Despite what many people will tell you, video games have a lot to teach us. Granted, many of their lessons revolve around blowing up other people and things, and the strategies you develop in order to blow stuff up more effectively. Then again, this is a surprisingly deep field of study — ask any military historian.
But there are other lessons. Simulation games can teach us how weird things work, like cities or elevator systems or golf courses. Strategy games are all about managing resources — though they’re dressed up as soldiers and tanks and aliens, what really is fighting it out on the field is money. Whoever can send more $20 bills to invade the other side’s $100 fort wins.
But very few video games can teach you what it means to feel hopeless and lost.
Then again, there aren’t many games like Metroid.
Metroid was one of the second-generation Nintendo Entertainment System games here in the U.S. — the first generation being mostly dinky, forgettable games like Ice Climber or Baseball (The one exception to this was the original Super Mario Bros., which probably established Nintendo’s rule over the video game industry for eternity).
Metroid was different from everything that came before it in that it gave you a world to explore. You could travel around in it all directions — in Super Mario Bros., you could only go right — and backtrack over areas you’d already visited.
In this regard, Metroid’s no different a Nintendo game that more people are familiar with: the first Zelda game, which was released a year after Metroid. But Zelda gives you a kind of pastoral, friendly world to explore; although there’s a graveyard that you come across in the game, you can easily get back to the plains and meadows of Hyrule with a minute of travel.
Metroid starts off in what could be considered a possibly friendly world. It’s a cave, certainly, but there’s a certain pleasing regularity about the world:
You spend the first quarter of the game running around here, exploring and trying to build up your strength. You begin the game as a chump with 30 energy points and a little laser beam that barely hurts anyone and doesn’t even have the dignity to go all the way across the screen.
You find icons in sequestered chambers that give you new abilities, like being able to curl up into a ball to travel through narrow spaces. The upbeat music suddenly changes to an alien chittering as you enter these rooms, and when you enter the inner sanctum, you come to a statue that holds out a treasure to you:
Though getting power-ups is nothing new, you start to wonder — why exactly do those statues look like that? Who built them?
The questions stay in the back of your head until you explore all you can in Brinstar, which is what the manual names the caves, and discover a new area named Norfair.
It isn’t a friendly cave. It’s some strange blend of biology and crystal, with lava everywhere. The jaunty adventure tune disappears completely. Instead there’s a slow, hypnotic song whose 45-second-long eerie melody is repeated over and over — but instead of being annoying, it’s just plain old unsettling.
It feels as if you’re entering a world — no, an ecosystem — where patterns of life that no human has ever seen before have been going on for thousands of years.
And then you run into entrances like these:
Unlike any other game Nintendo had ever produced before, this is a world that didn’t particularly want you in it. It isn’t there for your benefit. If you’re lucky, you can persevere through it.
There still are obstacles in Norfair that you have to overcome by finding new abilites, like being able to jump higher, but the main challenge facing you is Norfair’s vastness.
Most video games have secrets of some kind or another — usually it’s noticing a section of wall that’s a slightly different color or shape. Hitting it with your weapon will reveal some bonus points, or if you were particularly clever, an extra life. All of these secrets are optional. They’re a way for the game designers to reward players who pay attention to their work.
But Metroid is different. Some hidden areas are only short excursions to more energy points, just like in other games. But others reveal entirely new areas. There isn’t any sense of a main path through the game; instead, all of a sudden, you realize that you’re on a new main path that you’d never seen before.
It’s only half a step from there to being lost.
I never made a map of Norfair when I was a kid, and though the memory of 10-year-olds is pretty strong, becoming lost was unavoidable. You don’t even remember how to retrace your steps — you suspect that you’re going in circles but you can’t remember which door will take you out of here. You start to wonder whether you’ve wandered into a trap set by the game’s designers, or maybe an area they forgot to finish. The music drones on, and seahorses rise out of the lava. Sometimes they spew lava at you. Other times they just stare.
Eventually, you give up on finding your way out and instead of killing the creatures in your way methodically, you try to run past them until almost all of your energy points are gone, and then you get mired in the lava until you’re dead.
You hit start and you’re back at the beginning of Norfair.
Not knowing what else to do, you go back down.
The funny thing is that at this point, you’re only halfway through the game. There’s not much of a visible structure to the game, other than being blocked off from certain areas until you get certain abilities. If you read the instruction manual, you find out that you’re there to hunt down horribly destructive creatures called Metroids. But you don’t meet up with them until the very end of the game.
Back when I played this game for the first time, how you beat the game was a matter of rumor. The manual mentions defeating two bosses, Ridley and Kraid, but where are they? How do you kill them when you find them? And then where do you go? Where are these Metroids? Do they even exist?
The only way to find out for sure is to enter the maze once more.