The year was 1986.
Nintendo had just released their celebrated Nintendo Entertainment System (the NES) in America a year earlier, and kids everywhere were crazy for it. Super Mario Bros. was being shouted from the rooftops by any kid with even a remote interest in video games and the gaming world at large was in the beginning phases of what would eventually become Super Mario hysteria. The Legend Of Zelda had not released in America or Europe, and was not even a twinkle in the gaming community’s eye outside of Japan...yet.
During this time, Nintendo quietly released a sci-fi action game for their new NES gaming console. In contrast to most of Nintendo’s games--and most of what had been released on the NES in general up to that point--this game was dark, eerie, and exuded atmosphere. And while it would never enjoy the mainstream success of the Super Mario and Zelda games on the NES, this particular game earned itself a devoted cult following that has followed it for 30 years through multiple sequels and prequels.
This game was Metroid.
There are those that believe that, for all their success they have enjoyed with Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon, the Metroid series is Nintendo’s greatest creation, and quietly one of its most influential. It is a series that eschews the usual colorful visuals and welcoming characters most of Nintendo’s games feature--or the bombastic, frenetic action featured in many of today’s action and first-person shooter games--and defines itself with exploration, moody atmosphere, and subtlety. In fact, it seems to revel in it (not to mention a protagonist who looks intimidating in its design and capabilities). Gamers were introduced to terms like Screw Attack, Morph Ball, Jump Ball, and an alien race called the Chozo--in locales that seemed just that: alien.
It’s a series whose first three games were so severe in their impact and influence to those that played them--gamers and developers alike--that a whole new genre was birthed that modeled itself after the Metroid gameplay mold. Thus, a new term was born for the new Metroid-inspired genre: Metroidvania. Konami’s Castlevania series, which reinvented itself to follow the Metroid formula, was the most notorious, and were successful enough doing so that from 1997-2008. Konami released seven Castlevania games over three different systems that all imitated--but never bested--Super Metroid.
Most notable in the early days of Metroid was Super Metroid (or Metroid 3) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Super Metroid is, today, revered as a digital masterpiece--but that respect and reverence didn’t occur overnight. Super Metroid originally released in 1994, the same year as another Super Nintendo game (featuring a simian character who was much more well-known to the gaming world) called Donkey Kong Country.
Donkey Kong Country came out in November 1994 and stunned the gaming world with its cutting-edge graphics and character animations, which were unprecedented on a console for that time. Not to mention, its huge sales gave the Super Nintendo the permanent advantage in its heated rivalry with Sega’s Genesis console. Donkey Kong Country was a huge game for Nintendo in 1994 and 1995, with lots of buzz coming from gaming and mainstream press alike. So suffice it to say, in the mid-90s, gamers were not really talking about Super Metroid in the hushed whispers of reverence the way they do today. It was not until the Metroid resurgence in the 2000s that Super Metroid began to occupy its lofty place in the gaming pantheon. As more Metroidvania games came out imitating Super Metroid--yet always seeming to fall short--Super Metroid’s reputation rose higher. It is now hailed as one of the greatest video games ever and sits at the #1 spot on many greatest games lists. Donkey Kong Country does not. In fact, Donkey Kong Country 2 is regarded as the better game in the series, and even Yoshi’s Island, which also came out the same year as Country 2, is seen by many as the better game. However, another platformer soon came out that overshadowed them all. In fact, it overshadowed everything in the gaming world for quite awhile and further pushed Super Metroid under the radar in the '90s.
In 1996, Nintendo released Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64, and the gaming world pretty much lost their collective mind. Super Mario 64’s impact on gaming is another story for another article, but suffice it to say that after Super Mario 64 released, 2D games were not in demand the way they once were (Pokemon games being an exception). 2D was so yesterday. 3D was the future and everyone wanted to explore what it had to offer.
Meanwhile, the Metroid series never got a release on the Nintendo 64, which did nothing to bolster Super Metroid’s reputation, or the series’ reputation in general in the late '90s. After Super Metroid released in 1994, fans were treated to a drought that lasted eight long years, all the way through the Nintendo 64’s lifespan and into the GameCube years. Finally, in 2002, Nintendo released Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion, both on the same day. This marked the beginning of Metroid’s resurgence that lasted the rest of the decade--and are the best years the series has seen up to this point.
Outside of the 2000s, many long-time fans feel that Nintendo has consistently treated Metroid as a second-tier series. While Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon games always seem to be lighting up the sales charts for Nintendo, the Metroid series gets treated to long droughts and non-committal answers from Nintendo about its future. The NES release was easily the best sci-fi game on the console and earned itself respectable sales and a dedicated following. So how did Nintendo thank the fans for their support? By putting the sequel on the black and white Game Boy. Super Mario got three releases on the NES. Zelda got two. Metroid got one--and not a proper console sequel for eight years--and not another sequel after that for another eight years. For a series that has been as influential as Metroid has been over its lifetime, single-handedly creating a whole new video game genre, Nintendo always seems to eventually find a reason to not make it a priority.
As I write this, Metroid fans are in year six of another Metroid drought. The last Metroid game fans saw was the divisive Other M for Wii. This month in August 2016, Nintendo will be releasing Metroid Prime: Federation Force for the 3DS. However, let’s just say fans are not exactly enthusiastic about the game’s imminent release if YouTube reaction is anything to go by. Nintendo has become strangely tone deaf about what Metroid fans want.
Metroid fans dream of the day when Nintendo will realize how truly special their seminal sci-fi franchise is and consistently give it the same respect they ascribe to their other top-tier game franchises. No other Nintendo series with as much cache as Metroid has these long droughts. It’s unfortunate, and Metroid fans everywhere look forward to another great Metroid resurgence as we follow the adventures of Samus Aran around the galaxy, fighting Space Pirates, exploring beautiful and exotic alien planets, and hunting bounty.