Metroid—and, by extension, its filmic influence Alien—paved the way for tropes that are now so well-trod that gamers can hardly stand to see them: gutsy space marines, backed by atmospheric and ambient musical scores, fighting off spooky face-huggers from far-off planets. Perhaps these protagonists also undergo a decades-long “stasis” that forces them to navigate a new, scarier future (with cooler power-ups.) Add in a temperamental “Mother”-like AI, and you’re good to go!
It’s also, somehow, become acceptable for game developers, critics, and professors to refer to Super Metroid-alikes as “metroidvania” games. Of course, “metroidvanias” don’t need to even use any of the common tropes I just described—all they need is to bear some mechanical similarities to Metroid and mid-period Castlevania, the two franchises from which this “genre” took its name. This translates into in-game platforms, exploration elements and serialized item collection.
It’s not that Metroid or Castlevania aren’t games worth emulating—on the contrary, the nagging persistence of the term “metroidvania” owes to the fact that these games still hold up. Although Castlevania has earned its 33% of this awful, ubiquitous portmanteau, Metroid bears the brunt of the influence for hundreds upon hundreds of bad imitations by game developers both amateur and professional alike.
Take Shadow Complex, for example, a “metroidvania” that is obsessively similar to Super Metroid in terms of play-style—except that it’s 2.5D instead of 2D, so the world feels a bit more layered and packed out with compelling new surfaces to scale. That said, for a game that supposedly takes its influence from Metroid, Shadow Complex falls wildly short in terms of aesthetics, narrative and nuance. The plot follows Jason, a bland-as-a-plain-bagel man whose girlfriend gets kidnapped right out of the gate by shadowy soldiers. The game’s artists gave Jason a far more boring existence than Samus Aran’s, overall. Instead of beautifully designed, vibrant, unique armor and towering, glorious alien architecture, Jason gets black-and-gray suits and bland warehouse crates and hallways. (He doesn’t even strip down to a bright red swimsuit at the end of the game, either.)
A more recent example in the same vein would be the upcoming indie title Axiom Verge, which features a man who wakes up after spending decades in a coma. This man has to adapt to a futuristic world, including cool new weaponry. In-game activities predictably include shooting, jumping, and collecting items—but, hey, at least it’s all going down in a more colorful environment than Shadow Complex provided. The developer has cited Metroid as an influence, which means that people keep asking me if I’m excited about that game.
I’m sorry, Axiom Verge, but no, I’m not excited about you. I’m not even that excited about Ghost Song, another upcoming indie along the same Metroid-inspired lines which does—thankfully—have playable female characters in it. That’s a start, to be sure, but it’s not exactly it. I already struggled through Shadow Complex. I need these developers to give me a compelling reason why I wouldn’t just replay Super Metroid instead of their games, and so far, these trailers haven’t given me much hope that these Metroid-style games will be any different than their countless predecessors.
I think most people understand, in a technical sense, why Metroid has endured as an influence worth studying, even imitating. Super Metroid in particular nailed the art of creating a sensation of “getting lost” and “accidentally” stumbling across each new room or power-up—all of which have actually been expertly placed. But the aesthetic and tonal success of Metroid have not successfully been replicated, nor even appreciated, in my opinion. Even within the canonical franchise of Metroid (just as happened within the canon of the Alien films), Samus Aran becomes increasingly oversimplified, re-rendered on increasingly higher pedestals with each iteration, flubbed again and again by writers who swiftly forgot her roots.
Getting back to those roots requires not just a technical analysis of Metroid—which I imagine all of these “metroidvania” game developers already have done—but also, a critical re-watch of Alien and Aliens (and Terminator 2, for extra credit.) These films hold the key to what every sci-fi videogame has been trying—and failing—to achieve. The original Metroid, plus bits and pieces of subsequent Metroid games, comes close to achieving what Alien set forth to do. Portal also grasps at this brass ring but ultimately shies away from the full depths of Alien’s darkness.
Alien hinges on a rape metaphor. And yet feminists love this film. Why is that? Well, for one thing, the film actually does a good job of tackling its subject matter. Writer Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott endeavored to make a film that would make the fear of rape accessible for men in the audience—and, I would argue, they succeeded in making that fear accessible for any audience member who might have needed an Empathy Lesson. This film is classified as “horror” and not just “thriller” because of the extent to which it achieves its goal: It makes forced inseminations actually seem as grotesque and horrific as they should whenever they are depicted anywhere else. There is no “sexy” rape in Alien. After all, H.R. Giger is involved. The subject at hand is actually treated with the caution and horror required.
The subsequent premise of Aliens, which begins with Ripley attempting to convince an unfeeling, disbelieving institution of what she and her shipmates endured in the prior film, serves as a frustrating, tear-jerking, and thus perfect condemnation of rape culture and entrenched, systemic biases. Not to mention that Aliens gives us Vasquez. When did videogames ever give us a Vasquez—let alone a Newt—let alone a Ripley?
The reason why Metroid and Super Metroid work, at least in part, is because they evoke a fearful feeling of exploring and surviving, as well as a sensation of not-belonging, of being lost, and of rebuilding oneself piece by piece. Samus fights a cyclical, endless war on familiar battlegrounds; she goes on unglamorous, personal quests, often with little institutional support (in contrast to heroes like Master Chief or Marcus Fenix, who spend their campaigns being loudly lauded and supported.) Metroid is dark, and not in a cheesy way—in a mournful, slow, deliberate way.
The fact that Samus is a woman matters, and it has always mattered, but that’s not the only element missing from contemporary Metroid imitators. The other missing pieces are even sadder: the lack of emotional nuance and depth, the shying away from the grit of loneliness, the dark existential depth of outer space, and the murky waters of motherhood (incidentally, videogames already do dads plenty—but only Metroid and Portal have even come close to tackling “mommy issues”.)
The moment when Ripley slides into her sleep capsule—her guilt, her loneliness, her gratefulness … and her realization, upon waking, that all that has happened before will now happen again—only Metroid has even begun to capture that sentiment. One would hope that a post-Metroid world of games would have found ways to iterate and improve upon these sentiments and aesthetics. Instead, we have fallen behind.
Metroid is not, and it never has been, a story of some guy who gets a cadre of cool new future guns and fights aliens while wearing a cool helmet. Don’t make that game and then tell me it’s just like Metroid. Because it’s not. Nuke it from orbit. Start over.
Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.