A video game fight?!
Bear with me. This is educational. The game is a masterpiece of the medium and very instructional as to how it can tell interactive, immersive stories.
Samus Aran vs Mother Brain
- Samus Aran, the player’s avatar in this digital dungeon. Intergalactic bounty hunter and scourge of the Metroid series’ villainous Space Pirates. Though this is the third entry in the franchise, in the original NES game the fact that she was a woman was a shocking twist ending. You kids today don’t know how good you have it, with your Lara Crofts and your Buffys and your Jennifer Garners. Samus is hardcore. Played by nothing but bits and bytes.
- Armed with: What isn’t she armed with? Samus is athletic, tactically brilliant, and infused with alien DNA, but her true weapon is her Power Suit. A piece of amazing technological armor that would make even the Destroyer run & hide, the upgradeable suit is kitted out with varying different types of blasters (including a freeze beam), missiles, bombs, an electric grappling hook, an X-ray scope, boots that can boost her run into a blur or send her jumping fifty feet in the air, the ability to roll her entire body into a compact sphere, and finally a deadly “screw attack” which transforms her spinning leaps into a whirling dervish of destructive energy. A few of these Samus starts out with but the rest she (aka you, the player) must obtain and upgrade during her quest through the alien planet Zebes. I question the bad guys’ not-so-bright idea to build their lair around a bunch of power-ups that will make their most hated adversary even MORE deadly, but that’s video game villains for you.
- The Mother Brain, a sentient, biomechanical A.I. who leads the Space Pirates. She was the villain of the original Metroid game from the 80s, and hasn’t been seen since Samus vanquished her then. At that time she was literally just a big stationary brain in a jar, but now she is… considerably more. Played by 16 bits of of ugly colors and screeching sounds.
- Armed with: A giant cyborg body not unlike like that of a T-Rex. Fires a number of different bombs and energy blasts, the most powerful of which is an undodgeable beam from her eye.
The Setup: As I said, Super Metroid for the SNES (generally agreed to be the peak of the Metroid series), is a marvel of simple, efficient, non-verbal storytelling. The game features a brief voiceover followed by a textual prologue providing the exposition (i.e., the events of the previous two games) but other than that is free of any pesky words until the final credits roll. This is helped enormously by the fact that Samus, behind her impassive armor, is largely a cypher, better allowing the player to immersively place themselves in her boots.
This serves the gameplay very well. Unlike modern games, which tend to spell out your objectives and instructions in the most explicit way possible, Super Metroid plops Samus onto an enormous world with virtually no assistance, and makes the player figure things out organically.
This is best executed in the game’s climactic fight, and the lead-up to it. Ask ten serious video game veterans to list their favorite game ending sequences, and nine of them will include Super Metroid. The impetus for the game is Samus returning to her old stomping grounds on the baddie-infested Planet Zebes to track down the last remaining Metroid– the titular space predator she’d spent the last two games eradicating, as the series’ recurring Space Pirate antagonists had been using them as weapons (Metroids are a kind of creepy, hard-to-kill, flying jellyfish that can latch onto a victim and rapidly drain its life force away). The end of the second game saw Samus finding the last baby Metroid but sparing its life, because when it hatched the innocent creature “imprinted” on her as its mother. Samus turned it over to some scientists to study its unique life-giving properties (most Metroids only destroy) but it was shortly stolen by the pirates and taken back to Zebes.
As Samus slowly conquers the pirates’ army she works her way into the bowels of Zebes, and, eventually facing a gauntlet of powerful Metroids as she approaches the leader’s lair, you realize the pirates have successfully cloned stock from that stolen hatchling. Going deeper, Samus/the player goes through an eerily quiet hallway full of what seem to be creepy statues of many of the game’s common bad guys. The statues crumble into dust at a touch, and the farther you go the bigger they get. In the next room you are approached by a particularly large & live enemy, but before it can touch you, a HUGE Metroid appears, latches onto it, and quickly drains the holy hell out of it, leaving it a dried-out husk identical to the dozen “statues” outside.
This is the nasty beast responsible for the strange decorations, and when it turns its attention on Samus there’s little she can do (this is not a passive cinematic cut scene; the player has autonomy, but will inevitably be overwhelmed) before it latches onto her and starts draining her life force as well. But just before it can finish her off, the creature pauses and lets her go. Its predatory screeches turn into a plaintive wail, and between that and its erratic body language (it hovers about, obviously confused and unsure), the player can only conclude that this mega Metroid must be the original hatchling who loved her, raised in captivity by the Space Pirates to be the ultimate weapon but now having second thoughts upon encountering its benevolent “mother.” It flies away in confusion, leaving Samus to replenish herself and head deeper.
Soon after, Samus faces down her old nemesis, the Mother Brain.
The Fight: At first the fight plays out like a repeat of Samus’ original 8-bit adventure: Samus travels through the last gauntlet of barriers & enemies and finds the Brain sitting in a glass jar, leaving her to pump missiles into the motionless gray matter while dodging small arms fire from the defense systems. But just when it seems that fight’s won, the “defeated” Brain rises from its proverbial ashes and shows off its new upgrades:
Now I note here that Metroid games are quasi-RPGish. At the end of each game, Samus is vastly more powerful and possesses a more diverse skill set than when she started it out; this is largely accomplished in small increments as you either come across or discover (some are quite hard to reach or well-hidden) power-ups that increase your health meter or missile count gradually.
But no matter HOW well you’ve stocked up & beefed out before entering Mother Brain’s chamber, you won’t beat her, you can’t beat her. She takes damage from your weapons– you can empty your entire arsenal into her pulsing face– but it’s never enough. Eventually in the fight the villain unleashes that undodgeable beam attack that pins Samus against the wall, depletes almost all of her health and leaves her essentially paralyzed. As Mother Brain charges up a second beam to finish Samus off, the Metroid hatchling dramatically swoops in and clamps onto the villain’s head, rebelling against its new master by stopping the attack cold and draining HER of energy.
Leaving Mamma Brain a seeming husk, the Metroid then envelops Samus and slowly fills the player’s life bar. As this happens, the villain’s body begins to gradually rejuvenate, her color floods back and she rises, weakened but seriously pissed off. But since Samus is still wobbly, the Metroid can only use its own body as a shield for her, visibly weakening as it absorbs multiple attacks from the Brain. Finally the Metroid floats up and tries to tackle Mother Brain once again, but is dramatically cut down in mid-flight. It cries out in pain, the music halts, and the hatchling falls crumbling onto Samus… and in the process, Samus’ bio-suit absorbs the Metroid’s dying body and becomes infused with its energy.
The music changes to a triumphant swell (it’s actually re-purposed background music from near the beginning of the game; the epic percussion meant to drive home the magnificent size of the opening areas now instead celebrates Samus’ own increased power) and the heroine stands up, ready for round two. Her primary weapon has now been replaced with a devastating beam (if you pause to look at your stats you’ll see it’s called the “Hyper”) that causes her body to glow with every discharge. The tormentor has now become the prey: the villain is helpless against your newfound strength, her head reeling back with every shot– if you time it right, you can even stun juggle Mother Brain to keep her from even getting off a single shot, and the whole thing’s over in about a minute or so. This is no longer a battle, it’s punishment. The Brain is quickly dispatched and Samus has to make her escape from the pirates’ imploding fortress.
Without a word of dialogue the game’s final minutes tell a simple yet highly effective & immersive story of family, redemption, sacrifice and revenge. It is one of a kind.
I am tempted to give it lower marks for the back & forth power imbalance (as far as pure combat goes, the fight against sub-boss Ridley is much more frantic & exciting), but somehow the same element that made Thor’s penultimate battle so disappointing does the opposite here. Maybe it’s the storytelling, maybe it’s the element of experiencing it through the protagonist’s shoes. I don’t know, but it works for me on every level.
Recommended Links: The whole battle.
An excellent commentary on this game’s fantastic world in the form of a speed run/Let’s Play hosted by Super Metroid savant Brick Road
Coming Attractions: The Duke rolls his eyes at my silly nerd obsessions.