Sunday, March 8, 2015

Moments in Games: Kraid's Blockade (Metroid)

Welcome to this inaugural edition of "Moments in Games," where I'm going to be discussing well-remembered occurrences that didn't quite fit into the framework of my "Memory Bank" pieces. These "Moments" might entail any of those stage portions, storyline twists or sudden discoveries that became a staple of my interaction with a game--any instance that fascinated me, turned my world upside-down, or otherwise resonates as a sentimental link.

This first entry is dedicated to Metroid and specifically a curious obstruction found in lower Brinstar (also known as "Kraid's Hideout"), where it served as just as much a mental barrier as a physical one. It was at one time the game's most tantalizingly microcosmic element and the perfect encapsulation of what the Metroid experience meant to a younger me.


I have to admit that the early days of my love affair with Metroid, when the game's world still seemed so immeasurably vast to me, were tinged with feelings of nervous hesitance; though I found the game's observed space to be endlessly captivating, I was always reluctant to initiate a larger exploration effort in favor of traveling a well-paved path whose direct route carried me through the fewest number of doors necessary to gain access to mini-bosses Ridley and Kraid. The thought of deviating from this path in search of additional power-ups weighed on me as an emotional burden, which I tried to convince myself was nothing more than my mind's logical assessment of the game's construction: "Why put in all of that effort to track down extra missile packs when the 150 earned for defeating the mini-bosses was more than enough to take down the Metroids, the Zebetites and Mother Brain?"

In retrospect, I'm not surprised that I clung so tightly to such a weak rationalization. After all--fear of the unknown was my biggest stumbling block when it came to Metroid and, for that matter, games in general. There was many a time, though, when I'd speed along the same ol' predictable purple- and gray-colored route but allow my eyes to wander, their gaze sometimes bringing into focus a normally avoided blue door or a conspicuous-looking block formation; suddenly, I'd find that my mind was being invaded by thoughts of what it was that could be hiding behind those temptingly brittle organic surfaces. But for the time, there was only what I could imagine, since I didn't yet possess confidence enough to nourish my curiosity.


There was one obstruction in particular whose presence haunted me for years: In the bottom portion of the first corridor of Kraid's hideout, there stood this seemingly impenetrable L-shaped structure as pictured above. It first came to my attention when I was still learning my way through Metroid--when I'd sometimes play it at my friend Dominick's house to enjoy that "shared experience" that was such an essential part of games when I was that age. Part of the experience, apparently, was us spending inordinate amounts of time trying to unsuccessfully bomb our way up and around the obstruction, which refused to grant us entry. Bomb-jumping in the more-modern Metroid games is a reliable mechanic, but the original's bomb-propulsion effect was inexplicable, and utilizing it effectively was an exercise in rapidly pressing (or holding) the attack button in the hope that a lucky string of blasts would propel you up to the desired height. We couldn't get it to work and gave up trying after deeming that this "bomb-jumping" had to be some sort of super-advanced "pro technique" we weren't capable of properly executing.


Though, we never ceased wondering about the amazing secrets that were surely hiding behind the blue door this obstruction so closely guarded, not knowing that any amount of westward exploration would have revealed to us that the corridor's middle-left door led to the exact same place via an alternate route (only "missile doors" were worth our attention, it seemed). From then on, whenever I'd play the game alone, it was always customary to stop by and give the obstruction a long look, the extended consideration of its possible negotiation the best excuse to drown myself in the unexplainably wistful area theme (whose meaning became more and more clear to me over time even if I could never find the words to describe it) before making the usual futile effort to actually get around it. Something magical had to be waiting there for me beyond that door, I still believed, but those five gray blocks and an unrefined bombing mechanic were intent to deny me access. And there wasn't a chance that I was going to explore the area's left side and find that alternate route, since I was still intimidated by the perceived enemority of Metroid's world.

For the longest time, that's how it went: I couldn't bomb-jump my way over the obstruction, so I all I could do was theorize as to what lay beyond it. My only hint came in the form of an unsubstantiated claim made by Dominick, who told me that he managed to bomb his way over and found only a similar-looking obstruction in following. I would have been disappointed had I not interpreted this information as an assurance that the game was now going out of its way to hide something from me. "So what could it be?" I wondered. "Is it untrodden sacred ground housing the very secrets to Zebes' existence? Or, as I'm partly fearing, is there only a succession of L-shaped obstructions, each taunting me with more in the way of subdivisions than the last, creating for a monstrously intricate labyrinth from which I'll never be able to escape?"


What was there remained a mystery to me until around late 1991, when Metroid had become a fixture in my life--a more well-known entity--and I desperately sought to find ways to continue extracting more of its wonder-fueling energy. So I spammed that action button and eventually bombed my way over the obstruction, whence I discovered that Dominick was correct: There was another one just like it just beyond a blue transition tunnel. There were no special treasures or uniquely crafted structures waiting to welcome the most resolute of explorers; there were only more of lower Brinstar's familiar-looking maze elements--a "whole new world" whose discovery excited me, yes, but one that was far less than what I imagined.


Wait--that's not entirely true. I did unearth one secret that I found nothing less than astonishing: Upon exploring past the second obstruction, I ran into a "fake Kraid" whose existence absolutely fascinated me. Why was he there? Why did he die so easily in comparison to the real deal? Was this a sign that Dom's brother, Joe, was telling us the truth when he spoke of "a secret world with 100 Ridleys, 100 Kraids and 100 Mother Brains"? Well, no, there was only a single Kraid, but his appearance was enough to leave me in a state of awe, as it did Dominick when I showed him how to get to the fake Kraid. Next to the obstruction, itself, this is one of my most enduring memories of the game.

Twenty-five years later, the physical and mental images of Kraid's Blockade (as I lovingly refer to it) no longer carry with them that same sense of wonder to a guy who knows the game's world inside and out, but they remain a nostalgic reminder of the time when Metroid's world was so mysterious and new to me. When even after defeating Mother Brain there was still an incalculable amount of unexplored geography hidden from my stare. These days, it's true that I prefer to take the more easily accessible alternate route when attempting full exploration of lower Brinstar, but it always seems appropriate to stop and give Kraid's Blockade a quick look, if not to lose myself in the music then to bring to mind memories of my younger self and that perception of unimaginable depth the anomalous Metroid once conveyed to me.


See more of my Metroid writings in the following sections:

http://mrpofvania.blogspot.com/2014/04/metroid-tunnel-vision-how-samus-aran.html

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