It might seem a little strange that Nintendo have gone this past week without even mentioning Samus Aran or so much as publicly acknowledging the 25th anniversary of Metroid's release in Japan (Samus turned 25 last Saturday), but looking at things a little more carefully reveals that, in many ways, this pioneering saga of space adventuring has been the black sheep of Nintendo's family since day one. No whimsical plumbers, daring castle rescues or princesses here. No Koji Kondo for Samus. Our protagonist was all alone in deep space...except for a bunch of monsters that is.
Taking its cues from Ridley Scott's Alien (the series' most persistent antagonist is named after the great director), the original saw bounty hunter Samus exploring the seemingly desolate (at first) planet of Zebes for Space Pirates. The jaunty, playful themes Nintendo had toyed with for its red capped hero and giant monkey were gone, replaced with something far darker, with solitude and isolation playing large parts in creating a tense atmosphere as well as a haunting musical introduction from Hip Tanaka.
Taking on elements of both Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo combined their affinity for creating entertaining 2D platformers with large doses of non-linear exploration and a snifter or two of SHMUP elements. The result was a slice of brilliance that, although it never perhaps reached the universally adored heights of the moustached dungaree-enthusiast, would go on to gain a serious cult following across the globe.
Of course, the original Metroid was groundbreaking for several reasons. The first was the simple mechanic of allowing the player to go back to previously explored areas - the ability to move left as well as right. Although Nintendo had already done this with Link, it was relatively new ground for 2D side-scrollers, along with a near complete lack of interaction with other characters, having a set time-limit to escape from self-destructing planets and ships and five different endings depending upon how fast you were able to finish the game, giving speed run enthusiasts something to chase at long last.
But by far the biggest surprise, and it nearly didn't happen, was the revelation upon completing the game that Samus was in fact a woman. The early games did not refine the Power Suit to give it a more feminine look, that came slightly later, but rather offered up a chunky, badass, slightly alien space suit, making it all the more surprising when, after a mini technicolour Zebesian disco, Samus transforms into a perfectly normal woman.
Since then, she's been the rather more conservative role model of women in games, happy to just get on with things, rarely indulging in the page 3 material that certain daughters of English aristocrats might use to pay the mansion bills when treasure hunting is out of season. The motivations for her actions rarely expressly given, aside from holding Ridley responsible for the death of her parents, her inner thoughts kept hidden deliberately to allow players to project themselves into the game and come up with their own backstories for the character. Metroid: Other M did delve deeper into the character's psyche, but this was met with mixed reactions from fans and critics alike.
Other M's largest mistake, was that Team Ninja broke the sense of isolation that had become an integral part of the experience. The original game ended on an emphatic note that stated women could kick butt and fend off alien hordes without any help thankyouverymuch. No daddy issues, no PTSD, just a woman, an alien landscape and s Power Suit. You were alone in your mission, alone in deep space, alone and surrounded by some seriously ugly creatures who wanted nothing more than to infect and crush and kill. This was hammered home by a moody score from Tanaka that wasn't afraid of stillness at all, encasing the player in sonic coldness and claustrophobia. And it was brilliant.
Metroid might not stand up too well by today's standards - it did come out in 1986 - and its formula has been significantly bettered (we'll have a Blast From The Past: Super Metroid piece for you tomorrow), but its legacy cannot be understated. Anyone who bought a Gamecube knows what I'm talking about. Anyone who's a Samus fan in Smash Bros. will testify that the Screw Attack is still satisfying. You'd never see Samus get kidnapped by a giant fire-breathing turtle. You'd never catch her playing tennis with a ghost. She is Nintendo First Lady, not Peach, and she kicks ass.
Lara would be nothing without her.