What Metroid teaches us

For my first blog post, I thought I’d explore our reading from A Theory of Fun as it applies to Nintendo’s groundbreaking Metroid, from 1986.

Metroid is most famous for being the first major video game with a female protagonist. Players assume they’re playing as a burly dude in manly armor until the very end of the game, when Samus removes her helmet to reveal her true nature–she’s a beautiful woman!

But the other major innovation with Metroid, and the one I’ll be addressing in this post, is that it was one of the first non-linear platforming video games.

Raph Koster divides early video games into two paradigms: “get to the other side” games and “visit every location” games. Metroid combined the two. Producer Gunpei Yokoi wanted to mix the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the exploration elements of The Legend of Zelda. While intrinsically, the goal of Metroid is to jump and shoot your way to the end of the game, multiple paths are presented to the player. Some are traversable from the beginning, and others require powerups to reach. So players, instead of only looking for the end of the “level,” must first search for said powerups to reach the end.

Before this point, platformers were seen as “go to the right of the screen, jump over obstacles, kill bad guys, win.” Metroid added another dimension, as it required *gasp* leftward movement, backtracking to reach new parts of old levels, and a higher level of critical thinking.

The Metroid series has continued to break new ground in adventure platforming, from 1994’s SNES masterpiece Super Metroid to 2002’s argument-for-games-as-art Metroid Prime on the GameCube. The gameplay style has changed other games as well, like Konami’s Castlevania series. But they’re all based on the concepts of the 1986 original: nonlinear gameplay derived from finding powerups to get to new areas.

4 thoughts on “What Metroid teaches us

  1. Professor Sample

    Thanks for the brief look at Metroid Prime. If I’m not mistaken, Metroid Prime was also one of the first games that allowed for what theorists call “emergent play,” that is, a way of solving problems (often by taking advantage of a bug in the system) that the game designers themselves hadn’t envisioned.

    1. Jake Shapiro Post author

      Yes, while the Metroid series is known for its vast exploration and secrets, elite gamers like to challenge themselves to speed runs, and one of the keys to this is “sequence breaking,” where players are able to skip entire sections of the game. It makes the game much harder, but people are masochists.

  2. jdabrows

    My ears pricked up when you said “Metroid is most famous for being the first major video game with a female protagonist” – I find the relationship between video games and women very interesting. Do you think Metroid would be a less attractive game to males if the protagonist was clearly a woman from the beginning of the game, rather than being a surprising twist at the end? Relatedly, would Metroid be more attractive to female players if the protagonist was clearly a woman for the entire game?

    It does seem in general that video games are geared in a masculine direction – I think it is safe to assume that first-person shooters would not be a first choice for most female players. I’ve heard that games which tell stories are more attractive to women, so perhaps role-playing games are more popular among female players? Or maybe simply having more female protagonists would entice more women to play video games. I feel having a female role model within the game would allow the female players to relate better to the main character, and thus become more interested in completing the challenges and tasks set forth by the game.

    I feel I should add a caveat, though – an overly sexualized female character will not attract any female players, it is far more likely to turn female players off entirely. If game designers are looking to appeal to a female audience, they should trade in the skimpy outfits and unrealistic proportions of current female characters for modestly dressed, smart, confident female protagonists that female players can look up to.

  3. Professor Sample

    A silly historical note: Ms. Pac-Man was probably the first videogame with a “female” character. Though in that case, and in the case of Metroid Prime, you have to wonder if the sex of the character really matters to gameplay. We’ll talk more about this in a few weeks.

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