At last! Metroid by Nintendo for the NES, released in 1986 to an uncaring Japan and a year later to a much more appreciative USA.
Since starting this column, I have realized there are certain games that stick out in gamer's memories. Super Mario Bros. The Legend of Zelda. Contra. Mega Man 2. And of course, the forever enduring and endearing Metroid. Let's tear this one up..!
So many people hold this series debut in such high regard, but when the game first appeared (with no fanfare) it was at first received as something of an oddity. The names were strange.. Metroid, Zebes, Samus Aran - none of these meant anything to anyone. Your character was a little orange person who ran funny with little elven Peter Pan legs, and you traversed a black-and-orange world full of little fuzzy things and diving pterodactyls. Also, you could spin-jump really high or turn into a ball and roll through tubes. What was one to think?
Getting over the strange first impression, the gamer who pressed forward would slowly but surely be pulled into heroine Samus Aran's amazing universe. The world was dark, stark, lonely, and creepy - full of impossibly long corridors and extremely steep drops. Your character stated out barely powered with a limited pea-shooter for protection. Many other games of the day were colorfully happy and cheery; Metroid felt like a journey through some bizarre 8-Bit nightmare. Yet as you progressed through the game, something happened - you began to feel empowered. Picking up powerups and weapons made you feel more capable, more connected to your environment. The world of Metroid became the ultimate playground!
As you can tell from my first impressions, the game didn't originally take with me - I was quite high on Legend of Zelda in those days, and this seemed far less approachable. Still, Robocop was pretty recent in the theaters, and as soon as I started thinking of Samus as this cool futuristic outer-space cybercop, the game became much more appealing and I started to fall in love with it. As I started building my arsenal, it became of utmost important to pick apart every pixel of Planet Zebes. What if I wall-bomb here, could there be a secret tunnel? Can I freeze these monsters and skip over the lava to fast-forward to the Tourain level? What happens if I wall-ride up to that unreachable-looking platform? The game was challenging to begin with - Metroid invited you to invent new challenges of your own as well.
The game was solid, blissful, 8-Bit perfection. Many crow about how the 16-Bit supercharged sequel was the Ultimate Metroid experience, I'll argue that this first installment was the superior adventure. There was no auto-mapping going on here, navigation through this huge daunting world was completely up to you. Games like this and its cousin Blaster Master truly introduced a whole new go-anywhere "open world" concept the likes of which few gamers could have ever imagined.
And then, there was the endgame. You finally came face to face with the game's namesake, brilliantly rendered sprites that actually sent chills down one's spine at the time. Blasting away at the iconic Mother Brain in the final room, standing on that slippery little area and firing rockets to keep the blast door open - never before or since has an end boss made me sweat with so much tension. And then The End after The End - you've killed the Queen, now you must escape before the planet explodes! An incredible twist, every second as you ascended to the surface was harried and frightening. Truly these were the scariest, most emotional videogame moments ever for me! As I made my way to the final exit "in the nick of time" and departed the exploding planet, I felt some slight loss as that incredible adventure drew to a close, and of course the most heroic-sounding ending credit theme fired up just as Samus dressed down. Yup, the first Metroid on the NES was about as connected to a videogame world as I have ever been.
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