Talking Point: A History of the Sexualisation of Samus
Posted by Jake Shapiro
Exploring the long, complicated history of the bounty hunter's public image
Just this week, Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai revealed the new alternate costumes for Zero Suit Samus in the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U: “From the ending of Metroid: Zero Mission, here's Samus in shorts!” Her skimpy two-piece outfit has rubbed some fans the wrong way, as Nintendo seems to be content to take perhaps its most iconic female character and continually present her in a sexualised fashion. Defendants of the designs argue that disrobed Samus has been part of Metroid since the beginning, but this aspect of the series that had usually been reserved for the very end of each game has now become an integral part of Samus’ public image.
To be clear: there's nothing inherently wrong with the Zero Suit. Samus has to wear something under her heavy armour, and showing her out of the power suit can humanise her... yet when she's portrayed with the ridiculous proportions we see here, it's likely her humanity isn't the only reason Nintendo has decided to play up the Zero Suit aspect of Samus. When thinking of how to do this respectably, look at Alfonso Cuarón's film Gravity from last year: Sandra Bullock's character removes her space suit part of the way through the film, and even though she's still presented in an attractive manner, it's arguably respectful and realistic enough that it doesn't come off as sexualisation. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s long, complicated history of depicting Samus Aran.
Most already know the story of the original Metroid: Samus was initially presented as a man, the instruction booklet even referring to her as a "he" to maintain the illusion; when players reached the end of the game, however, she removed her armour to reveal her true identity. If you finish the game in under five hours, she takes off her helmet to reveal she’s a woman; if you finish in under three, she removes her power armour completely to reveal a form-fitting purple leotard. If you finish in under an hour, Samus undresses all the way down to a bikini. If you input the famous “JUSTIN BAILEY” password, you can play the entire game with a scantily-clad Samus.
When Metroid was first released in 1986, the standard for female video game characters was mostly restricted to damsels in distress. Metroid provided hardly any exposition or storytelling, but Samus was a breath of fresh air – a strong, solitary female hero who single-handedly defeats an entire army of space pirates. Not only did Metroid have a female lead, but it had a female villain as well: Mother Brain. To this day, games with both a female protagonist and antagonist are exceedingly rare, with Valve’s Portal being one of the most memorable modern examples.
Removing Samus’ armour to reveal her gender at the end of Metroid was a statement of female empowerment that surprised many players who assumed they had been playing as a man the whole time… however, it also sets up the strip poker-style challenge of “the better you perform, the more clothes she removes as a reward” that would become a staple of the Metroid series. Is it a feminist statement, or is it clear objectification of women pandering to the hetero male-dominated gaming culture? In the original Metroid, it’s a bit of both – many other strong female video game protagonists struggle with this dichotomy as well, most notably Lara Croft of Tomb Raider.
Metroid II: Return of Samus, released in 1991, introduced more complex themes of motherhood to Samus’ background while still retaining the minimalist approach to storytelling that the first Metroid game pioneered. Like its predecessor, Metroid II features a female antagonist: the Queen Metroid. Samus is tasked with slaughtering all the Metroids on their home planet SR388; after Samus kills what she thinks is the last one, she finds a Metroid egg that hatches in front of her. The newborn Metroid imprints onto her and believes Samus is its mother – she spares the infant and takes it with her at the end of the game.
Perhaps the most revered Metroid game of all, 1994’s Super Metroid, would show Samus outside her power suit mid-game for the first time in the series. Whenever the player dies, Samus’ armour falls off so she can die in a skimpy outfit; this strange death-undressing would reappear in all future 2D sidescrolling Metroid games, and can be interpreted to bring up all sorts of ethical questions about the fetishisation of violence against women.
The series would go on an eight-year hiatus, but in 2002 we finally got two new Metroid games. Metroid Fusion is a classical Super Metroid-style platformer developed internally by Nintendo, most notable for the “Fusion Suit” Samus wears for the entire game. Her standard power suit becomes infected by parasites, and it’s so bio-mechanically integrated with Samus’ body that it can’t be fully removed (a precedent that would largely be ignored, as later games would let her remove the suit at will). Doctors create a partially-armoured version of the suit called the Fusion Suit — it's form-fitting without sexualising Samus.
The other Metroid published in 2002 was Metroid Prime, created by Texas developer Retro Studios. It was the first 3D Metroid title, and a high-profile moment of Nintendo outsourcing one of its major franchises to a Western studio. What we got is perhaps the most realistic depiction of Samus Aran – we never see Samus’ face aside from the occasional reflection in her helmet’s visor, and even at the end of the game, we never see Samus without her armour. In the best possible ending, Samus simply removes her helmet; she’s still beautiful, but she looks like a realistically-proportioned human being.
Two years later, 2004 would also get two Metroid releases. First was the internally-developed Metroid: Zero Mission, a remake of the original Metroid in an artistic style closer to Fusion – this is the first time we would see the divisive Zero Suit Samus. The original Metroid ends after Samus defeats Mother Brain and escapes planet Zebes, but in Zero Mission, space pirates attack her gunship as she’s leaving and force her to crash-land back on Zebes without her power armour. We get an entire final segment of the game where we play as Samus in her Zero Suit.
Retro Studios released Metroid Prime 2: Echoes later in 2004. The majority of the game uses the same approach to Samus as in the first Metroid Prime, but at the end we see Zero Suit Samus. It’s a jarringly cartoonish version of Samus in stark contrast to the realistic art style of the rest of the game, much different than the first Prime’s Samus. This iteration of her was the first hint that Nintendo wanted to create a cohesive new image of what Samus should look like. This version would also be used in 2006’s Metroid Prime: Hunters.
Retro’s latest entry in the series, 2007’s Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, would remain faithful to the Prime formula while integrating Zero Suit Samus much more thoroughly into the story; the first time we see Samus in the opening cutscene of Corruption, she’s in her Zero Suit. Somehow she’s now able to make her power armour materialise out of thin air, so we see glimpses of the Zero Suit throughout the adventure.
Alas, we come to the infamous Metroid: Other M from 2010, which is widely accepted as another major turning point in the sexualisation of Samus. Developed by Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball veterans Team Ninja, Zero Suit Samus is featured prominently throughout the story. Other M attempts to humanise Samus with internal struggle, and creates a father figure through Commander Adam Malkovich (who was introduced in Fusion but fleshed out as a character for the first time here); he would be the first prominent human male character in the Metroid series. Other M has already been debated ad nauseum, so if you want to learn more, Jeremy Parish’s “Dial Other M for Murder” postmortem is recommended reading.
We can’t talk about Samus without discussing Super Smash Bros. Of Nintendo’s Big Three franchises, Metroid is the most niche – far more people have experienced Samus through the Smash Bros. series than will perhaps play any of the Metroid games. The first two Smash games, 1999’s Super Smash Bros. and 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, used the Super Metroid interpretation of Samus as their version of the character, since Super Metroid was still the most recent Metroid title at the time of both games’ development.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl, released in 2008, is the most interesting to look at when it comes to Metroid; the highly-acclaimed Prime trilogy had all been released by the time of its completion, including Prime 3: Corruption the previous year. Yet Brawl still used a decidedly stylised pre-Prime design for Samus, as if they were acknowledging only the Japanese-developed entries in the series. Samus’ Final Smash in Brawl turns her into Zero Suit Samus, giving Zero Suit nearly as much screen time as Regular Samus. This was perhaps foreshadowing for Other M, which would arrive two years later.
Nintendo believes in Zero Suit Samus enough that it introduced her for the new Super Smash Bros. not as part of Samus, but as her own independent character with a full move set. Not only that, but she’s arguably more sexualised than she’s ever been before, with stiletto heels, heavy makeup, and a notably enlarged bosom; Masahiro Sakurai has indicated Samus' new Smash Bros. design is based on Team Ninja's portrayal of her in Other M. The high heels are of particular note because the original Metroid: Zero Mission concept art for Zero Suit Samus shows the artist specifically writing “This is too high. Heel should be no higher than this” (translation here, courtesy of the Metroid Database). To add to this, now we have two different bikini-style alternate costumes to choose from as well.
Many of Nintendo's questionable design choices for Samus perhaps reflect strong cultural differences between Japan and the West. Highly unrealistic, sexualised depictions of women are much more commonplace in Japanese game design – the debate surrounding Vanillaware's Dragon's Crown last year springs to mind. As a family-friendly company, Nintendo has avoided dealing with this issue for the most part, but as Samus outside her suit has become a more prominent part of the character's image, Nintendo is for the first time dealing with a major first-party character with sex appeal. The company recently showed a misunderstanding of Western views on sexuality when it struggled with the issue of same-sex marriage in Tomodachi Life this past May, and this Zero Suit Samus issue shows there's still a substantial disconnect.
Nintendo is taking for granted the fact that it's got one of the oldest, strongest female protagonists in videogame history on its hands, but the company doesn't seem to be interested in Metroid without the sexualised Zero Suit Samus. She still represents female empowerment in the male-dominated gaming landscape, but this often goes hand-in-hand with sexualised designs that still pander predominantly to the male gaze. Zero Suit Samus has the potential to be a compelling character, a humanised counterpart juxtaposing her nearly robotic persona in the Varia Suit; it's a shame she's depicted with a Barbie-like figure in eye shadow and bikinis instead. There is some hope, though – Retro Studios looks to be preparing for a big new project. The team that made its name by reinventing Samus may have to do it once again, and Retro certainly seems to have a better handle on the character than its parent company does.
Let us know what you think of the sexualisation of Samus throughout the character's history in the poll and comments below.
Do you feel that Samus has been sexualised excessively by Nintendo, culminating in these Super Smash Bros. outfits? (794 votes)
Yes, Samus' image has been damaged by some design choices
She has been sexualised, but I don't think it's a significant issue
No, I don't think she has been overly sexualised by Nintendo
Definitely not, these are normal designs and appropriate for the character
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