How Metroid Changed the Way We Explore Video Games

Metroid's ambitious innovations paved the way for 3D gaming, open-worlds, and the future of the industry.

Metroid NES
Photo: Nintendo

Whenever Metroid comes up, I always think of how hard it must have been to squeeze the phrase “The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace…” out of the SNES sound chip for Super Metroid. After all, spoken words in games were still uncommon in 1994, and most other 16-bit titles were more than happy to be able to relay important dialogue through text. Metroid had always been a little different, though.

While that spoken dialog may have felt revolutionary, the words themselves weren’t entirely accurate. After all, the galaxy is never really at peace in the Metroid franchise. Upcoming Nintendo Switch game Metroid Dread promises to end the story that began in 1986’s Metroid, but that remains to be seen. What we do know is that Dread will be the latest entry in a proud line of Metroid adventures that task us with exploring, searching, and uncovering hidden passages in all the back-and-forth ways we’ve come to expect from this series over the last 35 years. Of all the ways that Metroid has done things differently, it’s the ways it changed how we explore video games that have had the most lasting impact.

It might seem strange to some gamers now, but before Samus Aran’s ship landed on Planet Zebes, players were accustomed to following linear paths through video game levels. Most video game worlds were conquered from left-to-right or, on occasion, top-to-bottom. While Metroid initially presented itself as another 2D game, its developers were unafraid to present you with seemingly impassable obstacles such as a gap that was just a little too small to fit through or doors that couldn’t be unlocked through any means you can imagine when you first encounter them. These instances were designed to make you consider the previously unthinkable possibility that you may have to move left-to-right…and then left again for that upgrade you need to proceed.

That lack of guidance may have felt strange to most, but this was the team’s way of embedding mystery into this debut adventure and properly putting you in the boots of an intergalactic bounty hunter bold enough to explore an alien world. The Legend of Zelda tasked you with overcoming conundrums using key items within a series of multi-layered puzzle boxes, but Metroid went a step further by making its whole world feel like one giant puzzle box. The onus was always on you to get out there and discover it all for yourself. It was a much more complicated design strategy, but it was also often a more satisfying one.

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35 years on, the original Metroid still boasts a uniquely unsettling atmosphere, and the limitations of the NES weirdly contributed to that lingering sense of mystery. Your dives into the depths of its secret-filled planet are set against pitch-black backdrops that lend Zebes an appropriately otherworldly feeling. Your limited ability to properly read your surroundings coupled with the constant presence of a swathe of villainous critters ready to take you out in just a couple of hits firmly established the feeling you just don’t belong there. Feeling so helpless during those early hours only makes gaining later power-ups like the Bomb and Screw Attack more liberating.

It isn’t long until you realize those upgrades are more than damage dealers; they are the key to navigating areas like Brinstar and Norfair. Bombing rocks to reveal previously blocked pathways and jumping higher than you ever dreamed are key to discovering the heart of Zebes. The best part was that the vast majority of those routes were entirely optional. Whether you chose to explore them was based on your own sense of adventure (or how bad you needed another Energy Tank). Like The Legend of Zelda before it, Metroid let you decide how powerful you wanted to be through exploration. In Metroid, though, items were woven into the world naturally, which only enhanced the feeling that something incredible could be waiting around any corner.

If there’s one aspect where the original adventure reveals its age, it’s in the lack of a dedicated map. Exploring Zebes without any indication of where to go is arguably the key to the game’s premise, but it’s hard to deny that it’s also often quite frustrating. For that matter, not being able to shoot omnidirectionally or be able to crouch to fire also feels a little unfair compared to the conveniences that would be introduced in the next generation. Thankfully, 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission, a near pixel-perfect remake of the original adventure, simultaneously honors and iterates upon everything introduced until that point in the series timeline.

Metroid II: Return of Samus‘ may have sometimes struggled to advance the original’s innovations (it was a handheld game, after all), but from Super Metroid onwards, the franchise started to hit its stride. Mechanics like the Morph Ball and Bomb remained a staple, but new abilities like the Grappling Beam, Speed Booster, and Power Grip opened up additional opportunities for exploration during Samus’ fight against the Metroids. They’re all examples of Nintendo’s desire to stay true to the heart of the series by removing boundaries while finding new ways to force you to examine your environments and ultimately navigate them. This series has grown in a lot of ways, but almost every new item and feature are designed to reignite that “aha moment” many of us had when we realized how to get past Metroid‘s first roadblock.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that Metroid has changed the way we explore video games and traverse their remarkable worlds. From Batman in Arkham Asylum using the Line Launcher to cross large gaps to the way Hollow Knight’s ruined kingdom of Hallownest gradually opens up to you as new charms are uncovered, the influence of the subgenre now known as “Metroidvania” has become so commonplace that’s it’s easy to take it for granted. Yet, we should never forget that the idea of picking away at a single location to unlock its mysteries began 35 years ago on the NES. The galaxy may never be at peace, but the innovations of Metroid have certainly made the world of gaming a better place.

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