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The Map Matters: How Metroid Was Meant to Be Played

Your map is a trophy, a proof of your familiarity with Metroid. Your map is a tool you can use to plot out different routes or even abandon for the thrill of exploring Zebes all over again…

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Metroid NES - image courtesy of Metroid Database

The original Metroid is one of the most demanding games in Nintendo’s library. Dying means restarting with a measly 30 Energy instead of at full health, enemies are dangerous to the point of disincentivizing combat, and the game tasks you with exploring one of the largest NES overworlds ever designed without so much as a map or area names as guidance. It almost feels like Nintendo asked themselves, “what if an entire game were a Zelda dungeon?” and ran wild with the concept. Metroid may not share The Legend of Zelda’s overhead view, but this game is inherently about exploration and adventuring through a directionless land. 

The main caveat here is that unlike The Legend of Zelda, which features a mini-map for dungeons and a physical map in the manual, Metroid expects you to map out Planet Zebes yourself. The only thing resembling a map for Metroid is found in the manual but merely shows how connected areas are, not how to get anywhere. While the gameplay is framed like a traditional side scroller, screens are not linear. Most video games of the era play on a 2D plane where the level design generally has you moving right, with few exceptions. Your goal in Super Mario Bros. is always to the right. Mega Man and Castlevania feature verticality that plays with direction, but the end goal is ultimate to the right. 

Zebes Map - image courtesy of Nintendo

Immediately moving right in Metroid will result in Samus running into a wall she cannot get past, instead forcing you to explore your left and breaking what audiences in the 80s would have interpreted as a fundamental rule of game design. This is not to say that exploratory adventure games did not exist before Metroid, but Samus Aran’s maiden voyage is one of a kind in scope. You have a set goal — “defeat the Metroid of the Planet ‘Zebeth’  and destroy the Mother Brain” — but how you go about things is entirely at your discretion. So much, so that actually playing the game can easily become overwhelming. 

Most players will jump right in and try to explore as much of Zebes as possible before inevitably dying or getting lost. Repeated visuals lend the impression that Samus is running in circles. Corridors loop into each other. Dead ends are all too common. It can be hard to tell if progress is actually being made going off pure navigational instinct. Zebes is directionless by design, which enhances the planet’s natural hostility. Just as surely as you will get lost, you will be killed. Metroid’s difficulty curve is relentless and careless gameplay leads to nothing but death. 

Samus in Brinstar - image courtesy of Metroid Database

Zebes is a hostile hellscape where enemies attack non-stop, and environmental hazards are abundant. Simply getting past obstacles is more demanding than in contemporaries like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda. You start under-equipped with no sense of direction, and Samus dies in just a few touches. Exploring a new screen is a commitment that might not even pay off. The fourth screen in the game propositions you with three different pathways right away. Two block you off without later upgrades, but all three can be explored immediately because the expectation is that players will make a note of suspicious roadblocks and anything out of reach. 

The fact Zebes is so labyrinthine, and player unfriendly is intentional. This is uncharted alien territory that you are not meant to be exploring. A lack of in-game direction only makes sense considering the setting. While a modern audience might balk at an adventure game without a map, remember that nothing stops you from drawing a map for reference. The fact of the matter is that if you are not mapping map out each area you visit, you will get lost and forget how to get around or where to go next. 

You will not beat your first playthrough of Metroid in one sitting, at least not on your own. Game overs are plentiful, and figuring out where everything is can feel like an exercise in futility. This is not a bad thing. Commit to the trial and error, the genuine thrill of exploring an alien world, and chart your course through Zebes as if you were Samus. Metroid did not come with a map because the logical expectation is that anyone who cares about beating the game will take the time to make a map themselves. 

Samus into Norfair - image courtesy of tumblr (Samus Aran x Solid Snake)

The fact you need to physically draw a map yourself actually improves exploration in some regards. There are no waypoints, mini-maps, or modern sensibilities to make navigation easy or even intuitive. You need to pay attention to a deeper level than the average game asks of its audience, and if you know you won’t remember something, do the sensible thing and take notes. Metroid is not some secret masterpiece for not having a map, but it touches upon an aspect of adventuring; most games cannot by virtue of offering players so much visual information as a baseline. If someone spends as much time looking at their mini-map as they do the actual overworld, exploration needs to be more compelling. 

Interconnectivity goes beyond inputting commands into a controller. It can mean taking the time to draw a map of an 8-bit planet, so you have some idea of where you’re going. This adds immersion — maybe not what we interpret as immersive in gaming today, but mapping is Metroid’s way of bringing you into the experience on an intimate level. You gain a sense of what Samus would be experiencing herself while also crafting a handy tool for repeat playthroughs. More importantly, committing yourself to chart a map will help you develop a better appreciation for Metroid’s level design and gameplay loop. 

Zebes itself is broken down into three major areas with their own bosses. Samus begins her journey in the rocky caves of Brinstar, whose depths make up Kraid’s Hideout. Brinstar’s eastern tunnels are tinted orange and green instead of blue, connecting to the fiery Norfair. Painted in purple, Norfair is covered in lava, demanding diligent platforming while serving as home to Ridley — now the franchise’s most iconic antagonist. Tourian is the final area in the game but can only be accessed after killing Kraid and Ridley and being entirely linear. All paths lead to and from Brinstar, something anyone with a map would know.

Samus vs Kraid and Ridley - image courtesy of Metroid Database

Actual exploration is a mix of keeping your momentum while avoiding hazards, long stretches of vertical platforming, and the occasional combat hallways to prepare you for more demanding set pieces. The absence of warp points means backtracking is necessary for getting around, and you should expect to cut through Brinstar often. Breakable floors, walls, and ceilings are indistinguishable from the rest of the scenery, so you need to develop an eye for suspicious dead ends. Metroid may be as challenging as it is obtuse, but this is a small price to pay for genuine player freedom. 

You start in Brinstar, but you can fight Ridley and Kraid whenever you want. Whether you explore Brinstar’s Depths or Norfair first is entirely up to you, and there are valuable upgrades to find across both. Kraid’s Lair will be far too difficult to complete in full right away, but you can still explore the first few screens to net some extra missiles and an Energy Tank before booking it back to the entrance. Norfair has a lot of lava to platform around, but you can find multiple missile upgrades, the Ice Beam, High Jump, and Screw Attack if you explore thoroughly. By the time you reach Ridley, Samus should be strong enough to take on the rest of Kraid’s Hideout. 

Samus Aran Wave Beam - Image Courtesy of Tumblr (Samus Aran x Solid Snake)

Metroid understands the importance of pacing when it comes to progression, so upgrades are abundant but never feel rewarded for no reason. You need to put actual legwork into tracking down secrets, and it can take multiple screens of exploration before you run into an upgrade. When it acid rains, it pours, and Zebes has a habit of cluttering upgrades together. If you run into one missile upgrade, chances are there are a few more in your general vicinity. While extra missiles increase your ammo capacity and Energy Tanks raise your max health by 99 extra hit points (capping out at 6 Tanks), the bulk of progression comes through the new abilities Samus acquires. 

The Varia Suit (a mistranslation of “Barrier Suit”) decreases the amount of damage Samus takes by half; the High Jump increases Samus’ jump height by one-and-a-half; the Screw Attack makes it so your jump deals contact damage on enemies instead of yourself so long as Samus keeps her momentum. The Maru Mari (Morph Ball) is the most creative upgrade in Samus’ kit and unlocked right away. The Morph Ball allows Samus to shrink into a rolling ball to crawl through tight passages. Unlocking the Morph Bombs allow you to not only break walls and damage enemies but strategically bounce off individual blasts to nudge Samus into otherwise inaccessible areas. 

Metroid also implements a level of player choice when it comes to upgrades. Unique to the NES original, Samus’ different Beam upgrades do not all stack together. The Ice and Wave Beams are incompatible with one another, and you eventually need to settle on which to outfit Samus with, but they both have their uses. Since you can only equip one at a time, it helps to know where each Beam is. Anyone who has been actively drawing a map will know where to go if they need to swap their Beams. 

Samus shooting - image courtesy of Metroid Database

You can create platforms with the Ice Beam at the expense of virtually all your combat utility. This allows for smart sequence breaking, but you need to rely on the Screw Attack and missiles to deal reliable damage. The Wave Beam buffs Samus’ damage output, which is especially useful in Kraid’s Hideout, but cannot kill the Metroids that roam Tourian. The Wave Beam seems like the obvious pick as it deals more damage, but combat in Metroid is all about picking your battles. Fighting every enemy in your path is foolish, and there’s a reason most respawn immediately. Sometimes the smartest course of action is just freezing an alien and moving on. 

Later Metroid games fill in the map for you, but there is an undeniable charm to mapping out 8-bit Zebes manually. It speaks to old-school design philosophies where games demanded that audiences meet them on their level, no matter how unreasonable. Simply having a map at the ready leads to a more replayable game as well. New Game Plus was only added for the international release, but Metroid encourages audiences to aim for repeat playthroughs by actively timing how long it takes for you to complete a playthrough. Since gameplay upgrades transfer over, anyone who marked down where the Energy Tanks and extra missiles are can speed through each area in no time. 

Metroid NES Ending - image courtesy of vgmuseum

Your map is a trophy, proof of your familiarity with Metroid. Your map is a tool you can use to plot out different routes or even abandon for the thrill of exploring Zebes all over again. Metroid gets better the more you play it, which is a quality it shares with the best titles of its era. Your first playthrough can err on frustrating, but will just as quickly turn into one of the most rewarding experiences in gaming. You cannot approach Metroid like you can a modern game, but that’s ultimately its strongest quality. Underneath all of Zebes’ convolution — and largely because of it — Metroid stands out as a beacon to an era of video games long gone. 

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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