Metroid: An Engineer’s Odyssey

What kind of game would a bunch of engineers make? Well, before I answer that question, a bit of history is in order.

In the early days of video games, virtually all of Nintendo’s good ideas sprang Athena-like from the mind of master engineer and one-time janitor Gunpei Yokoi. After designing electronic novelties like the Love Tester, Yokoi invented the Game & Watch series, a perfect blend of inexpensive components and appealing design. Game & Watch became an immediate hit in Japan, featuring deceptively simple games which provided the perfection distraction for salarymen on the train ride home. It also marked the invention of the D-pad — I don’t need to tell you how influential and ubiquitous this simple, pragmatic feature would become.

Yokoi used his position as head of Nintendo’s Research and Development 1 (R&D1) division to pioneer other feats of cost-effective entertainment, most importantly the Gameboy. Nintendo’s still-unqualified dominance of the handheld market is thanks to Yokoi.

R&D1’s engineers spent most of their time playing around with chips and semiconductors, but once in 1986 they felt a sudden, irresistible compulsion to make a video game, produced by Yokoi and co-directed by two of his employees, Satoru Okada and Yoshio Sakamoto.

So what kind of game would a bunch of engineers make? Answer: one that reflects their own sensibilities and methodology.

Any hardware engineering project is going to start with a goal. Then the engineers will look at the tools and materials available, acquire more if necessary, and complete the task, preferably in the most efficient way possible. There is no road map, and often times there is more than one solution. Engineers must rely on their own critical thinking skills to find the best path.

Metroid follows very much the same structure, beginning with a concrete goal: to reach Tourian and kill Mother Brain. Simple enough, except this was 1986, and there were no navi-characters or super guides or even much of a story — just you and the Planet Zebes and whatever horrible creatures might dwell within.

The tools available at the start of the game are extremely limited. Very quickly the player discovers the Morph Ball, immediately opening up new areas to explore. Other upgrades like High Jump Boots and the Ice Beam are similarly sprinkled throughout the vast interior of Zebes, and the game gives no indication of what order they should be collected in — or if they’re even necessary to win the game. Unlike Mario’s temporary powers like Starmen and Fire Flowers, these upgrades are permanent, adding a sense of accomplishment the more one plays.

The game’s strangest feature is its almost total lack of a soundtrack, especially considering Nintendo’s track record for producing amazingly catchy tunes. Most of the game’s sparse BGM is a collection of ambient bleeps and bloops, designed to add a sense of chaotic, natural life to Brinstar and Norfair.

To an engineer, this directionless chaos is like water. What seem to be random passages at first slowly reveal their pattern. What seems to be haphazard upgrade placement slowly becomes a sequence. By approaching the problem critically, and taking careful stock of resources, Metroid becomes an equation — albeit a rather complex one with clunky controls by today’s standards.

The true beauty of Metroid is that there is no single solution to the overarching problem. Upgrades can be obtained in different orders, and some upgrades, like the Varia Suit, are completely optional. A player can even sequence break by exploiting game mechanics to reach areas early. The game can be completed in a staggeringly short amount of time if you know what you’re doing (the world record is less than an hour), and players are rewarded with better endings for short completion times. All of this serves to encourage players to constantly tweak their strategies in search of the perfectly optimized route.

Metroid has left a complex legacy. It was followed by Super Metroid, which captured much of the unguided ethos of the original while making some concessions to mass appeal, most notably in its melody-filled soundtrack. Yet the side-scrolling Metroid games since then — Fusion and Zero Mission — are strikingly linear and discourage sequence breaking.

Many of the modern Castlevania games have also followed the Metroid formula of upgrades and progression, starting with Symphony of the Night. But these Metroidvania games take a starkly different approach, utilizing strong storytelling, an upbeat score, and a more or less linear progression. Newer games like Shadow Complex are similarly structured.

What would the former R&D1 team members think of the legacy of their modest game? The typical Nintendo employee is humble and committed to company, so they would never dare to speak criticism. Yet I have to wonder if Okada and Sakamoto* don’t long for the olden days, when an engineer’s oddball pet project could be developed in a few months by a bare bones staff and go on to sell millions. Modern Nintendo games are too often developed with mass appeal in mind, which means orchestral soundtracks, cinematic storytelling, and lots of hand-holding.

If nothing else, Metroid serves as a window into the minds of some of the brightest beacons in early gaming. Yokoi’s R&D1 team approached conundrums like developing the Gameboy with methodical efficiency. When they brought this energy to Metroid, they produced a game reflecting their own penchant for finding order in chaos. Metroid is of little appeal to folks who just want to pop in a game and have mindless fun, but to those who enjoy solving a difficult logic problem, there are few games that do it better.

*Gunpei Yokoi was tragically killed in a car accident in 1997. He was 56.

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4 thoughts on “Metroid: An Engineer’s Odyssey

  1. Nice article. One of the great things about Nintendo moving more in to the digital marketplace is they once again have a place for the smaller games with weird concepts that can be developed quickly by small teams and sold at a much less risky price to the consumer. We’re starting to see that with games like Pushmo/Crashmo, HarmoKnight, and more.

    • I’m glad you brought that up — the games you mentioned are perfect examples and hopefully evidence of great things to come. It’s especially exciting now that Miyamoto has said he’s going to focus on developing smaller, more experimental games from now on. I’ve always thought he makes a sublime developer, but a pretty terrible producer.

  2. Interesting to think of Metroid game play to a kind of equation solving. Considering the backtracking and decision making for upgrades, very much like a constraint satisfaction problem. Lots of games are have this flow today. It makes sense to me that a bunch of computer engineers would help pioneer it.

  3. Pingback: Enduring Legacies: Symphony of the Night | The 8-Bit Vista

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