading remains intact as MercurySteam adds more actiony elements to Samus. There’s the ability to free aim and with it more of a necessity to aim your shots. Movement speed is increased and comes with a new slide to duck and move through the map. It feels amazing to play and it’s by far my favorite playing game of the series. It felt so good to jump, dash, slide and spin across the environments as I poked for clues. Exploration is much less focused than Fusion even with a similar emphasis on communicating with Adam. Waypoints aren’t set whenever you receive a new objective and I welcomed getting lost and finding my way across the areas. Dread is also the toughest game of the bunch and throws in difficult boss battles. They were all extremely rewarding, riding that knife’s edge between difficult and punishing. Each boss has a rhythm and your first couple of times fighting them are all about learning patterns. Every time I messed up I could see how to improve and fitting all the patterns felt like a big accomplishment.

When the EMMI encounters work out, they really are exciting

Other updates though tend to drag the game down. Instead of the invincible SA-X, you’ll fight androids known as EMMIs. These robots are confined to specific sections and are invulnerable meaning you’ll have to run away and find the nearest exit. Only trouble is exits are closed off while the EMMI is on your tail so you have to try and sneak or hide from them until the coast is clear. Eventually you’ll find a one time upgrade to your beam so you can take down an individual EMMI. Unfortunately this requires you to use your beam like a Gatling gun and slowly wear down the shielding on its face and then charge up to take down the exposed core. You have to put a good distance between Samus and the EMMI in order to take down the shielding so you’ll once again have to run until you find a long enough corridor. These sections are a lot of trial and error and the spots where I died the most (probably at least a half dozen times on average). The respawn was forgiving though so I didn’t end up minding them too much. The EMMI felt more like speed bumps on the game’s flow more than anything.

All in on this background detail

Worse though is Dread’s new emphasis on cutscenes. The game makes its story much more explicit pausing gameplay to show you a brief clip of the plot. I missed the environmental storytelling piecing together Samus’ relationship to the creatures she stumbles across in her adventure. It doesn’t help that the environments don’t especially jump out and the backgrounds feel more like templates of alien planets. You’ll find a lava level, water, and abandoned tech places but they don’t have any details that make them feel lived in. They’re pretty to move through but that’s about it. The story itself is completely ridiculous and has wild third act revelations that feel so unearned. The twists feel like they’re tying up loose ends to a mystery plot that didn’t exist and I can’t imagine anyone was asking for this sort of backstory. It does lead to an incredible escape sequence and I love the big power fantasy of those two minutes. If you liked the overpowered gravity gun in Half Life 2 then you’re in for a treat.

Metroid Dread Travel

Even with my quibbles about each game they’re all amazingly good. There’s not a bad one in the bunch and I enjoyed playing through all of them. Also the best part, they’re all relatively short! I took the longest with Dread and the final tally put me at 9 hours. They’re all the perfect length of time and also what makes them endlessly replayable. There’s an emphasis from the gaming community on having longer games and that it somehow equates to getting your money’s worth. I’d argue that Dread is worth the full $60 and equating dollar value to length is an inane argument. Not every game has to be forever and it’s easier to make a more treasured experience with brevity. Here’s to Samus’ memorable and brief experiences and hopefully many more to come.

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