Nostalgia is, like, a line-item on my CV. I’m super good at it. If you need somebody to talk for three hours about how great it was in the early ’90s, or how 16-bit graphics are the best, or about how Gargoyles is like the best TV show ever–tied with Batman: TAS–I am your guy. Hire me. Please.
But actually, here’s the thing about nostalgia: some stuff was pretty good. You know, in the past. Take the Metroid franchise. Since the first entry way back on the NES, Metroid has kind of been the bronze medal winner of Nintendo’s triumvirate of first-party titles (gold going to Mario, and silver to Zelda). But Metroid has a lot to commend it, and a lot that differentiates it from the kid-friendly fare that Nintendo has always been known for. First (and most famously), Metroid features an awesome female protagonist, the bounty hunter Samus Aran. But a less-touted aspect of Metroid, one which places it high among my favorite game series, is the pervasive creepiness that’s been a hallmark of the franchise since that very first game.
To really get the creepiness requires some knowledge of the plot–and interestingly enough, the plot has for the most part been explained in bits and pieces throughout the series, leaving a lot of questions unanswered (apparently Other M undoes this, but I haven’t played that entry and don’t plan to). This lack of information contributes to the sense of vastness and mystery that are central to the franchise. But the gist of it is this: Samus Aran is a human bounty hunter whose parents were killed by space pirates (murderous inhabitants of the planet Zebes) when she was a child. She was taken in and raised by the beneficent Chozo, a race of giant birdlike aliens who are also kind of Jedi. Eschewing high technology, the Chozo lived peaceful, meditative lives, but this didn’t stop them from training Samus in the ways of beating things up and crafting a special robotic suit to enable her to do so on a galactic scale. (They also “infused” Samus with Chozo blood, which apparently grants her some of their abilities–make of that what you will.) The suit’s most notable features are its arm cannon, an upgradeable energy weapon, and its ability to turn into the “morph ball,” a spherical lump of metal that enables Samus to move through small spaces that would otherwise be inaccessible.
If this sounds like a ridiculous premise, I suppose it is: but the way these aspects of the plot are revealed actually works. This isn’t a J-pop story about mystical aliens granting a young girl special powers, enabling her to have zany adventures in the stars: it’s a tragic narrative of solitude and sacrifice. Samus is always alone, and the handful of times throughout the series when she actually has other characters to interact with reveal just how lonely Samus is.
In the first game, we know only that Samus is a bounty hunter who has been called in to destroy alien monsters known as Metroids, as well as the leader of the space pirates, a creature called Mother Brain. Why she has to do this alone isn’t clear, but the game opens with Samus’ arrival on the planet Zebes and follows her through the climactic battle with Mother Brain. In Metroid 2: The Return of Samus we learn a little bit more about the metroids, how their life cycles depend on exposure to a particular type of radiation, and that they undergo several developmental stages, the last of which is the massive “queen metroid.” This game ends, importantly, with only a single metroid hatchling remaining alive, which Samus captures and presents to human scientists for study.
The series really hit its stride, of course, with Super Metroid, the phenomenal SNES game that remains one of the most beloved platformers of all time. If you’ve never played it, it’s worth clicking through some of this video to get a sense of how creepy the game really is (this is a longplay of the entire game). The title screen has at least one dead body on it. This was unheard of for Nintendo games of the time.
Super Metroid has Samus returning to Zebes in pursuit of space pirates who’ve stolen the metroid hatchling from the previous game. The pirates are attempting to clone metroids for use as biological weapons (and they’re ultimately successful). Samus systematically destroys the pirates’ leaders and discovers the rebuilt Mother Brain, who nearly kills Samus before the lone hatchling appears and sacrifices itself to save her, proving that even giant fanged space jellyfish can be cute.
Super Metroid is creepy from start to finish. An early miniboss fight is against a reanimated Chozo, one of the giant bird aliens that gave Samus her suit, and it’s a gory fight during which the Chozo’s entrails are exposed and it stalks around dripping fluid everywhere. Then there’s the infamous Crocomire, a giant red alien dinosaur thing that is immune to Samus’ weapons. She kills it by forcing it into a lake of acid, with predictable results.
As if that wasn’t horror-y enough, after the fight you attempt to leave the area only to have the Crocomire’s fleshless skeleton leap out of the acid at you. It quickly crumbles away, but it’s a freaky moment in an era when first-party games usually avoided dissolving flesh and exposed viscera.
Graphic violence of this sort serves to underscore the pervasive weirdness and creepiness of Samus’ situation, but it’s actually fairly rare in the Metroid series. The real creep factor comes from being essentially alone in a massive galaxy, forced to fight hordes of alien monsters in locations utterly devoid of human influence. Remember the iconic scene in Alien when the Nostromo crew first approach the giant alien pilot guy? The entire Metroid franchise feels a lot like that: confronted with a vast, inscrutable, and vaguely hostile alien universe, Samus–who is silent for most of the series–is (usually) totally alone, and despite her official badass card, the odds are not in her favor. This sense of vastness and hopelessness were most fully realized in the Metroid Prime trilogy, but the original games set the stage.
I suspect that Ridley Scott’s Alien and, later, Cameron’s Aliens had more than a little influence on Metroid, from the strong female lead with a weird relationship to the alien antagonists to the dark and oddly gothic universe the characters inhabit. But as much as I like Ripley, Samus is just the best. Plus “morph ball” is fun to say.