Put me in your best high heels, and I’d do no better

Metroid

Metroid (1988)

I saw a recent picture of Heather Locklear the other day and it was a sad sight, readers, a sad sight. You get this idea in your head that someone like Heather would be what you’d call ‘infinitely attractive’. As in, even after a thousand years, with the polar ice caps fully melted and we’re living in Water World, you’d still get Heather herself cutting about and looking head and shoulders above everybody else. I must sadly report that these days she’s a bit of a mess of collagen, puppy fat and wrinkly eyes, and her bolt is well and truly shot. I suppose it’s an unfortunate fact of life – everybody eventually declines with age. Everybody except Kylie, of course.

Still, you have to have something in the first place in order to lose it. The original Metroid for the NES might have had something about it, way back when. Some way of setting itself apart from the rest of the Plain Jane games on the market. After all, if we leave aside its depressing Game Boy sequel, Super Metroid was God-on-wheels and Metroid Prime was Christ and the Apostles. Metroid NES had to have something about it that inspired all this.

Well, as you might already know, it’s an adventure in isolation through the alien Planet Zebes, where you find upgrades and defeat Mother Brain. Sounds promising, but that’s only until you press Start. Once you do, you materialise into the world with 30 Energy units out of 99. I don’t know why you start the game more than half-dead, but what’s really objectionable is that every time you die, and that’ll be often, it’s back to starting with 30 energy.

As you cut about the Planet Zebes, mistakenly transliterated as Zebeth in a translation fiasco eerily prescient of the Aeris/Aerith conflict (4 million weeb lives lost), you can discover six Energy Tanks, granting you 699 energy in total. But die, or restart from a password, and you’ll need to farm enemies once more to refill them from 30. You spend half the game, half your life, half your oncoming coma, doing this perverse and braindead act.

There’s no map either, naturally. Do you like drawing maps? Remember when your Maths teacher would be on your case, imploring you to buy your own graph paper rather than bum some off the pupil beside you? Well, it’s finally gonna come in useful here. Some rooms genuinely look the exact same as others, too. This is done on purpose, to save space on the ROM and to give an illusion that you’re lost underneath a vast world. This is meant to wow you. What it really does is it takes your slipping sanity and shakes it all about.

Then you get to the last boss, and Christ almighty, I thought I was having the Mother of all Brain aneurysms. Just before that, the last area finally brings you face-to-face with the eponymous Metroids, who excel in latching on your mush and sucking some imperciptible energy away from you. Not quite as violent as facehuggers, mind you, and certainly less vaginal as well. And you’ll also need to heavily use your imagination here, with this level of graphics on display. But Alien is what the desginers were getting at. In actual fact, you’re best off not fighting the Metroids, because they’ll just drain your energy – freeze them, and shamble onwards.

After a few rooms of doing the Metroid hokey-cokey, you’ll get through to Mother Brain’s lair. First of all, you have to fight your way through to Mother Brain by blasting through barriers which regenerate. And they’ll have plenty of time to do this, since you’ll be getting swatted around the room like a fly by dozens of cannons and a constant barrage of Cheerios.

When you finally get to Mother Brain, there’s no fanfare – simply blow her containment tank open and lay the missiles into her forehead. And it has to be her forehead, because her “face” doesn’t seem to count. You’ll need to hit her with approximately nine hundred warheads to win. You can’t actually do this, of course, as you’re getting whacked every second, from all angles, getting random bounces, your energy’s getting depleted at an alarming rate… and may the Lord help you if you land in the lava directly in front of the big tusked brain.

A better game might have a working jump button to help you here, or not knock you back into the muck every nanosecond or it might even let you use your Ice Beam to freeze an enemy into a makeshift platform for yourself, an improvised lifebelt. Metroid does none of these things and instead watches you suffer. You’re left wondering why you’re not playing a much better Metroid game instead. I quite fancy a spot of Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Come back Metroid: Other M, all is forgiven. And would anyone like a game of Metroid Prime Pinball?

If you do manage to somehow get the luck and get rid of the Brain, then you’ve got the customary Metroid escape sequence, where for some inexplicable reason the planet is about to explode so you’d better get clear. I admit I enjoy Metroid NES’s blunt message here, where it simply tells you “TIME BOMB SET – GET OUT FAST”. You go through to a tall, lengthy escape tunnel where all of the previous problems with the controls (the floatiness, the lack of responsiveness, the slippiness) come racing back to the fore in one last test of horribleness.

You’ll have to make several jumps upwards, onto one-block platforms that are barely wide enough for even Samus’s size-4s, all with a timer that’s counting down extremely quickly. She might as well be attempting it in heels. Your very first Super Mario World hack wouldn’t have done it. Your reward for all of this palaver is a badly translated congratulations screen, where you’re told that space might get invaded by the other Metroid and that you should pray for a true peace in space.

I don’t get it either, but I’ll have no problem getting down and genuflecting if it lets me turn the game off sooner. Of course, this is where you’d also get to see Samus in her smalls, in the famous gender reveal scene. Except you won’t, because you will have been traipsing around the samey locales for so many hours that Samus has long since gotten dressed.

Just about everyone’s first instinct after playing Metroid for five minutes or more is to scream and run away, maybe into the safe embrace of Super Metroid. Or Metroid Zero Mission, which obsoletes Metroid NES in every conceivable way. I could not think of a game that has aged as badly as this one, certainly in terms of how inaccessible it is. This game is a mangy old hissing cat, a once obedient dog turned violent.

A reasonable person can make allowances for early iterations of Nintendo franchises. The Super Mario Bros games hold up. Zelda 1 is fine, Zelda 2 is satanic but if some people like it, fair play to them. Kirby’s Adventure is still some people’s favourite. But only a madman, a sexual deviant or a gypsy would favour Metroid NES over its prettied-up GBA sister.

20 December 2019

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