Moving into a new house when you’re a kid holds a very peculiar mix of curiosity and fear. There’s the wonder of finding secret rooms, things your old house didn’t have, new hidden corners to use to stump your friends at the weekly game of hide and seek. There’s also the nervous feeling of waking up in an unfamiliar place, walking around in the dark and trying to find old places that don’t exist anymore.
But eventually, after a month or so, the place starts to feel like home. You start to know its quirks and idiosyncrasies intimately, and finding your way to the pantry or the guest room becomes effortless and routine. The map of the house becomes a part of your mind.
Metroid for the NES is a game that captures this feeling perfectly, and despite all of its flaws (and there are many), it still deserves to be played by anyone who fashions themselves a gamer.
At first, the game feels like it wants you to feel anything but at home. The planet Zebes consists of a giant labyrinth made up of identical rooms, confusing paths, and plenty of false dead ends. It’s dark, it’s scary, and it’s very disconcerting at first, largely because the game (smartly) gives you no map and no real directions to speak of. Instead of relying on a huge flashing arrow or a background voice ordering you to “KEEP UP WITH THE SQUAD”, (not that any games do that today…*cough* Call of Duty *cough*) you’re left to explore your surroundings the way anyone else stranded on a strange alien planet would. Carefully.
The creators of Metroid, of course, did this very purposefully, and spaced out the items you need to progress through Zebes with an almost scientific level of foresight and planning. Most of the time (that’s a heavy “most”, I know) you’ll still feel fairly lost while looking for the next item you need, like a pair of high-jump boots or an ice beam. However, by the time you’ve gone down a few wrong paths, died a few times, and discovered some hidden pathways and secrets, you’ll have somewhat mastered the area by the time you get to the necessary item or boss. You’ll feel at home.
This is something that few games have done as elegantly as Metroid, and it’s a concept that’s been more and more forgotten as gaming’s progressed into the modern age. When you backtrack in Metroid there’s almost always something new to find or an area you couldn’t previously explore, and those areas are specifically designed to stick out in your mind so you know to go back to them. By showing you an energy tank on a tall ledge that’s just barely out of reach (kind of like that cookie jar you couldn’t get to as a toddler, right?), then giving you high-jump boots later, you get that unbelievably satisfying feeling of “aha! I can go back there now! This planet is mine!”
In a very real way, by the time you’ve reached the end of Metroid, the planet Zebes really does feel like it’s yours. With the addition of some vary powerful items, the Screw Attack in particular, that make you feel nigh-invulnerable compared to what little you had when you started, the game’s forced memorization of its pathways and tunnels really make you understand the transition from alien planet to, well…home. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario and Zelda series amongst many others, based the design of Zelda’s labyrinths and dungeons off of his childhood experiences of finding his way through the sliding doors in his house, a design choice which clearly made its way over to Metroid.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect game in any way. For all this game design brilliance, the developers made some choices that were absolutely atrocious, like allowing enemies to kill you while you’re moving through a doorway, or starting you with 30 health when you have enough energy tanks to hold 500. But for all those faults, the game’s worth playing for the sheer feeling of accomplishment alone, and for experiencing something few games can truly pull off: making you feel utterly lost and alone, and letting you find your way back again.