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How “Metroid” Changed the Game

The story of how Nintendo’s “Metroid” changed the world of video gaming forever.

Written by Dan Perrine

In the early years of gaming, many ideas were tested. Some failed with consumers, others succeeded. It wasn’t until around the mid to late ’80s that video games found their true footing. However, one thing was consistent during this period of trial and error: the main leads in these games were always male. And to make matters worse, back then, no one even questioned it.

Technically, the first ever female video game protagonist was a character named Billie Sue, who starred in a quaint farming game for the Atari 2600 titled “Wabbit.” Which I guess was named by Elmer Fudd. But a girl being the main lead in a video game with action and adventure? That would be absurd!

Then along came a Japanese video game company that, in just a few short years, had already established itself as a titan in gaming: Nintendo. Two massively successful titles, “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda,” revolutionized gaming as we know it in their own different ways.  Nintendo’s third major title, released in the summer of 1986 (or the summer of 1987 here in North America), was “Metroid.”

“Metroid” was released to both critical and commercial success as yet another game from Nintendo that revolutionized the action-adventure genre in a whole new way. And that was all before  players reached the end of the game. It was there where Metroid truly became the genre-defining game that we know and love today.

For the entirety of the game, its protagonist is hidden under a suit of space armor, called the Power Suit, as the game takes place on the alien world of Zebes. It's this unnamed and silent space bounty hunter's job to defeat the space pirates who have taken the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy, the Metroids, with the intention to weaponize them.

And then, once the space pirates and their leader are defeated and peace is restored, our mysterious protagonist turns to the audience. Only then is it revealed who was behind the helmet this entire time. Lo and behold, it turns out it was a woman, Samus Aran, the entire time!

Now, I wasn’t anywhere near being alive back in the ’80s when this came out, but from what I’ve heard and read, the fact that you play as a woman shocked everyone! Keep in mind, this was long before the age of the internet, so there was no other way to find this out unless you went on the whole journey yourself. Well, maybe other than schoolyard talk — though even then, I’d bet a whole lot of money that those who were told would have been hard-pressed to believe you.

"...playing through the game as a woman is just as good as if you were playing as a dude."

Going beyond the initial reaction of surprise, the reveal opened many people’s eyes to the idea that yes, playing through the game as a woman is just as good as if you were playing as a dude. And going beyond the original game, time has shown just how culturally significant that moment was.

Since then, “Metroid” has grown into not only one of the greatest and most successful intellectual properties from Nintendo, but also throughout the gaming industry as a whole. The latest game in the series, “Metroid Dread,” released in December 2022, quickly becoming the bestselling game in the franchise's history. And on top of that, the upcoming game, “Metroid Prime 4,” is currently one of the most-anticipated video games today, despite its development seeming to be so elusive. (Don’t mean to go on a tangent here, but I just have to say: I was 13 years old when you announced this game. I am now 20. What are you doing, Nintendo!?)

Anyways, back to the subject at hand. The impact “Metroid” had going forward in the video gaming industry cannot be understated. Since then, many incredible female protagonists have come about and starred in their own spectacular games — from the rise of the archaeologist-adventurer Lara Croft from the “Tomb Raider” series, to the dawn of the huntress Aloy from the “Horizon” series, to the incredibly bold Bayonetta from, well … the “Bayonetta” series. Of course, we can’t forget Ellie Williams from the cinematic masterpiece that is “The Last of Us.” And that’s just naming a few. I could say more, but I only have two pages for this article.

Some female characters that were once only seen as the prize to be won have evolved into phenomenal characters themselves. Take Princess Peach for example, who some may consider to be the mother of all damsels in distress ( and I can’t blame them). With Bowser kidnapping her nearly 100 times, it was basically her weekend gig. But things have changed, and now Peach is set to star in her very own game, “Princess Peach: Showtime!” which will be released March 22 of this year. And I don’t mean to go on another tangent, but I must say I am super excited to play it as soon as it comes out!

I think it’s safe to say that “Metroid” and the reveal of Samus sent a shockwave across the gaming industry, showing us all how, unlike most games back then, women could be so much more than just the end goal for a male protagonist. And if you don’t think so, what's wrong with you?

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