Review: Metroid (3DS eShop / NES)

The classic that inspired so many still holds up today

The NES section of the 3DS's Virtual Console expands by another notch with the addition of Metroid, regarded by many as one of the best entries that amazing series has to offer. The great news is that it's every bit as wonderful as you remember; the bad news is that it's no more interested in holding your hand now than it was in 1986. Of course, for many, that's a huge part of its charm.

Metroid sees intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran exploring the treacherous Planet Zebes (or Zebeth, for those Engrish speakers among us) in search of the evil Mother Brain, who plans on breeding and weaponising the eponymous energy-sapping creatures. Unfortunately the path ahead is a winding and complicated one, and Samus is ill-equipped to even find Mother Brain, let alone defeat her. Enter the upgrades.

Upgrades gave the first Metroid game its identity. With various creative weapons and utilities scattered around Zebes, Samus uses them in ways that gradually allow her access to areas that were previously inaccessible. These include Hi-Jump Boots, the Morph Ball and the endlessly enjoyable Screw Attack. There are also weapon upgrades that allow her to change the type of projectiles she fires, in order to better suit her needs for any given area. While the game at first seems stuffy and claustrophobic, the periodic expansion of Samus's arsenal allows her increasing access to the world around her, and also thrusts her into even more dangerous situations.

Along the way Samus will battle an extraordinarily large number of unique enemy types. There are also an enormous variety of environments, so many so that it remains impressive today; transport yourself back to its original release and it's easy to see why Metroid stood out so quickly. From cool blue stone to mossy undergrowth to an industrial nightmare, the game does a fantastic job of establishing mood just by swapping out its tile sets. This is resourcefulness at its absolute best.

In addition to Mother Brain, Samus will also have to battle her two minions, Kraid and Ridley. Defeating each of them will grant access to the final area, and doing so — and making it back out alive — won't be easy. Fortunately there's an absolutely brilliant (and often gorgeous) soundtrack to keep you company, with compositions that will alternately thrill and disorient you. It's one of gaming's most enduring musical accompaniments, and it's just as effective now as it ever was.

There's a lot of great things to say about Metroid, but there are also a few issues. Firstly, the lack of overt in-game guidance can be troublesome for gamers, particularly younger players who might not remember a time when this was the standard. The game teaches you literally nothing: you are always on your own to figure out what upgrade you've found, what it does, how to use it, and why you need it. This feeling of disorientation suits the game quite well (Samus is also discovering this stuff for the first time, after all), but it can intimidate players pretty easily.

The similarity of many corridors and towers can also catch unsuspecting players off guard. Whereas the separate areas of Zebes are thankfully identifiable by sight, rooms within those areas often have their layouts duplicated several times over, and that can cause a great deal of confusion. While this approach does have its uses (hint: if you found a bombable wall in one room that led nowhere, it's worth bombing that same wall when you find a similar room elsewhere...) it's bound to frustrate many newcomers, and they may not bother coming back.

This lack of guidance, though, also gives the game one of its most legendary aspects: sequence breaking. Without mandatory tutorials and a forced progression through the game, players can discover new and varied ways to make their ways forward... or backward. The ability to discover unintended uses for items and creative ways of bypassing obstacles without first obtaining certain upgrades has given Metroid a versatility unlike many other games, and that's why it's still one of the most popular speed-running games to date. No two players will find their same way through Zebes; every attempt is a unique adventure.

Metroid does, however, suffer from its own largesse. Slowdown is common, as rooms are often flooded with enemies that the game struggles to process. There's also a number of glitches that can make it impossible to progress, or to escape from a death trap, and many of these are so easily triggered that even a casual player is likely to find at least a few of them. This is what makes the 3DS Virtual Console's restore points worth their weight in gold; constant saving can allow you to undo a glitch that has otherwise barred you from progressing further, and it saves you the hassle of having to reset and start fresh. Of course, if you use those restore points for anything else, you're officially cheating.

Glitches and slowdown aside, Metroid's main barrier to enjoyment is simply its own layout: Zebes is a confusing and too-similar maze of featureless hallways and repeating layouts. It's worth pressing through, but it's also worth cautioning newcomers. Those without the patience to follow long corridors into dead-ends that they've already found and forgot about will be quickly frustrated. For those who know that this is just the price to pay for a game that believes so heavily in the thrill of exploration that it doesn't want to give you even one word of guidance, there's no better playground than the original Metroid.

Conclusion

A desolate atmosphere, innovative upgrades and a perfect soundtrack all come together to cement Metroid as one of gaming's true masterpieces. If a lack of in-game guidance of any kind bothers you, then this is probably not going to be a very welcome addition to your collection. But for those who can engage the game on its own terms, and who don't mind stumbling now and again as they seek the correct path, Metroid offers an experience like no other.

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