Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Metroid - Tunnel Vision
How Samus Aran morph-bombed her way into the closed-off passages of my brainy database.

Sometimes our most cherished treasures were right there in front of us the whole time. Take Metroid, for instance: When I received it as a gift on that eventful Christmas day of 1988, I was sort of nonplussed and maybe even a little dismissive of it, as was usually the case when something wasn't instantly familiar to me. When I unwrapped the gifts that turned out to be The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, as given to me by my aunt and grandmother, I was more excited, I admit, about the latter, whose gold box cover even had a cool cut-out section that gave preview to the crest-style artwork on the game's equally gold game pak! The day after Christmas couldn't come soon enough, but I wasn't sure that Metroid was part of my planned activities.

So after giving it the cold shoulder for about a day, I popped Metroid into my NES and ran (and rolled) about its seemingly directionless, largely vertical world for twenty minutes or so, after which I switched off the console in confusion. I didn't get it; I mean, I located an item that looked like a missile, but I found no real application for it. Was it like Adventure, where I'd found the game's big prize and simply had to bring it back to the starting point? Did I win? I wasn't sure--it wasn't like any other game I'd ever played, most of which were arcade-like or mostly linear, and I had no real point of reference. I'd return to Metroid sporadically over the next few months, the experience typically ending the same way, with me not understanding the objective and giving up after about ten minutes. 

If anything, I was at least enamored with its music, starting with the title-screen theme, whose pronounced series of monotone bass notes gave way to a melancholic and depressive score that accompanied the mission brief and set a general tone that left me feeling a combination of sad and contemplative; I'd never heard that kind of music in a game before, nor did one ever succeed in rousing that type of emotion from me. The upbeat, energy-pumping start-game jingle and the Brinstar theme, conversely, did their job to lift my spirits and carry me through the early-going, at least until I grew too frustrated to play on.

In between sessions, hoping to gain some sort of wisdom, I'd give a quick read-through to its manual, which like Zelda's was well-designed and featured very detailed accounts of the game's backstory, weapons, and enemies--the accompanying visuals impressively drawn, imagination-stirring, and a memorable aspect of the entire package. I always enjoyed reading the story of the space pirates' misdeeds and the Federation response, learning about the Metroid threat, and memorizing the names of Zebes' indigenous creatures, most of which I thought I'd never see.

I liked its Super Mario Bros.-inspired control scheme and how you had two types of jumps (normal and spinning); it was fun bouncing down long, vertical shafts in "Maru Mari" form while trying to dodge platform-circling Geemers; and I fancied taking stock of the rather-frightening assortment of creatures (whose descriptions I enjoyed reading in the manual) that appeared past the initial blue area of Brinstar, even if the later-encountered array of fiery, horned, and crazy-legged critters were merely reskins of earlier foes or slightly altered in terms of movement and flight-pattern. I was clearly looking to derive some sort of value from what was a thoughtful gift, but the game, itself, though playable and boasting some intriguing elements, just wasn't doing it for me.

Fast-forward to eight months later, on a boring summer day in early August, weeks before my birthday and during a period where I had already played to death all of my NES games and was looking for something new. Desperate to fill the void, I again loaded Metroid into the system, intent on finally solving the puzzle of its twisted, dead-end corridors. I corralled every weapon I could find--including the long beam, bombs, and a few energy tanks--and eventually returned to Norfair ("Purple Brinstar," as I mistakenly called it), which is as far as I'd ever gotten, since I was usually scared off by its similar-looking, enemy-crowded passages. After toiling around its looping map for seemingly hours, fruitlessly wedging my way into every crevice and ready to swear the game off for good, everything changed with the drop of a single bomb. 

*ba-doop-ba-doop - boom

I had blown open a hole in the second-to-last block on the right side of the floor in the long vertical shaft placed right of Norfair's entrance. After falling through the fissure, things began opening up.

"Now I get it."

Since I now had hard knowledge that the means for progress could be hidden behind even a simple block, the game's world started unfolding in a more-easily-understood manner, however opaque the actions that brought about this shift in thinking. As I explored this new terrain, I continued to be taken in by Norfair's theme--the mysterious, understated melody which I originally called "The Gangster Theme," since it struck me as a hip-sounding beat and suitable backdrop to this purple place where the unseen space pirates "obviously hung out." Now, taken in full context, its tone reflected a more silently-dangerous, investigative atmosphere, which set the appropriate mood and accompanied my every step and bomb-blast toward the next elevator, which transported me down into lower Norfair, whose sinister-sounding theme immediately left me feeling disquited and perhaps not quite prepared for what was to come.

It didn't matter--I was already hooked. No matter how much trepidation I felt, there would be no further obstacle in my now-exuberant penetration of Metroid's world. I braved the depths of the fiery lower Norfair, conquered Ridley, and struggled my way back up to Brinstar, whose vibrant, heroic theme now seemed even more welcoming than before. Thanks to a few tips from friends, I discovered the locations of the Varia Suit and the ceiling-embedded energy tank (I managed to find the High Jump boots and Screw Attack on my own, since I was now compulsively bomb-happy) and headed toward Kraid's hideout, which continued the theme of a new area instantly grabbing me with its music; it featured an emotive musical piece the likes of which I'd never heard in a game. I stopped for a while, parking Samus near the side of the elevator, as I listened to the hideout's disconsolate tune, whose sad, desperate tone spelled the entire experience and also defined, for me, Samus' adventure.

People like to use words like "alone" and "isolated," but I'd describe the game's tone as more agonizingly evocative, as it reminds us that both the stoic Samus and the planet's indigenous creatures--who live out their lives emotionlessly trekking across and endlessly circling decaying structures, oblivious to the events surrounding them--are rummaging about far, far away on an unlivable, desolate planet, taking part in a play no one knows about, cares about, or will ever be informed about or appreciate. Its about survival in an uncharted, disconnected world and your persistence in a mission to save an unaware, ungrateful populace before moving on to your future unchronicled exploits.

One of my defining memories of the game, which expresses the previous point from a player's perspective, is any time I'd take what looked like a familiar route only to wind up in a similar-looking location with no idea how to get back to the desired intersection; as I'd slowly move through a middle portion of a claustrophobic passage, with no Screw Attack and the alarming beeps signaling my dangerously low health, I'd feel a sense of hopelessness and fear that I might never escape this predicament. "Even if I do, how do I get out of here?" I wondered as I crept along slowly, hoping that I could focus well enough to react in time to freeze the rebounding Multiviolas, Gerutas and Dessgeegas as they appeared onscreen, if it meant surviving even just a little longer. That, I would say, is the Metroid experience.

To make a long story short (Colonel Mustard: "Too late."): I took down the tough-skinned Kraid, raised the miniboss statues, and finally infiltrated the mechanical Tourian, whose menacing, urgent ambiance was an ominous sign of the struggles to come. Be it a nervous, jumpy encounter with a Metroid or a futile attempt to avoid the infuriating Rinkas (the "annoying SpaghettiOs"), I shakily progressed past the trouble spots and into the Mother Brain's chamber, where the music grew only more threatening. My heart was racing too quickly to focus, and I ran out of missiles, forced to bite the dust. After a few failures (and some tedious missile-farming back at Brinstar), I settled down somewhat; I eventually tanked past the Zebetites, cracked through the Mother Brain's protective glass casing, and pumped in enough missiles to destroy the wicked mastermind and put an end to her machinations. 

The timed escape sequence to follow was made more difficult than advertised due to my continued heart-racing and general nervousness, but I managed to climb up to the exit and witness the game's big secret--that Samus was a woman and, as far as I knew, the first heroine in an action-adventure title (I didn't get the best ending, as only Samus' head was revealed). I always thought it was a cheap surprise, done mainly for shock value, but I'm glad they genuinely made something of it.

The point is that I stuck with the game and saw it through to the end, slowly realizing that it was something that should always have appealed to me. I played it through it a few more times in a short time-span, seeking to earn a better ending (not to see Samus stripped, mind you, but to experience what was rumored to be a somewhat-altered "Second Quest); I was never the speed-running type, since time limits tended to cause me stress, but Zelda taught me that post-game content might be worth the effort to unlock. The more I played Metroid, the more I fell in love with the design philosophy fueling its gameplay, and I was now wholly enamored with the concept of an exploration-based side-scroller. Whether it was a normal run or one completed with a suitless Samus (the oddly colored "beauty" who I would unlock via an under-one-hour finish and control through a successive playthrough), I was always excited to return to Zebes' labyrinthine halls to continue my search for hidden missile packs and energy tanks as well as to discover new terrain, like the seemingly innocuous chamber that served as domain for the fake Kraid.

It was a game that I'd break out any chance I could. Sometimes friends would come over and watch me play through it after we finished a few rounds of Balloon Fight or Mega Man 2, and other times we'd sneak into the house after getting out of the pool and get in a quick game before the big barbecue. The wait for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner was also an opportune time. Though I didn't need any excuse to return to it, I was sometimes compelled to jump back in and spend a day hopelessly trying to confirm neighborhood lore or frequently repeated urban legends. Maybe you've heard of the "secret world," which according to Joey, my friend Dominick's brother, was a hidden room that housed 100 Ridleys, 100 Kraids, and 100 Mother Brains. What was the reward for locating it and defeating the room's habitants (other than the exploding NES that would result from trying to process it all)? No one knew.

There is, in truth, a "secret world," which has been known to Metroid players for years, and I was one of many who spent countless hours wedging myself into doors and hopping my way up past ceiling structures into bizarre, deformed rooms (with fall-through lava and doors that led nowhere) that were nothing more than out-of-bounds spaces filled in by the system's memory in an attempt to approximate existing rooms, with varying degrees of success. It was nothing that could match the legend, really. No--I was more intrigued by what I heard from my storytelling friend Mike, who informed me of "the secret meeting room," which he claimed lay behind the left wall near the starting point of Brinstar; it was here, he said, where the Federation held their meeting at a long table before they elected to contact Samus for the mission. You know--the meeting as seen on page 3 of the game's manual, depicted above. Since Super Metroid had come out about this time, we knew there was something beyond this wall, but just not in the original game. Me being the dope that I was, I spent way too much time trying to breach that wall, even from Kraid's hideout below, before I realized something: The Federation didn't meet on Zebes--that's the planet they were trying to infiltrate! Unfortunately, Mike had moved away to Staten Island before I could ever confront him on the matter.

But that was the magic of Metroid, whose world felt like a living, breathing entity. "What else was hidden there?" we wondered. Real or imagined, it didn't matter. As I've said previously: Glitches and exploits were at this time tolerated and accepted as part of the experience, and Metroid's were no different, be they blocks discolored because you were falling quicker than the game could process the information, creatures that followed you through doors into rooms they weren't meant to enter, or a secret world where you'd walk into a door and permanently disappear from sight, your hopeless action commands the only audible proof of your continued existence.

Ultimately, my experiences with Metroid solidified my love for its genre, which by definition is "action-adventure" but has since in tribute been coined "Metroidvania," a term that is more recognizable though somewhat controversial. Without it, I never would have stuck around for its sequels or given attention to games like Blaster Master, Rygar (which is one of my all-time favorites), or the future Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. As has become tradition, I play through Metroid at least once a year, always intent on fully exploring Zebes' world and completing a 100% run, doing so with the same oddly thrilling feelings of apprehension and anxiety that so gripped me when I was 12.

So concluded what was Metroid's slow, unexpected ascent into the pantheon of my favorite video games. If The Legend of Zelda was the welcome beginning of a quest into a whimsical world of fantasy and treasure, Metroid was my eye-opening journey into the deep, dark desolation of infinite space.

Sometimes, there's no place I'd rather be.

See more of my Metroid writings in the following sections:


1 comment:

  1. I grew up in the early 90s, and "Super Metroid" was my first exposure to the series. I played through it using Nintendo's official guide - which had amazing illustrations and the all-important bestiary - and finally beat it one night with my family present. Since I'm sure you know how thrilling the final areas of that game are, you can imagine what that experience was like for me. Super Metroid is still probably my No. 1 game.

    Since I didn't play Metroid for NES until after I experienced Super Metroid, the older game needed to work a bit before I enjoyed it as much. I've not beaten it nearly as many times as SM, but it's definitely in my top 10 for my NES library.

    As a side note, I recently got a Famicom Disk System along with Metroid, and it's pretty awesome to play it with the enhanced sounds and an actual save feature. The password system for the NES Metroid is just atrocious!