‘The last Metroid is in captivity; the galaxy is at peace’

The other day (Saturday), marked the 25th anniversary of something very special: the release of Metroid, a science-fiction action-exploration video game for the original Nintendo console.

I could talk to you about how important this was, what the gameplay and music did that was so innovative and all that, but do you really care? No, you don’t really care. And anyway, I didn’t play it when it first came out. Metroid was only available in Japan, and around that time, I was mostly focused on trying to become an embryo.

The fundamental plot of the original, 1986 game is that it’s the future. Interstellar trade is going on, but these really dangerous creatures called Metroids have just been discovered, and Space Pirates (the bad guys), stole Metroids to be used to take over everything and make life generally less wonderful for the rest of the galaxy.

The Galactic Federation tries to attack the Space Pirates’ planetary base with the regular military, but are unsuccessful, meaning the Federation calls on Samus Aran, the best bounty hunter in the whole universe, to go onto the planet’s surface, infiltrate the base and wipe out all the Metroids, ostensibly within 24 hours.

This was back when video games didn’t cost $50 million or have cut scenes, so what I’ve just told you is only garnered from reading the instruction manual. Otherwise, you start as a character in a helmet and spacesuit, armed with a cannon, materializing out of the dark into what looks like an 8-bit, PG-rendering of an H.R. Giger painting. You jump around, shoot some prickly looking obviously-bad guys, and almost immediately find a power-up that allows you to roll into a ball get to previously inaccessible areas. The rest of the game proceeds like that, and although intricacies were mind-blowing, none of the above should sound too crazy.

Except that at the end of the game, having runned around and blowed up all manner of things fearsome in places inhospitable, ultimately destroying the entire base, you learn that this incredible bounty hunter — this fearless silent protagonist you’ve been playing as the whole time — is a woman.

Even today, that’s extremely rare. Women just are not serious characters in action roles. If they are, the whole time they have to dress like strumpets (to use a more polite word). Even female knights in the fantasy genre have to, apparently, consider their cleavage and upper thighs too valuable to consider covering.

Of course, even in the first game, Samus will wear less clothing at the end depending on how quick you manage to beat it, a tradition that continued in a thankfully more tasteful way later on. And outside the games, guys drool over the legendary, planet-exploding bounty hunter as much for her pretty pretty blonde hair and well-endowed proportions as her super cool powered battle suit, but that’s somewhat unavoidable. Fans are degenerate scum.

The important thing is Metroid proved you can make a good game, and good fiction, with the gender of a character being irrelevant — like the original Alien film (1979). Protagonist Ellen Ripley was created, and made interesting, by changing what had been a male role to a female, leaving all dialogue and actions intact, apart from pronouns. Even then, Ripley ends up in her underwear at the end of the movie.

So Metroid proved, again, there’s hope for women in fiction to be more than passive damsels, victims and eye candy. And maybe one day it’ll be common, and they won’t have to be eye candy at all.

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