SUPERINTELLIGENCES CONSIDERING WHETHER OR NOT TO BLACKMAIL YOU (Super Metroid)
So that’s that, then; we’re safe. Nemesis contained in a singular, defined terrain, the rest of creation free for our joyously innocent explorations. Oh boy, we’ve even got a good game up next, Super Metroid. Indeed, an excellent game; no one would judge you for declaring it your favorite for the system. A top five without it seems contrarian.
Let us simply bask in its presence.
Sentimentally, it pays a lingering debt from the NES era. Metroid is a curate’s egg; a brilliant game ruined by its limitations. Metroid II improved it, but was ultimately constrained by the tinny confines of the Game Boy’s grey-on-brown monochrome, a tantalizing glimpse of what could be. More broadly, there’s the whole genre of the exploration-platformer, which had been done pretty well – Castlevania II, for instance, or even arguably Metroid – but never brilliantly.
Until Super Metroid, of course. We have talked before about the Super Nintendo as the decadent phase of platformers, home to finely polished perfections of a form on the brink of decline. Nothing embodies this more than Super Metroid, a game so good Castlevania managed to outlast the rest of the genre by a full seven years by ripping it off, including arguably the only genuine classic platformer of the Playstation era.
Some of its virtues are technological. The Super Nintendo meant that a save system was the default instead of passwords, removing one of the original game’s most frustrating aspects. Players now resumed play after a break with their health intact, and with a sufficient variety of possible respawn points to avoid tedious replaying of segments. It also had the capacity for an automap, the absence of which from Metroid was functionally an accessibility issue for me due to a fine motor disability affecting my handwriting and making drawing my own game maps impossible. (Copying a password down was bad enough.)
Others are simply on the level of mood and iconography. No era suits the Metroid series quite like the early 90s, where Samus’s body armor and the cod-Geigeresque alien landscapes feel utterly at home. Hirokazu Tanaka’s soundtrack – the strongest aspect of the original game – sounds glorious in Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano’s 16-bit upgrade, and moreover sounds like nothing else in video games. Where other games of the era were turning in droning techno soundtracks, Super Metroid offers a lurking bassline punctuated by clipped choral vox, as the enemies and machinery chirp and whirr unsettlingly over them.
And the game is confident in all of this. It opens with a sparse intro level – a run through a hauntingly empty space station that culminates in an easy Ridley fight and a recreation of Metroid’s race-the-timer finish. Then your exploration of Zebes proper begins and it’s enemy-free again, relying on the planet’s visuals and the thrill of traveling through the ruined passages of the first game. On the playthrough I just did, it was five minutes of game clock time – before I actually encountered my first non-Ridley enemy. It’s an incredible sequence.
And the underlying game design principles are rock solid. Play through it some time and watch the precise sequence in which concepts are introduced to the player. That long opening drop that walks you past thing after thing you can’t interact with yet, then has the first door lead to a room requiring the morph ball, so the first thing you learn after how to control the game is that you’re going to have to go back and re-explore areas. The way you encounter a door on the floor, then the concept of shooting blocks to progress, then the oddly colored blocks on the floor, thus teaching the way you’ll have to interact with the environment. The subsequent retracing of almost the entire path back to Samus’s ship, now filled with enemies, so that you’re given a firm concept of the game’s “core area” before you move on. The early appearance of the four-boss statue, so as to hint at the game’s larger structure. It’s as precise a piece of design as has ever been made – a master class in training the player.
And then of course there is Samus Aran, an iconic female video game protagonist, in her first console game where she’s out of the closet as a woman from the start. Indeed, considering the degree to which Super Metroid fits into the boyish visual aesthetic of video games of the time, the fact that it has no playable male characters is a watershed – one of the biggest breaches in the gendered norms of popular culture of the decade. And nothing can take that away from Super Metroid.
And yet something niggles. We are told specifically that the Metroid larva – the object the game propels us towards via title and game over screens – is like a child. More than that, it is a child that is shown to have “imprinted” on Samus in some fashion. This is thorny. Certainly there’s something a little dismaying about one of the only female protagonists in video games getting saddled with a motherhood plot. But the Metroid series’ obvious debt to the Alien series offers to defuse this, making this connection between alien parasites and the female body little more than a borrowed image to be read almost exclusively in light of the expansive critical exegesis of that franchise. Indeed, the fact that the game was preceded by Alien 3, the plot of which has Ripley pregnant with a xenomorph, makes the maternal turn almost expected – something that can be positioned outside of the game, leaving this territory secure for our enjoyment. In other words, not something that’s the product of authorial intent.
And suddenly, the awful, crushing realization: the future still exists. Super Metroid director Yoshio Sakamoto contributed to three more Metroid games after this, and is credited with the plots specifically in both Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Other M, the latter of which features Samus openly grieving the loss of the Metroid larva, which she refers to simply as “the baby,” pursuing a distress signal entirely because it’s called a “Baby’s Cry” signal (it has nothing to do with actual babies) and she feels guilty. Oh, and the game features a man who tells her which of her items she is and isn’t allowed to use at any given moment, and who calls her “lady” in such a respectful tone that she names an AI after him in Metroid Fusion.
Was this always the plan? An idea Sakamoto had in the early 90s that he finally got to start paying off a decade later? Was there ever a time that Super Metroid was not corrupted by the future – where it was ours? If so, there isn’t now. And there never can be – the grotesque sexism of Other M is as impossible to take away as the triumphant breach in patriarchal hegemony of Super Metroid.
But if the future can taint the past, it can also redeem it. That is, after all, the appeal of Super Metroid in the first place – it takes a deeply flawed but conceptually interesting moment of NES history and gets it right, creating a game worthy of the ideas and iconography. What, then, might be found to redeem Super Metroid from the stain its apparent authorial intent has left on it?
The obvious choice is Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody’s landmark bit of genius provocation “Metroid’s Samus Aran is a Transgender Woman. Deal With It.” The argument even hinges on Super Metroid, or at least on a quote Hirofumi Matsuoka gave in the strategy guide in which he claimed Samus was a “newhalf.” The terminology is, to say the least, sub-optimal, although Wu and McGrody stress that it’s not quite as straightforward as calling it a slur. But its flaws are hardly the first problem we’ve found so far, and after all, our business is redemption. More concerning is the ways in which this connection worsens the problem of Other M. A “the baby she never had” plot is bad enough when applied to a cis woman. Applying it to a trans woman is gruesomely pathologizing. And yet is it as though the mechanisms of biological reproduction do not hang over trans narratives? For all its flaws, is not a trans version of Other M still a more interesting failure than the banal and reflexively sexist interpretation? Redemption is not erasure.
Anyway, the brazen nature of the claim is part of the appeal. That the reading is built seemingly out of a tasteless joke and little else is the genius of its provocation. It’s a justifiable reading, but a weak one. And yet it is still more compelling than any other, for one very simple and brilliant reason, which is that there’s no evidence that she’s cisgender. The transgressiveness of the reading works for it; is subtly changed into an advantage. The only defense available for a cisgender Samus is cisnormativity. Perhaps a useful piece of evidence were we dealing with something governed by actual probabilities, but we’re not; Samus Aran is nothing more than a flicker on an old television screen. Here the only reason or way to deploy it is simply if you want Samus Aran to be cisgender for the sake of wanting characters to be cisgender. You’re welcome to make the argument if you want.
But there are always other stories to tell.
Thanks to Josh Marsfelder.
May 3, 2016 @ 11:35 am
Sakamoto seems to be the George Lucas of video games, in that when faced with creative and technological limitations of the era he pops out something brilliant like Super Metroid, but when given unlimited power he makes… Other Goddamn M.
It makes me wonder; if the Nintendo Playstation had happened, would Super Metroid be like that? Other M but with 16-bit anime cutscenes?
May 16, 2016 @ 7:58 pm
Excellent piece on Super Metroid’s brilliance.
One thing, though: I think you’re a little too dismissive of Metroid II: Return of Samus. There’s actually quite a bit of subversive stuff in there, as this article (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/SRHoliwell/20150130/235329/A_Maze_of_Murderscapes_Metroid_II.php) describes really well.