I have long been a fan of “Metroidvania” style games, especially the Castlevania games that are credited as starting the genre. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance are a few examples. But I’ve never truly known what the Metroid-side was all about until now. The original Metroid is a slow-moving outer-space-based 2D side-scroller / shooter, in which each upgrade gives you a much greater degree of power than you had before.
The beginning of the game gives you an upgrade, with nothing more technical than a jump to acquire it. If you venture a little to the left, you get the ability to roll into a ball. As you continue, you receive more upgrades through exploring the map. You get a freeze shot for your arm cannon, which stops an enemy in its tracks. You get a missile which typically takes out a frozen enemy in one hit. You get a bomb that can expose holes in the floor, giving you access to new rooms. The upgrades keep coming, but you must be diligent to find them.
I originally thought that the game didn’t have bosses, but that isn’t true. There are actually three bosses, and they simply don’t appear until much later in the game. When you defeat the first two bosses, you are rewarded with a massive number of missiles. If you were conservative about using missiles before, you don’t have to be anymore. Missiles really are a one-shot kill for almost every enemy in the game. Perhaps the only exceptions are the bosses and the metroids.
I can see how the map, which appeared in future games, was born out of necessity. You can easily get lost in Metroid, but a map might have been a technical no-can-do on the NES. I understand Super Metroid had it first, and it became a critical component to the later Koji Igarashi-lead Castlevania games. In the original Metroid, you have to make mental notes on what each door leads to, because there is no map. You find about three elevators, which take you to new undiscovered realms of the game, which are home to missile upgrades, and occasional energy bar upgrades (your life meter).
There is an interview on Nintendo’s website with Yoshio Sakamoto and Horoji Kiyotake, two of the creative minds behind this game. Sakamoto quotes his supervisor, Senior Nintendo employee Gunpei Yokoi, who said “If you can draw, you can make games.” It also talks about how the team really wanted to surprise players with the ending, but weren’t sure how to do it. Someone on the team said, “It would be a shocker if Samus [the hero] turned out to be a woman!” The team liked the idea and it stuck. In my playthrough, Samus removed her helmet at the end of the game revealing herself, though it wasn’t a surprise as Samus being female is common knowledge now. Read the full interview for more information.
Metroid II has long been heralded as one of the best Metroid games that nobody played, because of its obscurity. There was a hobbyist game developer who ultimately made a game called Another Metroid II Remake, or AM2R, and released a full version 1.0 before receiving a cease and desist letter from Nintendo. Nintendo had just announced a Metroid II remake with European developer MercurySteam. I think it shows good will on Nintendo’s part to let the 1.0 get released and then send the C&D letter. Unofficial sites, I’m sure, will host it for a long time. Truly, the Metroid that gave us the term “Metroidvania” was Super Metroid, and I’m looking forward to playing that one. Meanwhile this 1986 game is a wonderful game in its own right.