Top 100 NES Review: #12 – Metroid (1986)

Brutal Exploration

Rating: smooth-starsmooth-star
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The NES is unique in gaming because it was the introduction to so many franchises: Mario, Final Fantasy, Zelda and Metroid. These franchises have now spawned several sequels and spin-offs and have appeared on every platform possible. Metroid is one of those seminal events in gaming where a new concept arose and technology was finally good enough to execute it.

My concern was that I had never played this game before, and returning to a game that was made in 1986 (which almost doesn’t seem possible) after playing all of the newer versions might just magnify the limitations of the original. I also thought of an article on Cracked : games used to be all about fun, unlike today, but truth is when you return to the them, you realize how frustrating they were.

Simply put, the original Metroid can be BRUTAL.

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That’s some color pallet.

Where Metroid shines the brightest is within the first 60 minutes. You are dropped off in a deep cave with no direction. The first moments are just pure exploration, but you quickly realize you are stuck because you can’t crouch past a wall. Turning the other way, you eventually discover a power up that allows you to roll into a ball. At this moment you realize what this game is going to be about: wandering , shooting baddies, and getting power ups to get to new areas.

Now, I already knew this because I had played later games, but what makes the Metroid series so great is that sense of elation of receiving a new ability that allows you to explore further. This franchise has always had a solid reward system that keeps you motivated to tackle new areas, and that is present in the original NES game.

The first thing that shocked me about this game was the year it was released. The colors, art and sounds just seemed way too ahead of its time. This game is 30 years old: retro – yes, but before I was born? No way.  The second thing that shocked me was how brutal this game was.

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My hand drawn map only slightly helped/further confused me.

I usually look at what other people say about games before I write a review just to get an idea of key things people are talking about. The same three things kept coming up as negatives for this game: every respawn starting with 30 “hit points,” the lack of any type of map, how unintuitive it was to figure out where to go. Same.

First, restarting with just 30 hit points when you find power ups that would let you hold hundreds created a level of difficulty and repetition that was just unnecessary. One hit from an enemy could reduce your energy by 20, and many levels were created where you would get hit several times. To get around this, you would have to energy harvest anytime you wanted to explore; you would go to an area where enemies respawn from pipes, and mindless kill and dodge for 10 minutes before you could start adventuring. The greatest thing this game had going for it was how it inspired you to want to explore, and it somehow continued to find ways to prevent you from doing that.

The layout of the world is confusing. It was designed to make you get lost and unbalanced. Some level areas look exactly the same, meaning you had to understand where you were spatially, not just by recognizing the pattern of the area. This was made even harder by having no in game map. I drew my own map, and somehow that gave me just enough of an idea to get around.

This made gameplay divulge into a rinse and repeat format of having to waste 10 minutes energy harvesting, exploring confusing areas that look similar, getting stuck/lost, dying, drawing the additions to your map, and then repeat. Baby stepping through the game like this would have been okay, but the unintuitive direction of crucial pathways was the final straw.

In my particular instance, there was one purple block out of a possible 5000 that needed to be bombed to drop down a shaft to continue the game. I had gone round and round in this area progressively getting more and more frustrated (with the obligatory energy harvesting to really get me ramped up).

With rage, I looked online to see what I had to do next. I found out it was one block, in a corner, with no cues of importance. This made me immediately reflect: would I have ever found this on my own? It is hard to say. I think after more multiple merry-go-rounds, I would have broken down into a systematic search and destroy every block one by one, but would that have been fun?

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You want to talk about panic.

See, the thing about this game is that there are a handful of super difficult secrets, and when you become privy to them, the game becomes a much more enjoyable experience. Knowing where a couple items were and a few exposable pathways flipped a 180 on my experience and I was able to explore and accomplish again. Of course, this lessened the achievement aspect because I didn’t do it on my own, but at least I was moving.

People have replayed this game recently and gave it superior reviews, and I can see why: it is groundbreaking and a beautiful game. But, I think some of these people either knew where some things were (a nostalgia and memory combo punch) while others were okay with the systematic blast and bomb for 15,000 blocks. Since I fit into neither of these categories, I wallowed in misery for a while before succumbing to online guides to move forward. This leaves me saying thanks but no thanks for Metroid for the NES.

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Mission “Harvest Energy for Three Hours” complete.

Author: Casual But Smart

I review the top 100 books, movies, albums, and games of all time.

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