11/07/2021 – Gears of Metroid

Today marks the 13th anniversary of Gears of War 2, the swan song of my video game golden age. I’ll be honest, when I pulled up Microsoft Calculator to determine that number yesterday, my heart sank. Of course I’m getting older, but more pressingly, Gears of War 2 remains symbolic to me of my very first friendship. My buddy and I grew up together and played co-op games like Bomberman 64: The Second Attack up through the Halo series. He was particularly fond of Gears of War, and while I liked it well enough, I came to admire his fandom — this coming from a guy who was not and likely never would be a self-described “nerd.” I’ll always remember the date Gears of War 2 was released — 11/07/08 — though I had no idea it would be our last game. Nothing tragic happened, we simply parted ways shortly into high school.

However, I actually came on to discuss something similar but different, another scifi shooter video game, Metroid. It’s been on my mind as the latest installment released recently. Now, Metroid and I go back a long way and we have a complicated history. Video games are sort of different, so I’d never call myself a Metroid fan — having never completed a single of its games. The closest I got was Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, but it wasn’t really my Nintendo Wii, so my time on it was limited. I believe the last boss I killed was Mogenar, yet another cool monster in a trilogy full of them. That’s half the basis for my whole thing with the series: art design. I try to mention this on each new blog I start, but I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it here — the Metroid Prime games have the best art design in science-fiction. These games are so beautiful, and they cleave toward the aesthetic closest to my heart.

Concept art for Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Indeed, a promotional image of the original Metroid Prime caught my eye in a magazine long, long ago. Samus, specifically. Wow, what a cool robot dude! This was before I was ten, so I can’t remember if I’d had the classic Metroid revelation then, that the cool robot dude is actually a cool human lady, but whether I learned it then or knew it going in, the result was the same. My love of heroines began with Samus. Now, all these years later, she’s starring in Metroid Dread, and I’ve returned to that old place. As a note, Metroid and Godzilla are linked in my mind, in part because sound samples from the latter are used for bosses in Super Metroid, and also for laser beams. So that’s actually why I ended up watching Godzilla vs. Kong, much to my sadness.

Samus has had an inconsistent, even rocky characterization, and it’s a miracle she’s arrived even salvageable almost 40 years later. She’s a female character exclusively written by men, a video game character from before the era of “talkies,” imprinting her with a vow of silence, and the “story” aspect of Metroid is quite abstract. For my part, I appreciate the very soft science of its science-fiction world, with its ghosts and alternate dimensions. One of the cool boss encounters in Dread, with the black Chozo Soldier, features an abandoned laboratory as a backdrop. Classic scifi, but it’s not a human laboratory. The arc of Metroid’s genre, in my headcanon, is something bizarre reaching toward the more recognizable form of science-fiction. It becomes laboratories and aliens, but it started as Morph Ball and ghosts.

That “something bizarre” is the product of video game development historically deprioritizing narrative, and there are few things more historical than Metroid. We cannot possibly hold the original storytellers in 1986 to those in 2021, despite that they are largely the same people. They were working with different technology and standards. So how do you do a modern Metroid in an age where story is in vogue? It may be an easier thought experiment than you’d think, as the team’s previously gotten the answer wrong — ten years ago in the infamous Metroid: Other M. I’ve seen those cutscenes, and yeah, they’re just as bad as everyone says.

By contrast, Samus Aran in Metroid Dread is getting all the accolades for her physical expressions and badass moves. She only speaks once, in an alien language, and it’s extremely hot. My personal favorite is when she dispatches the Chozo Soldier by grabbing his mutated jaws and slamming them into the ground to start, then pulling the top jaw skyward while holding the bottom down with her boot. I suppose you can guess where the laser blast goes, and the whole thing is simply spectacular. I was initially adverse to what I saw as the “anime-ization” of Metroid (ironically by a Spanish studio) from the grounded look of Prime to the pointy edges of Metroid: Samus Returns. But if she’s also powered by anime, roundhousing dinosaurs — an evolution of the close combat from Other M — then screw grounded.

A nice innovation in Metroid: Other M, via Team Ninja

It’s a conscious attempt at redemption, and it’s working. In the comments to all these videos of badass Samus I’m watching, the fans are celebrating her with only that slight, uncomfortable edge of entitlement, like “Finally, this is what we deserve.” What’s struck me the most is that I’ve seen more than one AMV — in essence — of Dread set to music from the new Doom games, and I’ve seen the thumbnails of several more. This has become something of a meme, the crossover of Metroid and Doom, but specifically Samus and the Doomslayer. To the outside observer, it’s impossible to explain that these are the same people who freaked out when the recent Doom movie featured a female lead. I suppose even gender-bending can be okay, so long as it’s on their terms. Or perhaps it’s just that Samus, being so many of ours’ first love — myself included — she’s our Madonna.

And so, I find myself enjoying Metroid from a distance once again. Maybe one of these days I’ll find my way back to games without the prodding of a friend (I wouldn’t have finished The Last of Us Part II if not for a podcast recording), and maybe I’ll start with Super Metroid. I think I just had to realize, at some point, that I don’t get much from the actual experience of games, and maybe I never did. They were social experiences, and to date, the one-player Mass Effect is the only game I come back to. That’s a special case where I can create a badass lady and pilot her toward the most badass outcomes. I like the Tomb Raider reboots for a similar reason, minus the customization. I need that customization.

The fans have been customizing Samus all along, with their loudness and petitions to prevent the release of unpopular entries like Federation Force. I may judge them, but I’m hardly any different. A pretty lady in power armor steps on the face of a bird alien? I’m a simple man.

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