When we talk about innovations in gaming, too often the conversation is limited to technology. It’s an understandable limitation. Not only are video games still considered to be a technological medium first and foremost by many people, but it’s far easier to cite a technological advancement as an innovation simply because we can definitely declare something to be the first of its kind through verifiable facts. This being the age of the internet, and therefore an age where nobody wants to feel like they’ve been fooled by a lack of information, such facts offer a kind of comfort.
If you try to search 1986’s Metroid for such innovations, you may be disappointed in your findings. While Metroid represented the very best of NES technology at the time of its release, it didn’t exactly test the full limits of the system. Similarly, some of its most impressive features, such as its non-linear progression, save system, and multiple endings were not, actually, the first of their kind. The Legend of Zelda (released about six months before Metroid) beat this game to the punch in terms of a NES game that challenged the classic level by level progression methodology and even featured a more advanced save system that allowed you to store your progress directly on the cartridge as opposed to relying on a password system.
Despite all this, Metroid is typically remembered as a title like no other for those that played it upon release, and rightfully so. This isn’t because Metroid forever changed the way we look at gaming from a technological standpoint, but rather because of the way it established atmosphere, one so dense in alien weirdness that players couldn’t help but feel lost in a world not their own.
Although the idea of atmosphere as it relates to entertainment wasn’t a new concept prior to the release of Metroid, those discussions were almost entirely limited to the world of film. Many filmmakers considered the label of “atmospheric” to be one of the highest compliments their work could receive. For a movie to be called atmospheric, it needed to be able to truly engulf the viewer into the world the director created. Not invest them in the story alone, necessarily, but rather use a combination of sensory techniques intended to make the viewer feel as if they truly are in the movie.
Considering that most people are trained to tune their brains to the fact that entertainment is not reality, this level of immersion in films is typically limited to those creators who can master sight and sound in such a way that the viewer is hypnotized into believing that they have been transported.
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You would think that games would have had a much easier time of generating such a sensation. After all, video games are an inherently more immersive entertainment medium than films by the simple virtue of the player’s ability to actually dictate the action of the games. You might not technically be inside the world of a video game, but you are responsible for controlling an avatar that is.
Yet, early video games did not strive for true atmosphere. You can certainly blame technology, in part, for this shortcoming, but you must also consider that the market at the time was demanding fast and easy entertainment from games and not titles that strived for a higher artistic purpose. After all, video games weren’t viewed as an artistic form of storytelling, a new medium for artistic expression—a status that the industry, especially the indie sector, enjoys today. But in 1986, that was not gaming’s role, even if the creators did believe the industry was capable of accomplishing such a thing. Video games were still largely considered to be mindless entertainment.
Metroid was the first game to challenge that belief, and it did so, brazenly enough, by making players truly feel like they were alone. What’s particularly interesting about that sensation is the way that Metroid accomplished it.
Much as it is in films, Metroid was able to create a sense of atmosphere, in part, through sights and sounds. Yoshio Sakamoto, one of the game’s developers, once shared in a blog post that he and the rest of the Metroid development team initially set out to create a game that “took place in a gloopy, alien-like world.” Right from the very start, the team’s primary focus as it concerned the design of Metroid was to create a certain type of visual style that didn’t feel as if it belonged to any other game out there. Indeed, Sakamoto criticized the early design of Metroid’s levels by stating that “the backgrounds didn’t give you the sense that they were alive.”
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Alive is certainly the best way to describe the look of Metroid, even if much of the game sees you traverse a barren environment that was, perhaps, once great. Despite some necessary repetition in the level design, Metroid is still able to create a sense of flow in its levels that no other game at that point ever had. This isn’t a series of independently designed levels loosely strung together; it’s a living world where everything feels as if it belongs. It’s a visual quality that also, somewhat unfortunately, presents itself in the game’s enemies, which look like the kind of organic monstrosities you might expect to see in such a habitat, whereas most games of the era were simply trying to fill the screen with as many foes as possible whether or not they felt like they belonged. They’re almost too beautiful to kill or, at least, to nightmarish to fight.
In creating this dark vision of a game that combined Super Mario platforming with the non-linear exploration of Zelda, Sakamoto says the team looked to a specific film for the visual aesthetic: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi-horror masterpiece, Alien. (In case you didn’t know, Nintendo named Samus Aran’s archnemesis “Ridley” after the director.)
“I think the film Alien had a huge influence on the production of the first Metroid game. All of the team members were affected by H.R. Giger’s design work, and I think they were aware that such designs would be a good match for the Metroid world we had already put in place,” Sakamoto told Retro Gamer. The team knew that the game would look much different from the rest of Nintendo’s much brighter lineup. “To be honest, I’ve never really been clear on what is or isn’t the ‘Nintendo look’, but as far as we were concerned, we were just projecting another image from within Nintendo – another face of Nintendo, if you like. But yes, it’s a science-fiction game, so…”
Of course, visuals alone do not create atmosphere. Some would argue, actually, that it is only with perfect sound design that you can truly create the illusion of being. According to Sakamoto, the Hirokazu Tanaka’s original score for Metroid was designed to “(make) you feel as though you were actually there. Ever since then, I’ve maintained a strong conviction that music has an incredible power to project certain atmospheres.”
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He is most certainly right. Nintendo games may have a proud history of fantastic soundtracks that pre-date Metroid, but no other soundtrack up until this point had been designed to create a singular feeling of dread and isolation. So effective is Metroid’s score that it often feels as if it is coming not from your television speakers, but rather that it is being screamed by the game’s levels in an effort to bleed their pain and infect your mind.
But interestingly enough, Tanaka’s score might be most notable for the sounds that aren’t there. A creeping silence invades the game at times, like you’re listening to the void. As music theorist and composer Andrew Schartmann points out in his book, Maestro Mario: How Nintendo Transformed Videogame Music into an Art, this again comes from the playbook of Alien, which was scored by the brilliant Jerry Goldsmith.
“Tanaka’s greatest contribution to game music comes, paradoxically, in the form of silence,” Schartmann writer. “He was arguably the first videogame composer to emphasize the absence of sound in his music. Tanaka’s score is an embodiment of isolation and atmospheric effect—one that penetrates deeply into the emotions.”
In an interview with Gamasutra, Tanaka, who got his first gig at Nintendo designing the sounds for a 1980 arcade game called Space Firebird, said that he wanted to get away from the more upbeat scores that the video games of the time had to offer.
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“I wasn’t happy with the trend, because those melodies weren’t necessarily matched with the tastes and atmospheres that the games originally had,” said Tanaka. “The sound design for Metroid was, therefore, intended to be the antithesis for that trend. I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects. The image I had was, ‘Anything that comes out from the game is the sound that game makes.'”
To accomplish the minimalist tone of Metroid‘s sound, Tanaka created a score that lacked a sustained melody throughout the experience: “As you know, the melody in Metroid is only used at the ending after you killed the Mother Brain. That’s because I wanted only a winner to have a catharsis at the maximum level. For the reason, I decided that melodies would be eliminated during the gameplay. By melody here I mean something that someone can sing or hum.
“I suppose some of the players felt it was little bit too heavy. Back then, many people said the game music for Metroid was too serious. However, I believe I succeeded in emphasizing the characteristic of Metroid by synchronizing the theme of the music with the theme of the gameplay where a player must escape from an underground maze.”
Tanaka was right, of course. Later iterations of Metroid have continued the original’s unique relationship with sound. If you’ve never had the pleasure, pick up the Metroid Prime soundtrack and play the Chozo sections on loop. Absolutely haunting stuff.
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But sound and visuals aren’t the only things that make a game. The gameplay has to deliver first and foremost. The reason we still talk about Metroid today is that all three aspects are married perfectly to create the unique experience. In fact, Metroid’s greatest gift to atmospheric gaming is the way that it used gameplay to generate true immersion in a way that no movie ever could.
There always comes a point (several points, actually) in Metroid when the player feels hopelessly lost. Some games had experimented with this concept before (again, The Legend of Zelda is a great example), but no other title of this speed had ever really emphasized making the player feel helpless on an intellectual level quite like Metroid did. It accomplished this, in large part, by introducing backtracking to video games.
By forcing players to really consider the entire Metroid map as fair game for progress, it also forced them to come to terms with the fact that they were playing an action-based game that wouldn’t yield its rewards simply because every enemy on screen was dead. The true battle here is against the game’s map, which allows you to scroll both left and right and have a look at the flow of the entire layout at once. That’s something we take for granted today, but you can imagine how disorienting that could be for someone who had just finished playing Super Mario Bros.
In another departure from other games of its era, Metroid required you to find specific tools to finish the game, such as the ice beam and missiles. That design method was quite the shift from an era of temporary power-ups in gaming. In order to find these weapons, though, you’d have to survive a merciless gauntlet that made earning these power-ups worthwhile, if not absolutely terrifying.
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If you’re going to beat Metroid, you’re going to have to plunge deeper and deeper into this hostile dungeon and simply hope that you’ll be able to think you’re way out when no obvious answer presents itself. Much of the game’s “appeal” was based on the fact that it would provide players with many moments that forced them to stand alone in a dark sector of the universe attempting to find salvation while a haunting melody seeped into their brains and confirmed their worst fears with glee.
Why would players seek such an experience? Because it makes them feel. They feel not just the terror and dread that environments such as Metroid are built to inspire, but a sense of accomplishment from surviving such a hostile world that could never be equaled by even the most terrifying of singular foes. A movie like Alien drags you through its atmosphere of terror and forces you to decide if you will be carried with dignity or kicking and screaming. Metroid simply places you into its darkness without any promise that you’ll find a way out, yet it gives you the slim hope that you’ll be able to call yourself the master of its world.
What a great gift that has been to the art of game design. It is thanks to Metroid that we now have games like Silent Hill and its fog-drenched world capable of making us feel more afraid than most movies ever could. It’s thanks to Metroid that a title like Dark Souls can make you feel both helpless and invincible. It’s thanks to the atmosphere of Metroid that we know a game can tell a story without saying a word.
It’s been more than 30 years since the world was introduced to Metroid, and it’s still hard to adequately describe the way the game’s atmosphere is able to seep into your skin and stick to your soul. That’s not a technological fact; it’s something much more impressive.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.