The Evolution of Metroid

Marc Griffin
Games Nintendo
Games Nintendo

Thirty-five years ago, one of Nintendo’s oldest video game development teams, known as Nintendo R&D1 (Nintendo Research and Development), set out to create a uniquely strange and exciting cosmic adventure. The result? 1986’s Metroid.

Notable for being one of the first mainstream games to have a strong female protagonist, the Metroid series has proven its staying power with a cult fan base, critically acclaimed games, a blend of sci-fi and psychological horror (super unique for Nintendo, especially around this time), and a fascinating storyline to boot.

But where did it all start? And how did the series transform from the Metroidvania games of its humble beginnings to the innovative first-person shooter experience of Metroid Prime? To answer those questions, let us dive deep into the series of Metroid and how it evolved.

Metroid (1986)

Released in 1986, Nintendo wanted a gaming experience that would be different from most of the lighthearted games they were offering at the time, and, to achieve this, borrowed heavily from two of their most successful lighthearted franchises: Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Lifting the platform-level design from the Mario series and fusing it with the non-linear storytelling/exploration of Zelda, Metroid achieved something significant for its period: giving the player an illusion that the game’s world was much bigger than it actually was.

Making its grand debut on the NES, the first Metroid game was a groundbreaking success. Embarking on an adventure through Planet Zebes, you assist bounty hunter Samus Aran as she takes on Space Pirates in hopes of retrieving the parasitic Metroid organisms. Samus Aran battles various types of Space Pirate enemies along the way, including Samus’s archenemy Ridley, who is directly responsible for the death of her parents.

Metroid also played a part in pioneering speedrunning, a gaming playstyle where the player attempts to complete their chosen video game as fast as possible with little to no deaths. Metroid offered players a whopping five different endings depending on how fast the player could complete it. And, if done in three-to-five hours, you would be treated with one of the biggest plot twists of all time… The game would see a remake of sorts in the form of 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission, which retold the story of the very first Metroid with added graphical fidelity, movements, and cutscenes expounding upon the lore of Samus Aran and her past.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)

As the title says, in Metroid II: Return of Samus, Samus returns to our sci-fi loving hearts through the means of Nintendo’s latest handheld console at the time: the Game Boy. Back in all her pixelated glory, Samus finds herself on a new adventure through SR388, the home planet of the Metroids, as she’s tasked with eradicating the species before the Space Pirates can get ahold of them.

This entry into the franchise is one of the most coveted due to its expansion upon the mechanics and the arsenal of upgrades/weapons that Samus can acquire throughout the game. These additions became series staples as they would help shape the iconic image and performance of who we know Samus Aran to be, including her rounded shoulder look in the Varia Suit, Spider Ball, Space Jump and the Spazer Beam. Enhancing the controls and overall experience of the Metroid series thus far, Metroid II’s graphical fidelity and easy accessibility on the Game Boy set a standard for the series that would become an integral component of the franchise to this very day.

Super Metroid (1994)

Super Metroid came to the SNES in 1994, almost a decade after the first entry made its debut. Explaining the long time it took for the team at Nintendo R&D1 to make another home console addition to the franchise, Yoshio Sakamoto, the director and writer of Super Metroid, stated that there was no need for a new Metroid game the years before 1994.

“We wanted to wait until a true action game was needed,” said Sakamoto in conversation with Game Players in May 1994. “And to set the stage for the reappearance of Samus Aran.” Developed over the course of two years by three of the OG Metroid staff in Yoshio Sakamoto, Makoto Kano, and Gunpei Yokoi, Super Metroid looked to shake up the action-adventure genre and, if you paid attention to the amount of Super Metroid-inspired games that have come out over the past 20+ year, this would prove to be a success.

As the latest entry into the space-faring action-adventure franchise, Super Metroid stars everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Samus Aran, as she makes her way back to Planet Zebes to rescue a baby Metroid stolen by her archenemies, Ridley. Picking up where the last two installments left off, the Nintendo R&D1 team set out to make the best action game possible as they cranked up everything that made Metroid special up to eleven. As a result, Super Metroid’s control scheme mirrored that of modern action games with more freedom with directional inputs, allowing Samus to shoot her blaster in all possible directions while simultaneously moving. Super Metroid was also known for an ability called the MoonWalk, named after the King of Pop’s iconic dance move. With the MoonWalk, Samus was able to walk backward now while blasting enemies away or charging up her cannon.

This entry into the franchise also incorporated an open-world map that allowed the player to examine discovered locations and locales not yet explored. The inclusion of this map feature was massive as it was one of the first uses of the open-world map, which ultimately set the stage for future action-adventure games. Speaking of “setting the stage,” Super Metroid was also the catalyst (along with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) that fully established and popularized the gaming sub-genre known as Metroidvania; a classification of video games that involved side-scrolling gameplay with interconnected continuous maps requiring weapon upgrades or consistent backtracking to complete.

Released to instant critical acclaim in North America, Super Metroid would go down in history as one of the greatest and one of the most influential video games of all time. However, even with this game’s universal success, there would still be an indefinite hiatus for the series; Nintendo veteran and Metroid series producer Gunpei Yokoi would leave Nintendo in the summer of 1996 due to retirement. A year later, Yokoi would pass away due to a car accident, and Nintendo R&D1 put Metroid on hold. The series wouldn’t see another release for eight years.

Metroid Prime (2002)

Metroid wouldn’t stay dormant forever—the series made its triumphant return with Metroid Prime. Spearheaded by a collaboration between Retro Studios based in the USA and Nintendo of Japan’s Shigeru Miyamoto and Kensuke Tanabe as producers, the idea of Metroid Prime came about after Miyamoto paid a visit to Retro’s HQ. As the story goes, Miyamoto got a preview at Retro’s first-person shooter engine and mentioned to them that it would be awesome if they could utilize that engine to bring back the Metroid franchise. As a result, Nintendo and Retro Studios began work on the game in early 2000; Nintendo would be responsible for Metroid Prime’s music/sound design, Retro would be in charge of the game’s art, and both of the parties would handle the game’s overall design. The finished product was nothing short of spectacular as Metroid Prime released worldwide on November 17, 2002, to critical acclaim.

The placement of the game’s storyline has often been a point of contention; some sources argue the game took place between the original Metroid game and the sequel, while others place the game after Super Metroid on the overall timeline. Regardless, the story follows Samus Aran as she goes head-to-head with the Space Pirates, Meta Ridley, and, of course, Metroid Prime.

Metroid Prime is significant for being one of the greatest games of all time and being the first-person shooter in the Metroid franchise. Retro Studios actually made the game with the idea that it would be played as a third-person shooter. Miyamoto intervened and suggested a first-person POV would ensure there wouldn’t be any tedious camera issues upping the chances of a smoother final product.

Along with the POV change, Metroid Prime also comes with a whole array of changes to the gameplay and the vast amount of mechanics that Samus has access to. Like the other games in the series, Metroid Prime calls for the player to find and collect new weapons to upgrade Samus, giving her new abilities in the process. For example, Prime introduces the concept of circle-strafing into the Metroid franchise as players are able to “lock-on” to enemies and circle around them while firing away.

Metroid Prime breathed new life into the series, and it came back more vital than ever; the game reinvented the franchise while also keeping it accurate to its roots. Due to the success of Metroid Prime 1, two more sequels were given the green light as they helped to usher in a radically new way of what a Metroid game could be. Metroid Prime 2 would be released on November 15th, 2004 and Metroid Prime 3 on August 27th, 2007, and, much like Metroid Prime 1, were released to critical acclaim. Another addition to the Metroid Prime series called Metroid Prime: Hunters was also released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS to very mixed reviews but ended up selling relatively well.

Metroid Fusion (2002)

Released simultaneously with  Metroid Prime was Metroid Fusion, a familiar-feeling Metroid game developed by Nintendo R&D1. Unlike Prime, Fusion leaned into the core mechanics and game design of the original Metroid games. However, the Metroidvania aspect was preserved in Fusion with controls that were sleeker, smoother, and more stylish than its original counterparts.

Taking place after Super Metroid, the plot of Metroid Fusion sees Samus Aran exploring the planet of SR388 as she investigates an infestation of X Parasites inhabiting a space station. The game’s linear storyline and progression were a bit of an issue amongst fans; it departed from the open-world feeling the other 2-D side-scrolling Metroid provided as a gaming experience. Nintendo R&D1 even went as far as introducing Navigation Rooms, which served the purpose of telling the player where to go. Their reasoning behind this kind of guidance was to ensure the player could fully pay attention to the star of the show this time around: the storyline.

Fusion was also notable for giving Samus a brand new suit, known as the Fusion Suit, which resulted from being attacked by an X Parasite. The X Parasite was a significant player in the story and the game’s mechanics as it also replaced the health and missile drops that Samus would retrieve after defeating enemies. Speaking of missiles: missiles were expanded upon with the inclusion of the Ice Missile and the Diffusion Missile. Samus was also given mobility additions such as wall climb and running on ceilings more freely.

Even though it was overshadowed by the behemoth that is Metroid Prime, Metroid Fusion was a commercial and critical success. A remarkable feature in the game allowed players to connect their copy of Metroid Fusion via the GameCube-Game Boy Advance Link Cable to Metroid Prime, resulting in some goodies for your copy of Metroid Prime.

Metroid: Other M (2010)

If there were a black sheep of the Metroid series, Metroid: Other M would easily take that crown. Released in 2010 for the Nintendo Wii, Other M was a third-person action-adventure game taking place between the end of Super Metroid and the beginning of Metroid Fusion.

Other M’s story has a heavier focus on the character of Samus more than any other game in the franchise. Looking further to explore her past and relationships with other characters, Sakamoto made the executive decision to demystify the uncertainties that is Samus’s backstory. Sakamoto decided after the completion of the Metroid Prime trilogy, and he noticed that players were making their own assumptions about Samus, and he wanted to flesh out her personality to ensure a consistent flow of characterization moving forward. “If I can, I want the series to keep going. From here on, I think I want to develop Samus as a character,” Sakamoto said, foreshadowing the creation of Other M in Nintendo Online Magazine in 2003. “I might also create a story going back to the past of Adam and Samus.”

In addition to this jarring new direction, Other M also made away with the foundational element of Samus searching for and equipping various upgrades as she progresses through the game. Instead of finding new and acquiring new abilities/power-ups, her superior, Adam Malkovich, would permit Aran to utilize these power-ups as she is still in possession of all of her abilities from Super Metroid.

Other M was met with mixed reviews and would mark the second hiatus for the Metroid series as there wouldn’t be another Metroid game until 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns, a remake of Metroid II.

Metroid Dread (2021)

It’s been a long time coming but, it’s finally here.

During E3, longtime fans of the Metroid series finally received an update on the future of the Alien-inspired series. Nintendo revealed a brand new installment into the Metroid franchise with Metroid Dread, a sleek modern take on the original Metroid formula fitted with a brand new suit for Samus Aran and a return to the series’ roots of galactic horror.

As the title suggests, Metroid Dread leans harder into the Alien influence. The cosmic horrors of space are at the forefront of this latest installment as Samus dashes, slides, double-jumps, and blasts her way through the Metroidvania style gameplay that fans have been craving since the game’s initial announcement some time ago. The trailer shown off at E3 made sure to emphasize the Metroid series’ return to form, including power-ups, fast-paced side-scrolling action, and the sleek mobility that’s synonymous with a Metroidvania Metroid game.

Along with Dread, Nintendo is hard at work on Metroid Prime 4, the long-overdue follow-up to Metroid Prime 3. Although distinctly different types of Metroid experiences, both additions to the Metroid franchise have become some of the most anticipated games in Nintendo’s vault.

Marc Griffin
Marc Griffin is a jack of all trades, master of some. He’s a reader, writer, musician, beatsmith, rapper, poet, and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man based in WNY. A current Master’s student, he seems to have a passion for comic books, video games, street fashion, and we’re told..