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How ‘Super Metroid’ channeled ‘Aliens’ and became the first feminist video game

How ‘Super Metroid’ channeled ‘Aliens’ and became the first feminist video game

In his not-quite seminal but still very good 1998 essay “F/X Porn,” David Foster Wallace dissects the lasting legacy of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Well, more accurately, he examines the enduring stain left by Cameron’s film on the modern action movie, but whatever.) The essay doesn’t offer much in the way of profundity regarding CGI-addled blockbusters or Arnold Scwarzenegger, though it does have that singular Wallace wit; the appeal of the breezy essay lies within Wallace’s digressive musings on Aliens, Cameron’s previous film, to which the writer dedicates just as many words as he does to the purported subject of the essay.

For the uninitiated, Aliens is Cameron’s lean, mean sequel to Ridley Scott’s body-horror classic Alien. An ostensible testosterone-fueled flick, replete with guns and gear and gruff military types spitting out phrases like, “Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen,” Aliens is actually the first great feminist action film. (It’s also maybe the last great feminist action film.) Sigourney Weaver plays Ellen Ripley, a deep-space blue-collar worker-turned-warrior who was bequeathed the role of heroine when her boss got dead in Scott’s Alien. In Scott’s film, Ripley is smart and stern and really loves her cat, and she wears some really awkwardly skimpy panties, and eventually she blasts the titular monster out of an airlock. In Cameron’s film, which possesses a diesel engine for a heart, Ripley cuts her hair and kicks copious amounts of ass, both alien and human. She spits in the face of the sneering businessmen (emphasis on “men”) who unflinchingly fuck each other over for a percentage. More importantly, she also acts as a motherly figure: Cameron and Weaver craft a character that transcends mere femininity and represents maternity, something to which Reagan-era action flicks were apparently oblivious.

Wallace opines, in one of his typically labyrinthine footnotes, “It’s a complete mystery why feminist film scholars haven’t paid more attention to Cameron and his early collaborator Gale Anne Hurd… No male lead even approaches Weaver’s second Ripley for emotional depth and sheer balls—she makes Stallone, Willis, et al. look muddled and ill.” In subsequent years, scholars have paid a lot of attention to Aliens. It’s become one of the most vivisected films in American pop-culture history, along with its predecessor. But Wallace’s point remains apt. He’s inadvertently tapping into a different but comparable mystery, one that plagued video games back in 1998, and continues to plague them: Why don’t more pop-culture critics pay attention to Super Metroid, a 21-year-old game that had the, as it were, balls to put a woman in warrior’s armor instead of sending a man (or a Hylian, or a hedgehog, or an Italian plumber) to save said woman?


1994’s Super Metroid, the third game in the Metroid series (and the last until 2002’s Metroid Prime, which pulled the player into Samus’ suit and completely overhauled the game’s mechanics, with mostly stellar results), channels the aesthetics and atmosphere of Aliens the way Quentin Tarantino channels Sergio Leone and old kung-fu movies; which is to say, overtly and shamelessly, while making keen advances on its ancestral influences. From the blue color scheme to the ass-kicking heroine slaying hordes of slimy, face-sucking aliens with some serious firepower, the game simultaneously stole (quite cleverly) from Cameron while shifting the paradigm of the action video game. Brooding, mysterious, with an eerie score by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano acting as a faithful consort, Super Metroid favors atmosphere and mood over adrenaline. It supplies a lot of that, too, but from the opening moments, before the player even clicks START, the game clearly wants to envelope you in a certain foreboding aura.

The plot of the Metroid series is denser than most series rooted in the NES era (save for Metal Gear, the most convoluted story in video game history). Basically, Samus Aran, the toughest bounty hunter in the universe, is sent on a tortuous mission to recover an experimental alien subject called a Metroid, which looks an awful lot like a facehugger. Samus faces space pirates, giant laser-shooting brains in glass jars, and all sorts of strange, murderous creatures. Shit happens, stuff explodes, and Samus emerges victorious. But the story becomes increasingly complex with each new game placing more emphasis on exploration rather than balls-out action.


Funny enough, gamers didn’t know that the badass bounty hunter was a woman at first. Only those who beat the original Metroid—a fairly difficult game—were treated to a glimpse of Samus sans suit, in strangely sexy pink lingerie. The booklet and publicity materials for the game referred to Samus ambiguously or in the masculine so that the eventual reveal would be shocking. Since Metroid was sneaky with its gender-reversing, Super Metroid was the first major home console game to openly cast a female as its hero. And it sold poorly, at least at first. It took over a year for the game to earn a Player’s Choice label, which recognizes games that have sold well. It eventually sold a million copies. Nintendo more fervidly marketed Donkey Kong Country, which sold over 9 million copies and remains the second-best-selling game on the Super Nintendo.

But Super Metroid was critically acclaimed, and routinely places in the top three on polls of the best Super Nintendo games, usually landing somewhere betweenA Link to the Past, Super Mario World, and Chrono Trigger. Video games had tried, with varying levels of failure, to transcribe the excitement of movies into 8- or 16-bit form. Home consoles were especially fruitless in their search, from the notoriously awful E.T. to forgettable side-scrolling efforts like Batman, Robocop, and The Last Action Hero. Super Metroid jettisoned the slavish dependency on source material that sunk movie tie-in games and lifted the feeling of Aliens while making monumental advances in gameplay. Essentially the first truly cinematic game for a home console, its minimalistic gameplay is equal parts familiar (side-scrolling, jumping and shooting, picking up items) and inventive (the constant back-tracking through non-linear level design, which takes elements from the considerably more maximalist A Link to the Past and strips them down). Every sci-fi action game that relies on item-gathering, weapon-upgrading, and the commingling of tricky platforming and sweaty-palmed action—Half-Life, Ratchet and Clank, Halo—owes a considerable debt to Super Metroid, as does every game that makes prolific use of backtracking and inconveniently locked rooms, such as the Castlevania sequels and the first three Resident Evil games.


But Metroid’s legacy is its engendering of the female video game hero. While not the first female character, she was the first one to really make a difference. Samus spurred the proliferation of female characters in ’90s video games. Her successors include Claire Redfield, one of two playable characters in Resident Evil; Lucca in Chrono Trigger, and Sarah Kerrigan, the first genuine female anti-hero, in Starcraft. Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft retains Samus’ ass-kicking abilities, but is breast remembered for slightly less admirable qualities.

Let’s be real, here: 2014 was a piss-poor year for video game culture. Between the leering lunk-heads of #gamergate sending death threats from their mothers’ basements to the general apathy with which most game websites and magazines responded to the perpetual harassment of female gamers (save for Game Informer, who should be commended), gamers painted a dubious self-portrait last year. 2015 can, and should, be better, and we can start by talking about games that actually made strides. It took a couple of decades, but critics eventually got around to acknowledging the feminist threads of Aliens. It’s about time the Metroid series generated some serious critical discussion. Otherwise, it’s game over, man.

-Greg Cwik