Metroid FI

Learning How To Metroid – A Lesson in Obtuse Game Design

I just got through Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze this past week, and I found myself confused at points by the difficulty curve in the game. Rather, the lack of a noticeable curve bugged me. Levels would randomly be more difficult than others, and the game’s fifth world seemed to punish players much more than its sixth and final world. It felt like there was no rhyme or reason to the difficulty, but hey, the game is still really good.

What it did was get me thinking about difficulty in video games, and about how every good game is a learning experience. Tropical Freeze has simple mechanics that don’t take a long time to understand. The difficulty comes from the many different situations the game puts you into, and the way you have to adapt what you know to what the game presents you. Difficulty has always been one of my obsessions when it comes to video games, because I’ve always thought of it as the hardest part of a game to get right. So, I’ve been pouring over lists of games that challenged me to learn new things, or think in different ways. I sought the one game that put me through an experience like no other, and I came to the answer.

That game is the original Metroid, a classic game that is only a few years away from its thirtieth birthday, with an influence on video gaming as a whole that has lasted since its release. I played it for the first time about five years ago, and boy, was I not prepared for it. I had played Super Metroid, and the first two entries in the Metroid Prime series. I felt like I had a good grasp on what Metroid was like, and didn’t know what awaited me was hours upon hours of pain..

The original Japanese Metroid box art. Does NOT prepare you for the caves upon caves.

The original Japanese Metroid box art. Does NOT prepare you for the caves upon caves.

Metroid doesn’t waste your time with fancy tutorials. It puts you down on the planet Zebes, and sets you free from the very moment you start up a new file. So far, so good. A quick trip to the left netted me the Morph Ball, a classic Metroid item. I knew how things would play out from here – I’d be using the Morph Ball to help me find new areas. It’s Metroid, after all – the other games in the series I’d played taught me that much.

It didn’t take much longer before I was stuck in the caverns of Zebes, knee deep in my assumption that I could get through the game without problems. The original Metroid is built around exploration and intuition, and I struggled to understand the differences between what I was doing, and what Metroid wanted me to do. Every time I managed to figure out where I was going, even if I only stayed on the right path briefly, felt like a magical discovery.

What I began to learn with Metroid is that secrets, rather than being fun hidden things, are the lifeblood of success. Metroid doesn’t give you a straight line, or even a crooked one. Its non-linear structure meant that you could go wherever, so long as you knew the tools required and the right places to be using them. The line is cut up, and guess what? It’s hidden everywhere.

When I play certain older games, I try (within reason) to put myself into the situation I expect most people would be in when the game initially came out. Metroid, clearly, was one of those games where understanding the situation contributes a lot to the game. So, using the internet for any sort of hints was forbidden. Despite the issues, I told myself that I had to figure things out by myself.

What followed was an obsessive hunt through every room I could access, looking for anything suspicious or trying something I’d never thought to do previously. Due to the limitations of the NES, Metroid didn’t have a lot of graphical detail – nothing obvious, to give away what may be a false wall in need of bombing. Whenever I came to a dead end, I wouldn’t accept it – there had to be some way of moving past it.

After years and years of playing games with lengthy tutorials, hints galore, and a general sense of direction, Metroid is like a punch in the stomach. It hits you hard, but it makes up for it with a wonderful sense of atmosphere and setting. Like the Legend of Zelda, Metroid knew how to make a video game feel like a legitimate adventure. The sheer fact that it was difficult to conquer made me want to play more – it became a choice between two options.

Either I could win, or the game could win. I was playing on its terms, but I didn’t want to lose to it. At this point, I had been drawing crude maps in a notebook, trying to give myself a way of understanding the caves of Zebes. I’d scribble down ideas on where I needed to go. The whole process went beyond just simply playing Metroid – this was more than just a controller in my hand.

To digress for a minute, I remember when I got around to playing Metroid: Zero Mission for the first time. This was after my battle with Metroid, and I wanted to see how the remake handled that same sense of exploration and discovery. To my disappointment, Metroid: Zero Mission approached it in a much more straightforward way. Every so often, you would get general hints on which direction to be going, and the whole game felt more linear. To its credit, it certainly does not show its age as much as Metroid does.

A screenshot from Zero Mission, which ups the graphical detail from the original Metroid severely.

A screenshot from Zero Mission, which ups the graphical detail from the original Metroid severely.

In addition, Zero Mission added a section to the end of the game that introduced Samus Aran’s infamous Zero Suit. This is an aside, but it’s always been a sore spot for me. Even though I already knew Samus was female by the time I played the original Metroid, I can tell you for certain that it didn’t matter to me at any point when I was playing it. My mind was always on trying to figure out what I was doing. I’d rather my female game character wears a bulky Power Suit, not a skintight curve enhancer.

Enough of that rant, though. To come back to my point, Metroid will always hold a special place in my mind. It may not be the most challenging game I’ve ever played, but I feel like it’s one of the biggest adjustments I’ve ever had to make when playing a game. I had to approach it an entirely different way than I’d ever done, and I had to turn off the logical part of my brain – the part that looked for the next path as if there was ever any rhyme or reason about where it had to be. That’s not how Metroid did it, and I love it for that.

Could this kind of design work for a modern day Metroid game? Retro Studios, especially in the first two Metroid Prime games, certainly emphasized exploration and rewarded the player for being curious, but neither game was nearly as obtuse as the original Metroid. That design attitude is likely too dated for modern day Nintendo, but I have high hopes that it could be pulled off.

Giving the reigns back to Retro Studios would be a great first step towards seeing a new Metroid title on the Wii U or 3DS. Is Retro my dream Metroid designer? Honestly, I’m not sure. I have no idea who is. All I know is that the original Metroid is one of the key gaming experiences of my live, and I’m looking for its second coming.

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