Late last year I began working on a metroidvania style game with a friend. I played a bunch of metroidvania games to try and get a feel for this style of game. In the beginning it was pretty scattershot, just playing whatever random game seemed interesting, and never finishing them. I decided that I’d like to revisit my metroidvania journey from the beginning, and play through each game much more extensively. The natural starting point for this is the original Metroid.
Metroid feels like the “grandmother” of the metroidvania genre because Super Metroid seems to have the stronger influence. But the basics: exploration based gameplay, character progression through powerups, and sidescrolling controls all start here. I did not play this game growing up, so I don’t have any nostalgia for it. At first I found the game to be beyond frustrating. But the more I played, and more I tried to get into the head of someone when it first came out, the more I began to enjoy it.
My favorite part of Metroid is the opening screen. To someone unfamiliar with the genre, but has most likely played a Mario game, their first instinct is to go right. But soon they encounter a dead end. With nothing else to do, they turn around and go left, past the starting area, where they encounter a glowing ball up on a pedestal, their first power up. The great thing about this room is that you must jump down a cliff that can’t be jumped back up onto. The only other exit is a small gap under that cliff, just small enough for a morph balled Samus to go under. So after acquiring the power up, you must use it in order to continue the game. This ensures you now know how and when to use your new ability.
This intro section works as an introduction to the main loop of a metroidvania. You must explore your environment to gain power ups, which allow you to explore further, which lets you gain more power ups, and so on. Metroidvania style character progression isn’t just being able to defeat enemies more easily. Many upgrades affect your ability to interact with the environment. In Metroid the morphball allows you to squeeze into small areas, the bombs let you destroy bricks on the ground, the range upgrade lets you hit bricks above, and missiles unlock doors. Giving your abilities so many different uses opens up a lot more gameplay possibilities, without adding lots of complicated controls. The only thing that feels kind of clunky is switching to missiles, but an NES controller only has so many buttons.
My favorite power up in the game is the screw attack. From the beginning of the game, doing long horizontal jumps will cause Samus to spin in the air. At first this seems like it’s there just to look cool. But what it actually is doing is training you to use the screw attack, which is a weaponized version of the spin jump. By the time you acquire the screw attack, you’ll have timing of the spin jump down. I feel like without this the screw attack would have been an awkward ability to use. This way you can use a very rewarding and fun ability right away.
One aspect I have mixed feelings on is secrets. Many items are hidden behind destructible blocks, that look like normal blocks. There is nothing in game that indicates they can be destroyed. To find these hidden areas without a guide you must shoot or bomb every single tile in the game. By modern standards this is pretty frustrating, especially considering the number of items hidden this way. But I can imagine that back in the day it would be pretty sweet to stumble upon a secret you didn’t know about, then going to school the next day to tell your friends. This increases the replay value, while also generating conversations about the game.
Another mixed aspect is healing and ammo, which is gained by killing enemies. On the surface I really like this system. There is no money or points for defeating enemies, but this drop system makes it necessary to engage them. This is even more important than just recovering from taking damage since missiles are required to open doors. But outside of acquiring energy or missile tanks, fighting is the only way to gain health or ammo. If you run low on either you must grind away at enemies to regain them, which really kills the pacing. The only upside I could see to this system is it encourages careful play.
The most damaging issue in Metroid is how easy it is to become lost. Areas are marked by different colored borders. Zones will have completely different boarders and enemy sprites. But the labyrinth like layout of the planet and similar looking rooms make it easy to lose track of where you are. To be honest I found this game very frustrating until I pulled up a map to help me keep track of where I was. I do feel like maybe back when it came out drawing your own map would have been part of the fun. Plus that is what the manual recommends.
By modern standards Metroid is a very frustrating game. Without a map it is much too easy to become lost, and many items are hidden in unmarked secret areas. The platforming and shooting gameplay is solid. Samus starts off very weak, possessing only a few moves. As the game continues you acquire more power and more options, making growth very tangible. This sense of progression is the most engaging aspect of Metroid for me.
In the future I’ll be taking a look at Super Metroid, which fixes many of the problems from the original, and expands upon what made it fun.