I Conquered Zebes, and So Can You

I found the secret energy tank in Kraid’s room in Metroid by using two maps: one shows where every suit upgrade, missile upgrade, energy tank and boss room is, and the other is a complete detailed map of the Planet Zebes, including the location of every destructible block. Getting the energy tank is kind of a difficult maneuver in itself. Instinct tells you to fall into the acid, shoot the destructible block that hides the item with your beam weapon, then jump back onto the main platform, enter morph ball mode and roll into the newly-exposed crevice. But the angle you leave the platform at means you just miss the mark. The solution is to jump to the right once you have exposed the block, to the ledge of the room’s entrance, then enter morph ball mode, fall down and hold to the right so that you can slot in. All of this I discovered through Google, which directed me to a GameFAQs thread where other people have agonised over precisely the same problem.

This wasn’t possible back in 1986 when the game was released. You couldn’t outsource your problems like that, pulling solutions from the web’s vast pool of information. You had to consult vague strategy guides in magazines, ask for tips from friends and relatives, keep notebooks filled with passwords, encyclopedic notes, make crude maps with your own reference points. Back when I first got Metroid from the eShop I had planned to play the game this way, rejecting the easy answers from the internet and exploring the game entirely by myself, edging forward piece by piece, feeling my way through the darkness. Zebes is a bewildering, open-ended labyrinth, and demands to be treated as such.

But I decided against it for a few reasons. One is that I don’t have the hours to spare. Metroid was designed as a sustained campaign. You were supposed to keep at it for weeks or months, not days. I’m a graduate who’s just moved in with his girlfriend and is building up the courage to start an emotionally draining job search; I can’t really afford the time or effort.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, was that it felt like I was trying to reclaim a kind of nostalgia that I don’t have. I was trying to replicate as close as possible the conditions under which Metroid was being played by people upon release so that I could recreate an “authentic” experience, playing it as its design intended. The theory was that I’d be able to say that Metroid was as full-bodied an experience for me as it was for its early adopters, and that I had experienced the game just like they had. But this was disingenuous, I thought. It’s been 29 (!!) years since the game came out. It stands now as a relic in the history of gaming: the title that spawned a subgenre. Metroid is soaked in its context – it is a game from 1986 made with 1986 in mind – and I, a baby-faced child of 1992, am soaked in mine. I’m not the kind of player that Metroid was made for, and cannot pretend to be. So I looked for maps and guides and Youtube videos, and I stocked up on the knowledge that should have taken me ages to obtain in less than half an hour.

Metroid is a different game now, irreversibly so. It used to be a dark, threatening unknown, but now the collective we of the internet knows every crevice of Zebes’ long caverns. Where once kids would keep notes of item locations and passwords, now they make sport of running the game as fast as possible. There are several really interesting runs of Metroid that have been done for Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick, each accompanied by commentary about how various exploits work at the level of the code: the very DNA of the game is open to mastery by the player. And because of the internet, this information has been proliferated to such an extent that it’s laughably easy to find. Now, anybody can conquer Zebes.

I used the word relic earlier, and I want to unpack that a bit. ‘Retro gaming’ itself has become like a cottage industry in its own right, informing the demand for remakes, re-releases, ‘classics’ collections and retro games journalism that are all underpinned by a blooming sense of nostalgia, which in turn transforms old games from the fresh experiences of their release year into curios that embody the memory of play. This memory is itself expansive, nebulous, collective: it is gaming’s nascent heritage, a communal remembrance not only of what games used to be, but also of what it was like to play those games. Like all nostalgia, it valorises the old ways: games, it claims, used to be challenging, rewarding, taut.

But now that Metroid is a relic, it has been somewhat defanged. Its design relies on it being new and startling, and on any information you don’t discover first-hand being infrequent, incomplete, even unverified. It needs to be cloaked in mystery so that it can be a revelation, but the awesome communal power of the internet can show you everything. This is not to say that the game has been entirely arrested of its worth or entertainment value. I still enjoy it – a lot, actually. I still felt like I had achieved something when I beat Kraid. It has its triumphant moments and frustrations like it would have if I’d played it at release, they’re just different. Metroid is a changed game, not a lesser one.

Exploration, for one thing, is now informed and confident. Being able to reliably chart a path through Zebes does not cheapen the discovery of its corners. In fact, knowing how far it is to get to and from different objectives can be intimidating in itself – the map has an impressive scope for a game of its time. So the catharsis of gameplay then comes not from slowly putting together your own picture of the game space, but of knowing the threat you face going in and coming out on the other side anyway. This change of focus is reflected in the popularity of Metroid games amongst speedrunners: now that Zebes can be reliably mapped, people play it to find the fastest route through it. Metroid has not been left behind in its own time, but rather we have taken it with us and adapted our approaches to it for play in changing contexts.

From this, a question arises: is the longevity of interest in Metroid a testament to the ingenuity of its design, or is it a symptom of its canonisation in gaming history? In other words, is our continued interest a sign that the game is still good, or that we need it to be good to justify its importance? It makes frequent appearances on “Best Game of All Time” lists, but Bob Colayco’s review of the Classic NES Series re-release makes a fair argument for the idea that ‘the game’s design hasn’t aged particularly well’. That discussion is part of a larger dialogue on retro gaming, on the way it frames and valorises the past and how its application of the dynamics of shared memory is reflective of videogames culture more widely. Let’s leave the question open for now.

What I can say is that the Metroid I played is different to the one that was released, and that realising this made me feel better about abandoning my initial idea of playing the game “authentically”. And a good thing too, for the idea of authenticity is itself large, problematic and difficult to pin down. It carries hegemonic connotations, assuming that one type of play is in some way better and that the alternatives are dishonest. It’s needlessly restrictive and has implications for the clubhouse mentality of games culture. But, again, that’s a large topic for another day.

The Metroid that I played was short, fast-paced, brutally efficient, perhaps a little methodical, but it was fun, and it was mine.