No, this isn't a prelude to your Batman fetishes, but the darkness as a kid. It was you, a dark living room or bedroom, a quiet weekend night and you're staying up "late" well past your bedtime basking in the soft glow of a television screen. A greasy video game controller in your hand. A sense of solitude and loneliness. You have to get to that next level. Beat that next boss. See what happens next in the story. Get that new power up. Save that princess.
Or, in the case of Metroid and Super Metroid. Explore a desolate world.
In those games, playing alone is a prerequisite. As is the dark room. The silence. There are no other series of games that depict true solitude quite so well, and playing them with another person, or during the day or even in a room with a light on in the corner is completely out of the question.
I learned it early, actually a few years before Metroid, which was released in 1986 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and I didn't really play it for a few years later. The first game that echoed a sense of solitude was the Atari title, Haunted House. A game where you, obviously, explore a haunted house. Of course, that was Atari, so much of it was left to your imagination and what those large blocky things were. But the lack of music, the footsteps, the minimal sound effects. There was just something special about playing that by yourself fin the dark. Something a little ominous. Kids loved scaring themselves, even if they didn't realize they were putting themselves in the position to scare themselves.
Oh my God...it's a...a...thing! Run!
Jump ahead a few years. Nintendo is the king of the video game world. There were plenty of games that really played and looked like each other, but when it came to Metroid, there was really nothing else quite like it. You're a spaceman (ahem…we'll get to that later) on a planet all by yourself exploring the cavernous, dark underworld and really getting completely lost in the process. There's little music, and the music that is there is so faded and minimalist you'd barely notice it, and sparse sound effects. It was there to engross you in the sense of solitude. Just you, a weapon, and mazes of caves and puzzles to figure out. They weren't your typical puzzles, it was more "exploratory problem solving" that involved a lot of chance, luck, backtracking and upgrading items to figure out where to go next. Like Samus, our spaceman we controlled, we were alone and left to our devices.
That was until Nintendo Power helped out with player guides and maps. But even with that direction, you still felt that solitude. If anything, all those guides and giant pull-out maps just made it that much more overwhelming.
I never beat Metroid when I first played it. Actually, strike that, to this day I never actually beat the first Metroid game. I think it was because, at the time, I was a little scared to play it, and by the time I was old enough to really get into it, understand how it worked and really appreciate that sense of loneliness sitting in that dark room, I had moved on from the original Nintendo to the Super Nintendo. I think that goes for a lot of people because I didn't know anyone that ever beat that game when I was a kid. Like many, I never knew Samus was even a woman, not a man, until Nintendo Power revealed it. I remember the screenshot in one of their sections, maybe it was the letters section, and there she was at the end of the game credits, her armor off. That's when the rumors kind of began that if you beat Metroid fast enough, she'd get completely naked. Oh…the imagination of children who have just as many perverted fantasies as adults.
8-Bit hot sexiness coming your way. Note, don't google "Samus" and "Nude." Childhood ruined.
Speaking of the Super Nintendo, it was that era where, i feel, I was ready to embark on that exploration of solitude. As a kid, it was the enjoyment of the experience more than it was the game itself. Truth is, I didn't really get far in the first Metroid game. When the Super Nintendo came out, and along with it Super Metroid, the third game in the series (the second on the original gameboy, which I also played but it didn't really do anything for me), I can officially say I had my first Metroid experience and, more importantly, appreciation. By 1994, I was getting into more sophisticated titles, well beyond the "go right, jump, beat boss, continue on." I was well into the Zelda titles and role playing games.
What do those two things have in common? That's right, exploration. A sense of freedom and wonder of what's around the corner or where to go next.
Super Metroid had that, but then it brought back those old memories of playing the original one too. That sense of lowliness and darkness. Yet again, I found myself sitting in front of a television late at night, as though I was nine all over again, and playing a Metroid title in front of a glowing screen. Now I was a few years older, which means I stayed up even later…and it all became even scarier as a result.
This time, though, I was consumed by it. I had to beat this game. I never beat the first, I sold my NES before I realized I just needed to "grow up" to appreciate it. So this was, in a way, a complete redemption. For weeks, I stayed up late. Super Metroid was released right at the end of a school year and I picked it up over that summer, so staying up late on those summer weekdays were something special. From the first few moments, I was hooked. I had played nothing quite like this before, even the original Metroid. It was…scary. Still, after all these years, I was still scared. It didn't jump out and say "boo" and there's nothing that's intentionally trying to scare you, it's just ominous from beginning to end - a sense of dread that you may not make it.
The atmosphere and sensation of isolation and loneliness is much in thanks to the use of blacks in game. The boarders, backgrounds, dark muted tones combined with lack of music and sound brings out the detachment and otherworldly quality of the atmosphere. A simple, minimal aesthetic, but a brilliant one.
Also, keep in mind I was a huge fan of Aliens around this time. I just started getting into movies like that. So Super Metroid came at just the right time. Here I was, living that experience I saw in that movie. Alone. On a strange world. A weapon. Lots of things trying to kill you. No direction on where to go…you just set out and try to figure it all out. While I enjoyed all that in the first Metroid, in Super Metroid, thanks to the gorgeous 2D graphics, wonderfully animated sprites and incredible art design, I found a game that, to this day, has yet to be surpassed in terms of 2D scary exploration.
Super Metroid owes a lot to the music. No, not necessarily the compositions themselves, which are great, but in their usage. It's a wonderful example of "less is more" in music direction for videogames. That's one thing that I wish the original Metroid did: cut down on the main theme. It's a great main theme, but it plays constantly and just loops. Want to know my favorite parts of the original Metroid? Going into a room with a powerup and themusic changes to the frightening, off-key tune. Man, that creeps me out to this day.
Not to mention, there's this aura of sadness with this game too. I can't quite explain it, but it's...bleak? Maybe that's the word. The sense of being so alone is a tad depressing. Playing it back the, I was surprised how unassuming the entire game was, and I think that lack of "boldness" and "color" and "life" is what makes the whole thing just a bit sad to me.
Well, not too sad. It's still incredible...and I still beat it when I bought it. Finally, I beat a Metroid game, and it was a combination of its wonderful presentation with my maturity of appreciating that.
The opening cinematic and first few minutes of gameplay in Super Metroid is one of the best moments in videogaming. The ominous atmosphere, the tension, the buildup and reveal...it was a perfect. Note the music too, composed by Kenji Yamamoto who would go on to score the Metroid series from this game through Metroid Prime 3 on the Nintendo Gamecube.
This sensation and style has become a mainstay in games today. The survival horror genre thrived in the coming decades on such an atmosphere. And yes, I consider Metroid a kind of "survival horror" in its most basic sense. It's still seen today, with games like Dead Space or even Bioshock where you find yourself alone in a strange, dark place and have to figure out where to go and what to do next. Metroid and Super Metroid laid the groundwork for that, and playing those types of games today has made me even more appreciative of the games of old and how they were working with magic without even realizing it was magic. They were setting trends that would ripple through the entire industry, but they didn't intend to that. Nintendo just wanted to develop a damn good game, and that's exactly what they did.
What's interesting about the Metroid games is that they're damn hard to classify. I know I say it's an early example of survival horror, but that's putting it mildly on everything else it does. I suppose just a basic "2D adventure" might suffice, but there are elements of so many genres all wrapped into one, held together by that darkness and that atmosphere, that trying to describe Metroid to someone who's never played Metroid is like trying to describe what the color red is to a blind person. It kind of is what it is. It's own definition. It's own style.
Super Metroid is a game I still own. My copy I bought way back at the end of that school year in 1994 still sits nicely on my shelf. I didn't re-buy the first Metroid until much later when I re-bought an NES and a good ten or so games with it. And you know what? I still play them. One is nearly twenty five years old, the other nearly twenty, and I still play them. I don't even play a lot of my current games. A lot of them I haven't even beaten. You know, kind of like how I never beat the first Metroid despite re-buying it. I'm sure in twenty years, I'll write something about how I regret never beating those either.