Metroid: 35th anniversary special

Metroid: 35th anniversary special


On August 6, 1986, Metroid was released in Japan for Famicom Disk System. The publication in the West would arrive only a year later and in Europe even in January 1988. Unlike the original, and unlike the adaptation of The Legend of Zelda, the local Metroid cartridge did not allow to save, but relied on an intricate password system. Details: the Nintendo creation still managed to establish itself as the third pillar of the company. Mario, Zelda, Metroid. Three names in sequence that, in the following years, we would have liked to read more often together.

Metroid, on the other hand, among the great Nintendo titles, was the one most emblazoned here and there. One of the main reasons, as we wrote in this episode of La Bustina di Lakitu, is that it is not a Miyamoto creation: it is not the fault of the Japanese master, simply his division, over time, has become more and more rich and powerful ... to the detriment of the others, which in fact - as of today, in 2021 - are now a small percentage, totally unable to generate high-budget titles.

The second reason, of course, is that Metroid has never approached the commercial results of Mario, or even of Zelda. Despite this, his lineage is undoubtedly noble. And on NES, its sales figures have been more than good, exceeding two and a half million copies. Two and a half million copies which, beware, are certainly not equivalent to what they would represent in 2021: due to the smaller size of the market and the consequent influence, for the price - considering inflation - much higher than in 2021.

We are not here, however, to talk about the whole saga, about what it went through after the fulminating debut on the NES, the extraordinary confirmation on SNES. We are here to talk about the first episode, the one that originated the whole saga of Samus Aran, the bounty hunter who with her adventures, unknowingly - and unpredictably - gave the name to an entire genre.

In our special for the 35 years of Metroid we present the story of the first, unforgettable game for NES.


Metroid: homage by Alessandro Bacchetta. In the genesis of Metroid there are no legendary acts, like the one that, for example, accompanied the gestation of The Legend of Zelda: in a single day, dividing the sheet in half, Miyamoto and Tezuka drew the entire map of Hyrule. Metroid was developed by R & D1, the Gunpei Yokoi team, which produced the entire project: the intention, which then materialized, was to finalize a video game in just one year. Another maxim of the late Japanese designer was that "if you can draw, you can also create a video game": and so the young - at the time - Kyotake (Samus' character designer) was put in charge of the project.

We learned from this interview with the developers that, for long months, Metroid was only designed by two people: one was Kyotake himself, the other we don't know (but we know they were both in their first development experiences). The idea was to generate not so much an "anti Super Mario Bros.", as to create a work that exalted itself in the themes, and in the solutions, not addressed by the plumber. The concepts were clear: we needed a non-linear adventure, not divided into levels, a game in which the enemies were not mostly avoided, but fought and killed.

Metroid: the start screen. After eight months, and the base of the game being built, top talent and R & D1 veterans (along with some programmers from Intelligent Systems) joined the team. Among them stands out the name of Yoshio Sakamoto, who would become the putative father of the series: it is curious to note, however, that it was not he who had the initial idea, nor did he sculpt the core of Metroid. His contribution was equally important: he immediately realized that the project lacked a strong identity, especially in terms of graphics. He took care of giving an appropriate look, also in this case very different from the typical Nintendo: as he has repeatedly remarked in a proud tone, Sakamoto this "typical Nintendo" does not even know exactly what it means. We tell you: the atmosphere of Metroid is darker and more serious and gloomy than the creations of Miyamoto.

Metroid: the dark atmosphere of the game. During development, one of the team members, almost as a joke, suggested that it would be fun to discover that a woman was hiding under that giant armor. Everyone liked the idea, especially Kyotake who, inspired by the legendary football player Pele - born Edson Arantes do Nascimento - also chose the girl's name. Kyotake confused Edson with Samus, and contracted Arantes in Aran. That orange armor, in this way, found a name and a sex: Samus Aran, female.

There are three other people to mention when talking about the development of the game. The first is Masao Yamamoto, who directed the project in recent months (and it would be repeated with Metroid II: Return of Samus). In the same role was Satoru Okada, creator of the Game Boy, who coordinated - we imagine in the final stages - the entire team. Finally, Hirozaku "Hip" Tanaka, the composer of the music and sound effects of the opera, who would forever define its identity, even superior to graphics. More on that later.

Game design

Metroid: Samus Aran in her Power Suit. Metroid fully hit the goals that Kyotake had set itself: the game proposed a single world to explore, without a clear goal to achieve. The home screen was emblematic: Samus Aran had open spaces to both her right and left. Right from the start, the player could decide where to go, just like in The Legend of Zelda, and unlike Super Mario Bros.

Metroid's labyrinthine nature, however, made Samus' wanderings quite different from Link's . In The Legend of Zelda it was possible to go anywhere, often finding unexpected surprises within an area; in Metroid non-linearity was used above all to communicate bewilderment. To give a feeling of inadequacy, of being in the wrong place, of not knowing where to go and how to continue. And the game often proposed obstacles that were impossible to overcome at a given moment, obstacles for which new powers would be needed; a choice that would have massively introduced backtracking into an action game, and the famous "otherwise inaccessible" areas, a term abused - in the following years - by the specialized press.

Metroid Prime: first brought Samus Aran in three dimensions. Another trait in common with The Legend of Zelda, and groundbreaking for the entire industry, lay in the nature of the power-ups. Unlike in Super Mario Bros., Metroid's upgrades were final and permanent: they weren't temporary, but they gave the bounty hunter a usable power at any time. A difference that might seem trivial now, but that at the time marked a big change.

Metroid was also very, very difficult. It was a title reserved for experienced players: it was not easy to understand where to go, and it was very difficult not to get killed by the enemies. The adventure did not have a time limit, but the game knew how long it took you to finish the work: based on the result, in the end Samus Aran - who at the time no one knew was a woman - revealed her face / body based on the speed of completion.

Metroid Dread: Coming to Nintendo Switch in October. Another important feature of the game, always with a view to "acting differently from Super Mario Bros.", was the functioning of the jump. There was no inertia in Metroid; to quote Kyotake, "the character does not slip". Where Samus landed, there he stopped. This from the developers' point of view; on a concrete level, however, this means that the game was less elegant and refined than Super Mario. He didn't have the same modulations in running intensity, and neither would his successors. To tell the truth, the newer metroidvania themselves often lack it, see Hollow Knight (if you don't know it, we had written extensively about it in this special about the vacuous beauty of Hollow Knight). However, it is not demonstrable that there is a direct correlation between this feature and Kyotake's initial "non-Mario" decision. The fact is that the metroidvania where you run and where inertia plays an important role are still few.

Narration and atmosphere

Metroid Dread: will it be up to the progenitor? Metroid wasn't just important from a game design standpoint - its atmosphere and storytelling are integral to the experience. The title of the work is a Macedonian word between "meter" and "android", which then identified the race of enemies that most characterizes the series, but first of all represents a lexical choice that evokes a sensation: something intricate and labyrinthine (metro) in a sci-fi environment (android).

By the developers' own admission, Metroid is inspired by Ridley Scott's Alien (you already know it all, but the same name of Ridley, dragon-shaped enemy of the saga, is a tribute to the renowned American director). Not just because the protagonist is a woman, not just because you have to fight an alien race. Metroid is the Alien of video games for the sensations transmitted by the adventure: isolation, claustrophobia, bewilderment. Giger's architectures strongly influenced the final aspect of the game, to which Sakamoto contributed more than any other. Especially as art direction.

Metroid Prime: The game Retro Studios translated the atmosphere of the game well into 3D. Metroid's storytelling itself is sensational - this isn't the time to delve into the difference between story and storytelling, but if the game's story is lacking, its storytelling is among the most incredible of the period. And Tanaka's music contributes a lot to its effectiveness, deliberately far from cheerful and carefree melodies, full of silences and disturbing sounds.

In addition to the atmosphere that the cunicular game design gives, we offer you a practical example of narrative (taken from the game's ending). Once the Mother Brain is defeated, in a completely atypical way for those years - but also by today's standards - the adventure does not end. Instead, a countdown starts, indicating the imminent explosion of the planet Zebes, and the consequent need to leave it through a conduit (to be climbed from the bottom to the top). Almost no one, we suppose, has perished in the enterprise: whoever is skilled enough to defeat Mother Brain is also capable of escaping the planet. That timed section is pure in-game fiction. Instead of a cutscene, or an explanatory text, Metroid lets you experience that last climb to the spaceship by pressing D-pad and buttons.


Hollow Knight: perhaps the best metroidvania in circulation. Metroid's influence on current games is revealed by the explosion of metroidvania, especially in the indie market, which bear its name. Mainly two-dimensional, non-linear titles, full of "otherwise inaccessible" areas. In this regard we do not have much to add, but it is interesting to point out that, according to some theories of aesthetics, artistic influence does not occur from the past to the present, but from the present to the past. What does it mean? Basically, if tomorrow we all started imitating an unknown South American film from the 1980s, making it so well known to the public, we contemporaries would have influenced him more than he influenced us. Here, Metroid is in the middle: it was really important in the genesis of metroidvania, but the genre exploded many years after its release, and without the direct influence of a contemporary Metroid. Metroid and metroidvania have, so to speak, enlightened each other.

Dark Souls Trilogy: in terms of difficulty and prestige, Dark Souls is a worthy heir to the first Metroid. There are two other major legacies of Metroid. The first concerns, in fact, the atmosphere. Few titles were as dark and narratively mature as R & D1. Few games shunned joy and a sense of adventure to emphasize bewilderment and fear. We cannot say that Metroid is the main progenitor of Dark Souls (and sons ...), because that would be an exaggeration, but it certainly represented a fundamental step in the audiovisual maturation process of video games.

The other legacy of Metroid is the market segment. A market segment that he had essentially generated himself, a niche that combined visual ambition, seriousness and difficulty. A band today best represented by the aforementioned Dark Souls, and that the Metroid saga, in recent times and for various reasons, has never been able to occupy.

Metroid Prime 4: of the game, announced four years ago, we haven't seen anything yet. If we can wish for anything for Samus Aran's future, it is for him to reclaim the seat he presided in the NES era. A position certainly less renowned and widespread than Super Mario and Zelda, but still very influential on a commercial level and, above all, equally (or almost) important in terms of prestige. It is almost impossible for Metroid Dread to succeed: both because it is two-dimensional, and two-dimensional games today have a completely different role than in 1986, and because the production values ​​seem high, but not excellent.

Hope that Metroid can return to be named together with Mario and Zelda, at least in the near future, does not come from Japan. It comes from Texas, and from Retro Studios. Looking forward to discovering Metroid Prime 4 ... happy birthday, Samus Aran.

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