The Definitive History Behind Metroid (1986)

Metroid An Atmospheric History.pngHorror. Tension. Atmosphere. From the beginning of the medium, and for several decades to come, these were just a few of the many aspects that video games tended to lack. While films and novels alike had their fair share of pulse pounding thrillers and terrifying horror shows, gaming was never given the same treatment. Games were simply toys meant for children in the general public’s eye, and so friendly mascots were brought to the forefront to appease these sentiments. But the creators popularizing these so-called toys saw potential in what others couldn’t, in a concept no one else would dare pursue. It would be a bold adventure, filled with tense action and an atmosphere dripping with desperation and solitude. It would challenge gamers concepts of game design and invite them into a world far less forgiving then its popular counterparts; and all the while it would be hiding a secret that would shock the video game industry to its very core. It was Metroid, an unassuming title made by a ragtag group of developers that was about to change video games as we knew it.

To track Metroid’s beginnings our story begins in 1982, in a time where Nintendo, the company that would save the video game industry and become one of its driving forces, was just a humble novelty game company operating out of their headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. While the company had a few hits with its popular Game & Watch series of games and the hit arcade release of Donkey Kong they hadn’t truly reached popular status just yet. During this transitional period from toy maker to video game publisher a seemingly ordinary employee joined up with the company’s Research and Development Division or R&D 1. His name was Yoshio Sakamoto. Born July 23rd, 1959, Sakamoto wasn’t like many of Nintendo’s other employees. He hadn’t joined with any grand ambitions, he simply thought it was just another ordinary company like any other. Oh, how wrong he was. Nintendo was like a small workshop, where everyone knew each other by name and each employee’s thoughts and opinions were taken into account. This was no more apparent than in the research and development department led by his manager and mentor Gunpei Yokoi. The environment that he created was one that was open and creatively freeing, wherein each member’s unique concepts would be combined to create the base of their titles. A plethora of amazing titles came to be thanks to Yokoi’s game development philosophy and Sakamoto got his chance too because of this. One day Yokoi, about to leave on a trip to America, came up to Sakamoto and told him to think of a game concept based around Charlie Brown’s Snoopy by the time he came back. Upon his return Sakamoto had the concept and was already hard at work on the first project that was all his own, Snoopy Tennis. This was just the beginning of Sakamoto’s rise to prominence within the company. Later on, Shigeru Miyamoto, out of all the people at company, walked into his section of the development department. He was looking for anyone willing to lend a hand on the development of Donkey Kong Jr., and Sakamoto was the first to raise his hand. This was how he ended up doing the sprite work for the game and, later on, helped to develop the arcade version of Wrecking Crew. All of this was leading up to two pivotal points in his life at Nintendo, that would change both his professional career and gaming as a whole even if he didn’t know it at the time.

The first of these points was his introduction to the Famicom before it had ever hit mass production. One time, when visiting one of a development partner’s factory he got to see the base model of the system with no discerning features or Famicom logo emblazoned on the cover. Even though someone from that company joked that all of this was thanks to Nintendo he still had no idea what he was dealing with and how much it would affect his future. When the console released on July 15th, 1983 he was surprised to find out the truth but as he was still working for Nintendo R&D1, a department solely focused on the Game & Watch, it didn’t really matter to him at the time. This changed as the Famicom quickly began to gain traction with the general public and R&D1’s efforts soon switching over to the budding system. Many tightly knit groups were formed within the department to develop new titles with the most prominent being formed around Nintendo’s golden boy, Shigeru Miyamoto and his close co-workers. Sakamoto too was roped in with a group of his own under the direction of Yokoi. But while he had drawn sprites and made simple animations for a simple handheld, Sakamoto had no actual experience in the process of developing video games. He couldn’t code, he couldn’t program, all he had were his writing and drawing skills. Still, in Yokoi’s words if you can draw, you can make games so, seeing potential in Sakamoto, he teamed him up with two other young employees, Hiroji Kioytake and Hirofumi Matsuoka. Thrusting Sakamoto into the director’s chair for the first time, these three were told to design a brand-new title for the Famicom in any way they saw fit. They weren’t video game developers or even gamers or any sort. However, they had two things going for them, sheer tenacity and an eagerness to learn. An eagerness that would prove to be an asset.

At the onset of development, the three of them lacked the crucial knowledge needed to design a game. The majority of pre-production would have to be spent on learning the ins and outs of the medium, analyzing other games and Nintendo titles and seeing what made them tick. While Kiyotake and Matsuoka would work on nearly every aspect of the game from programming to character design, Sakamoto stuck to his directorial duties, supervising the project and helping out when he could. Still, there wasn’t much to be done as they had failed to come up with a concept that had just felt right. Inspiration never truly hit them until the release of Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece, Super Mario Bros., in 1985. Seeing the game in action, Sakamoto and company saw that they could do something similar but in a completely different way, something that Super Mario Bros. didn’t have. They began with the movement. In Super Mario Bros, Mario slides a little bit for stopping, keeping the momentum always moving forward and allowing the player to avoid enemies. Tweaking the gameplay ever so slightly, they decided to differentiate their title by bringing movement to a dead halt, forcing the player to make sure every jump count. But this small tweak invited more dire consequences for the team. If they can’t avoid enemies then how could they possibly beat the game? The answer was simple to Kiyotake, why should they avoid them in the first place? His decision gave rise to the use of a blaster by the games main character and even a jump attack that could damage foes. This decision was just the first of many that would come to define their project over the next ten months, some which had the potential to cause many dire situations down the line.

While the two continued to lay the foundations of their game the story, and characters that would populate it, were beginning to take shape. Sakamoto, Kiyotake, and Matsuoka had all been big fans of one particular film from the late 1970’s. A thrilling horror movie that had come to redefine the sci-fi genre with its tense atmosphere and sense of desolation. Alien. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece had a profound impact on the team. Its sense of lingering dread and high-powered weaponry gave it the punch that video games of the day seemed to lack. These aspects of the film certainly appealed to them, however, as character designers themselves they couldn’t help but aspire to reach the lofty heights of the film’s art director, H.R. Giger. His terrifying monster designs and iconic imagery were captivating to say the least, they were perfect for the story they had in mind. Drawing from Giger’s art style, the two slowly began to build their own dark and oppressive world. But how would the player navigate such a place? What kind of character would fit in perfectly within such an environment? Kiyotake wasn’t really sure but he had the perfect name in mind. You see he was a huge fan of the world’s most popular sport, football. In particular, he was enthralled by the “king of football” Pele and was trying to find any way he could use the stars real name as part of the project. For some odd reason, he had thought that Pele’s true name was Samus Arantes Nascimentos. Samus Aran. It seemed like a name befitting of a sci-fi character. While their main characters name was important the game still lacked a title that would be synonymous with it. Along the way Sakamoto, Kiyotake, and Matsuoka had drafted up many ideas for the title but none seemed to stick. They needed something that oozed sci-fi yet was very simple to say. Randomly, one of them threw out a portmanteau of metro and android, Metroid. Their little project finally had a name, and an interesting one at that. The foundations for Metroid were clear as day at this point, however, there was one problem that they had seemed to have a forgotten. The fact that they had a deadline looming over them; a deadline that was fast approaching.

When Gunpei Yokoi had given them the project months prior he had done it with a deadline, 13 months, 13 months to create a game of their very own. However, their lack of training on the subject was very apparent as ten months in Metroid looked like… crap. The game design was bare bones and every single area had the exact same background. The only saving grace was Samus’s freedom of movement, a fact that Kiyotake took pride in. With Metroid in this perilous state there was absolutely no way that the two of them could finish the project on time. They needed to call in the cavalry so they took their plight to the man in charge, Gunpei Yokoi. Seeing the near finished product, he saw what these three employees with no knowledge of the video game industry had accomplished and it struck a chord with him. He simply couldn’t let Metroid die unlike the ones that had come before it. However, he wouldn’t just send two or three employees their way, he’d send everyone. Everyone that wasn’t working on a major project at that moment was pulled aside and told to find Sakamoto and get to work. The only group that wasn’t called in were the members of Shigeru Miyamotos development staff who were working on their own compelling endeavor at the time. For Metroid’s development though it still required more man power so Sakamoto too even got in on the action, jumping headfirst into programming and design work on the game for the first time. And this wouldn’t be no walk in the park. Long days and nights would be a common occurrence and most team members would have to sleep at the Nintendo headquarters if they were to get the job done. One might expect such an environment to be very strict in its ways with no room being made for creative freedom due to the time constraints. However, you would be mistaken. Metroid’s development was free and open to every member of the team, so much so that someone from the sound department could have input on the games graphics. This was possible not only because of Sakamoto but also new chief director of the game, Satoru Okada. Together, the two decided to take this approach to development, hoping that the culmination of everyone’s ideas would make for a better end product. Many of Metroid’s aspects would be altered because of this but the core values in the original build would always be present. Majorly, there were two things that the game was lacking. Two things that, if done right, would propel the project toward the likes of Mario and company. A story and a compelling soundtrack.

To flesh out the world and the character of Samus Aran, Makoto Kano was brought on. Less a writer and more of a conceptual designer, Kano went wild with the look and feel of the world, taking the games very apparent Alien influences to heart. First would be the setting, an alien planet called Zebes; a labyrinth filled with dangerous monsters and enemies lurking around every corner. Each sector would be home to a new breed of monstrosities, keeping the game varied and the player always on their toes. But what could possibly compel someone to go to such a dangerous place? Only the toughest of bounty hunters of course, and Samus was the greatest of them all. To know how our hero got to this point we must start from the very beginning. The year is 20X5 in the far-flung future, during a time period where a Galactic Federation exists. Consisting of many planets and species, the federation has caused an age of prosperity throughout the cosmos. But with prosperity comes those who wish to take advantage of it and the space pirates are here to do just that. Raiding ships and causing havoc wherever they go, the Federation hires bounty hunters to track these callous individuals down. As time goes on the pirates soon get desperate, attacking a Federation ship containing the most dangerous lifeform in the known galaxy, the Metroids. A being that caused the destruction of the entire civilization on Planet SR388, the space pirates hope to weaponize the Metroids and use them to destroy the federation. After a desperate search, the federation soon finds the pirates fortress, Zebes, although the resistance the pirates themselves give is too much for them. But one person could make it through, infiltrate the base, and destroy the space pirates for good. One Samus Aran, the greatest bounty hunter of them all. And thus, the game proper begins. However, like most games of the time, you’d only know this if you read the manual. The game was better off for this though, as making the world seem much larger than just Zebes would have taken away from Metroid’s themes of solitude and despair.

The soundtrack tried to capitalize on this as well. Composed by one of Nintendo’s greatest composers, Hirokazu Tanaka, who’s work ranges from the original Donkey Kong to Balloon Fight, there was no doubt that Tanaka would craft yet another fantastic score. Yet this time the creation of his tracks would be quite different. Due to the freewheeling nature of Metroid’s development Tanaka was pretty much given free rein to create whatever he so desired. Taking the opportunity to heart, he decided to design the games soundtrack in a more unique way then past Nintendo titles. Tanaka wanted to make the score feel like its own living organism so he gave no distinction between the games music and sound effects. Both would organically follow between one another neither overpowering nor hindering each other in the process. This was helped by the fact that the majority of the tracks were made to be minimalistic, a design choice that was deliberately made by Tanaka. He wanted the soundtrack to be the exact opposite of the hummable, and memorable, tunes that the likes of Mario and Zelda had popularized. His score was to be unlike any other, one that superbly evoked the feeling of an alien world and the sense of isolation and hopelessness that Kiyotake and Matsuoka had been carefully concocting since the very beginning. Only when the player finally defeats the final boss, Mother Brain, are they given any sort of catharsis, making the end to their adventure all the more impactful. Above all else, Tanaka’s greatest contribution to Metroid, and in turn the video game industry as a whole, was his use of silence; a fact that most games of the time, with their own loud and perpetual scores, lacked. Truthfully no game had ever made you feel truly alone before Metroid and that was all due in part to the masterful work by Hirokazu Tanaka.

However, Tanaka’s work would have been forgotten if the game lacked compelling game design. Thankfully enough, Metroid made up for that in spades. As Sakamoto, Kiyotake, and Matsuoka had continued to work on the project alone for those ten months, their idea that had been based off of Mario had continued to grow. Expanding on the platformer genre, and taking a little bit of inspiration from Miyamoto’s current project, The Legend of Zelda, their concept became sort of a mishmash of the two. It was no longer a straight platformer that had you going from point A to point B nor was it a top down adventure game; it was the best of both worlds. And it all started because of the idea that you could turn left. Like Zelda, the world would be open to you in the beginning with some passageways being blocked off and requiring a new skill or tool to progress. Like Mario, to navigate through the treacherous labyrinth that is Zebes you’d have to jump and avoid pitfalls to make it through safely. Unique to Metroid was its shoot em’ up mechanics with the player obliterating any enemy that stood in their way with Samus’s trusty blaster. There was no need to bounce on enemies to defeat them here, Metroid was never meant to be that kind of game. However revolutionary it was, Metroid at this point was still nowhere near completion.

Thankfully, when Sakamoto brought the rest of R&D 1 onto the project, several talented programmers joined in. Hiroyuki Yukami, Yase Sobajima, and Toshio Sengoku alongside several others, who’s experiences span from NES Soccer to Wrecking Crew, used their skills to improve upon the base game. Even Intelligent Systems, the developers of Famicom Wars and later on Fire Emblem, were contracted out to do some of the games coding. As they worked the long days and nights needed to finish Metroid on time, the world began to change. Yet they ran into many problems, with the most crucial one being the games use of memory. In its most basic state, Metroid looked terrible yet its main character had one of the widest ranges of motion in gaming. This was unfortunately eating up the Famicoms very limited capabilities. If the game was to work at all they would have to drastically limit what Samus could do. Even having the character turn would be troubling so the character sprite would have to be flipped just to save even the slightest of data. These small decisions would have drastic implications for the game as a whole. The world of Zebes, drab and devoid of many things, soon leapt off the screen with the distinct and varied art direction that had been intended since the very beginning. Taking their very obvious influences from H.R. Giger’s work, basic enemies such as the Viola and the iconic Metroid’s alongside the standout mini-bosses, Kraid and Ridley, each induces the same feelings of horror and awe expected from such work. To defeat these tremendous foes, players must investigate every nook and cranny of the labyrinth as around every corner there could be a helpful power-up or tantalizing secret. Nothing was wasted. Every part of Zebes was crucial and needed. Unlike many games of the time, however, most of Metroid could be skipped over entirely.

But why would any player do such a thing? Most developers would have never even have bothered to answer that question. Metroid’s developers did though. Wanting to challenge players to see how fast they could run through the game, Sakamoto and his team implemented five alternate endings to the game. Based on how fast players defeated Mother Brain and escaped Zebes, one of the first ever fake out endings in gaming, Samus would show a different pose. If players had the tenacity to beat the game under five hours Samus would start removing her armor. After completing Metroid in under three hours the armor would have been shed completely, revealing that the man was in fact a woman. A shocking revelation that no one saw coming, it was a watershed moment for the entire video game industry, opening the floodgates for more female protagonists down the line. Deciding on such a monumental concept for the time must have been a difficult choice for the developers, right? Wrong. It was decided in an instant. During the final stage of development, Sakamoto and Okada had a meeting with the team to discuss how they should reward players for completing the game quickly. As the conversation went on they talked about what would surprise everyone and someone suggested that they remove Samus’s helmet. To add on to such a revelation another person said “It would be a shocker if Samus turned out to be a woman!” They were all so intrigued by such a suggestion that they unanimously agreed upon it right away. A game changing secret made in an instant. To keep the surprise for players, though, everyone got in on the action. Male pronouns would be used throughout marketing and even in the games manuals just to give the illusion that she was actually a he. Without these little white lies, Metroid may not have been as memorable or impactful as it would become.

Everything that they had created was finally coming together. Piece by piece the ramshackled remains of Metroid, a project made by three people with no knowledge of game development whatsoever, had become something far, far greater in just the span of several months. Before, they had begun to lose hope on the project and were just trying make it as fun as possible. Now, it was something they could be proud of and feel justified with as sense of fulfillment. With the completion of the game and the ending crawl it nearly brought a tear to everyone’s eye. They knew they had something here and were ready for the world to play it. Releasing for the Famicom Disk System on August 6th, 1986 and later on August 15th, 1987 and January 15th, 1988 in North America and Europe respectively, Metroid was another smash hit for Nintendo. It wasn’t phenomenon like The Legend of Zelda or a sensation like Super Mario Bros. but it found its own niche. If players were looking for a much harder and darker story with shoot em’ up mechanics there was no better place to look then Metroid. While its labyrinth could be confusing and its enemies debilitating, people found a certain fondness for its difficulty. This fondness grew year by year as players sought to complete the game faster and faster. Whether it be ignoring every unimportant item or finishing it with everything in tow, certain players would always rise to the challenge. As time went on, this obsession soon turned into a favored pastime among a subsect of players. They would call themselves speedrunners, and Metroid would be their holy grail.

An influential title that kickstarted a new genre in the shoot em’ up, revolutionized gaming with its somber and imposing atmosphere, and changed the minds of gamers worldwide with its shocking revelation, no video game of the day could certainly compare to Metroid. Developed by nobodies with a passion that ignited a fire in their co-workers, it was truly a team effort through and through. An oppressive world created by a group of passionate go-getters, putting the two together, it just didn’t make sense. Playing the game though, it was easy how such a combination could work so well. The adventures of Samus Aran were a cult classic for the ages that had redefined what was possible in the realm of video games. Matching such a legend would be a feat in and of itself. They would have to take time in crafting such a masterpiece, time that wasn’t on their side.

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