About halfway through the development of the now-classic 1986 game Metroid, one of the staff members, whose name is lost to time, turned to another and said, "It would be a shocker if Samus turned out to be a woman!” That conversation, related by designer Yoshio Sakamoto in an interview sponsored by Nintendo, changed video game history, giving the medium its first major female protagonist who needed no rescuing from an Italian plumber or anyone else.
Sakamoto has told a couple versions of exactly what the unnamed developer said, at one point suggesting that the developer had asked a question about the idea instead. But the idea of making Samus a woman, which is only revealed to the player upon completion of the game, was clearly one based on surprising the player.
Designer Hiroji Kiyotake said in an official interview with Nintendo that “back then, people played games over and over, so we wanted to give a reward for playing through quickly” by showing different endings for the different time lengths it might take to beat the game.
In many ways, Metroid can be seen as a response to Nintendo’s first mega-hit Super Mario Bros., which had come out a year earlier. “We wanted to make something that had what Super Mario Bros. didn't have,” Kiyotake said in the Nintendo retrospective. The result is one of the most fascinating games on the NES, one that has not lost its playability — or difficulty — in the 34 years since its debut. It’s also one of the single most influential titles in gaming history.
If you’re a paid Nintendo Switch online subscriber, you can play Metroid right now by downloading the Nintendo Entertainment System app.
It wasn’t that Super Mario Bros. (the game that came to define the medium for a generation) was necessarily lacking. There were practical matters that Kiyotake wanted to alter, like making sure his character stopped at a “dead halt” as opposed to sliding a bit. And speaking along with him, Sakamoto said that “Super Mario Bros. is about avoiding enemies.”
With Metroid, they wanted to bring the fight to those enemies rather than simply stomping on their heads. And what they created became one of the most influential and important video games of all time, leading to an immensely popular contemporary subgenre of games called Metroidvanias.
Of course, as anyone who has played Metroid can tell you, the game is not about blasting your enemies. A great deal of time is, in fact, spent avoiding your enemies. But what Sakamoto and Kiyotake were exploring was the idea of telling a narrative through gameplay. The player starts off relatively weak and gradually sees their abilities grow and expand. Where Mario’s Starman could grant a player temporary invincibility, gaining access to missiles in Metroid is mandatory for finishing the game.
The feeling that Samus is growing and changing alongside the player in Metroid is a feeling enhanced by Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka’s wonderful music score.
Dissatisfied with the upbeat, poppy music of games at the time, Tanaka sought said in a Gamasutra interview that he felt the score for Metroid should embody an alien mood. “I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature,” he said. “I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects. The image I had was, ‘Anything that comes out from the game is the sound that game makes.’”
Even the game’s title track conveys a sense of alien dread.
It’s easy to praise the game’s historic nature precisely because it is still so easy to pick up today. The game remains a challenge, no doubt, but the basics are easy to pick up in terms of jumping and shooting. Some mechanics, like changing weapons, aren’t told to players but can be found through easy enough experimentation (press select).
The original manual for Metroid misgenders Samus, repeatedly referring to the character with male pronouns. Meant to be a misdirect for players, the manual explains the creation of the Galactic Federation Police and how in the year 20X5 they must destroy a lifeform called a Metroid before it is captured by space pirates and used as a weapon. That means infiltrating space pirate headquarters, the fortress planet Zebes, and destroying the planet’s Mother Brain.
There are a number of ways of playing Metroid on the NES app, including two special versions that allow the player to progress to especially potent moments in the game. But even beyond that, there is the JUSTIN BAILEY code that allows players to play as Samus in a magenta leotard. It’s undoubtedly a cool outfit but does also speak to the double-nature of gaming’s big breakthrough female character: while one ending reveals her as a woman with long hair, another reveals her in a bikini, presented as a prize to the player.
It’s worth noting that neither the code nor the bikini-themed endings are discussed in the Nintendo interview.
All of these modes are recommended, if only to show the wide range of attacks and planning the team put into Metroid. Balls of energy that bounce around rooms can be frozen with a special beam and then easily destroyed with a missile. Startling and new when the game was first released, the game maintains its intrigue and challenge across its stages.
But there is something to be said for starting at the beginning, with just a short blaster and no missiles to speak of. Go left, get the ability to turn into a ball, and explore the wide world of Zebes from there.