Now, now, folks.
The platforming genre - restricted to two dimensions during the NES era - is a staple of video gaming. Role-playing games, fighters, racing, first-person shooting, sports games, the puzzle genre, and simulation all had obvious prerequisites to their creation. Role-playing games can trace their origins to tabletop RPGs; fighters to man's expression of his inability to get along; first-person shooters to subjectivism and gun usage; sports games to the age-old tradition of combining exercise and competition; and puzzles to real world brain benders that have been used to keep people's minds sharp; while simulation itself is a practice in replicating true-to-life experiences. But platformers - with their jumping-based play styles and unique game worlds - are a crop totally born of video games.
What pre-Metroid platformers - save for a handful of lesser-known games - all had in common was that they either confined the player to one screen or took him or her in one direction from Point A to Point B. When Metroid came around, it changed the industry with its open world, freely explored at the one's personal whimsy - with necessary restrictions.
Big Whoop: So, Lance, you can get from one end to the other. Call me when you've ventured off the beaten path a little.
Metroid has a sprawling, open 2D map for the main character - Samus Aran, a space bounty hunter for the Galactic Federation who is tasked with eliminating the Space Pirates before they use the mysterious and deadly Metroid species to lay waste to the entire galaxy - and this map allows her to visit any previously-explored section at any time. However, only one path is to be taken from the start, and going along the intended direction and attaining upgrades to Samus's abilities gives her the edge over dead-ends that were before impossible to make it past.
To the Left, to the Left: Flip the Frog understands the value of backtracking.
Samus controls better than she has any right to - and I'm not trying to be sexist or anything. With jumps that are maneuverable in mid-air, guns and missiles which can be shot upwards as well as during grounded movement, and that always-endearing Morph Ball form whereby Samus curls up into a ball and rolls around just as Sonic the Hedgehog would do five years later, this game is quite easy to pick up even for gamers spoiled by controls in more recent releases - at least in the controls department.
This isn't to say that Metroid is perfect despite its innovativeness, though. You can't view the actual game map, something that's necessary here as opposed to in a release like Super Mario Bros. which plays left-to-right. When you gain a power-up, it's anyone's guess as to what it does because the game sure doesn't tell you. And oh, the damage taken from enemy attacks is brutal compared to the hour it takes to regain the health in question back, and it doesn't help at all that writing down your password and then re-starting the game puts Samus at 30 HP. This presents an interesting dichotomy - there's a big, wide map that you want to explore and yet the developers' mission seems to have been crushing such fanciful notions.
The makers of Metroid don't simply set you up with a large world and say, "You go for it, babe!" One of the defining traits of the series is the overall sense of isolation, of dread, of anxiety. When someone plays Metroid, that person really is all alone in the journey. The atmosphere created by the game, in the sci-fi spirit of the Alien movie series, serves to give Samus's surroundings an air of mystery and uncertainty - things humanity arguably finds to be scarier than anything else.
Our Helter Skelter Romance: You move me in so many different ways, my dear Metroid.
Visually, Metroid does this, even if the makers seem to have had it in their heads that the only way to achieve such a feeling would be to leave out any sort of background beyond the pitch black we ended up getting. This is a NES release, mind, and it's going to have an 8-bit charm that's lost on the newer demographics, but the only real thing that can be said negatively about the graphics are that there's no depth to the background. The score, however, doesn't take the easy way out - caught somewhere in-between music and background noise, it serves the purposes of being listenable as well as grating. As if the reality of enemies being able to knock your health down several tanks in three or four seconds weren't enough to set you on edge, the presentation plays on the player's nerves (turnabout is fair play… okay, I'll stop now).
Just like the Alien series, the Metroid games' inclusion of a strong, independent female is notable. The surprise of it all was made all the more shocking in that this would only be revealed at the end of the game, after you've established all your preconceptions of who this "Samus" guy is. As in the case of Alien's (no, that's the possessive of the first film) Ellen Ripley, the protagonist was originally going to be a man. If not for one creator thinking out loud how neat it'd be if the bounty hunter ended up being a woman, we might have gotten a hero named Samis Aman.
Hey now, you're free to leave your comments in the dropbox as you leave!
No Turning Back: That basketball in the net? Ellen Ripley totally shot that on her way out.
…yeah. So anyway, it's plain to see Metroid's a groundbreaking debut for the series, although not quite the complete, refined experience that one Super Metroid would later be. It's like any physical foundation: we owe it a lot for laying the groundwork for our gaming, but we've since built the roof and walls and doors and windows and white plastic erasers and thimbles on top of it, and man do those things count.
Is it still a classic? Yes. And its effect on platforming is permanent - from the series that were reinvented in its image, to those that were created specifically for the style, to all the licensed properties and one-offs that owe their existence to this seminal work. This particular reviewer will never be the same for what Metroid has done in his life, as it has spawned his favorite genre in all of gaming.
Power-ups Only: Be sure to leave the upgrades we gave you in the bin on your way out!