Retro reflections by Nick H.
Having spent a good deal of time with Dark Souls III recently, the idea of good level design has been forefront in my mind. This led me to dig up my copy of Metroid, a game that I first played about a year after its initial release. I was happy to find that the game still holds up amazingly well today, but it also reaffirmed many of my notions about its level design as well.
There are a lot of classic games that stand out for having done something that was 'first' in my experience, or particularly memorable for doing something I had not seen done or done so well before. Metroid stuck with me after the first time I played it because of how creative the level design was. As soon as I had finally beaten it, I played through it again just so I could experience it knowing what I had learned about it along the way.
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The term 'Metroidvania' gets tossed around a lot as a representation of the action-adventure genre in video games. The idea of large interconnected levels that are part of a much bigger world design and slowly open up as you acquire new abilities is a common feature now, and the reason that Metroid forms half of this genre term is because we only started to get a sense of this approach to level design when we donned the suit of Samus and began our science fiction adventure through the planet Zebes. There were lots of reasons that Metroid succeeded in sucking me into its experience almost right away. Back in the NES days a lot of games sported single colour backdrops with with colourful foregrounds, but Metroid's really popped. The enemies were often vibrant and interesting-looking as well. The music had a sort of technological yet pulsating sense of life to it that made some of the areas borderline creepy to explore for the first time as you guided Samus through the lonely interconnected passages. To this day the soundtrack remains one of my favourites on the NES for its ability to convey a real sense of loneliness deep in space.
It also helps that the platforming and shooting mechanics were easy to learn and generally really good (though some quibbles could be made about some of the more complicated timings for setting off bombs to reach difficult locations aerially). The sense of exploration capped off what was an exciting game, and while obviously video games have come a long ways since its inception in 1986, going back to the original game was actually still a great deal of fun (and a lot less painful than say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was).
Going back to it today, I was amazed at how much of the game I still remembered, despite not having played in probably a good fifteen years or so. There are certainly plenty of smaller details I had forgotten, like the locations of some of the hidden energy tanks, but one of the early rooms to the right of where I started put a smile on my face as I walked through it thinking 'later'. Why? Because when you get bombs later, you can destroy the floor and fall into a previously inaccessible lower level. Later in the game there is a vertical section that requires you freeze enemies and jump upwards to freeze on another and then jump on him. Like shampooing your hair, lather, rinse and repeat to reach a new height. I recall seeing those little zooming fliers so many years ago, and wondering what was up there above them - back before I unlocked the freeze beam.
Metroid demonstrated a kind of layered approach to progression that made an already large game feel considerably bigger, because backtracking did not necessarily equal padding. In so many games, you have to traverse over previously beaten areas simply to connect some dots and progress the story, but due to the way Samus uncovers new weapons, she also uncovers the possibility of visiting new locations that were previously inaccessible. It taught me to look at levels with a different, more critical eye. Sure, that increased awareness does not apply to every game, but in the years since that small degree of nuance has applied in many of them.
Up until Metroid, platformers were all about reflexes. Super Mario Bros. was incredibly innovative in how it handled gameplay and even hidden elements in levels, but it did not offer the kind of exploration Metroid did despite being a 2D platforming game. The genre best known for creating a true sense of discovery were JRPGs or perhaps adventure games like The Legend of Zelda, which contained plenty of puzzle elements in its approach, but these generally had a very different style of gameplay that had a tendency to be slower paced. Metroid was unique in the way it married platforming and shooting with puzzle solving.
In playing a game like Dark Souls III and its penchant for getting further in the game to create shortcuts and reveal an interconnected world with a sense of both horizontal and vertical scale, I could not help but come away with the impression that without Metroid we may never have had this seemingly very disparate game. There is a natural sort of progression that reveals more of the world as you play. Now games like Dark Souls III do not rely on newly found powers to promote progression, but the way Metroid stacked passages and hallways on top of and around one another, interconnecting at specific spots absolutely reminds me of exploration in many of the Souls games nonetheless.
While Metroid was never a perfect game, the way it handled exploration always seemed fair. There were no friendly NPCs to interact with and tell you what to do next. There was a great deal of trial and error involved in making progress. That being said, I figured it out. While there was only one walkthrough I was aware of from that time period (I seem to recall an issue of Nintendo Power having a map showing everything the game had to offer), I did not discover that until after having played the game and beaten it on my own. Considering how obtuse much of the exploration in Simon's Quest was only a year later (more on that in a future article), Metroid did an amazing job of letting you learn the rules of its world without holding your hand or trying to spoon feed you solutions.
Because of this, the sense of satisfaction (and surprise when it is revealed that Samus was a woman) upon safely fleeing the detonating world of Zebes after besting Mother Brain was enormous. These enduring characteristics found themselves embedded in many of the future games of not only the series, but plenty of other video game titles as well.
- Nick H.