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Metroid (NES) artwork

Metroid (NES) review

"To think that 70% of this game, so familiar to so many players, occupies exactly 0 bytes of data. The glimpses I see of Real Zebes break a spell indeed... It is one thing to understand how a game works, but it is another entirely to see how it work. "

Long ago---before GameFAQs and advent of online gaming communities---it was discovered that if one opens a door in Metroid, stands in said door, and presses the down and up buttons on the directional pad in quick succession, the male character Samus will climb up the inside of the wall. If done in excess and in specific areas, this odd functionality would bring the player into previously undocumented sectors of Zebes. This odd phenomena fermented into what we now call Metroid's "secret worlds," which remained a mystery for several years.

No one could have guess the truth. The demystifying of the secret worlds by Kent Hansen in 1998 is one of the NES's most fascinating stories (you have heard of all this before, right?). Hansen discovered that Metroid's careful orchestration of confusing corridors was not Real. What we saw in Zebes was Imaginary---it reflected a world that we couldn't touch, a table of discrete rooms that lead no where and are accessed by nothing, pointed to and addressed internally to create a seemingly complete map. Secret worlds were revealing the cracks in Imaginary Zebes, like shards of a broken mirror reflecting what we mistakingly took for a painting.

The "wall glitch," as it is now known, shows us hints of what is Real in Zebes, creating valid map data in invalid locations. We dismiss it as gibberish. Hansen ends his explanation of Metroid's mapping techniques noting that he "has probably crushed the hopeful dreams of quite a few avid Metroid gamers." The secret worlds have been popularly regarded as curiosities, symbolic of an enigmatic game that intentionally tries to misdirect players in the steps of a sexually obfuscated protagonist.

A glitch is in itself a curious thing. We find Mother Brain, climb triumphantly out of the ground, stomp out onto the surface, and stand aghast as a woman peels out of our orange and red suit. No one expects this (unless it's 2011 and you haven't been living under a rock), so we call it a plot twist. When we get stuck in a door, however, and rise into a room with an inanimate image of Mother Brian (though she is still very Real), we call the unexpected event a glitch. Yet in both cases, the game was simply acting within its defined parameters.

The difference in these two outcomes is that the one is conceivable within the Imaginary Zebes while the other is not. We can make sense of the male Samus becoming female because it is conceivable within our definition of gender and sense (i.e. she is either one of the other). The secret worlds are the equivalent of Samus taking off her helmet and revealing that she is a third sex, or perhaps multiple sexes. It rips the carefully crafted world its seams and shows us the wizard behind the curtain.

Many fault a glitch for breaking a game's spell, as though there is some sort of magic involved. If there is any magic in gaming, it is in a skilled programmer's ability to take the creative seeds of mushroomed trees and blossoming pipes and translate that vision into something understood by a machine on our living room floor. It always operates correctly, but not always in a way we expect, sometimes generating an error in ourselves.

The Real language of a game has capacities far beyond our expectations. Metroid's secret worlds contain no items for us (if they did, we would not call them glitches), and will inevitably kill you if you venture too far into their depths. Yet they are procedurally beautiful in so many ways. The lack of human design in their layout creates worlds where nothing need be logical. Mother Brain sits lifeless at the end of a long tube. Small platforms dot a room of lukewarm lava. Doors open seemingly without an exit, inviting you to enter and sending you somewhere beyond space and time. This is a very odd place indeed.

Many no doubt were disappointed by secret worlds and by Metroid in general---after all, the secret worlds are just another perspective, its own perspective, to a game we thought we knew. I am not one of those disappointed players. To think that 70% of this game, so familiar to so many players, occupies exactly 0 bytes of data. The glimpses I see of Real Zebes break a spell indeed---the spell that the player is exploring a world of purpose, wrought by some divine hand on the other side of the Pacific. It is one thing to understand how a game works, but it is another entirely to see how it work.

Everything from the first screen to the moment when Samus rips off her helmet and bares her flowing hair for the world is teeming with mystery, and not simply because its music is so haunting or because the path to Kraid so convoluted, nor because you can jump up walls and into places outside the Imaginary, but because the underlying software is mysterious by design. Zebes is organic and untamed, re-created every time we press that little power button. Zebes is alive.

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (December 09, 2011)

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S-Cynic posted December 15, 2011:

Put simply, this isn't a review- it's a misplaced (or mislabeled) blog post.
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True posted December 15, 2011:

Why did you change it? I figured everyone would have understood what you were saying from the first message--provided they clicked the link.
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S-Cynic posted December 15, 2011:

As it was, anyone who didn't bother to click on it would think I was just being rude.
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jerec posted December 15, 2011:

I found that article on NGJ really quite interesting, and why I don't read a lot of reviews these days.
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dagoss posted December 16, 2011:

It's definitely not "a critical evaluation of [Metroid's] rule system in comparison with the rule systems of similar games;" if that's how you define a review, this is not a review.

That's a very narrow definition though, and it doesn't account for a lot of the reasons why people actually play video games. If you're playing Metroid today, you're likely treating it like a relic in a museum, walking around it, staring at it with a look on your face like you're constipated, and muttering to yourself "I don't get it" or "well, it's no Super Metroid!"

That's the issue with a lot of older games. To only talk about Metroid's mechanics would be, in essence, to say "don't play this; let's not play this game anymore because we've replaced it with better games; let's forget about it."

I'm not saying that this isn't not a review, but I am saying that if it's not a review, and mechanical evaluation and comparison is what reviews should be limited to, then there's really no point to writing a review of Metroid (or probably reading one) in the first place.
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SamildanachEmrys posted December 22, 2011:

I read this review because Metroid, like Mega Man, passed me by at the time and I wonder what made it so legendary, how it stands up today, and whether it's worth me going back to acquaint myself with it.

This post is quite an interesting article in its own right, but it's not a review. You're right that talking about a game's mechanics isn't necessarily the best way to approach old games, but that's also not the only way to provide a review. The final paragraph gives an indication of where you intended to go with this, but most of the article is a discussion of one small oddity of an old game. As it stands, interesting or not (I did enjoy reading it), it's not a review.
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dagoss posted January 04, 2012:

I agree that this is not a review, though I think it fulfills the purpose of a review.

There is a certain type of person. A person who was mesmerized by BASIC, who spent hours with a Micro, who applies the UNIX philosophy like it is the word of God. I refer to people that were inspired by games like Metroid to search for meaning in machines only to end up as a 20/30-something cog in a marketing scheme. You know the type. Mid-level programmers who got married, started a family, and spend their days toiling away at Java or some other such non-sense. People who want to feel the same sense of wonder and exploration that they felt with their NES or Atari, and search vainly in database management and their family tree. These are the people that, 200 years early, would have readily boarded a ship bound for certain death just for the sake of exploration. The only frontier left now is computers.

HG, a site populated by people that knew the Internet as a frontier back in the 1990s, is one of the few places that might understand. Imagine that a new area is discovered in Metroid. My God--it would be like the stone thrown that shattered the casing of the dead sea scrolls. .NET experts and social media marketing gurus would turn their heads in awe: this is what they've been looking for, the thing that will make the machines to which they are dedicating their lives worthwhile, to show them the same inspiration they knew as a 10 year old.

Video games are different that books and film and everything that came before. If Milton was inspired by Homer to write poetry, what would Milton have done if he had been inspired by Final Fantasy III? He'd probably drink himself blind (for irony) and end up writing something like this forum post/review; he'd be really freaking weird and he'd have no where to express his weirdness.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted January 04, 2012:

Review or not, I still enjoyed this piece.

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