Um…what and what?? Just keep reading if that title makes no sense. I swear it will.
I’ve been on something of a Metroid kick lately. Between writing about Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission on my own blog and watching the At the Buzzer‘s Super Metroid Game On‘s, I’ve been thinking about Samus and her adventures quite a bit. So much so that I just revived an old SM playthrough that I had started awhile back on the Wii. And I picked up after the point where I had found the etecoons. Without spoiling too much for those new to Metroid, not everything in that universe wants to kill Samus. In addition to the “kind” Chozo statues (and Samus’s history with that race), the monkey-like etecoons and large birds called dachoras, exist in a couple Metroid games to help Samus.
In Super Metroid, these helpful animals are a little hard to find, and you don’t really interact with them; rather, they show you what to do. When I first played Super Metroid years ago, without assistance from the “internet” or game guides, it wasn’t until several playthroughs in that I found both the etecoons and the dachora. I had no idea what they were, so of course, I tried to shoot them – because everything in else needed to be shot, so why not these guys? But they remained unharmed by my beams, they didn’t try to hurt me, and instead moved about in their…um…demonstrations. Honestly, I didn’t catch on at first and thought I had gotten stuck. But no. Slowly, very slowly, my brain processed what was going on and things eventually made sense. I figured out what to do and went on my merry way.
One of the best things about Metroid games (with the possible exception of the misstep Other M, or so I’m told) is their ability to tell stories and introduce gameplay without ramming either down player’s throats. In Zero Mission, Super Metroid, and Fusion, the stories are given in small chunks at various points throughout the games. The stories aren’t hard to follow and they manage to build drama without being melodramatic. And because these stories aren’t overly imposing, it’s easy for players to “become” Samus and experience her trials and tribulations. The “less is more” approach makes her one of the best video game characters of this and previous generations (and hopefully the next…??).
But what’s even better than the story is the gameplay. Like many traditional side-scrolling, platformers, you don’t get much direction. You’re never told to push “A” to shoot and “B” to jump. In Super Metroid and Zero Mission you’re never given bread crumb trails to you next goal. In Fusion there is something of a set path that you have to follow up to a point. The 2D Metroid games kinda feel like open-world games, but they aren’t. Sometimes you only get a brief opportunity to explore an area before it’s closed forever. But the games do give players lots of opportunities to explore for secrets and other surprises.
And this brings me back to the etecoons and dachoras. In the vast majority of today’s video games, it’s rare that you come across something surprising. I’m of course speaking only from my own experience, but I can’t recall a moment in recent memory where, upon being well planted in the midst of a game, I interacted with something that was completely new and unfamiliar; that I didn’t how to mingle with the things around me and thereby, had to learn something new. And this is beyond simply getting stuck. Since just about everything in Super Metroid tried to harm Samus in some way, I had no reference point concerning non-harmful creatures. I was forced to pause and understand the situation. I had to stop with the knee-jerk reaction of “shoot-run-shoot” and take a moment to learn what was going on. Introducing the etecoons and dachoras was a brilliant move on Nintendo’s part. It created scenes of respite and realism and the true unknown amidst all the shooting and killing.
I hardly have any beef with modern games, and many of them have certainly captured my gaming heart. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing to see more things like the etecoons and dachoras in today’s mainstream virtual amusements. More surprises, more opportunities to learn, more chances to take a step back from the routine, and more chances to get it wrong before getting it right.