Metroid: The Redheaded Stepchild

I have been a Nintendo loyalist for a long time.  From the time I got my first Super NES in 1995, I have bought almost every system Nintendo has released (Super NES, N64, GameCube, Wii, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, & Nintendo 3DS).  There are many reasons I love Nintendo as much as I do: their singular focus on good game design, their durable systems that stand the test of time (I still play my SNES games from time to time… who can say that about any other system?), and their relationship with their fans.  But there’s always been one franchise that they’ve treated like the black sheep, and that is Metroid.

Metroid is, hands down, my favorite video game series of all time.  While it may not have as well-developed a universe as such sci-fi franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, or even Firefly (more on that later), it is hard to top Metroid in terms of solid storylines combined with great game experiences.  The series blazed new trails with its introduction of the first female protagonist in a major game franchise as well (and a badass female at that).  Before I get to a rundown of the series’ best games, I’ll fill you in on some basic plot elements standard to every game.  The main character is bounty hunter Samus Aran, who once worked as a soldier for the Galactic Federation.  A few years into her career she ventures off independently, before reconnecting with her old Federation comrades in a later game.  Most of her quests involve her developing an understanding of metroids, creatures that live by sucking the life force out of their victims using their fierce claws, essentially an intergalactic leech.  Now, on to the list:

Don’t mess with metroids.

The best game in the Metroid series, and in my opinion the greatest video game ever made, is Super Metroid.  Samus returns to Planet Zebes, the setting of the first game, in order to defeat a new and improved Mother Brain, the same boss she faced in Metroid, the first game.  Through scientists’ study of a baby metroid that had imprinted on Samus, they conclude that the long-feared creatures’ powers could actually be harnessed and used for the greater good.  This shift in attitude towards the main antagonists of the series is a plot point that I’ve always found very interesting about the series.

The gameplay in Super Metroid is also superior, with a massive world to explore even given the Super NES’s limitations.  One thing I’ve always liked about Metroid games is that they are non-linear.  Unlike in, say, a Mario game, you don’t progress from stage to stage in order.  In Super Metroid, you can explore any area of Planet Zebes you want.  Certain areas, however, are blocked and accessible only after you have acquired certain items.  The game also requires you to backtrack to certain areas at times to obtain new items and power-ups once you have other significant ones.  For example, after you acquire the Varia Suit in the jungle area Brinstar, you are able to withstand the intense heat of the lava area Norfair and can explore it further.  I personally love this kind of gameplay, and it really makes the player rack their brain to come up with a way to proceed forward in the quest.  Players’ “Metroid instincts” (as the webmasters of the fan site Metroid Database call them) will often kick in, causing them to search every nook and cranny of an area in creative and interesting ways until they find a way forward in their quest, creating a unique challenge.  It also means that there are many different paths to completing the game, giving it a lot of replay value.  This open style of gameplay has influenced many games that have come after Super Metroid, on many systems.

This statue blocks your way to the final area in Super Metroid. I think it really shows off the game’s solid graphics.

Just nipping at Super’s heels is Metroid Prime, also considered by many as one of the greatest games of all time.  Prime was one of the first games that really unlocked the GameCube’s potential as a system, and stretched it to new heights.  Unlike previous games, Prime featured a first-person perspective, with the player looking through Samus’s helmet.  You could use different visors to explore different areas, and scan items to reveal plot points or hints as to what you needed to do next.  Prime’s sequels were not quite as good, but the original stands as a shining example of the series’ greatness.