Designers On Metroid: Anna Anthropy

Anna Anthropy is the creator of games including Redder, Mighty Jill Off and Octopounce.

What always interested me the most about the Metroid games was the sense of being lost in a hostile alien world, one so dangerous that the protagonist cannot survive in it without a suit that makes her look alien herself. As the series goes on, though, Metroid becomes less about the world imposing its will on the player and more about the player imposing her will on the game. By the time Super Metroid ends, Samus Aran can fly and can kill anything she touches while flying. She has a full map of the planet Zebes with all of the ticks – signifying the locations of items the player can locate – dotted off. In later games, items are marked on the map even before the player finds them, lest she miss her 100% completion rating, lest she fail to conquer the world completely.

Metroid II: Return Of Samus

Metroid II: Return of Samus not only lacks a mapping feature, it resists easy mapping: areas overlap rather than slotting neatly into a grid, and caverns overrun the bounds of the screen. Samus’ sprite is big on the screen; this not only necessitates that the screen scroll, it also limits the player’s field of view. It encourages the player to move slowly and to pay attention to landmarks: huge caverns give way to smaller, similar-looking tunnels, and maintaining a sense of the maze’s layout is essential. The mechanics of the game conspire to create a perfect experience of being lost in an enormous world. Notice that Return of Samus gives the player the ability to fly half-way through the game – and to climb walls and ceilings before that – yet all it does is make a huge world huger. It does not make the world less dangerous.

Even Metroid Fusion, Super Metroid’s sequel, with its emphasis on being hunted and on being a single bad encounter away from death at any time, opens up into a treasure hunt at the end after the player collects the final weapon that allows her to smash through walls and kill enemies at a touch. The world is a system that can be known in its entirety: the items all found, the secret passages charted, the map completed. I think the map is at the heart of Metroid’s shift from an experience to a system: it’s the game’s admission to the player that the game is a finite set of variables that can be known and catalogued. That the game is designed to be conquered, to be solved.

Metroid Map

Metroid II is designed to be survived – to be withstood. It’s the experience of being desperate and lost, and that experience arises from all its parts as a videogame: its shape, its structure, its oddities and limitations as a greenscale Game Boy game. To me, it stands out from among its series: more deliberate than the first Metroid, a product of lucky design accidents, and less solvable, less gamelike than its successors with their lock-and-key design. Most designers emulate Super Metroid’s (often arbitrary) use of periodically-unlocked player abilities to pace the player’s access to and exploration of the world, but I think the way Return of Samus uses a set of simple design decisions works to create a more richly-textured experience for the player.

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