Lobotomising Samus Aran

– by Owen Scrivener


30 years ago Nintendo birthed one of the most empowered female characters in gaming. Samus Aran. Though teasing the mostly male heterosexual geeks so typical of Japanese gaming’s target market with pixelated breasts, the Metroid series, for the majority of its entries was received incredibly well by critics. The series has its own genre, Metroidvania.

Meteroidvania (a portmanteau of Metroid and Castelvania) encompasses an exploration based gaming experience where parts of the world can only be unlocked by acquiring certain tools. The world is open, rather than coercive. In subsequent games, sequels and spinoffs exploration by this means was critical to the experience and atmosphere of the game.

Samus has no partner, she’s a heavily armoured space traveling bounty hunter exploring ruinous alien worlds alone. She faces off the parasitic metroids for which the series is named, a race of unsettling space pirates and recurring nightmarish foe, Ridley. The better entries in the series have an air of horror and solitude that, though successful in their own right, have yet to be fully realised.

Metroid_prime_encounter_phazon_infusion_chamberMetroid was inspired by the Alien series. Visual, conceptual and atmospheric components of the main entries and the spinoff series ‘Metroid Prime’ were inspired, particularly by Alien and Aliens. Fluid organic habitats, scuttling repulsive fauna, monumental ancient structures eroded by the elements, some of the most memorable components of the series.

And of course its solitary female protagonist, who, despite being mostly unvoiced, tells an incredible story with an absence of boring exposition, monologue and backstory. She’s a human tank, that travels from planet to planet to find and destroy near-indestructable giant life-draining parasites light-years away from any human contact, what more is needed?

Yet, this year, the thirtieth anniversary of the series, the most we may expect to see of Samus is a cameo in a linear mission-based co-op shooter. The game we will see is Metroid Prime: Federation Force. The Prime title is one that was last used for the final installation in the Metroid Prime series, a first-person 3D variant of the Metroidvania genre.

The visual elements familiar with Metroid seem to have disappeared. The protagonists in this game are generic soldiers, the art style is a betrayal of the series, the atmosphere has more wave-based action than a Metroid game should have. The elements of exploration have been replaced by rather repetitive A-to-B based maps.

Does this look dark and foreboding to you?

The previous entry, Metroid Other M wasn’t a game that many fans of the series remember fondly. The gameplay is disjointed by exposition heavy cutscenes, Samus goes from silent protagonist to chattering damsel in distress. For many it marks a descent into oblivion. And Federation Force, the first story entry in 6 years, could be the last nail in its coffin.

One immense vice Nintendo seems to have adopted of late is its inability to absorb trends in gaming abroad. While other titles are steeped in depth and longevity, Nintendo’s major console experiences of late seem devoted to giving players a short lived experience. Star Fox Zero’s campaign is at-most five hours long and encumbered by motion controls.

And these same experiences are cursed by delays, mismanagement of company resources and a standoff on public relations. Many hard core gamers weren’t aware that WiiU was its own console and not a Wii peripheral. This disappointing direction and a divorced relationship with core fans has mutilated products coming out of Nintendo, some of which are iconic in gaming.

A pioneering protagonist like Samus Aran should not be swept away by the reductionists at Nintendo. No, she shouldn’t be bound by the mechanics of the past, as with any franchise her world should evolve, but her aesthetics and spirit should remain so in tact that even in death we recognise her.

Nintendo’s licensing behaviour is incredibly destructive, some of the worst choices include handing the direction of the Metroid series to Super Metroid’s director, Yoshio Sakamoto, who crammed a 2 hour script into a gaming series that didn’t need one. The only consolation seems to be that most of the original games and the Prime Trilogy are available to be played through virtual console.

Well, what direction should Metroid continue in? In 2002 Retro Studios released Metroid Prime on the Nintendo GameCube. At the same time Metroid Fusion (Metroid 4) was released on Game Boy Advanced. Through a cable connection between the handheld and the console the Fusion suit would be unlocked in Prime.

review_05Imaginable is another similar process repeated for a Metroid and Metroid Prime sequel. A wireless peripheral would make things much easier between the WiiU and the 3DS. However given the lack of support for WiiU and the rumours leaked by journalists and insiders concerning Nintendo’s next gaming console, codenamed NX, that seems unlikely.

What would be interesting is if Retro decided to take the wheel and release a Prime sequel with a survival horror element. Samus is quite invulnerable with her suit on, but underneath she is as delicate and fragile as a whippet. Through acquiring her tools, she becomes less vulnerable. What if she had to find her suit on a derelict ship infested with parasites?

Sakamoto, Nintendo and Retro need to get to work on creating games with an awareness of what has been happening in the HD world for over a decade now. Nintendo needs to look at Halo, look at Uncharted, look at God of War and learn something.

Images screenshots Metroid Prime
screenshot Nintendo E3 2015
Header screenshot Metroid


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