In the instruction manual for the original Metroid, Samus Aran is introduced as a “he.” To learn the truth about Samus’ gender identity, you need to beat the game in less than five hours. This nets you an ending screen that reveals the woman inside the armor. As revelations go, this one’s a modest shocker, serving to turn certain assumptions about video games and heroes on their heads. But it was also as the culmination of an experience built on making the player an active participant in the Samus’ development. The reveal wasn’t automatic. You only got it if you earned it. Samus works best as a character when she exists in this perpetual limbo of collaboration, as a figure built out of the efforts of designer and audience alike. You don’t just invest in her and her adventures; you help to create them, and that makes them all the richer.
Much has been made of the failures of Metroid: Other M, the most recent game in the series. The most obvious flaws—repetitive action and an intrusive story that reduced Samus to a passive, needy twerp—are troubling, but even without those elements, the game would still be a failure. The central choices that drive it are the antithesis of Metroid. Other M’s efforts at characterization were misguided, not just because the execution was terrible, but because the concept itself goes against what makes Samus so compelling in the first place.
At the start of Other M, Samus has her powers in place. However, she’s restricted from using most of them via an absurd plot justification that has her working to earn the approval of her former commanding officer by obeying his orders, even though she no longer serves under him. While this decision seems to mimic the series tradition of opening each game with a powered-down Samus, the distinction between having a Samus choosing not to use her weapons and a Samus that needs to track each piece down is a crucial one. The former alienates the player from the character and reduces us to outsiders irritated by the limits of our supposed control. The latter makes character-building the result of the player’s hard work and ingenuity.
In the original Metroid, players began with a Samus without special weapons and tools, a small yellow and red figure fading into existence between two eldritch pillars. There are corridors here as well, but no instructions and, apart from the walls and the height of Samus’ jump, no limit on where you can go next. Walking left—which, in 1986, was something you might not think to do—gives Samus an item that lets her shrink into a ball. You need that move to progress, but you don’t immediately need it. The point of the game is exploration and discovery, but that exploration needs to feel a little nerve-wracking, like you might be heading for a dead end or a new region that’s way out of your league.
There’s a story in Metroid, but it’s built from the player’s time in Samus’ boots. The only guidance the game offers is through subtly restricting your travel and rewarding exploration with equipment that will help to lift those restrictions. This, then, is the narrative thrust of Metroid and all the great Metroid games. When Samus finds the Ice Beam, she doesn’t just gain a new skill—she gains access to new areas in a way that feels like growth, mirroring our own improving skill level. This is character development in both a literal and figurative sense, the game’s version of the growth and change that happens to a hero in a more traditional drama—the kind of drama that Other M, with its endless cut-scenes strove so disastrously to emulate.
Super Metroid perfected this approach. The potential first suggested in the original game is brought to fruition with smooth controls, a more intuitive world design, and just enough guidance to keep things moving without ever becoming overly invasive. Samus is larger and more detailed than in the original Metroid, and the brief scene that opens the game shows a shadowy image of her face behind her helmet’s visor, establishing her as a person and not just an avatar. There’s even a simple rescue mission driving her, an attempt to save the Metroid hatchling rescued in a previous game that has now been kidnapped by nefarious space pirates.
It’s more than “kill the baddies,” but not that much more. The Samus of Super Metroid isn’t a complex figure with a rich past and contradictory impulses. She’s still just “hero doing hero stuff.” By showing the face behind the mask (and not requiring expert play to see that face) and providing the rudiments of a plot, the designers created the ideal video game protagonist, at least for this type of game. While Super Metroid has more to grasp than the original, it’s still a player-driven story, with the person handling the controller responsible for the pace and the rhythm of progression. The difference is that there are fewer barriers between the player and their choices, and the main character has just enough of a shape to encourage attachment without the distancing effect of specificity. Samus is as defined as she needs to be, without the clutter of distracting mythology to get in the way.
The best Metroid games understand this balance. The Prime trilogy (Prime, Prime 2: Echoes, and Prime 3: Corruption) shifted the exploration to a first-person view. But they understood the spirit of the best Metroid games, even if the technical approach had changed. The focus is still on exploring alien worlds, and while each entry in the trilogy has varying degrees of story, Samus remains roughly the same as she was in Super Metroid. The lore is available to anyone who wants to read it, but the central narrative is the same as ever.
That narrative, from relative helplessness to mastery, is the crucial element of the series, and it’s one that Other M left behind to its detriment. But the decision isn’t a complete surprise. In the years since the original Metroid’s release, developers have moved to make games more accessible, and while this has often worked to the their benefit, the tendency toward handholding can lead to unnecessary intrusions. Other M’s need to dictate at every turn is infuriating, and it’s not the first game in the series to try this. Metroid: Fusion also approached Point A-to-Point B-style action, routinely providing players with direct, unavoidable goals in locked-off sectors of its map. Fusion might not take it as far as Other M, but it still feels like a retreat from the series’ greatest strengths. Samus’ success is dependent on instructions she receives from the game itself, and the illusion of player control is lost.
If Metroid is going to continue as a series, and if that series is going to retain its level of artistic impact, that illusion must be sacrosanct. Samus Aran is, when at her best, a process. She is a medium through which her creators encourage us to explore and grow. She should never feel complete on her own, and the more effort made to provide her with a conventional history and personality, the less useful she becomes. Her arc is your arc. Head left to start.