The series has had Western roots from the beginning. It was conceived by misunderstood designer Gunpei Yokoi—most famous as creator of Game Boy and for ruining his career later with the infamous Virtual Boy. Yokoi took heavy influence from Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror opus Alien and the art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Even before Prime, Metroid was Nintendo’s only franchise directed at an older demographic with a more serious tone, and their only series with better sales numbers in the West than domestically in Japan.
When Metroid was finally handed to a Western developer for the jump to 3D, it wasn’t what you’d call a “smooth transition.” Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios was inexperienced and in shambles with an absent CEO when Nintendo came knocking. And their final product was a first-person game—perhaps the visual perspective most emblematic of Western design. How was this game not a total flop? And how did it consolidate the vast differences between Eastern and Western approaches to video games?
A misunderstood history
Fast-forward two decades. Nintendo was riding high on the success of their first home console. Metroid was meant to feature the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the adventure elements of The Legend of Zelda. The dissonant soundtrack by composer Hip Tanaka created a lonely, melancholy mood, something not seen much before in games. And the Alien influence went farther than just the sci-fi setting; it was one of the first video games ever to feature a female protagonist, just like Ridley Scott’s film. Yokoi even named one of the game’s bosses “Ridley” in honor of his English influence. This was a far cry from the colorful, cheery fare pervading video games at the time, especially on a Nintendo console.
The original title was released on the Famicom in 1986, and for the Nintendo Entertainment System abroad the following year. After a mildly successful outing on Yokoi’s own Game Boy of Metroid II: Return of Samus in 1991, Yokoi buckled down for what would be considered by many to be his masterpiece: Super Metroid, released on the Super NES in 1994 to widespread critical acclaim. It took the non-linear gameplay and moody sci-fi setting of the first game to the next level.
Gunpei Yokoi would leave Nintendo two years later amid the failure of the Virtual Boy. In 1997, he was struck and killed by a car on the Hokuriko Expressway. A tragic life and a tragic death.
The gaming world was skeptical of the change. Many thought this was simply a way to cash in on the trendy new FPSes, and that the new Metroid would boil down to a generic sci-fi shooter dumbed down for American audiences. Nintendo was so nervous about this departure that they internally developed a traditional 2D Metroid game for the Game Boy Advance to be released on the very same day as Metroid Prime, titled Metroid Fusion. Fusion was a relative success, but it would pale in comparison to Retro Studios’ unexpected work.
East and West Are Raging Inside Samus
Imagine a board meeting at a video game publisher, and someone suggests, “Hey, why don’t we let the hero of this gritty sci-fi action game roll into a little ball! They can roll around to solve puzzles and drop bombs!” Does this sound like an American developer? I think not. It goes deeper than that, though. One of the most iconic aspects of Samus’ suit is her arm cannon, which is permanently attached to her arm. Whether her right arm is amputated at the elbow or if somehow her hand just fits inside a cannon, we’ll never know. But this is a Japanese idea at its core.
First-person shooters, on the other hand, are the culmination of a cultural mythology Americans have built around guns. Americans see the gun as a symbol of independence—even in 2012, the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. The gun is not the self, but a tool. Guns represent empowerment to Americans; even the weak have the ability to defend themselves if they have a gun. This is why so many American games feature endlessly replaceable guns. In most Japanese games, you keep the same weapon through the entire experience, enhancing and perfecting that one weapon. American games, on the other hand, feature weapons strewn throughout the game worlds for people to pick up and throw away at will.
So what about Metroid? Samus is a traditional Japanese warrior. But even the original Metroid borrowed something from Western design philosophy: isolation. American games love the “me against the world” mentality. Look at early FPSes from the ‘90s like Wolfenstein 3D or Doom—you’re always alone. There’s hardly ever a character at your side or a friendly NPC. Japanese games, on the other hand, are famous for party-based group RPGs. Metroid uses the same individual-vs.-the-world perspective that its influence Aliendoes.
The decision to go first-person
It affects gameplay, too. One of Metroid Prime’s greatest achievements is its use of alternate visors to augment gameplay. Samus can switch from a regular view to a thermal visor, an X-ray visor, or a scan visor. The thermal and X-ray visors help see hidden areas and enemies that she couldn’t see before. But the scan visor is the most important. It allows Samus to scan anything in the gameworld and get information on it. While Metroid Prime features very little exposition, this scan visor illustrates the backstory of the world and immerses the player. Instead of being served the story on a platter, the player is the one finding the story. And if the player doesn’t want any of this, they don’t have to use the scan visor at all. Metroid Prime marries the Japanese idea of internal power with the Western idea of individual liberty in its approach to Samus.
Metroid Prime isn’t exactly a first-person shooter, though. Retro Studios likes to call it a “first-person adventure.” While it’s definitely in first person and it definitely involves shooting, it doesn’t follow the conventions of standard FPSes. In a conventional shooter, the focus is on weaponry and skill in dispatching enemies. In Metroid Prime, the focus is on exploration and puzzle solving. There are enemies to shoot, but precision in aiming is so unimportant that the game includes a button to automatically lock-on to enemies. The challenge in defeating enemies in Metroid Prime is finding their weak point and exploiting it, instead of finding the biggest gun and firing away. Metroid Prime’s enemies are essentially puzzles.
In true Metroid fashion, Prime is about trekking through an alien world, gaining new abilities, and then going back to that world to accessing places with your new ability that were previously inaccessible. Metroid Prime’s boss battles are largely a “final test” of Samus’ skill in whatever ability she most recently gained.
But the core of the game is still exploration and puzzle solving. So much so that even in this American-developed game, the very Japanese concept of the Morph Ball plays a huge role (or roll?). In morph ball mode, the camera swoops out to a third-person perspective, and Samus can roll into tight areas to solve new puzzles. This seems goofy and out of place in the melancholy tone of Metroid Prime, but Retro Studios makes it work.
Another of Prime’s successes is its tutorial. Tutorials are notoriously awkward for video games to get right. Often, they either leave the player out to dry, or they’re so long and exposition-filled that the player is bored out of their mind. It’s an unfortunate video game necessity. Other artforms are standardized. When you read a book, you know you turn the page to get to the next part of the story. When you listen to music, you know the “pause” button stops the music and the “skip forward” button moves to the next song. But video games have all sorts of different control schemes. A shooter has different controls from a platformer, which has different controls from a role-playing game.
Metroid Prime works its tutorial into the storyline. Samus boards an abandoned spaceship at the beginning of the game and inspects what happened to the pirates inside. Through this, the game teaches the player how to fire their weapon, how to scan the environment, how to use the morph ball—the basic mechanics in the game. There’s even a boss at the end of the tutorial level. The player gets a crash course in game control but also gets solid gameplay and storytelling in this section, rare for video games.
What it all means
Really, Metroid Prime is testament to the success of combining Japanese and American approaches to game design. The Western-influenced brainchild of a misunderstood Japanese designer, taken on by an inexperienced Texan developer with the blessing of the most important gaming figure in the world! Metroid Prime is a proof of concept for Nintendo and Retro Studios. Hopefully in the future we can see more games co-created by both East and West to recapture the spirit of Metroid.
[Also posted on my personal blog, A Capital Wasteland]