The road to acquiring Metroid’s all-important Bomb has proved to be a surprisingly well-designed one, not quite guiding the player to Samus’ objectives but rather placing limitations on the game’s free-roaming spaces that allow some degree of exploration that eventually comes to an end until you stumble upon the next tool to help Samus range further afield. Remembering (or mapping) tantalizing points to return to further on in the adventure proves key to efficient play, imposing a small burden on the player — not a terrible one, simply enough to force them to become invested in the open-ended world.
In a time when even scrolling in a fixed direction had only been widely available on home consoles for about a year, Metroid expected a lot from players; yet it admirably didn’t simply chuck them in the deep end and demand they swim or drown. Brinstar and the road to the Bomb are perfect beginners’ pools. You can take issue with the game for its repetitive visuals or Samus’ weird jump physics or the way you restart the game with just 30 points of health every time (forcing you to dawdle around and farm health pick-ups whenever you continue) — but Anatomy of a Game is about the way well-designed games show you the ropes without resorting to in-ear navigation or tutorials. In that respect, Metroid does an admirable job.
Disappointingly, the game turns out to be somewhat less focused once you acquire the Bomb. That’s definitely a part of Metroid’s charm — you’re plopped into the middle of a vast extraterrestrial labyrinth and left to puzzle your way through the thing — but you can definitely see the rough edges here that serve as telltale signs of a young medium and an undefined genre. Beyond the Bomb, Metroid can be frustrating thanks to its combination of unavoidable visual monotony, obscure mechanics, and some very poorly conceived room layouts. Combined with the freedom to go pretty much anywhere and do just about anything, these can lead to some truly infuriating moments as you seek to conquer Norfair and the boss hideouts.
Part of the problem is that while the Bomb represents the last absolutely mandatory piece of Samus’ tool-arsenal, it’s not the last addition to her repertoire. Most of Metroid’s pick-ups take the form of Missile expansions or Energy Tanks, but you can find four other items within the labyrinth. One of them is almost completely useless; another is incredibly helpful though not mandatory; and finally, two of them may be technically non-mandatory, but you’ll find it difficult to finish the adventure without them.
However, these items are scattered throughout the game, and Metroid offers extremely little guidance to light your path to them. The most important of these, the Ice Beam, actually shows up in two different spots. However, one is deviously hidden, and the other is back in Norfair. The problem, though, is that players probably won’t go back to Norfair immediately after collecting the Bomb. Instead, they’ll almost certainly be enticed to venture into an area for which they’re ill-prepared but nevertheless can explore almost in its entirety… a process destined to end in failure.
While the next “proper” step in the game is to venture down into Norfair and find Ridley’s lair (and the useful doodad hidden thereabouts), the game really seems to want you to go to the “wrong” area instead. The path to Kraid’s hideout has been taunting you since the very beginning of the adventure: It’s the breakable rock floor in the room adjacent to Samus’ starting point. You’ve passed over it every time you’ve had to continue to head back to the tall, tall shaft, and with the Bomb in hand you can finally blow open the floor and see what lies below. Furthermore, the route from Norfair’s dead ends to the Bomb seems to be pointing in Kraid’s direction. You could certainly be forgiven for going there next.
With deft play, you can even reach Kraid. Now that you’ve learned the basics of the game, Metroid has very few new tricks up its sleeve, so the game beyond this point is more or less simply a matter of coming to terms with the vast sprawl of Zebes and not letting enemies get the best of you. Reaching him requires persistence and a small amount of curiosity… and also the sense not to be fooled by the fake Kraid that you can destroy in a single shot. Hey, the concept of bosses in video games was pretty new in 1986. You could be forgiven for not knowing how they work.
The problem is, should you head immediately to Kraid after getting the Bomb, you almost certainly can’t win. He hits pretty hard and soaks up far more damage than you can deliver with the paltry amount of Missiles you’ll have collected to this point. You can leave a boss’ lair at any time to regroup and recharge, but its health tally will reset and you’ll have to start from scratch. You’ll basically reach an impasse here… and should you elect to return to Brinstar, you’ll find the only route there consists of climbing a shaft of breakable blocks you can only ascend by shooting them away and waiting for them to reform. Should one of the blocks reform while you’re in its space, it’ll damage you and the recoil will send you flying back down to the bottom of the shaft. It’s a clever room design but not fun in the least. If you can’t get the timing down, the only way out is to die… which means respawning at the entrance to Kraid’s hideout with a piddling 30 points of health, per usual.
This isn’t a major design failure, and it’s not even something all gamers will experience. But it’s an example of the rough edges Metroid possesses, the small design oversights that can make it difficult for most people to go back after so many years of seeing these concepts refined by sequels and would-be successors.