In 1986, a number of Nintendo's biggest franchises made their debut on the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Zelda was one, and now this month, we celebrate another: Metroid.
Both have something in common, something that makes them stand out among other company icons like Mario or Donkey Kong, and that something is a more "hardcore" slant. There are darker tones in the games, more complicated mechanics. Sometimes even glimpses of hot chicks in bikinis.
Yet where Metroid - first released in Japan on August 6, 1986 - stands alone amongst Nintendo franchises is its interpretation of adult science fiction. There are no kingdoms or castles in the world of Metroid. No cute characters or harmless, giant eyes. There are only ruins, desolate alien planets and a lone hero.
Or, should I say, heroine.
In one of the most delightful surprises of the 1980's, it was revealed only at the every end of the first Metroid that rather than playing as a buff, burly man as you simply assume, you were in fact kicking ass and taking names as a woman. And a normal one at that.
It was quite a shock, flipping established assumptions on their head. And one that inadvertently established the game's star, Samus Aran, as one of gaming's few positive female role models. Yet by the end of the game players had become used to such challenges, for while the first Metroid's most memorable moment is that surprising finale, its most important legacy is in how it took the humble, simple 2D platformer and built a massive, meaty game out of it.
In other platformers, you went in one direction. In Metroid, you could go left or right. In other platformers, you were either strolling through a whimsical world or injecting 80's action movie stereotypes into your eyeballs. In Metroid, there was little but silence and death (and Hip Tanaka's haunting intro music). In other platformers, you were part of worlds full of sidekicks and incidental characters. In Metroid, you were truly, and terrifyingly, alone.
If you think this all sounds very un-Nintendo, that's because it is! Metroid has always been the ugly stepsister of the Kyoto company, never as marketable as Mario, never as adored as Zelda, never as exploitable as Pokémon. It's one of only two Nintendo series to be handed off to a Western developer (Retro's development of the Metroid Prime series), and suffered the longest drought (for a major franchise) between titles when it skipped the Nintendo 64 entirely.
In other platformers, you were part of worlds full of sidekicks and incidental characters. In Metroid, you were truly, and terrifyingly, alone.
Indeed, it seems as though for a long time Nintendo has had no idea what to do with the franchise. There was no Nintendo 64 Metroid because Nintendo simply didn't know how to bring the game into the next generation. It let Retro handle that task for years, then when that deal came to an end, passed it off to another third-party developer, Team Ninja.
Did Metroid piss in Nintendo's morning coffee? Has the fact it was produced by Gunpei Yokoi somehow cursed it within the halls of Nintendo HQ? No other major Nintendo franchise, with the exception perhaps of Donkey Kong (which had its own exile and ups and downs), would suffer this fate. Even this week, Nintendo's lack of affection for the series is evident. While Mario's 25th birthday was celebrated with aplomb, and Zelda's with a muted round of applause, Nintendo has not even publicly acknowledged Metroid's milestone. Not even a tip of the hat.
Never mind! We'll wish you all the best, Metroid. You've given us some amazing titles over the past 25 years, from the pioneering Metroid to the sublime Super Metroid to the wonderful Metroid Prime. Here's hoping the next 25 years are just as productive.