Sunday, February 7, 2016

Gameday Sunday: Memories of Metroid Part I

This Sunday I turn over the Gameday Sunday post to a guest blogger, Frank Warden, who wrote and submitted an absolutely incredible retrospective on the Metroid franchise. Since it's such a lengthy piece, it'll be broken up in the span of a few weeks, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled every Sunday for the next several weeks! - Azure

Second only to the rabid fanbase the Alien franchise has spawned is the many works that it has inspired. Sequels, spin-offs and merchandise notwithstanding, the Alien series dished up a host of blatant clones; Galaxy of Terror (1981), Forbidden World (1982), and Creature (1985) are just a handful of films that lift concepts—if not entire scenes—from Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece.

          While a fair share of horror and sci-fi films were prepared to freely “borrow” from Alien and its followers, cinema was far from the only medium to do so. By the mid 1980s the once-struggling video game industry was being revitalized thanks to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. With the immense success of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, more unique titles were highly sought after, particularly ones that offered something new to gamers. In 1986 Nintendo’s Research and Development team along with Intelligent Systems created a game that would forever etch its undeniable mark on the industry.

          Metroid tells the story of Samus Aran, a bounty hunter tasked with tracking down and destroying deadly life-draining organisms known as a Metroids. Samus’ job is further complicated due to space pirates, who have taken the Metroids to the planet Zebes in hopes to use them as biological weapons. Infiltrating their base of operations, only Samus can save the day and restore peace to the galaxy.

       Metroid was a milestone in its day, employing a variety of innovations never seen before in any video game. Many previous titles favored a linear method of gameplay, shoving the player from point A to B; Metroid eschewed these past mechanics, and promoted exploration of the space pirate base. Gamers were able to move at their own leisure and thoroughly examine their surroundings. The setting was atmospheric and mysterious, yet strangely unsettling. The ambiance was brimming with tension, aided by an ominous musical score that meshed with mechanized sound effects. In an era when gamers were used to hearing the upbeat melodies of Mario’s jubilant efforts to rescue a princess, others were finding themselves listening to disquieting harmonies deep within a claustrophobic space pirate hive. Even Metroid’s main theme, composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, is only heard a couple of times in the game.

         At first glance Metroid may appear as a side-scrolling shooter with a basic objective to just blast all the villains on screen, but its underlying charm is that it’s also a sprawling nonlinear adventure game. Exploration is a vital component, and the player often finds themselves backtracking and retracing their steps countless times to scour every nook and cranny of the pirate base. Searching would entail discovering rewards in the form of weapon and health upgrades. Some of these were necessary finds in order to beat the game. Metroid even used a ‘save’ system, an element foreign to many games of the 1980s—though not a true method of saving the game in the modern sense. Before quitting a play session, Metroid offered the gamer a lengthy code to write down. This code needed to be re-entered on a ‘password screen’ when they restarted the game later on to continue where they left off. Another feature, practically unheard of at the time, was that Metroid had not one—but five—different endings. Which one the player would see depended on their play-through time.

        In spite of all the originality that Metroid brought to the table, it was nothing compared to one final discovery awaiting the player: Samus Aran, the main character who had been clad in an armored bodysuit for the entirety of the mission, was really a woman. While most thought Samus was a hardened, badass male – our space pirate hunting bounty hunter was, in fact, a strong, resourceful, and extraordinarily skilled female. It was an unbelievable twist that earned Metroid critical acclaim and enthusiastic fans worldwide. Samus proved to be the first female protagonist in video game history and she would return for more galaxy-spanning adventures.

       Metroid was released in Japan on August 6th, 1986 and would make it over to the United States in 1987 and, finally, hit Europe a year later. Originally designed to be played on floppy disk via Japan’s Family Computer Disk System console (also known as the Famicom Disk System), Metroid’s true success would be found on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Developed and created by Yoshio Sakamoto, Makoto Kano and Gunpei Yokoi, the basis of Metroid was culled from multiple sources – the platforming gameplay of Super Mario Bros., the exploring of The Legend of Zelda and, most strikingly, the story and style of 1979’s blockbuster film, Alien.

       Hideous extraterrestrial threats aside, the similarities to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi chiller are quite evident. Both employ a strong female lead, even the character design of Samus, sans armor, bears a strong resemblance to Ellen Ripley at the end of Alien. The The saurian space pirate Ridley is obviously lifted from Ridley Scott’s own name. One of the enemies Samus confronts later in the game is Mother Brain, the bio-mechanical creature overseeing the pirate’s base. This is a clear nod to Mother, the Nostromo’s onboard computer in Alien.

     Most strikingly, the space pirate’s fortress has strong shades of H.R. Giger’s techno-organic art style. In issue 65 of Retro Gamer magazine, Metroid co-creator Sakamoto said, “I think the film Alien had a huge influence on the production of the first Metroid game. All of the team members were affected by H.R. Giger’s design work, and I think they were aware that such designs would be a good match for the Metroid world we had already put in place.”

Check back next Sunday for Part II...

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