Metroid, was developed by Nintendo R&D1 alongside Intelligent Systems. Defined by Nintendo as a scrolling shooter, Metroid created the template for open exploration adventure games that other games in the series have used over the last three decades.
Metroid was one of the first video games to use powerups as a requirement for game completion, as the game could not be completed without acquiring certain items. Additionally, the game was one of the first to incorporate multiple endings, five to be exact. The final three, all revealed that Samus was indeed a female character, as the first two and the game manual referred to Samus as “he.” Each ending was dependent upon the amount of time that the player took to complete the game.
Many of the series mainstays originated in this title, from the Metroids to the Space Pirates and some major bosses, such as Kraid and Ridley. The game too defined a strong atmosphere of emptiness and intrigue. A well-established setting in combination with its score solidified what we would forever know as Metroid.
In terms of game design, Metroid is a great example of how the developers at Nintendo use gameplay to teach the player how to play the game. Super Mario Bros. begins the game by directing the player forward. If the player attempts to move backward, they will learn that the screen has been cut off and must continue toward the right side of the screen. A goomba approaches and teaches the player either how to die or how to jump. Jumping will teach the player a combat mechanic or will teach the player how to gain a powerup. The same game design philosophy is at play here, although it isn’t quite as apparent in the more open world that Samus inhabits.
Upon starting the game, the player takes control of Samus and, assuming they’ve been playing video games in the mid 1980s, moves to the right. The player can continue to move for a while, likely learning how to jump and shoot along the way. Eventually, the player will reach a wall that cannot be passed. It is instinctive to try to crawl, but that mechanic is not in place here. Instead, the player will likely backtrack until they pass the original starting point and discover a powerup, the Morph Ball, hidden to the left of the start. Once the Morph Ball has been acquired, the player will immediately require its use to exit the area where it was discovered and should understand how to pass the aforementioned wall.
The game continues to demonstrate intelligent design in such a way, allowing the player to wander freely enough that they gain a sense of understanding and comfort in this world while restricting exploration enough as to still provide a semi-linear experience and to help guide the player along the way. Once we continue on, Samus will enter a long, vertical tunnel. Climbing the tunnel will reveal a few doors, most of which lead to a dead end, for now. By backtracking, the player will eventually stumble upon the first big weapon upgrade, the missiles. Not only do these inflict more damage to enemies, they are also necessary for opening certain doors within the game. Here, a touchstone of the Metroid series is established and grounded for all future iterations of the game.
In Japan, Metroid was released for the Famicom Disk System, which allowed the player to save their progress along the way. Due to the limitations of the NES and its cartridges, the North American version utilized a password system that would keep record of the player’s progress. An example of the separation of teams within Nintendo, the company’s R&D4 team implemented a battery saving system for their The Legend of Zelda which debuted six months earlier than Metroid, which was developed by the previously mentioned R&D1 team.
The password system created a subculture of Metroid fans who would exchange passwords to see the results of entering them at the title screen. These random sets up numbers and letters often led to strange outcomes, as reading them on a CRT television would often leave the player confused between O and 0, or 5 and S, and so on. One of the more notable codes was the JUSTIN BAILEY code, which allowed the player to play the game as Samus outside of her armored suit and instead sporting a leotard as she ran through the game.
Metroid was and still remains a marvel of technology on the NES. The developers were able to fit an impressive amount of data on to one NES cartridge. When playing the game, the player will navigate through both horizontal and vertical areas of the game. This was necessary to the design in order to fit all of what they developers had planned onto a single cartridge. Because of the amount of data incorporated into the game, it is known for its glitches and gameplay advantages from them.
Metroid populates its world one screen at a time in order to use the NES to its full potential, but this can often lead to interesting outcomes. Sometimes, the game will force random sprites from the memory onto the display, injecting enemies onto a screen where they otherwise would not appear. This can also cause visual disruption and invert colors or produce other similar visual breaks. One of the more practical glitches in the game is not so much a glitch in the visual sense, but instead how Samus performs. The player will eventually unlock bombs in the game, which are used while in Morph Ball mode to open certain doors, can be used to bounce infinitely into the air. This type of sequence breaking helps the player to reach areas otherwise unreachable or to reach areas earlier than they are meant to be reached. Additionally, these methods are typically essential when speed running the game.
Metroid is one of the the games in the series that I have yet to complete. Something about the NES original always felt obtuse to me and felt impossible to complete without some sort of guide. Had I originally played it on the NES, I may have been inclined to draw out maps as I played, but entering this world after playing more modern games and after playing other games in the series, it was tough to navigate this world without help. Oddly enough, Metroid: Zero Mission is much more approachable and might hold the place of my favorite Metroid game, as it takes the original and applies a much needed map system.
As the game celebrates its 30th anniversary, it’s interesting to see how the other games in the series are all built on this same formula and many of the ideas introduced in 1986 are still central to the latest games in the series. Metroid has been made available on all of Nintendo’s Virtual Console platforms to date. To celebrate, take a listen to a piece of the soundtrack and see the artwork from both its original Famicom Disk System release as well as its later NES rerelease.