I’ve played through the first Metroid three times, but I’ve never played it without a map. Yesterday, I was wondering how the game’s original players even coped and what it says about Metroid, and about Samus Aran, that the first game doesn’t have one.
The first Metroid game, which came out in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, does not have an in-game map. I didn’t play it until many years later. When I did, I used a ROM with save states, so I could pause and save my progress any time I pleased. I could search online for “metroid map” and find hundreds of detailed versions of the planet Zebes as it appears in that game, each one labeled with the locations of every power-up and energy tank.
Last night, I crashed down on that old planet once again—and pulled up a copy of the Metroid map to keep at my side.
Although the original Metroid players had to navigate this planet without a map, the actual protagonist of the game wouldn’t have needed one. Samus has been to the planet Zebes before. After all, she spent her formative years on Zebes and learned how to fight from the Chozo, who raised her and gave her the physical upgrades necessary for using all of that alien tech. These passages are not an unfamiliar labyrinth for her, and these weapons may as well be a part of her own body.
I don’t know what Samus actually remembers, because Metroid doesn’t tell us. Does she know exactly where the Varia Suit is? Or does she just have some idea of where it might be? I like to imagine that she knows. After all, I know. I can remember, mostly, where the power-ups are. I don’t fully remember all the energy tank locations, but I have my map with its notes—Samus Aran’s notes, just to refresh my (our) memory.
It would have been so difficult to play Metroid without a map, just as it would be very difficult for anyone other than Samus to land on planet Zebes and fight the Space Pirates. After all, no one else would fit into any of that armor, nor know how to use it. It’s really a mission for this one specific person with specialized knowledge.
The game’s design feels that way, too. Metroid gives very little indication about where power-ups could be. Samus would have to know, somehow, which floors have loose stones that can be blown up by a morph ball bomb. She just has to know that the stretch of lava underneath that collapsed passageway won’t burn her (even without the Varia Suit), and that she can tumble through it safe and sound. Perhaps she saw the Chozo lay out this particular puzzle, many years ago.
Super Metroid gives the player more hints about where Samus should go. The environment telegraphs the type of tool that Samus needs in order to advance to a new area, and that exact tool will be buried in a location that tends to look visually unusual or remarkable. Metroid does not do this. Tools show up in places that you, seemingly, just have to know about. Ahead of time. Like Samus would.
I can only imagine how long the first Metroid players banged their head against the wall of this game. Room after room after room of almost identical platforms and structures. Long, slow elevator rides. Towering corridors with no platforms at all, dooming Samus to bomb-jump her way up an entire passage. Everything was guesswork, rather than the educated approach of an experienced specialist. You would have to bomb every single block in every passageway, just to see if one might lead to a secret cavern.
I don’t envy these players. I didn’t have to play the game the way that they did. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, as I pause the game and look upon my Metroid map with leisure, to refresh my memory of the location of the nearest energy tank. But I have a readymade justification for using the map whenever I wish: Samus would know where it all is. And if she knows, then I may as well know, too.
Kotaku Game Diary
Daily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.