Retro Review: Metroid (NES) – NichePlays

Released in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System, before being localized for the US a year later, Metroid is an 8-bit sidescrolling adventure game for the NES. Developed by Nintendo’s R&D1 team in collaboration with Intelligent Systems, the game follows bounty hunter Samus Aran on a planet trekking journey to find and eliminate the dreaded Mother Brain, before she can use the stolen Metroids mentioned in the cold open to, presumably, usurp the Galactic Federation.

The game is an early and touchstone example of a genre that would eventually come to be known as Metroidvanias which, as the title implies, derives part of its title from the game, as well as the many sequels, spin-offs, and remakes that it’s spawned.

Now I’ve always had a lot of love for the Metroid franchise. In fact, the original Metroid was actually one of the first games that I ever played, as my parents owned it for the NES. As I mentioned way back in my Karate Kid NES review, my Mom actually bought an NES back before I was born and would obsessively play Super Mario Bros on it. My Dad, curious about video games himself, ended up buying several NES titles that were mostly sports or card based games. But among the few action games he did buy at the time was the original Metroid.

And he hated it.

Honestly, I don’t blame my Dad for hating it though. You see, he’s never really been into video games, outside of stuff like Galaxian or Galaga, so throwing him in an open world with little direction or guidance proved to be a bit too confusing for him.

And frankly, when it comes to Metroidvanias, the original Metroid tends to be looked at as being one of the more archaic or oblique games in the genre, so starting with that game in particular had to be especially rough on the guy. 

Anyway, at the time of it’s release, the original Metroid received some pretty rave reviews, with players and critics alike complimenting the title for its vast and expansive world, the secrets held within that world and the, then and somehow still subversive inclusion of a female protagonist. 

And yeah, before a few of you start typing a comment about how painfully obvious and over-reported this is, I know this isn’t really news to a lot of us but it’s kinda hard not to at least acknowledge it. And that’s all I’m really qualified and plan to do here, acknowledge it as being culturally significant and flat-out pretty awesome. I especially appreciate how hidden this fact was from players back in the day, as the game only reveals Samus’s true identity after you’ve gotten one of it’s good endings. Heck, the original manual refers to Samus as a straight up male cyborg and a “true form that’s shrouded in mystery,” setting players up to find out that Samus was a woman all along.

But… Does it hold up? Because rave reviews, spawning a popular franchise that’s loaded with great games, and featuring one of the most iconic video game characters of all time is one thing — but managing to remain fresh and playable 35 years later is another feat entirely. And while I have a lot of love and affection for this game, that doesn’t mean I’m blind to it’s many faults or the fact that most players these days have seemingly unanimously decided that it doesn’t.

Gameplay

Metroid takes place on the planet Zebes, which is separated into three distinct areas. These areas are named Brinstar, Norfair, and Tourian, respectively. There are also two hideouts for the games two bosses, Kraid and Ridley, as well as a number of hidden power ups, and energy/missile tanks to help supe up Samus’s arsenal for her journey. 

While many of the powerups found in this game are required for progression, one of the things that I’ve always loved about the original Metroid is how hands off and generally laissez faire the game is about the order in which you go about collecting them. Outside of collecting the morph ball at the start of the game, you can really go about picking up items at your own discretion.

That bit of non-linearity, while heavily iterated on and improved in subsequent entries to the series, proves to be Metroid’s biggest draw for myself and numerous other players around the world. Simply put, it’s really fun to run around Zebes and strip the planet for parts to find upgrades for Samus’ power suit. And you’ll really need all the powerups you can get, especially for the last area in the game, which is populated by the titles titular Metroids and are best disposed of with a combination of the ice beam and missiles. Oh, and nervously rolling around in the morph ball while they literally try to eat your brains. Although, it does kinda make me wonder what these power ups were doing here to begin with. Like, I understand that the subsequent games in the series would elaborate on this somewhat, but I can’t help but ask why Mother Brain and the Space Pirates never did anything about all the chozo statues with powerups or straight-up live ammunition that was laying all over the place. It also makes me wonder whether or not they even knew Samus was loading up like freaking Arnold Schwarzenegger on a mission of total destruction. 


Anyway, when it works, the open ended and maze-like structure of Metroid is a glory to behold and the opening area of Brinstar shows how fun it could be to traverse and navigate an alien world. The only problem is, this kinda starts to fall apart once you navigate to some of the other areas on the planet due to the game lacking a built-in map. In fact, this is actually one of the chief complaints held against the game by modern players as, without a map of some kind to help you chart your journey, a lot of the rooms start to blend together due to a lot of copy and pasted level design. But, and this is purely a personal preference, I actually kind of appreciate the lack of a map here. This could just be due to how used to it I’ve gotten from playing the game so much over the years, but there’s something quaint and even charming about how the game doesn’t try to guide you as much as other games in the genre would go on to. And perhaps I’m just romanticizing things here but the idea of charting your progress through a physical map you would need to draw out yourself honestly sounds really immersive and like it would encourage players to roleplay their way through the game.

That’s not to say that you can’t beat Metroid without a map though, it just means that it’ll probably make for a more tedious and frustrating experience. And even with a map, you’re still in for at least some tedium, as another thing that also makes traversing the map difficult is the lack of any clear indication of hidden passageways in later parts of the game. This is especially weird because the game goes out of it’s way to tell you that the floor of certain areas can be destroyed with a bomb as early as in the second screen of the game, but then expects you to figure out which areas are hidden behind unmarked barriers for the rest of the adventure.

While not that bad, and something you quickly grow numb to after a while, it’s a far cry from how later entries in the genre would handle things. I totally get hiding optional passages or powerups behind this kind of game design, but hiding an area you need to access through something like this feels kinda cheap and unfair to the player. For example, there’s a passage hidden behind lava in one point of the game that you’re expected to just know that you can fall through without going all T2: Judgement day and melting to death. And in another area, you’re expected to know that you can bomb your way into a lower part of the world without any indication or telegraphing. 

As for the moment to moment gameplay in Metroid, it’s all pretty good outside of a few flaws. Samus moves at a pretty decent speed and killing enemies feels fun enough, even if you’re often woefully outnumbered and cornered by them. The game strikes a pretty decent balance of making Samus feel overwhelmed by the creatures surrounding her, while also making her feel powerful due to all of the upgrades you can find as she slowly becomes a swiss army knife of alien exterminating goodness. An inspectoid-gadgoid if you will. And while it’s a serious shame that you can’t crouch or fire diagonally, it’s not that hard to get used to, nor is it necessary once you’ve picked up the bomb power up or gotten the screwattack.

However, that doesn’t excuse how outright grindy the combat can get. Upon spawning in a new game or after you’ve died, Samus is stuck with a measly 30 health and in order to recover your lost HP, you’ll need to cozy up in an area with an endlessly respawning horde of enemies in order to grind energy. This isn’t helped by the amount of health that enemies can take away from you in a single blow and is probably the worst part of the game for me because it feels more like a punishment for trying to play the game, as opposed to a gentle nudge of encouragement for you to continue your adventure. Plus, it totally breaks the pace of the game itself and encourages players to approach Metroid in a slower or more cautious fashion.

Which really sucks because I genuinely believe that Metriod is a game best played aggressively. Nothing honestly feels better than zipping across the planet and mowing down hordes upon hordes of enemies like you’re Buzz Lightyear on the hunt for Zerg. While nowhere near as fast paced as something like, Contra or that other Konami game where you rush and attack (I believe it’s called Rush N’ Attack)  it’s a really thrilling way to approach the game.

Being an NES game, the original Metroid also falls victim to your usual slew of 8-bit issues. The game flickers, it slows down whenever there are more than a few enemies on screen, and the fairly limited NES controller leads to some frustrating controls due to all the switching between missiles and your standard beam that you’ll be doing. Oh, and the game also features a very long winded password system as opposed to battery saves in every region it came out in except for Japan.

While each of these issues and limitations are relatively par for the course for the NES and aren’t that bad with the proper context of the hardware in mind, it does make for a somewhat impaired experience. 

Assuming you’re playing this on an actual NES, that is. Thanks to modern technology though, we can actually fix each of these issues with little to no effort. The game’s slowdown and flicker can easily be worked around on something like RetroArch, and we can relatively easily fix the aggravating use of the select button to toggle missiles by remapping the select button to something like the X or Y button on a modern controller. You can even do this on your Nintendo Switch, which offers the game for free to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. Oh, and the password system? You can just spam savestates to your heart’s content. Even the game’s grinder moments can be improved somewhat on the right emulator thanks to being able to speed up the game and cut those grinding sessions in half.

The quality of life improvements don’t have to stop there either. Thanks to romhacks, you can straight up improve the actual games graphics and experience such as with the fantastic Metroid Mother, which improves the visuals considerably and even adds a map to the game. 

Honestly, with a few of these quality of life improvements on your side, the original Metroid is a fairly breezy experience. And even without these quality of life improvements, there’s no denying that the original Metroid’s appeal is well intact, despite it’s shortcomings. It’s got it’s issues, but the game’s solid structure manages to persevere in spite of it. Simply put, it’s just really fun to play and defeat mother brain.

Visuals

While very limited by the 8-bit hardware it’s running on, the original Metroid manages to provide a dazzling and otherworldly environment for the player to explore, and it manages to do so despite a pretty limited color palette.

Each of the game’s main areas are color coded to stand out from each other and all have distinct enemy designs. This makes trekking between the games several areas feel like a journey across different ecosystems, as well as accomplishes the task of giving the game a relatively varied identity.

Frankly, Metroid is full of personality. For example, despite Samus’ fairly small and straight forward sprite, the game is able to tell you a few things about the various power ups that you have available to you. It’s small, but I love how Samus’ cannon goes from green to cyan when you’re using missiles, as well as how the suit itself changes color once you’ve found the Varia suit. Later games would expand on this greatly, thanks to adding larger and more detailed sprites to the game, but the original Metroid really makes good use of what’s available to it. 

I could go on about how I wish the game featured more animation or larger and more detailed sprites like what are available in some Metroid romhacks, but I personally find what’s on display here to be extremely charming and more than adequate for the introduction to the series. Plus, while a lot of people have probably expressed discontent at how tiny the games bosses are in comparison to later iterations of those same characters… Well, I dunno, I think chibi Ridley and Kraid are kinda cute. Like, look at them, they look like unevolved Pokemon in this game.

The overall sparseness of the world is actually a part of it’s charm for me, such as in how the game’s backgrounds are always a black void. While it’s a pretty common practice in NES games to feature a black background, it actually kinda adds to the ambience of the game here and makes Zebes feel like the desolate and lonely planet that it is. While later games would revisit Zebes and flesh out the world through the inclusion of detailed backgrounds, I find the lack of one weirdly appealing. If I’m being honest, adding backgrounds to this game would just look kinda cursed to me.

Music

Composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, the soundtrack is filled with iconic themes and jingles that are appropriately heroic and unnerving when they need to be. The game’s music has been referenced in subsequent titles in the series, as well as in Super Smash Bros, and it’s one of my favorite video game OSTs of all time.

It’s honestly kinda hard to describe Metroid’s music, as a lot of it is honestly fairly lowkey and can even get pretty ambient at points. In the grand scheme of things though, the fact that Metroid’s music was this lowkey was actually a fairly big moment in the history of gaming as, at the time, music for video games typically served the purpose of operating more like fanfare to an adventure than something that underscored a journey. And yeah, Metroid has it’s share of fanfare too, such as in the excellent Brinstar theme, but that quickly falls to the wayside once you start to venture deeper into Zebes.

There’s just something otherworldly to playing through Metroid late at night and having the various bleeps and bloops of the soundtrack to accompany you. Even the more ambient and atonal music, such as the theme for Norfair, manages to add a certain je ne sais quoi to the journey. Also, if any other early 2000’s Cartoon Network viewers are watching this video, can you let me know if I’m crazy for thinking that song sounds like a deranged serial killer version of the Rainbow Monkeys song from Codename Kids Next Door? 

And for fans of the game’s soundtrack that have never checked out the Famicom version of the game, well boy do I have a surprise for you. Because the game was released for the Famicom Disk System and not on a standard cartridge, Metroid’s Japanese OST is actually in higher quality and has a different mix that, frankly, blows the NES version out of the water.

Like seriously, at the risk of sounding like that one friend we all have that swears that listening to the original Mono mixes for Beatles albums of vinyl sounds way better than streaming stereo versions over Spotify, the difference between the two is night and day.

Closing

So does Metroid hold up? Kinda, but not really at the same time. 

While the game received great reviews back in the day and spawned one of my favorite Nintendo franchises, Samus’s inaugural adventure proves to be a fairly rocky adventure. And while I believe it’s aged a lot better than I think a lot of us give it credit for, it’s still a bit rough around the edges and offers little incentive to revisit outside of the novelty of it being the first Metroid game.

However, as I said earlier in this review, a lot of the games flaws are either fairly easy to overlook, can be remedied through the use of emulation, or have almost become a part of the games unique charm 35 years later. 

Simply put, if you’re planning on revisiting the original Metroid, you’d probably be better off revisiting it’s much beloved remake Metroid: Zero Mission, or playing through this one on an emulator for a few quality of life improvements. Don’t get me wrong, the NES original is a great game through and through, but it’s more of a great game within the context of the mid-to-late 80s, and isn’t as much of a timeless classic as, say, Super Mario Brothers. 

Still, it’ll always have a special place in my heart and will probably remain a game that I revisit every year or two. There’s just something really inviting about it’s relatively short length, the nostalgic memories it brings up for me, and watching the patriarchy self-destruct whenever I beat the game.


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