Maplessness in Metroid

Posted: 2014-02-27 19:29:18
Last edited: 2014-02-27 19:34:17
This was originally posted on May 25th, 2010.

Metroid structure has always intrigued me, but talking about it is hard. This piece is a valiant effort, but ultimately it relies too much on some awkward touches. For instance, the reader must open up the map of each game in a separate window to verify my evidence, and there are a few leaps in logic.

Still, this piece is a nice start on my thoughts regarding Metroid and Super Metroid. Like many things, it's a matter I hope to revisit.
Games discussed: Metroid, Super Metroid

Someone once told me that the jumping mechanics in Super Mario Bros. 3 were better than those in Super Mario Bros. “You can make jumps in Super Mario Bros. 3 that aren’t possible in Super Mario Bros.”

I disagree with this person very much.

This view limits his appreciation of video games. Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 are different games with different stage and enemy construction–-it only makes sense that Mario would behave differently to match these conditions. Mario’s inability to change direction in midair makes sense in Super Mario Bros.; stage design is very linear and forward-focused. Take, for instance, the looping castle puzzles. Even though there are two or three different routes Mario might take, these routes all run parallel to each other, going forward. Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, requires more midair flexibility; not every path leads Mario in one direction. The jumping mechanics fit the game.

Viewing a sequel solely as an improvement over its predecessor often leads you to take for granted the finer aspects of each. Mario’s jumping mechanics in Super Mario Bros. highlight the game’s forward sense of flow, while his jumping mechanics in Super Mario Bros. 3 emphasize the complexity of direction in game’s design. Both can be enjoyable and worthwhile in their own right.

It might be more convincing to argue this another way. The platforms in Super Mario Bros. are constructed around Mario’s jumping mechanics. Using SMB3 jumping mechanics with SMB’s platform design would be too easy, and using SMB mechanics with SMB3 platform design would be too difficult. Of course, challenge is not the only standard by which we should judge game design, but for this example, it’s an easy-to-use metric.

Super Metroid gives the player an in-game map. This map is automatically constructed as the player travels from room to room; the game keeps track of the size and location of each room you enter. Also, you can see this map on the pause screen. Metroid, on the other hand, offers no map of any kind. Viewing Super Metroid’s map as an improvement over Metroid takes for granted the intricacies in the design of both games.

Atmospherically, the lack of map is extremely important to Metroid. If you were lost in a labyrinth, and you didn’t have some thread on hand, you would need to construct a map. In this sense, Metroid draws you further into the game by not providing a map. If you were lost within the depths of Zebes, you need to make a map; nothing would be there to do it for you. This adds to the game’s sense of bewilderment. A large amount of Metroid is spent wandering around getting your bearings straight, and the lack of a map adds to that.

Practically speaking, this isn’t a problem. Look at a map of Metroid’s Zebes (you can find them easily enough on GameFAQs) and you’ll see that the game is small enough that this is no hassle. You don’t even need any paper, the game is small enough that you can commit it to memory well enough. I learned to recognize landmarks along my path, and I found myself memorizing Zebes without realizing it. Once I enter Ridley’s Hideout, I always go left, down, right, down, and left-–but I know to take that path because I spot landmarks along the way. Of course, that path took some time to find-–there’s a lot of tunnels in Metroid. Once you get where you want to be, though, it’s not hard to remember how you got there.

Keep that map of Zebes open–-there’s more. You also aren’t given a map because the game’s structure lacks direction. Rather than long, complicated paths that take you to specific places, there are many small, simple branches which take you to various upgrades and items. The path to Ridley is one of these paths. More often than not, passages to items such as missiles or the Varia Suit are less complicated than the path to Ridley. However, they are also distinct from one another. You don’t pick up the Varia Suit on your way to Ridley or to the Screw Attack–all three of these are found on completely separate paths. By providing no map, the game requires you to rely on your own sense of direction. You have to ask yourself: now that I’ve taken this path, where did it take me? How does it relate to the paths that I’ve already taken? Which paths will take me to places I haven’t been? This analysis would not take place if the game gave you a map.

Since you have no map, you must take the structure of Zebes more seriously. This is possible in part because the paths themselves are simple-–the game isn’t asking you to compare two winding, confusing paths. Instead, the game asks you to compare a few simple paths in each area. Take, for instance, the path to Ridley that I mentioned earlier. Instead of going left when you enter Ridley’s Hideout, you could also go right, down 2 levels, then left in order to reach Ridley. However, this path is longer than the path I mentioned earlier, and it’s also got many more enemies stationed in much more difficult places. If you took this path first, you might ask, “how can I avoid going through all these enemies?” Well, you might try going left, then down, then right-–in essence, reversing the order in which you take a right path and a left path. This requires an analysis of the options given to you; for instance, you need to make sure that, if you go left, you can go down. If you could only go up, you could never go downward and meet Ridley. A map constructed for you by the game would trivialize this. You would not need to analyze your path to figure out where Ridley was, and you would not need to analyze your surroundings to search for alternate paths; the map would pinpoint Ridley’s location for you. Also, if you went too far down and went past Ridley’s room, a simple look at the map would instantly inform you.

In short, a map would simplify analysis in Metroid to a harmful extent. Part of the experience is in figuring out where you are, and sometimes, where you are in relation to everything else. You have to pay attention to your surroundings and watch where you’re going.

There’s one exception here: the route through Tourian to Mother Brain, unlike most paths in Metroid, is long and winding. However, there is only one way through Tourian, since each room has one entrance and one exit; there is no chance of the player getting lost along this path.

On the other hand, Super Metroid goes for something else. It provides the player a map, but the Zebes in Super Metroid is much larger and much more complex than the one that’s in Metroid. In addition, the game is structured around its 8 bosses, and the items are no longer so optional. In order to get the Varia Suit, you need to beat Kraid, and in order to beat Crocomire, you need the Varia Suit (unless you’re very good at Super Metroid). In order to reach Draygon, you need to have the Gravity Suit, and in order to reach Ridley, you need to have the Space Jump. You largely look for items in order to reach the next boss so you can move on in the game. While you might go out of your way to get an extra 5 Super Missiles, your largest concern is still obtaining the tools that you need to reach the next boss. This offers a linearity to the game which trivializes maplessness.

In Super Metroid, you aren’t picking up disparate items on the planet Zebes; your path is always to the next required item or the next required boss. Since you are only discovering one complex path, rather than a multitude of separate, simple paths, the game may as well keep track of it for you. Once you find where you’re supposed to be going, there’s no more major discovering to be done. You may find small side rooms containing extra items, but these are small bonuses rather than large, crucial elements. They also do not take you far off the path. Since the path you took isn’t a trivial path–-there’s lots of twists and turns and crazy structures–-it’s natural that the game helps you to remember how to get there. For instance, I can’t remember right now how to get to Ridley from the top of Norfair, and I’ve put much more time into Super Metroid than Metroid. Imagine traversing Maridia without a map!

This isn’t to say the path forward is always clear. Sometimes the player may need to backtrack in order to progress. However, the map functions as one of the game’s hints, providing the player a clue of where to explore. The items function the same way; once you get the Grapple Beam, you know to explore where there are grapple blocks.

I realize that I merely asserted that the Super Mario Bros. jumping mechanics are appropriate for the game’s platform design. Then I did the same for Super Mario Bros. 3.

Super Metroid is constructed with long, winding paths that have short offshooting paths. The map serves as a reminder to the player of where these long paths are and where they lead. Metroid, on the other hand, has no central paths; instead, it is composed of a myriad of short paths branching in different directions. While the main paths in Super Metroid are distinct, there are no main paths in Metroid. The lack of an in-game map in Metroid is expressive of the lack of direction in Metroid’s construction.
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All original content on VG Thought was written by Greg Livingston AKA Golem.