Man, this was a tough one to write. Since it’s the 30th anniversary of Metroid this month, it seemed fitting that we write a top ten Metroid games article. So I started ranking the games in my head, thinking of the great moments that made them each special, and then it hit me. Why not do something a little different and rank the best Metroid moments? Because it’s way harder, that’s why! But I did it anyway. And let me tell you, ranking Metroid moments is tough, because there are just so many amazing ones in the series. Heck, I could have written a top ten moments in Super Metroid alone. But here we go. Here are my top ten Metroid moments.
10. Samus is a what? – As a kid, I used to read the heck out of instruction manuals. Especially early NES manuals. They were filled with amazing pictures, occasional hints, and most importantly, stories. This is where the actual Legend of Zelda was told. It’s how we know Bowser is a sorcerer and not just jerk. And it was where Nintendo intentionally misdirected us to think Samus was a man. Time and time again in the Metroid instruction manual, it’s said that Samus’s identity is a mystery, and she’s repeatedly referred to as a “he.” Most players didn’t think anything of it. Samus was a bad-ass space bounty hunter, and that’s all we needed to know. It’s kind of sad to say, but there was no reason to suspect that Samus would be anything but another mysterious male protagonist under that mask. Females in video games were typically either damsels in distress, health-replenishing fairies, or Ms. Pac-man. So when you finally finish this gruelingly difficult game and see Samus remove her helmet to reveal her long hair and unmistakably female features, “memorable” is certainly a word to describe it. Since then, female video game characters have become a bit more common (though the bulk of games still primarily feature dudes) but few of them are done as well as the original bad-ass game girl. And this moment right here is what started it all.
9. The Space Frigate – Metroid Prime was a huge question mark before its release. Mettroid had been absent for 8 years at that point, and the game that came before it was about as close to perfect as you could get. Moving Metroid into 3D was going to be a hard sell, and having it developed as a first-person shooter by an unproven American developer had a lot of Metroid fans (myself included) on edge. But then you fire up the game, and you see Samus’s ship fly up to the Space Frigate. She comes out of the top with her shiny metal suit looking more awesome than it ever has before. She jumps through the air, doing a few flips just to keep long time fans happy, does the super-hero landing, stands up, the classic “Samus Appearance” jungle plays, the camera pans into the back of her head, and jaws everywhere hit the floor. What follows this incredible moment is a ton of small factors that proved they made Metroid work in 3D, and they did it better than anyone could have imagined. The morph ball was there, the grapple beam was there, the charge beam was there, and they all looked, sounded, and felt better than anyone could have dreamed. It shows you to how to control Samus in 3D with some basic combat and a cool boss fight. It introduces the scan visor and all its anal-retentive glory. Then it gives us a kick-ass escape sequence, an even more kick-ass Ridley appearance, and holy crap, I still can’t believe they did it. Metroid Prime is such an incredible game, from beginning to end, and this opening sequence on the Space Frigate is so damn memorable for being the perfect training/proving ground. Well done, Retro. Well done indeed.
8. No, THIS is Kraid – The original Metroid for NES had 3 bosses. Mother Brain was the final big bad, Ridley was the cool purple dragon that came before, and then there was the first boss you encountered, Kraid. He was a pain in the ass. He’s very beatable, but he’s constantly shooting things at you, and it makes for a pretty intense/memorable boss battle. It’s also important to note that he’s roughly the same size as Samus. Fast-forward to Super Metroid. You’ve already seen Ridley, and you know he looks amazing. You know Kraid is in the game because you’ve presumably seen the statue of him towards the beginning of the game. You eventually find yourself in a part of Brinstar that looks eerily similar to the area where you fought Kraid in the first game, and then out of nowhere, there he is. You immediately start shooting like a crazy person, tossing missiles and whatnot in his general direction, and admittedly he looks way cooler than he did in the original game. But then he dies, and it’s over. Really? Kraid was that easy? That’s a shame. Proportionately, he was about the same size he was in the original in relation to Samus, but after seeing how cool Ridley looked, it was hard to not feel a little let down. Anyway, you walk forward to see what sort of cool item he was hiding, and you come to a weird overgrown door and a dead body covered in bugs. You blast your way through the door, and it locks behind you. You’re now alone in a giant room that’s covered in spikes. What’s going on? Everything ‘s quiet. Then suddenly, the ground starts to shake, and THE BIGGEST BOSS YOU’VE EVER SEEN IN YOUR LIFE RISES FROM THE GROUND AND YOU LOSE YOUR GOD DAMN MIND! You thought that little thing was Kraid? No, THIS is Kraid. Actually, this is only half of Kraid. Because after you get a few shots off, he decides to stand all the way up, and he’s about 2 entire screens tall. In retrospect, this isn’t a particularly difficult boss battle. When you know what you’re doing, he’s quite easy to beat. But the intimidation factor that first time you see him is so off the charts crazy that it’s impossible to not lose your mind, especially at the time. Super Metroid just actively trolled longtime fans with a fake Kraid, and it was incredible. There have been very few times where a boss battle impressed me so much (Raphael the Raven from Yoshi’s Island is another winner) and it’s an incredibly memorable moment in a game that’s overflowing with memorable moments.
7. Are you my mother? – Metroid II: Return of Samus has its fair share of flaws. It did an admirable job of translating the Metroid formula to a handheld while introducing some fresh new elements, but in the end, it just hasn’t aged very well. That said, this game certainly wasn’t lacking in the narrative through gameplay department. In the first Metroid, you were surprised by an escape sequence. This time, after defeating the Metroid Queen, you’re surprised by one last Metroid, but not in the way you might think. Somehow the folks behind the game were able to convey exactly what was happening with the meager power of the Game Boy and not a single line of dialogue. After your fight with the Queen, you progress to the next room where you’re greeted with a metroid egg which hatches in front of you. Instead of trying to kill you, this baby metroid makes cute noises and starts swirling around you. To this day I have no idea how I knew what the game was trying to tell me, but I quickly figured out that the little guy thought I was its mother. It helped eat away some barriers that blocked my escape from the planet, and joined me on my spaceship. We fly away, the credits roll, end of game. See, the whole point of Metroid II is to go to the Metroid’s home world and eradicate the species. You spend the entire game being attacked by these monsters, and then in its conclusion, it leaves you thinking about what you’ve done. In the end, Samus refuses to complete her mission. You decide to save the baby. The last metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace. For an action adventure game, that certainly wasn’t the ending many were expecting. It turns out, what Nintendo had in mind was way better.
6. The Zero Mission – Remaking Metroid was a fantastic idea. (If only someone would take the time to do A Metroid 2 Remake…) Taking that world and adding all the fun new powers Samus has gained over the years while giving the whole thing a fresh coat of paint wound up resulting in one of the finest Metroid games around. The trouble was, with all those fancy new powers, the original Metroid became kind of short. So Nintendo went ahead and surprised long time Metroid gamers with an entirely new scenario. After you defeat Mother Brain and escape the planet, Samus powers down her suit and takes a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. And as soon as she does, she’s ambushed by space pirates, takes a nasty shot to the side of her ship, and winds up marooned back on Zebes, except this time without her power suit, and a simple stun laser as her only weapon. What followed was a completely unique moment in Metroid history. For the first time, Samus wasn’t playing offense. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still completely bad ass. She can still jump and flip around, and she’s not afraid of anything. But without her suit, she simply can not stand up to the space pirates. So we have a stealth mission, and surprisingly, it’s really fun. The tension is quite high, and the difficulty isn’t over the top, so you while you do have to be careful not to be seen, you don’t have to be so careful that it becomes a slog. It all culminates in Samus getting a fancy new version of her power suit from some old Chozo ruins that have a link to her childhood, and then using said power suit to go back and blast the ever loving crap out of all those space pirates she was hiding from a few minutes ago. It’s immensely satisfying, and certainly a memorable experience.
5. The most brutal Ridley battle of all – Metroid: Other M is not a good game. In all honesty, if this were a top ten Metroid games list, Other M probably wouldn’t even make the cut. That said, the game isn’t without its high points, and the highest of said points just happens to be the best damn Ridley battle in the entire series. The cutscenes around it also happen to contain some of the worst cases of character assassination I’ve ever seen in any media, but once the actual battle begins, good gravy is it intense. When Other M’s combat system worked, it WORKED, and that is never more apparent than in this battle. First off, there are these awesome little cinematics that can happen during the fight. If Samus gets a particularly good shot off, she can run up to Ridley, shove her arm cannon in his mouth and blast him good.* Conversely, if you fail to dodge some of Ridley’s attacks, he will grab Samus, pound her into a wall, and scrape her across it before pulling her away in time for her to regain her composure and blast him in the face to escape. Which leads me to the other thing about this fight that’s so different than others, Ridley is really brutal this time around. He doesn’t just fly around spitting fireballs or whipping his tail around. No, he also gets right in there and tries to physically beat the crap out of her. And if you’re not fast enough with your dodging, he will do just that. I could write a book on what’s wrong with Other M, but this battle is just so damn right that it makes how bad the overall game is that much worse. It may not be enough to redeem everything, but it’s enough to earn it the #5 spot on this list.
4. Samus vs. Metroid Prime – I mentioned before that Metroid Prime did 3D Metroid right, and that holds true throughout the entire game. But what was probably most impressive of all was how they managed to make the final boss battle live up to the extraordinary experience that lead to it. This is a feat that many modern games rarely accomplish, but Metroid Prime does it in style. Yes, when you actually fight the titular Metroid Prime, not only does it look intimidating as hell, but it is an extremely thoughtful, intense, and well done battle. This thing will actually make you use every weapon and skill you acquired in the game. Every. Single. One. A lot of times you wind up going through a game like this, finding the best weapon, and using it to finish the game. But Metroid Prime is so much smarter than that. It requires the use of every trick in the book to finally take it down, and when you do, the sense of accomplishment is palpable. Seriously, this is one of the best final boss fights ever crafted. It’s a long journey to get there, but it’s very well worth it.
3. The morph ball – This thing makes absolutely no sense. It shouldn’t be possible. How does she see where she’s going? Why is she immune to the bombs she lays? Why is this a thing? But more importantly, why is it so cool? Who knows? The important thing is that it is. One of the first things you do in the original Metroid is get the morph ball power, which lets Samus curl into a ball and roll around. How in the world did they come up with this? And why is it so cool? It should be silly. You should look at it and say “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” It most certainly shouldn’t have worked once the franchise moved to 3D. But it did, and it does. Every time you see Samus go into her Morph Ball form, you have to admire the creativity behind it.
2. Hiding from SA-X – Up to this point, Metroid had never been a stealth game. (Metroid: Zero Mission was released a few years after Metroid Fusion). Up to this point, there wasn’t really anything in the Metroid games that seemed worth running away from. Bosses were tough, enemies were everywhere, but Samus is awesome. Especially by the end of Super Metroid, where with all her accumulated power-ups she basically became an unstoppable murder machine. And that right there is why the SA-X is so terrifying. Unlike Dark Samus from the Metroid Prime series, SA-X is a mindless creature that is mimicking Samus at the height of her powers in Super Metroid. And the real Samus, well, let’s just say she’s seen better days. So when this thing walks into a room, you hide. Because you know damn well what it’s capable of. Because it used to be you, and that is frightening. Metroid Fusion is a teriffic game. It’s got a few issues, but as a follow up to Super Metroid, it works remarkably well. The best moments though, come from hiding from the SA-X. Every time it enters a room (usually by blasting through a wall with its super missiles) the instinct to remain as still as possible kicks in. Because if you do make the mistake of being seen, it will kill you, and it will do it FAST. The game tries to riff on the ending of Super Metroid with SA-X in the end, and it kinda works, but really, it’s the moments where you’re running and hiding from it that are unforgettable.
1. The entire final sequence in Super Metroid – This isn’t just my favorite sequence in the Metroid franchise, it’s my favorite sequence in all of video games. You spend the bulk of Super Metroid searching for the baby metroid you saved at the end of Metroid II. Ridley stole it at the beginning of the game, and took it back to Zebes, the setting of the first Metroid on NES. You go through countless trials and dangerous situations until you finally confront Ridley in his lair. The battle is intense, but you win. And in the next room, instead of getting some sort of cool new power up, all that’s there is the shattered container that once held the baby metroid. (And an energy tank, if you look hard enough). Now, what we have here is some serious storytelling that can only be done in this medium. You know that the space pirates have the metroid, and that they want to clone it. That is established in the instruction manual. You saw their failed clones earlier in Super Metroid when you came across the mochtroids in Maridia. Again, the instruction manual explains that they are failed clone metroids, but their origin was still a mystery, and I distinctly remember actually being worried that they made them form the baby metroid. Yes, I was genuinely worried about the baby metroid, and seeing that shattered container actually gave me chills. So, having finally beaten the 4 bosses, you head back to an earlier area in the game that was blocked off with a statue of said 4 bosses, and the entrance to a rebuilt Tourian opens up. You find yourself in the same bright silver metal and lava covered hell hole you did at the end of the first game. There’s no doubt that two things are about to happen. 1. Mother Brain is here somewhere. 2. So are metroids. And sure as heck, some classic, fast, scary as heck metroids come swarming at you, and they want to eat you. Obviously the space pirates have successfully cloned metroids from the baby metroid, and all you want to do is find it, and finally put a stop to the space pirates. As you go through Tourian, you eventually come across what looks like one of the terrifying bosses you just fought earlier, except when you shoot it, it turns to dust. You continue through the room, and it’s full of more creatures in the same condition. Metroids suck energy from things, so the logical conclusion is that these creatures were probably killed by some seriously hungry metroids. Moments later, a rather dangerous-looking giant sidehopper (a regular creature found in the game) comes hopping along, likely looking to attack Samus, when out of nowhere the BIGGEST, NASTIEST METROID YOU’VE EVER SEEN comes in and devours the creature right in front of you. It finally lets go of the sidehopper which immediately turns to dust, and then the super metroid turns its attention to you. Everything you shoot at this creature has absolutely no effect. It gets you, and you are left pounding the buttons, running in every direction to try and get this giant jellyfish of death off of you as you watch your health drain faster than you can imagine. Then, when your health gets down to 01, the metroid stops. It lets you go, and you hear a vaguely familiar noise. The metroid is crying.
To this day I still can’t say for sure how, but at that moment I realized that the super metroid was actually the baby metroid. It was probably because I recognized its cries from the opening sequence in the game, but I really couldn’t say fur sure. Either way, it recognized me, and it felt bad that it hurt me. I shit you not, I literally said out loud to myself “oh my god, it’s the baby metroid. What have they done to you?” It floated around making sad noises, and then it flew away. You chase after it, and you finally come to the Mother Brain’s lair, and she’s as grotesque as ever. You fight her the same way you do in the original game, by blasting her glass containment, and hitting her with as many missiles as you possibly can, all while avoiding the massive amounts of guns and enemies trying to kill you in the process. When you finally beat her and she blows up, you expect the escape sequence to begin. But this is Super Metroid, and as you learned in the Kraid fight, this game loves screwing with folks who think they know what’s coming. Somehow, Mother Brain attaches itself to a gigantic, screen-filling, hideous body and begins attacking Samus. You pump every missile and super missile you have into her face, and it seems to be a relatively even match. Enemies don’t have life bars in this game, so there’s never any real way of knowing how close you are to winning. But then, Mother Brain turns the tide. She starts charging something up with this incredibly ominous sound, and then she opens her eye and unleashes what is without a doubt the most viscous and brutal attack I’ve ever encountered in a video game. This completely insane death beam shoots our of here eye and no matter where you are in the room, blasts you against the wall and just through the sheer force of the blast drags you up the wall, covering you in explosions, filling your ears with a piercing screeching noise, and draining your life even faster than the super metroid did earlier. When the attack is over, Samus is on her knees. If you have enough health, you can make Samus stand back up and keep attacking Mother brain, but it’s for naught. Mother Brain charges up the attack again, and when she’s done this time, there’s no getting up. You can mash buttons and make Samus try to stand, but she’s beaten. You are at the complete mercy of Mother Brain. Seeing that she’s defeated you, she starts hitting you with a few weaker attacks for a few minutes, bringing your health down to “one more hit and I’m dead” status. Then, she starts charging the death beam again. You’re out of options. You can’t move. You have no health. No reserve tanks. No ammo. For the first time in the entire franchise, you are absolutely, 100% completely helpless. Until at the very last moment, the baby metroid busts through the wall and SAVES YOUR LIFE! In a moment that makes it impossible to not stand up and cheer, your little metroid buddy latches on to Mother Brain’s head and does not let go. She stops moving, the baby metroid forces her to her knees, and she finally turns brown like all the other creatures he turned to dust. Then, just because he loves you, he attaches himself to your head and proceeds to heal you. But what’s that? Is that smoke coming out of Mother Brain’s mouth?
Mother Brain gets back up, and starts blasting the baby metroid with everything she’s got. The baby metroid stays on you, healing you and protecting you until you’re back to 100% health. But while he’s doing that, he’s taking some heavy damage, and he starts to look pretty darn sick. So once you’re back in fighting shape, he lets you go, and makes a lunge for Mother Brain, but she’s too fast for him, and she hits him straight on with a killing shot. The sound the baby metroid makes is haunting. It’s so full of pain and sadness, and this is a 16-bit sprite of a giant green jellyfish coming out of a super nintendo for crying out loud, but it dies, and I have never been so filled with emotion when playing a game before. I spared this thing’s life when it hatched. I took it to a science center where they found out that it could actually be used to benefit everyone. This thing proved that Metroids aren’t evil, they’re just being misused. Then it was captured, cloned, and mutated, and it just sacrificed its life to save mine. I was devastated, but I was also pissed as hell. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for Mother Brain) the super metroid had also super charged my weapons, and I now had a crazy death laser of my own that worked wonders for killing the crap out of Mother Brain. Every time you shoot her, her head gets knocked back, and when you finally blow her up and watch her head turn to dust, it’s one of the most satisfying moments imaginable. Of course, not to be outdone by Metroid, this time you’re not just setting a bomb, this time you’re blowing up the whole damn planet, and it’s time to escape. Instead of just climbing a corridor, now you have to make it all the way back to your ship, and when you do, you’re treated to an awesome planet explosion, the likes of which haven’t been this satisfying since the Death Star exploded.
This all happens non-stop, in a single sequence of events that has stuck with me ever since. No game, not Ocarina of time’s Gannondorf battle, not Mega Man honestly considering actually killing Dr. Wily, not anything. Absolutely no game has ever come close to this before. It’s a stunning work of video game art, and it’s just about the best conceivable example of storytelling through gameplay, which is a form of storytelling that’s only possible in a video game. If you are even vaguely interested in what gaming has to offer, you absolutely must play this game.
Honorable Mention. Samus travels the worlds of Nintendo – Seeing your favorite video game characters in strange places has always been a novelty. And even before Smash Bros., Nintendo knew how to do it well. While Mario had been showing up to referee tennis matches and drive cars since his inception, it was always special when the other Nintendo stalwarts made appearances. And I would argue that none of them (with the exception of maybe Pit’s) were more unexpected and fantastic than Samus’s. Weather she’s sleeping in Peach’s castle in Super Mario RPG, shooting aliens in Galactic Pinball for Virtual Boy, or thanking Kirby for freezing some Metroids in Kirby’s Dream Land 3, Samus cameos are never dull. They may not be in Metroid specific games, but seeing Samus play a cello next to Link in a Tetris game is just too awesome not to mention.
So there you have it. Did I miss anything? Am I crazy for including Other M? Should I be shot with an ice beam for leaving out Prime 3? Let me know in the comments. There really are so many to choose from in this series, and I’m hopeful that someday there will be even more. Let me know in the comments. In the meantime, I guess I should get ready to join the Federation Force…