Previously in this feature series, I’ve examined single screenshots from games. This time, I’m expanding it to a full gameplay sequence. Specifically, the beginning sequence from Nintendo’s Super Metroid (1994).
This is the first time in the game that the player takes control of the protagonist, Samus Aran. It is preceded by an introductory monolog and cutscene that set up the narrative. However, it should be noted that the narrative actually begins even earlier at the title screen, but we’ll get to that in a moment. In summary, we are told (by Samus) how she dropped off the last surviving metroid hatchling (encountered at the end of Metroid II) at the scientific research space colony called Ceres Station. After Samus leaves, she quickly receives an emergency distress call from the station, and returns to investigate.
Samus appears via an elevator in a vertical shaft, and proceeds to navigate through a linear set of rooms. Each room is bathed in a deep blue hue, giving the impression of darkness while still allowing the player to see the environments. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the blue filters film director James Cameron is known for using. There is also no music, with audio consisting of an ambient hum (the still-operational workings of the station), and Samus’ own footfalls. This gives off the impression of solitude, and there appear to be no signs of life.
Finally, Samus reaches the research room in which the metroid was being kept. There are some dead bodies on the floor, and the metroid’s cylindrical container is shattered. At first, this might give the impression that the metroid escaped and attacked its captors, but going back to the game’s title screen, we are shown the metroid still in captivity while the scientists are already dead. Thus, it seems to be the case that the metroid has been stolen. By this time, the game has provided plenty of incentive for the player to feel paranoid.
Proceeding through the next couple of rooms, we finally see the metroid, still held in a small capsule, innocently setting on the floor. The room is a dead-end. It does not take long to realize that this is a setup for a trap. After an unsettling length, Ridley, one of the Space Pirates, emerges from the darkness, grabs the metroid, and begins attacking Samus. The soundtrack finally kicks in with dramatic music, underscoring the sudden reveal. Although it may not necessarily be apparent upon first playthrough, this is not a fight that can be won or lost. It simply continues until Samus’ energy is down below a certain amount, and Ridley then escapes with the metroid.
Text appears on the screen indicating that the station is about to self-destruct, and Samus has one minute to escape. Backtracking through the previous rooms, the color hue has changed from a cool blue to a hellish red. In each room, a new detail is added to show the increasing instability of the station. Bursts of steam shoot out of the floors, walls and ceilings of one room. In the next, debris begins falling from the ceiling. In the final room, the vertical shaft begins to sway. This last detail is interesting in that it sways dramatically out of frame. This is a very unusual cinematographic tactic in a 2D game, but escalates the sensation of things being out-of-control.
At the end of the shaft, Samus stands on the elevator platform, but the scene fades out before it shows her final escape. We then see the station exploding from the outside as Samus’ ship barely gets away.
The main point that I want to address in this sequence is the fight with Ridley, as it seems to underscore a theme that is set up for the rest of the game: Samus’ vulnerability. Although it seems some fans don’t like to view her this way, the game subtly, and tactfully, portrays the character as being “just not quite strong enough.” Of course, Samus is at her weakest during this opening sequence.
Mechanically, the fight with Ridley is a teaching tool for the player, but narratively, it’s a futile fight that she is unable to win. This is significant in that it is witnessed by the infant metroid. In essence, the metroid is watching its parent (or what it perceives to be its parent) be almost helplessly attacked, and nearly killed, by a much larger enemy, and it is unable to do anything about it. The scene comes full circle near the end of the game during Samus’ final confrontation with Mother Brain. Once again, it’s a fight that Samus cannot win, despite having increased her power and strength dramatically over the course of the game. She is still vulnerable and “just not quite strong enough” in the face of a tougher foe. The difference this time is that the metroid is able to intervene and not only save its parent from a fatal blow, but transfer power from the foe to its parent. While it sacrifices itself to do this, Samus is finally strong enough to finish the fight.
These scenes also portray the parent-child relationship between Samus and the metroid, and the strong link that is formed as a result, even insofar that each is willing to risk life for the other. This is a theme that was explored further (albeit less successfully) in Metroid: Other M (2010), which chronologically takes place immediately after the events of Super Metroid.
Vulnerable, of course, does not necessarily mean weak. The entire game is built around trying to get stronger in order to take on the next challenge. However, allowing the character to be seen as vulnerable makes her appear more human and relatable. This is vital, as it increases the connection between the player and Samus, and ultimately makes the drama work. Thus, this opening sequence serves as a complimentary bookend to the climax, successfully establishing Samus’ character arc.