An armoured figure sprints through a dark, alien landscape, utterly alone except for the bloodthirsty creatures that lie in wait. This lone, kitted-out bounty hunter is Samus Aran and the game is Metroid – a 2D side-scrolling action-adventure title released by Nintendo this month 35 years ago that’s widely considered one of the most influential video games of all time.
But what explains Metroid’s celebrated legacy? After all, creators Satoru Okada, Gunpei Yokoi, Hiroji Kiyotake and Yoshio Sakamoto didn’t invent the game’s core platforming or exploration mechanics – and later 3D games in the franchise weren’t the first to introduce first-person shooter gameplay, either.
So, how did Metroid – a game that ostensibly added nothing new to the medium – earn such an enduring reputation for innovation?
Paving the way for female protagonists in video games
The first and most obvious way that Metroid was a literal gamechanger was its choice of protagonist. Samus Aran, Metroid’s arm-cannon toting bad ass player character is, in fact, a woman! Admittedly, she’s only the second female protagonist to headline her own game – Barduke’s Toby “Kissy” Masuyo debuted first – but she’s easily the most recognisable and popular, and paved the way for the likes of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Half-Life’s Alyx, and Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Aloy.
Was Samus’ last minute gender reveal in Metroid little more than a gimmick? Absolutely. Still, she’s never been replaced by male player character, and has gone on to prove the viability of a (relatively) non-sexualised female protagonist with each successful new entry in the Metroid franchise. Without this critical and commercial validation, other games developers might’ve been afraid to introduce their own female protagonists – so I’d say this counts as a pretty big innovation, wouldn’t you?
Rethinking linear level design and gameplay
The gender of Metroid’s player character alone isn’t quite enough to justify its lofty standing among video game aficionados, though. Fortunately, that’s not the only area where Metroid broke the mould – there’s also the game’s approach to level design and gameplay to consider.
Yes, Metroid’s platforming and exploration mechanics were lifted straight from Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, respectively. However, the development team leaned hard into non-linear level design and gameplay in a way that was unique for the time: Metroid wasn’t just about hopping between platforms, killing every alien in sight – it was about exploring.
To complete the game, players couldn’t just run and gun their way across the planet Zebes until they reached the finish line. Instead, they had to move back and forth – and up and down, thanks to Metroid’s hardware-straining use of vertical scrolling – through Zebe’s overwhelming, labyrinthine environment to acquire the new weapons and skills they needed to access areas that were previously unreachable.
Not only did this distinctive blend of platforming, exploration and RPG gameplay elements and non-linear level design spawn an entirely new 2D genre (“Metroidvania”, a portmanteau of Metroid and similar exploration-based title Castlevania) that remains popular today, it also influenced later 3D games, as well. I’m not just talking about the Metroid Prime first-person shooters, either; mega-hits Batman: Arkham trilogy and Dark Souls are essentially built around the same formula of open world exploration and revisiting old locations with new equipment and skills.
Sure, Metroid’s approach to level design relies on a hefty amount of backtracking that isn’t for everyone – but without it, the free-form sandbox games that dominate the industry today straight-up wouldn’t exist.
Adding atmosphere into the mix
Then there’s the game’s atmosphere and sense of place. This is quality is harder to quantify than the others and is often overlooked – but it’s impact on modern gaming isn’t.
Unlike the bright(and frankly, generic) fantasy-inspired locales of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and countless other platformers back in the mid-80s, the sci-fi world of Metroid was bleak, foreboding, and eerily organic. It was also a decidedly solitary setting; as Samus, players wandered a seemingly endless, unearthly environment devoid of anything other than monsters and space pirates.
There were no friendly NPCs for them to interact with or rescue; they were all alone in a sprawling, sepulchral space that was appreciably less inviting than Zelda‘s Hyrule or Mario‘s Mushroom Kingdom, with death lurking just a screen away. Everything about Metroid was geared towards setting players on edge – heck, even the music (particularly the opening theme) was unnerving!
The idea that an 8-bit video game could induce dread may seem quaint to today’s younger gamers, however, Metroid’s gloomy vibe – inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror classic Alien – was real, and ratcheted up the tension in a way few games before it could. More importantly, games after Metroid also took note.
Again, later entries in the franchise – from sublime 2D instalment Super Metroid through to 3D reimagining Metroid Prime and its sequels – presented a similar sombre, secluded feeling within deftly realised world, but other games outside the franchised pushed this even further. If you’re a fan of suspenseful, atmosphere-drenched franchises like Silent Hill or BioShock, you owe a debt of thanks to Metroid for showcasing how important mood and location could be to a game’s overall success.
A landmark title that deserves its enduring legacy
35 years on, Metroid legacy remains just as impressive as ever. It helped break down gender barriers, reimagined traditional linear gameplay and level design, and brought atmosphere and a sense of place to the medium.
True, Metroid differs from other landmark video games because its innovations largely build on those of other titles – but then, what could be more fitting for a game built around solitude than to stand apart from the crowd?