It’s been almost twenty-five years since the original Metroid was released for the NES, and yet the series has remained remarkably true to its roots – lonely exploration through desolate alien landscapes, slowly unlocking weapons and abilities that let you conquer more terrain until a brutal final battle with Mother Brain. In this feature, we’ll take a trip through the series and examine how it grew and changed.
The first game in the series was released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It took cues from two of the game’s biggest hits – the platform jumping of Super Mario Brothers and the exploration of The Legend Of Zelda – but added some elements that had never been done before. The game breaks with convention right from the start – previous platforming games had presented their heroes on a non-stop quest to the right of the screen, but Metroid forced Samus to go left to get the game’s first power-up, the Morph Ball. That antithetical action warned players that they were in for something totally new. And when you finally defeated Mother Brain and had to escape the collapsing planet, you were rewarded with the revelation that the genderless robotic hero you’d been controlling all game was actually a woman. With no dialogue, no supporting characters, and a storyline that was discovered through play, not textboxes, Metroid was a game-changer.
Metroid II: Return Of Samus
Released for the original monochrome Game Boy in 1991, Metroid II sees Samus head to the home planet of the Metroids to eliminate their threat to the galaxy. The limitations of the Game Boy made this installment quite different – with a smaller screen and no map, Samus must tread very carefully. This game also introduced some of the series’ hallmark weapons, including the Spazer Beam, and interestingly also laid the narrative groundwork for Super Metroid, which would hit three years later.
The third installment of the series, released for the Super Nintendo in 1994, is when everything clicked. While the previous two games could be accused of being excessively difficult or off-putting, Super Metroid balanced exploration and difficulty perfectly. The Super Nintendo’s greatly expanded color palette and resolution helped the planet Zebes look better than ever, and the sheer variety of abilities that Samus can use by the game’s end (many of which are detailed nowhere in the game or its manual, and were discovered and shared by enterprising players) is fantastic. Throw in an unforgettable climax that lays the groundwork for the upcoming Other M and you have one of the most beloved classics in gaming history.
2002 saw the Metroid franchise split into two very different directions. Nintendo kept control of the series for handheld installments on the Game Boy Advance, which was for all intents and purposes a portable SNES. Metroid Fusion (which takes place last in the game’s fictional chronology) sees Samus infected with a strange alien parasite that creates a malevolent duplicate of the legendary bounty hunter – a duplicate she can only defeat with the help of the Metroids. As for the other direction…
Fans were aghast and confused at the announcement that Nintendo was entrusting Samus Aran’s next-gen console debut to an American development team. And even more so when early screens showed the game abandoning side-view platforming for first-person shooting! But Texas developer Retro Studios knocked the ball out of the park, perfectly capturing what made the early games great while transplanting them into a modern environment. This was also the first Metroid game to incorporate narrative cutscenes in between play segments, a trend that would continue in the future.
Metroid: Zero Mission
This Game Boy Advance remake of the original Metroid re-interpreted the game with modern graphics and sound, as well as adding on an epilogue where Samus once again battles Ridley (as a robot) before finally escaping Zebes.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
With the critical and commercial success of the first Metroid Prime, Nintendo went back to the well with Retro and had them create a sequel. Echoes introduced the concept of parallel universes to the Metroid canon, with the game’s primary gimmick requiring Samus to shift back and forth between “Light Aether” and “Dark Aether” worlds to explore a planet tainted by the crash of a mutagenic meteor. The antagonist from the last game returns as Dark Samus, a twisted reflection of our heroine – this seems to be a common thread.
Metroid Prime Pinball
Samus morphs into ball mode and ricochets around six unique pinball tables in this odd but very playable 2005 DS game. I don’t think it’s canon.
Metroid Prime Hunters
The demo for this portable Metroid title shipped with the DS when it was released in 2004, but the full game didn’t drop until two years later. It was worth the wait, as this packed an astounding amount of playability into a tiny cartridge. Taking place in between the first two Metroid Prime games, this first-person shooter sent Samus off on a side mission to retrieve keys to a lost power, competing with six other bounty hunters to do so.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
Retro Studios’ final take on the series saw it jump to the Wii, where the system’s unique motion controls really shined. Set six months after Metroid Prime 2, the plot had Samus jumping from world to world battling not only space pirates and Dark Samus but also the source of the mutagenic Phazon that created so many annoyances. At the end, the galaxy is saved, but a cryptic ending hints at more troubles for Samus Aran to come.
Metroid: Other M
But we won’t learn about them here! Other M takes place way back in history, between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. After escaping the doomed planet Zebes, Samus answers a distress cry from a derelict spaceship. Once there, she encounters several Galactic Federation soldiers and joins them on a mission to discover exactly what is happening on board. With a dynamic new control method that fuses the side-scrolling exploration of the early games with first-person shooting, and maverick developers Team Ninja at the helm, this is a big change for the series, and a welcome one.