Monday, August 30, 2010

Why I won't be buying the new Metroid game

I don't remember when I first learned Samus Aran was a woman, or, as I would have said then, a girl. It might have been when I first played Metroid. We bought it new, so I would have read the instruction manual, but the Internet tells me the US manual called her a man. Later I would somehow lay hands on a comic book, read and reread to the point of ruin, collecting stories of Zelda, Mario, Captain N, and yes, Samus, which somewhat emphasized her femininity (she was often without her helmet, giving us a lot of time to think about her long, blonde hair, and how her lips would feel on ours). I certainly have memories of running through the rooms, arm-cannon blazing, thinking of the player character as a "he," but I had stronger connections to the characters then. I also probably imagined the one beneath the suit was, like Mega Man, actually more or less a child.

I also had a thick book of codes, tricks, and secrets, which I kept a long time. I wish I still had it. In the NES days before the Internet, and in my family's case the days after the Internet had spread but before it found us, information about games was arcane, valuable, even powerful. Doing just about anything correctly in The Goonies II was like magic, in part because the game was (like many NES games) so obscure and illogical. Surviving in Robocop seemed, at the time, every bit as difficult and complicated as adult life, as holding down a job, as earning a wage. This book was obsessively read and reread, including (especially including) the pages on games I would never own, memorized to the point where I might believe I had played and beaten games I never owned.

I think it was from this book that I learned about the "Justin Bailey" code. The game rewarded players for speed by showing Samus in various states of undress. If you were slow in beating it (as most undoubtedly were, given the game's difficulty and complexity) Samus would retain her entire suit in the ending. She might also remove her helmet, however, or strip down to a leotard, or a sort of bikini thing. You could then replay the game with Samus in her new state of undress. "Justin Bailey" got you the bikini. There are a number of theories to explain the code's existence, with the most persuasive one being that it's just a fluke -- the letters in the code happen to correspond to certain conditions, including the bikini. (I imagine some kid entering his name just to see what would happen, freaking out, telling everyone at school.)

The fact that you reveal Samus' femininity by undressing her, by literally removing the armor that makes her mission possible, and that this is a reward for skillful play, creates a tension that continues throughout the series: will Nintendo make her a sex object, or will they allow her to continue as the super-professional bounty hunter super astronaut I came to admire and identify with so much as a kid? They have continued to reward players by removing her armor (though never again by letting you play as her without it) and I've continued, thankfully, to play too slowly to ever see it happen. The narrative of the average Metroid game is, as the player experiences it, a narrative of one lonely woman methodically exploring a terrifying place. The sense of isolation and alienation captured by the original NES game was, for the time, pretty incredible. Super Metroid is generally seen as perfecting that experience, though honestly the austerity and blankness of the original game's graphics have always been a little more compelling to me.

Samus Aran is heroic for her unflappable professionalism. As a kid you might literally spend years with her exploring Zebes -- if you had a friend or a parent to play with (I played the game with my dad, leaching his passwords) you might even eventually figure it out, possibly with the help of maps drawn on graph paper. Otherwise you might never win. The individual instances of play are, in memory, continuous, running parallel to your real life, another life you lived. You and Samus were alone for all that time, shooting strange creatures, boiling in lava or acid, fleeing insects, grinding for health and missile packets, searching for upgrades. You felt the loneliness, and the cold. And yet Samus was strong. She was calm. She never cried out for help. She could handle anything. And so, in Metroid, could you -- if not this time, then the next.

In fact the ability to run around Zebes in a bikini after you conquered it felt, in a way, a satisfying development of the character, not as a sex toy but as a woman: imagine the Justin Bailey bikini as a way of making a victory lap, exposing one's skin to Zebes, one's flesh to the aliens, as if to say, "You are mine now. You are mapped, explored, defeated." Imagine the liberation of taking off that spacesuit and breathing the strange air.

The Metroid Prime games, which re-imagined the series as a first-person shooter, understood why it felt so good to be Samus Aran. They took pains to make you feel as if you were inside the armor. In the third Prime in particular, the visor through which you see the game world is a physical object, which steams up, drips with condensation, fogs, etc. Sometimes the light hits the visor in such a way that you can see your own face reflected in it -- that is, Samus' eyes. It's a reminder that you are Samus. Which begs the question of who Samus is. And, as in all video games, the answer is that Samus is the sort of person who would do the things you do.

Which is to say that she's you -- but also, you are her. You are the kind of girl who goes down to a planet you've never seen before and starts exploring without pausing for a moment. You are the kind of girl who seems to live in a spaceship shaped like her own helmet. You are the kind of girl who, when presented with an extremely horrifying alien, shoots it in the face, and doesn't stop until it falls down. You are the kind of girl who will walk through molten lava, underwater, or through an evil parallel dimension. You are the kind of girl who, when she sees an evil replica of herself, starts shooting. You are the kind of girl that alien tentacle beasts want to eat -- and the kind who, when presented with the gaping maw of said tentacle beast, doesn't seem to mind at all. You are the kind of girl who does everything alone. Very alone. You are not generally the kind of girl who talks much.

Unless, of course, you're playing Metroid: Other M, the newest release, in which case you are apparently the kind of girl who spends a lot of time worrying about what some stupid space marine guys think of you. You also talk a lot about "the baby," the little metroid dude who saved your life from Mother Brain a few games back. You don't undress too often, and when you do it's only down to your relatively tasteful skin-tight space suit, but you do have a lot of emotional fragility and need for approval. You are not, in other words, awesome.

It's not that lady video game heroes can't have internal lives or vulnerabilities or etc., it's the complete tastelessness of making a game that promises to fill you in on who Samus is (not that I really wanted to know; I already knew who she was, she was the girl who conquered Zebes) and then reveals that, basically, she's a chick you want to nail. She's mommy material (apparently she talks about "the baby" a lot) and she really, really needs you to like her. Screw that! I was willing to ignore years of "if you play fast enough you'll get to look at her boobs, sort of," but I refuse to let them do this to the character I grew up loving precisely because she didn't need my love -- because she was capable of singlehandedly exploring a hostile alien environment that not only wanted her dead, but looked really scary.

The worst part? The cutscenes are unskippable. A Metroid game with unskippable cutscenes is like a fish glued to a bicycle seat.

Or really, the truly worst part? Nintendo should have seen this coming. With Team Ninja's history, it's a miracle they didn't build tits into the space suit. It's a miracle there wasn't a whole new jiggle physics system. We're lucky Samus is still the main character, rather than a half-naked lady being saved by her new best friend/object of desire, Seamus. What I'm saying is that Team Ninja's reputation for skillful dramatic depiction of women is two hundred percent worse than their reputation for skillful dramatic depictions of anything else, which is to say, infinitely terrible.

So, yeah, I'm not going to play this game. I'm going to wait until they make a proper Metroid with a proper focus on exploration in a bleak, weird environment and absolutely no implications that Samus is, at heart, a lovesick tween. The thing that drives me crazy about this is, I guess, the feeling that Team Ninja and Nintendo probably think they're doing us a great service by confirming that yes, actually, Samus is a woman, she is feminine, etc. But I already knew that. And apparently I knew a lot of other stuff about her they haven't quite figured out yet.


  1. This is a great post.

    I went into the original Metroid knowing Samus was a woman (my older cousin both opened discussions of new video games for me and spoiled the hell out of them) and when I see the suit I immediately imagine a her inside. But I think that's the most we need--that hint--because the game isn't supposed to be about drawing out that femininity, at least not in some obvious overture.

  2. Thanks Tim.

    And yeah -- it's a great dimension to the character until it *becomes* the character. Pointed manliness does the same thing to a lot of dude characters, really, I just think we're so used to it we don't really notice so much anymore.

  3. I was all set to buy a wii for the sole purpose of other m, but after reading up on it,...blech. Good article.


  4. I know this post was made a long time ago, but I still want to address something about Other M. It's not really as bad as you're making it out to be. Some parts were overplayed, yes. Typically, Samus is silent, and that's what most Metroid fans are comfortable with. Given what she's gone through in her life, I can understand a bit of depression about her, but yeah, Team Ninja took it a bit too far. The story aside, This is a really good game, the control is good, it has pretty sweet exploration oppurtunities, it's reasonably challenging, at least for me. I call it the black sheep of the series, it's different, but not what I'd call bad. I won't say it's a game for everyone, but it deserves some credit, for audacity at the least.