Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
You drop to the floor of a dark room and find yourself pitted against a gargantuan creature. You’re not sure what exactly it is; maybe a crab, maybe a nautilus? Now’s not the time for questions. This thing wants you dead. Fortunately, you’ve already come up with a plan to kill it first: you’re going to blow up the walls to expose some loose wire, let the beast grab you, and then swing your electric lasso at the exposed wire, letting the current flow through your metallic body and into your foe’s organic one.
As it closes its eyes for the last time and its corpse descends into the sand, smaller versions of the creature flock to its remains. They appear to be children mourning the loss of their mother. Unlike them, you move on. Now there’s nothing standing between you and the gravity-defying Space Jump you came here to retrieve.
That morose scene is the Draygon fight, just one of many such encounters in Nintendo’s Metroid games. The series has proven very popular, spawning about a dozen games over the past thirty years. And all throughout, players have followed bounty hunter Samus Aran in her fight against the Space Pirates and various other threats. But looking beyond that surface conflict, a deeper one emerges: one between nature and technology. And Metroid almost always sides with technology.
To some extent the games’ rules naturally lend themselves to this sort of conflict. Along with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metroid is often credited with establishing a video game genre called “Metroidvania”. These kinds of games function like one big puzzle: you run all around the world, make note of any barriers you encounter, collect a new ability to play around with, and open the way to yet more areas.
They also operate on a few core assumptions: players find themselves in opposition not with belligerent creatures wandering the world, but with the world itself. What’s more, these games suggest, your natural abilities aren’t enough to guarantee you victory and no amount of training will change that. The best way to conquer the world is to use its own tools against it.
Still, there’s quite the leap between this general conflict and the more specific one that Metroid games specifically explore. In fact, several of Metroid’s peers use this framework for entirely different purposes. Aquaria, for example, uses it to express the main character’s spiritual connection with nature: she can only fully explore the world by opening up to it. And Symphony of the Night focuses instead on a Gothic vampire motif.
Metroid uses its motifs to amplify the nature-versus-technology conflict. Although Samus’s gender has been a popular talking point among players and critics alike, anyone who didn’t know otherwise would probably guess she’s simply a cyborg based on her outer appearance. The reason fans were so surprised to learn that Samus is a woman is because her robotic suit of armor does such a good job of shutting out all other forms of identification. We cannot understand Samus’s identity outside the machine, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the games posit. Through technology, they say, we can tap into an untold potential and amplify our abilities in ways we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It’s a form of magic that allows Samus to outrun sound, defy gravity, see through walls, and cut down any number of natural barriers between her and her goal.
Samus’s organic body keeps her from reaching her full potential. Most of the few times we see Samus’s human body are when she’s close to death—when her organic body has reached limits that technology ultimately can’t save her from. Metroid: Other M makes that message more explicit: Samus’s suit starts to vanish [when fear or other intense emotions overwhelm her:
The conflict exists in other forms throughout the games. Consider the enemies you’re asked to fight: not many of them are robots or other mechanical threats, and just a few are natural life that’s been corrupted by outside forces like experiments or toxic waste.
Instead, the majority of enemies Samus is tasked with eliminating are wildlife local to the planet. The animals themselves are portrayed in relatively neutral terms. Yes, they’re actively hostile in attacking Samus, but that hostility is partially justified, as they’re protecting their space/offspring from an alien invader. Nevertheless, it’s because they operate on animal instinct that Samus is perfectly justified in killing them to fulfill her mission.
The eponymous Metroids epitomize this: not only are they squishy vampires, but their instinct to sate their hunger at the nearest opportunity makes them incredibly effective weapons for the Space Pirates.
Consider the Chozo. A sort of precursor race who are all but extinct by the time players first step foot on the planet Zebes, the Chozo are often interpreted as a vaguely spiritual civilization. However, it would be more accurate to say that they’re technological colonizers. They’ve clearly mastered interstellar travel, as most of the planets Samus explores bear their mark.
Chozo statues wait in their recesses holding armaments to aid Samus in her quest. These alone speak to how much the Chozo valued scientific advancement, but for Samus to even get to these statues, she has to navigate a world that Chozo technology has disrupted. Free flowing areas are sequestered off by cold metal doors; temples are carved into the landscape; caves were either appropriated or hollowed out from the land to serve as rest stops for Samus.
In fact, the sparse information Metroid has given players about the Chozo means we don’t know why so much of the natural world remains intact. Maybe they didn’t have time to achieve their goals; maybe they did, but the ravages of times have rolled back their hard work; or maybe they really did have a healthy appreciation for nature. No matter what the case may be, it always falls on Samus, their literal heir, to finish whatever job it is they started.
Perhaps no game in the series explores these themes more fully than Super Metroid. Given the narrative premise, this is to be expected: Samus’s quest to rescue the baby Metroid from the Space Pirates has her wandering through the same planet she explored on her first mission. But things are different. She has more to worry about than Ridley and Kraid—creatures with enough sentience to lead the entire Space Pirate army. There are new enemies to fight, each of which exhibits a wider range of motivations.
Phantoon, for instance, is a vengeful ghost, the manifestation of all the negative emotions from those who died aboard the ship it haunts. Spore Spawn is a plant that seems to lack sentience, acting more like a Venus fly trap than a creature with malicious intent. And as I’d detailed earlier, Draygon wants nothing more than to protect her children.
Despite the variety of monsters for Samus to fight, few if any of them convince the player that they should be questioning their actions. They may render Samus’s cause more ambiguous, but they’re never enough to upend the game’s core conceit: it’s still your goal to take these creatures down, and technology serves as both the means by which that goal is realized and a reward for the player to strive for. In this light, the new enemies merely elaborate on the ways in which nature can pose a threat, whether that’s Spore Spawn’s natural processes or the animal instinct associated with Draygon and Botwoon.
The closest the game does come to questioning this is with the introduction of some friendly creatures. However, fans have only counted a very small number of such creatures, and the best they can do for Samus is remind her of abilities she could already perform.
Curiously, Super Metroid is also the first Metroid game where Samus directly fights the Space Pirate infantry. They’re vaguely lobster-like in appearance, but what’s more interesting is how much they rely on their natural abilities in combat. Unlike Samus, they don’t use technology to overpower the opposition. When they want to fire beams, they just shoot them straight out of their claws. Some of them can even drop-kick her.
Impressive these abilities may be, but Super Metroid is quick to portray them as a weakness. Limited to the strength their bodies give them, the Space Pirates have difficulty adapting or patching any potential weaknesses in themselves. In addition, the game contrasts the Space Pirates against Samus to demonstrate just how vital technology is in forming one’s identity. By refusing technology at the personal level, the Space Pirates give up any chance of forming an identity. There’s only one Samus Aran while there are countless Space Pirate grunts. Or at least there was only one Samus Aran until Metroid Fusion.
In some ways, Fusion expands on the recurring “science vs. nature” motif. It’s a game about wiping out the last vestiges of naturalism, culminating in Samus piloting a cosmic wildlife sanctuary into a nearby planet and destroying both in the process. At the same time, though, Fusion also complicates that motif by introducing a new enemy: the X. With them comes a redefinition of the Metroids.
In previous games, the creatures’ ravenous instincts meant they were unambiguously evil—so much so that Metroid 2 chronicles Samus’s systemic efforts to drive the species to extinction. Come Metroid Fusion, and they’re revealed to have been a form of technology the Chozo engineered in the face of the X threat.
That fact alone isn’t enough to wipe the slate clean. One late-game twist puts a dark spin on that fact by revealing that the Federation is planning on weaponizing the creatures. However, there’s a degree of good associated with them that wasn’t present in other games. In fact, the baby Metroid’s DNA gives Samus a new lease on life as she struggles with an X infection.
Meanwhile, the X inherit the Metroids’ role as an antagonistic force. Where the Metroids’ raspberry innards and sharp teeth gave them biological connotations, the X bring those connotations to the surface by looking like cells—the basic unit of all life. Or at least that’s what they look like in their true form. More often, they take the form of whatever animal they’ve most recently killed. And should they learn that the original still survives somehow, then they make it their life’s mission to wipe it from the face of existence. So if Metroids are vampires in the sense that they rob people of their life force, then the X are vampires in the sense that they rob living beings of their identities to make up for their own lack of one.
Enter the SA-X, the closest thing Fusion has to a central antagonist. It’s essentially a reanimated corpse: after doctors are forced to remove chunks of Samus’s armor to save her life, the X parasites take over that armor and use it to hunt the bounty hunter down.
The SA-X is relentless in pursuing that one goal. The first time we see it (after it blows a hole clean through a nearby wall), we’re confronted with a haunting look emanating from its dead eyes. Yet what makes the SA-X truly terrifying is the suit it’s wearing. By overpowering the machine parts, the X are able to redefine the technology/nature dynamic that Metroid operates on. What was once the only means of overcoming challenges has now been turned against Samus, and what was once her goal to eliminate has now become an insurmountable challenge for her.
This applies both to the SA-X (whose asexual reproduction makes it functionally immortal) and to Samus herself (whose biological fusion with her suit makes her vulnerable to her own weapons, which the SA-X uses against her. In the face of such an unstoppable foe, all Samus can do is run.
(It’s also worth mentioning that one final late-game twist sees the SA-X become a force for good. However, in light of what the SA-X is and what it’s done, not even death is enough to redeem it. The only way it can make up for its mistakes is to augment Samus’s mechanical abilities beyond their normal limits. The baby Metroid takes the same course of redemption at the end of Super Metroid.)
In some ways, the Metroid series breaks away from many other sci-fi narratives. While other stories might either accept the technological advancements the future will bring or question the promises they hold for us, Metroid actively celebrates those promises. Furthermore, it brings to the surface a conflict that most other stories only hint at: technological advancement must take place at the expense of the natural world.
Brian Crimmins is a freelance game writer who critically analyzes older Japanese titles.
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