Last go-round I ranted about the first trilogy of games in the Metroid series and how they managed, despite their old-school 2D graphics and midi tunes, to be creepy. Now I turn to the two GBA titles in the series, Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, and the Metroid Prime trilogy. This bevy of games perfectly realizes the nascent creepiness of the original series, which made the jump from 2D to Prime‘s 3D FPS conceit perfectly.
First on this list is my favorite GBA title. Metroid Fusion is simply an incredible game, and if I’m being honest, I think I like it even better than Super Metroid (blasphemy to many, I’m sure). It’s simply a perfect platformer: the controls of the previous games have been tweaked to perfection, and the addition of something as simple as the ability to grab onto ledges and pull yourself up eliminates much of the frustrations of finicky platforming controls while maintaining the challenging exploration that Metroid’s known for.
Best of all, though, is the intense Aliens-meets-The Thing aura of the narrative. The story goes that Samus is sent back to SR388, the Metroid homeworld, by a research corporation hoping to study the local flora and fauna. Samus’ task is to protect the scientists from said flora and fauna, but while there, the team encounters an unknown parasite which attacks and infects Samus. Eventually the parasite–which is later dubbed the X parasite because it’s a Japanese game–takes over Samus’ body and even infects her power suit, which has some organic components, causing the robotic suit to fuse with Samus’ flesh. Portions of the suit are removed by the scientists in an effort to save Samus’ life, and somebody conveniently discovers that Metroid cells can destroy the X parasite and cure the host. They inject Samus with an improvised vaccine, curing her, but not before her suit has melded with her body: the end result is a weird neon blue “organic” power suit.
Soon after, Nickelodeon’s Gak! was taken off the market.
Following Samus’ transformation, she gets called back to the research station, which has been attacked by an unknown enemy. This is when the game gets horror-y: the scientists are all dead, and their goopy reanimated remains attack Samus, along with all kinds of other creatures that had been research specimens but are now hosts to the X parasite. As it turns out, the X is essentially the creature from The Thing: it invades a host’s body, multiplies, kills the host and absorbs its DNA. From then on the shapeshifting X can take that host’s form. Samus is immune to infection by the parasite, but not to the claws and fangs and tentacles of the shapes it assumes. She’s also severely weakened after her operation, and much of the game is a scramble to recover her power suit’s abilities, sometimes by downloading data sent by the corporation, and other times by absorbing X parasites and stealing their abilities, because science. This task is complicated by the fact that the infected pieces of Samus’ suit were stored on the station, and they’ve enabled the X parasites to transform into a Samus clone, called the SA-X, with all of her suit’s powers. Some genuinely scary moments come when the real Samus is desperately trying to avoid detection by the SA-X. All you can do, until the very end, is avoid it, because it will kill you.
The game is a brilliant ode to dark science fiction, with cramped quarters, dark environments, lots of running from scary things, and even a bitchy computer AI which is a clear tribute to HAL from 2001 and the ship’s computer from Alien. The music is also incredible (as it is throughout the series–my next post on the topic will be dedicated to the music of Metroid). If you haven’t played Fusion, you owe it to yourself to seek it out.
The next 2D entry in the series, Metroid: Zero Mission is a remake of the original Metroid game, which greatly improves the playability of that venerable title and also expands the story considerably. The only downside is that it’s hard. Zero Mission‘s difficulty level is pretty unforgiving, especially if you’re a completionist–there are some incredibly difficult items to find. Still, it gives the best picture yet of Samus’ history–revealed almost entirely sans dialogue, as Metroid should be–and has a really badass sequence when Samus’ power suit gets destroyed and she has to find a new one. Wicked.
That brings us to the Metroid Prime series. Alas, I’ve only played two of the three. I missed Echoes for whatever reason. But in general, Prime is fantastic, perfectly translating the Metroid aesthetic into a three-dimensional first-person experience. The trilogy details Samus’ crusade to save the universe from a new threat, the mysterious toxic substance called Phazon. As ever, she explores a range of hostile alien planets in her quest to eliminate the evil goop, fighting Space Pirates and Metroids–they’ve survived, against all odds–and her old nemesis Ridley, the space pterodactyl guy. The universe of Prime looks dramatically different from the series’ 2D incarnations, but it somehow manages to continue and even enhance the series’ sense of vastness and solitude.
Behold: 720p of epic space loneliness. There is no way she’s not listening to Radiohead inside that helmet.
(Prime actually takes place before Fusion, if you’re wondering–that’s why in the above 3D shot, Samus’ suit isn’t all gooey and blue.)
In the course of the first Prime game we learn that the Space Pirates have been using Phazon for nefarious purposes. One result is the creation of the eponymous Metroid Prime, a mutated, massive spiderlike creature that serves as the end boss. Samus defeats it, but in a secret reveal at the very end (which you only got to see if you collected 100% of the game’s items–or YouTubed it) we learn that Samus’ own exposure to the Phazon has given rise to yet another threat. Later, in the next games, we learn that this is “Dark Samus,” an evil clone made of, like, Phazon, and… evil. Dark Samus is the ultimate antagonist of the series, and Samus faces her (it?) once and for all in Prime 3.
The Prime series further expands the Metroid universe, lingering on the details of the once-great Chozo civilization and its eventual decline. The creep factor is front and center in these games, particularly when the player is exploring the ruins of Chozo civilization. In the first game, there are even Chozo ghosts, which I suppose have a pseudo-scientific explanation in-game to make them fit the sci-fi conceit, but they’re still ghosts. They fade in and out of sight, and when they disappear you can only see them if you switch to a particular view mode, which is all grainy and black and white and super creepy. Also they try to kill you.
Prime effects that sense of vastness that’s quintessentially Metroid by plunking the player down into a mostly empty world, and forcing them to learn all about it. A major mechanic of the trilogy is the scan function, which involves Samus using her suit’s onboard computer to identify objects in the environment. “Objects” actually ranges from organisms to ruins to alien hieroglyphics. The result is a lot of reading, and a surprising depth of familiarity with the weird worlds Samus moves through. Some people found the scan function frustrating, but I loved it. It’s a brilliant way to flesh out the story without adding dialogue, and it adds to the sense of decay that is a subtle theme of the Prime games. You’re in these beautiful places, but usually long, long after the sentient beings who once populated them have ceased to be.
We also get the fullest sense of how truly strong Samus is in Prime. It isn’t explicitly stated, but it begins to seem that the reason Samus is always forced to fight giant aliens and such all by herself is because nobody else, even the whole Galactic Federation, can hack it. With her power suit and her enhanced Chozo abilities, Samus is both a powerful fighter and also a high-tech ninja, capable of infiltrating places that are inaccessible to normal folks who can’t morph into a ball. Huh huh. In Prime 3 Samus is forced, briefly, to work with a group of other bounty hunters, but that ends disastrously with all the others being corrupted by Phazon. Naturally Samus then has to kill them, reinforcing her lonely status as a galactic-scale tragic hero.
And Samus is really the reason Metroid shines as a beautiful, sad, and often frightening story. We learn in bits and pieces that the only human she ever had a meaningful bond with was a former commanding officer from a stint with the Galactic military. In Fusion–unique in that it has dialogue and even treats us to some of Samus’ inner monologue–she muses over her relationship with this CO, and she even names her new ship’s HAL-like computer after him. (Other M, that entry in the series I haven’t played, apparently explains that this CO sacrificed himself to complete a mission.) Beyond this, as far as we’re aware, Samus is always alone, with only her memories of the Chozo elders to give her some kind of emotional berth in a universe that usually wants to kill her. In a weird commentary on her lack of normal emotional support, the one other creature that Samus seemed to relate to was the Metroid hatchling she found at the end of Metroid 2, which later sacrificed itself to save her in Super Metroid.
Ultimately Samus really is a hero, constantly risking her life to save the sentient beings of her universe from horrible evil, but she’s also an emotionally stunted, lonely shell of a person. A final source of the weirdness and creepiness of the Metroid series, then, is Samus’ unstated fatalism. She throws herself into her missions–sometimes literally into the maw of evil–with total disregard for her own safety. Alien ghosts, giant robot pterodactyls, and life-sucking space jellyfish are all scary enough; a person who rushes to meet them alone is almost as scary. Also morph balls. Just saying.