Once you make your way beyond Metroid‘s very clever, very brilliantly designed introductory moments, the game wastes no time in becoming promptly, well, weird.
Beyond the low-hanging wall that blocks the opening area from the remainder of the game, the first vertically oriented room of the game (or at least the first that you can scroll up or down at this point in the adventure) awaits. And it’s a doozy.
The long shaft here serves a role not quite equivalent to a hub, but it’s close. It rises (and rises… and rises), and as it does so it provides a number of doors that you can duck into to explore. You enter the shaft from the bottom-left door, and it runs parallel to a similar (albeit shorter) vertical room located across a one-screen bridge which you pass through via the single door on the right wall of the long shaft, located about midway up.
Further up the shaft you’ll find two doors in the left wall as well. You can’t do anything with the rooms beyond at first; rather, you’ll need to backtrack. But the game allows you explore them in a limited capacity, leading you to mysterious dead-ends in order to build intrigue. If the doors inset in the shaft wall were simply locked, you might remember to go back and visit them. But allowing you to journey partway into the rooms beyond only to find yourself stymied by obstacles makes these areas more memorable — and therefore more likely to call you back to explore later, once you have the proper tools to access what lies further in. The shaft at the top leads to the final areas of the game, so it’ll be quite a while before Samus can pass by that barrier — but the “obstacle” located there is unique in the entire game, and therefore quite memorable.
And it’s a good thing these moments stand out, because the shaft itself is only memorable in how repetitive and lengthy it is. With the perspective of hindsight it doesn’t seem so terrible, but thinking back to the perspective of 1986, when games frequently consisted of single rooms strung together, it just kept going and going. The first time I played Metroid, I still expected to reach the end of a level at some point… but instead, the screen kept scrolling up, and up, and up. By the time I finally reached the bridge to the right, midway up, I was desperate for some evidence that the game wasn’t glitched or that I had somehow completely screwed up and become trapped in a trick loop.
Needless to say, when I crossed over the bridge and found another identical shaft, I nearly panicked.
At this point, Metroid gives you a lot of options with many paths that lack obvious dead-ends. There’s a “correct” route through the game, but it’s not immediately intuitive, and you can basically go any direction from that central connective bridge and get quite a ways before you hit an impassible wall or a red door that won’t open with normal blaster fire.
Go up from the bridge and you’ll find a room with some unique pillars and tubes that effectively serves as a dead-end.
Straight ahead, however, you’ll find a horizontal room full of acidic liquid that saps Samus’ health if she falls into it. Further into the room is an extremely valuable item, an Energy Tank; it doubles Samus’ maximum health capacity… though you still begin each game with 30 health, because Metroid is an old game and therefore kind of hates you a little. Still, that’s all you can collect from here for the moment, and eventually you’ll reach an impasse.
The bottom-right door of the second shaft, however, contains an essential key to progress: A missile expansion. This gives Samus a secondary form of attack, a powerful expendable projectile that hits enemies many times harder than her normal shot and is capable of destroying certain creatures that her blaster can’t.
What makes the missile so interesting — and this sets a pattern of game design that carries through the Metroid series as a whole and in many ways defines it — is that it also functions as a key. Rather than forcing Samus to find a red key to open red doors, Metroid empowers her to bypass those barriers by shooting them with five missiles. Her gear thus offers multiple functions, and the game world begins to expand as Samus grows more powerful. It’s an extraordinary concept, and the moment you collect your first missile, you’ve become inducted into one of the most compelling schools of game design ever.
Make no mistake: Metroid doesn’t work this well all the way through the adventure. But it builds the framework for true genius right here. Nintendo wouldn’t follow through and realize its full potential for nearly another decade, but perfection takes time. For its day, Metroid offers some startlingly forward-thinking concepts.
Shaft image taken from VGMaps