30 years ago Nintendo released Metroid, the first game in what would become a long lasting franchise.
Although it would never be their most popular offering (easily trumped by Mario and Zelda), a shock revelation about the game’s butt-kicking hero would earn it a place in gaming history.
Metroid introduced gamers to intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran. At first players were led to believe that the hero was a man - the game’s accompanying booklet referred to Samus as a “he”. But those who completed the game fast enough were in for a shock: at the end Samus revealed herself to be a woman.
Fast forward 30 years and Samus is one of the most important and iconic female characters in gaming - but she’s always been contentious. A win for feminism? We’re not so sure…
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Metroid is, for many, a genre-defining game that built on elements seen in Nintendo’s earlier successes.
Its developers took inspiration from genre-definers like Mario and Zelda, as well as the film Alien. They further developed the weapon and armour upgrade system used in Zelda, and took the pioneering step of allowing players to explore at will by backtracking and revisiting areas of the map. Meanwhile, Hirokazu Tanaka’s eerie soundtrack increased the sense of isolation for the player, aiming to make the player ‘feel as if they were encountering a living creature’.
Playing as Samus, you’re tasked by the Galactic Federation to infiltrate a space pirate base on the planet Zebes. Your goal is to destroy the Mother Brain controlling the base, and the powerful Metroid lifeforms stolen from a Galactic Federation laboratory.
This detailed premise demanded that players undertake a huge amount of exploration to complete the game. It made for a very rewarding experience that, importantly, could end up taking a long time.
The Big Reveal
But there was incentive to complete Metroid as fast as possible, by "speed running” through the game. Nintendo offered 5 possible endings, determined by how fast you could finish.
Slower players would witness a triumphant Samus in full body armour at the end. But complete the game in a speedy 3 to 5 hours, and you were rewarded with a sequence where Samus’s helmet was removed.
This was the historic moment when ‘he’ was revealed as a she - a huge deal in 1986. There had been minor female gaming characters before, but this was a mainstream champion - who kicked ass!
Nintendo giveth and Nintendo taketh away
“Wouldn't it be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?" With this historic statement, the Nintendo development team appeared to promoting a level of equality unseen in mainstream gaming. Until they went and undermined it all.
How? Well, expert gamers, if they could complete the challenge in under an hour, were treated to the sight of Samus in a bikini. It was a simple message: the faster you play, the skimpier the outfit. Some players even found they could play the whole game in a teeny weeny bikini if they entered a special password.
The questionable message of this early approach has been followed in the decades since by further controversies over the sexualisation of Samus. Like the time she wore heels in a Super Smash Bros game….
Some fans have questioned whether their female icon deserves better than pandering to teenage male fantasies. Nintendo, meanwhile have been happy to push Samus as an icon of girl power - check their image celebrating Women’s History Month in 2015:
Despite the controversies, in Samus Nintendo created a character that is widely held as a hero by female and male gamers alike. Transgender gaming commentator Brianna Wu has even argued that Samus is transgender too, further demonstrating the characters appeal to gamers with gender agendas.
No-one can argue that the Metroid games aren’t, essentially, brilliantly made and inventive. All we ask is that our hero is celebrated for defying gender stereotypes, instead of perpetuating them - as in that first, pioneering ending.
Let’s hope future instalments of the franchise strengthen the Samus legacy.