The Anatomy of Metroid: II. Shafted

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

14 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Metroid: II. Shafted

  1. Yeah, that’s just what I was going to say. Great layout work! Great article too. I still sometimes feel like the game has glitched and I’m climbing an infinite shaft when I play Metroid

  2. This is really interesting to me because I’ve never played the original Metroid, only its Zero Mission remake, which changes a number of things. It really makes me want to play them both, for comparison’s sake (since I love Zero Mission).

    1. As a testament to Zero Mission’s fidelity, I have a MUCH easier time remembering the critical path of Metroid now after not having played through it ages than I did the last time I played it.

  3. I was just playing through the first part of Metroid on a whim the other day. Shamefully, I have to admit that I completely forgot where the first missile expansion is and tried every other door in those shafts first before I found it. I guess its a good thing those parts of my brain have been rewritten with slightly more important things like the date of my wife’s birthday, right?

  4. When it comes to these long repetitive vertical shafts, that can be blamed squarely on the limitations of technology. The game can only have so many “rooms” per zone, and that forces them to reuse a lot of the same rooms in long vertical corridors like this. Luckily the designers smartly limit these kind of long vertical corridors… the two you mention are the only ones in Brinstar you have to worry about at all.

    1. Oh, of course. But I didn’t know that 25 years ago. I was worried something was wrong with my NES.

  5. Great entry, and great layout.

    I adore Super Metroid, but I never played Metroid back in the NES days, and half-hearted attempts to go back to it were stifled by its unforgiving ways. I was enormously thankful for Zero Mission because of that. I think an entry comparing and contrasting Zero Mission with the original would be fascinating - but I imagine you already thought of this!

    Also, just throwing this out there: I wish Nintendo would do the Zero Mission treatment to the first Zelda.

  6. I don’t remember how old I was when I first played this game (7 years? 8?), but I definitely remember the ridiculously long shaft. Granted, I was playing this at a friend’s house, so I already knew the game wasn’t glitched or anything, but that was still a weird first impression.

    At least the twin shafts are a safe-ish place to build up your life meter.

  7. I think a lot of us got a surreal sensation from that first, impossibly long vertical shaft back in the day. I know I did, anyway; I was a late-comer to the game, but still before the days of easy internet answers myself, so I’m sure as I read through this I’ll have lots more ‘Oh, you *too*?’ moments like that.

    I especially like how the developers color-coded the two central shafts of Zebes; it shows how much they were thinking of the player experience even from the start. From a topological perspective, the ‘twin shaft’ does nothing; it could easily have been compressed into one and that little connecting room eliminated entirely with only the most minor changes to a few other rooms, but they probably realized - perhaps after playtesting - that it’s far, *far* easier to remember three doors from the ‘blue shaft’ and three from the ‘orange shaft’ rather than six doors all from a single blue one going in different directions.

    Of course, another possible reason is that it allowed them to conserve single-screen layouts more efficiently, which mattered a lot, especially in Brinstar, which had the greatest variety of room types of all the area banks. The compression methods they used for this game resulted in all kinds of….interesting, let’s call it, design choices. Which I’m sure you’ll be happy to point out as you go along! I’m excited to see what you come up with!

  8. Metroid always filled me with fear: the fear of not knowing where to go next, or how to get the needed weapons/items/powerups; the fear of constantly thinking you were going to die or get lost or fall into lava/acid. The music played a key role in that, because after the initial awesomeness of the beginning it starts taking a more sinister and ambient sound approach. Metroid 2 did the same thing.

  9. Nice formatting! The only thing that could have improved it would be if the flow of text and the movement of Samus through this room could go in the same direction, but you’d have to flip either the text or the image to do that. See if you can do it in a future article!

    This article makes me wonder the minimum number of changes needed to make Metroid accessible. For example, should this room have been reduced to one third of its original height, but with enemies that do three times as much damage and health pellets that replenish three times as much?

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