Curl up on the couch and get rolling with the game that launched an entire sub-genre.
To Beat: Reach the ending credits
To Complete: Get the best ending
My Goal: Beat the game with 100% completion and/or get the best ending
What I Did: Beat the game just short of 100% completion and beat the game with the best ending
Played: 1/4/16 – 1/13/16
My Difficulty: 4/10
Metroid is yet another classic game franchise that launched on the NES, but it wouldn’t have made waves if it weren’t for the trailblazers Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda ahead of it. Take the side scrolling style of Mario and pair it with the exploration and character development of Zelda and you pretty much have the recipe for Metroid. This style of gameplay has been iterated on many times over the years and is still quite popular today in large part due to the indie games’ sea of Metroid clones — many of which are excellent games in their own right. It may be unfair to refer to modern takes on the formula as a clone, but they certainly owe their heritage to this NES classic.
Metroid was developed by Nintendo, specifically the R&D1 division, and Intelligent Systems. Generally speaking, R&D1 was responsible for creating more experimental games. The R&D4 division, later known as EAD and which had famous director Shigeru Miyamoto as a team member, was responsible for more mainstream popular titles. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were developed by R&D4 and I am sure R&D1 decided somewhere along the way to merge these two styles into one game.
The NES Metroid was just the start to what has been one of Nintendo’s marquee game franchises. Metroid II: Return of Samus would curiously appear on Game Boy instead of a home console. It’s a bit of a strange game but it would introduce some key elements to the series such as the spazer and plasma beam weapons. The series would come back to console form in Super Metroid on SNES, which is lauded as one of the best games ever made and my personal favorite game of all time. The series would go stagnant for eight years before having two new titles released in the same year: Metroid Fusion on GBA and Metroid Prime on Gamecube. Metroid Prime eventually became a trilogy spanning Gamecube and Wii, and the NES Metroid was remade as Metroid Zero Mission on GBA. A few spinoffs later, unfortunately, Metroid: Other M on Wii was a very divisive title among fans and now the series is back into a drought again. The foundation is strong so hopefully the series will find a way to make a triumphant return once more.
Metroid, as eluded to above, is a side-scrolling action game with a heavy focus on exploration and discovery. You play as Samus Aran, a bounty hunter set with the task of retrieving stolen Metroid organisms before they are reproduced and used as bioweapons by the Space Pirates who stole them. Samus starts off with only a short range pea-shooter but she can pick up several upgrades that give her new capabilities to explore the planet Zebes. The very first ability named Maru Mari or Morphing Ball is found just to the left of the starting screen and is needed to navigate through short passages that Samus is unable to squeeze into without it. This was contrary to typical early platformer games that primarily focus on left-to-right progression and this simple item placement emphasizes the need for exploration right away. Just as in The Legend of Zelda, nearly all the upgrades enhance Samus offensively while simultaneously doubling as tools used to progress further into the game world. For instance, bombs give Samus an attack in ball form but also break blocks that uncover secret passages to new areas. Missiles give Samus a more powerful long-range attack but also unlock doors to item rooms. By virtue of exploration and progress, Samus becomes a one-woman wrecking crew capable of handling any challenge the game throws at her. The goal of the game is to destroy Mother Brain, the core of the Space Pirate lair. To reach Mother Brain, Samus must first find and destroy two Space Pirate bosses named Kraid and Ridley. Each boss has his own lair hidden within Zebes. Samus must explore not only to find them and defeat them, but power up enough to have enough weaponry to beat them in a straight fight. Once both are defeated the path to Mother Brain is open. After penetrating the defenses and destroying Mother Brain, Samus will make her escape quickly before the base self destructs.
Metroid is a game that I have played many times over the years and I have had the cart in my collection for a very long time. My original cart has a lot of character, and by that I mean it has the label half torn off. We got it second hand and it was that way when we got it. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I got a double in much better shape. Like Punch-Out!! before it, Metroid was also re-released with an alternate yellow label that is harder to come across than the standard gray label. I have both but the yellow label version was tricky to come by without paying full price for it online.
As far as the game goes, it doesn’t have a particularly large map by today’s standards but the game seems so much bigger than it actually is due to the lack of in-game map that would become standard after Super Metroid. I have a general idea of where the main items are, but it is still pretty easy to get lost in the depths of the world trying to hit every nook and cranny for missile upgrades. I decided to take it slow and explore everything trying to find every item for 100% completion. Doing it this way gives Samus a lot more health and missiles which make the rest of the game easier as well. The game did not give me much trouble, but when it was all said and done I came up a whopping one missile pack short. I was sure I had explored everything, but I missed a side passage in Ridley’s lair that held the last missile expansion. I had to look it up after I completed the game for my sake. I didn’t get 100% as I was shooting for but I got close and it was a good enough run after having not played Metroid for many years.
Now, the Metroid story doesn’t end here! I happily went ahead playing the next game on my list while I was two blog posts behind. I soon started writing up Castlevania when conviction started to set in. Let me explain. I had just finished writing on why I did not complete hard mode in Castlevania in part due to there being no better ending or reward for finishing up hard mode. I re-read what I wrote and it hit me – Metroid has a best ending! Furthermore, it has nothing to do with item completion at all, but rather how long it takes to beat the game from start to finish. Getting the best ending in Metroid means I have to beat the game from scratch in under an hour. Now I had already finished what most reasonable people would think was good enough, but it bothered me and I didn’t want to have to explain myself again for skipping the best ending in the very next game I played! I decided if I got the time that I would take a stab at a speedrun and hope for the best. In my head I picked out a decent route that should get me close to the time I needed.
The next day, a fortuitous confluence of events happened at home that gave me a couple of free hours I could dedicate to gaming. This was one shot at attempting the best ending. I ended up making two attempts. During the first attempt about 10 minutes in I realized I skipped the ice beam when I really needed it and I didn’t want to waste time backtracking to get it. It turns out I could have doubled back a bit after picking up the high-jump boots and nabbed an alternate ice beam upgrade. I probably could have completed that run with a decent enough time but whatever.
I started over. The next run I picked up the ice beam in its normal spot and trudged forward. The first hang-up of this attempt was the Ridley fight. Ridley is ridiculously easy if you stand right next to him because he can’t move forward to run into you and his fireballs arc over your head so you can just fire away. However, he has one fireball pattern where that doesn’t work and that was the one I got. You can freeze the fireballs with the ice beam to give yourself an opening and with that technique I was able to win just barely. A little later I had all kinds of trouble with Kraid. I fought him with less health than I was used to and I ended up getting killed and had to retread through his lair. I picked up a backup energy tank for full health that I ended up spoiling on the way back to the boss. Kraid’s room has an energy tank hidden inside but it is risky to reach. I decided to go for broke and try to pick it up mid-fight and much to my surprise I was successful leading me to victory. The rest of the run was pretty smooth and I was fast enough to achieve the best ending for the first time! By my clock I beat the game in 50 minutes, and even if in-game time is kept differently I still made it under the threshold. It was fun trying a speedrun and I feel so much better about my outcome now!
Metroid was first released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System which featured additional sound channels for richer sound as well as a save system instead of the password feature on the NES cart. The Legend of Zelda was released in the US around the same time but for that game Nintendo opted to implement the save battery system, while Metroid made the switch to passwords. It’s a curious outcome that I don’t fully understand since the developers had to spend extra work coding in the password system for the NES release. After finishing up Metroid, the same development team would go right into making Kid Icarus. I won’t be covering that game for awhile but it has quite a few similarities to Metroid. Both games share the password system, they both have exploration segments, they both have long stretches of vertical areas, and so on. I have heard that both games run on the same game engine but I wasn’t able to find any hard proof of that, though with the similarities it seems likely.
For as iconic as the Metroid series is, the first installment has not aged particularly well. Many of the map screens are repeated over and over creating large expanses of dull, tedious design. It’s difficult to gauge progress with no in-game map. The passwords are long and difficult to get right as some pairs of characters in the passwords are very similar. The series would go on to fix all of these problems and deliver some of the best games ever made, and it’s easy to forget that a game of this scope and scale had never really been done before. The core design of Samus and her arsenal was so well done right from the start that nearly all of these upgrades continue to be part of her progression, and this alone is the main reason why Metroid is such a great game in spite of its flaws.