Samus Aran Origins: Metroid’s Influences Beyond Alien
- Who was the first character with an arm cannon?
- What was the first game to use weapons to unlock doors?
- And why can’t metroid crawl?
Critical Kate is on the case.
This is a transcript of the video above. The article version contains only a fraction of the visuals; I recommend watching the video for the full experience.
A long time ago, in a decade called the ’80s, a company whose name begins with “N” was responsible for the most recognizable video game character in the world, and now they were going to introduce a new kind of hero. A galactic space hunter in a gold space suit whose mission was to travel deep below the planet’s surface to exterminate all the bug-like creatures who inhabit its maze like caverns.
Upon completing the game, the player would be faced with an unexpected surprise: underneath that bulky space helmet, the hero was a woman.
The game I speak of is, of course, Namco’s Baraduke, released one year before Nintendo’s Metroid.
But let’s start at the end.
Influences On Metroid’s Big Reveal
When Metroid was released in 1986, the backstory printed in the manual described Samus Aran as a male cyborg whose true form is shrouded in mystery. Naturally this was all set up for a twist ending. If the player completed the game in five hours or less, the helmet came off and the hero was revealed to be a woman.
Except that, due to the sometimes ambiguous nature of large blocky pixels, some players still assumed Samus was simply a dude with long hair. But if you beat the game in three hours or less, she removed the rest of her armor and with it any remaining ambiguity.
And then, if you managed to beat the game in one hour or less, you were rewarded with her stripping down to a reddish bikini with boots. Because horny men, I guess.
But regardless of the developer’s original intent the Samus reveal has become a defining video game moment for the way it subverted player expectations around gender roles. Which makes it all the more surprising that it wasn’t the first game to do so.
Like Metroid, Baraduke had an aesthetic that owed a great deal to influential sci-fi horror film Alien, whose slimy atmosphere was developed by concept artists H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud aka Moebius. In one particular Moebius painting featured in various magazines around the time of the film’s release, the characters examining the space jockey wore gold space suits and carried long rifles that never made it into the final film.
Baraduke’s designer, Yukio Takahashi, has acknowledged a general Alien influence, but was he looking at this specific image when he created the hero? Maybe we’ll never know
But Baraduke‘s other acknowledged influence is Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, which featured large slug-like creatures that bore a striking resemblance to one of Baraduke‘s recurring bosses. And when the end screen revealed the hero to be a woman, her portrait was the spitting image of Nausicaa, complete with a small pet perched on her shoulder.
Incidentally, Miyazaki was also influenced by the work of Moebius, in particular the series Arzach, which inspired the look of Nausicaa. The two became mutual admirers after Moebius saw Nausicaa, which inspired the name of his second daughter.
Nausicaa may have also inspired elements of Metroid, such as the concept of an entire species of monsters being manufactured as biomechanical weapons, and the idea that one of them could imprint on the first human and sees and believe the hero to be its mother. But one thing Nausicaa doesn’t have is a Samus reveal, so where did that aspect of Baraduke‘s ending come from?
One possibility is that the developers had Star Wars on the brain. At the beginning of Return Of The Jedi, Chewbacca is delivered to Jabba The Hutt by a bounty hunter named Boushh, who C-3PO refers to using male pronouns, only to later reveal that it was Princess Leia all along, in possibly the first Samus reveal in film.
But Baraduke‘s designer has yet to be asked about Star Wars. On the big twist, he simply says he wanted to end things on a cute note, to contrast with the violence of the game. Which is fair enough after requiring you to fight your way through 48 rooms of space monsters.
I was shocked to discover that the game’s final boss, the Octy King, could only be defeated by climbing into his mouth and destroying him from the inside, a concept that later appeared in Metroid II in the final boss fight against the Queen Metroid. And afterwards, when a newly hatched Metroid takes you for its mother, it circles around you similar to the friendly aliens in Baraduke II. Does this still sound like a coincidence?
But if there’s one thing Baraduke didn’t influence, it’s the style of Metroid‘s gameplay.
Influences On Metroid’s Gameplay
Baraduke is a cross between a run-and-gun and a shoot-em-up, whereas Metroid is essentially a side-scrolling action adventure with a twist. In Metroid, nearly every weapon or ability serves a dual purpose. You don’t just use beams, missiles, and bombs to damage enemies; they also act as keys that open up doors or blocks. And the upgrades to your character’s movement allow you to access areas that were previously out of reach.
This is demonstrated at the very beginning of the game with the morph ball, an ability that allows you to enter small spaces or tubes by transforming into a literal ball, a concept so bizarre I can’t imagine anyone thinking of it before Metroid.
Attempts at emulating the dual purpose nature of Metroid‘s items has resulted in Metroid-style games being recognized as their own distinct sub-genre of action-adventure, but what is an action-adventure? It’s a term that many people find confusing, but let’s see if I can break it down.
Basically, in the same way that Roguelikes were named after a game called Rogue, adventure games were named after a game called Adventure. Written by William Crowther and Don Woods in the mid-’70s, Adventure was a text-based computer game created at a time when many computers still used printers for their output instead of monitors.
Although inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Adventure rejected the concept of experience points in favor of exploration and puzzle solving. The computer acted as your DM, describing your current surroundings and the outcome of any chosen action. Your objective was to explore a labyrinth of underground caves in search of hidden treasure by finding keys to unlock doors and items that might solve puzzles that block your path.
Atari programmer Warren Robinett loved the game so much, he set out to create a visual interpretation that could be played with a joystick instead of typing commands into a parser. Atari Adventure still involved finding keys to unlock doors and items to solve puzzles, but now the action was in real-time, making it the first action-adventure.
The most famous action-adventure is probably The Legend Of Zelda, a game that similarly involved keys and puzzles, but added an additional objective of collecting all the pieces of the Triforce, a figurative key that — once complete — would let you pass the Guardian who blocked your path. But was Zelda inspired by Atari Adventure, or were Miyamoto and his team instead inspired by a developer in the UK?
Atic Atac was created by Ultimate Play The Game in 1983 for the ZX Spectrum. Like Atari Adventure, your primary goal was to find keys to unlock doors. But instead of treasure, you collected three pieces of a larger key required to open the final door, similar to the Triforce pieces in Zelda.
If Atic Atac bore a certain resemblance to Zelda‘s underground dungeons, Ultimate’s follow-up Sabre Wulf could be compared to Zelda’s vast outdoor world. Only this time there were no keys. Tour only objective in Sabre Wulf was to collect pieces of an amulet, which once again acted as a figurative key to let you past the guardian who blocked your path.
Now, as far as we know, it was very rare for anyone in Japan in the ’80s to import UK computer games, but here’s the twist. The founders of Ultimate Play The Game, Tim and Chris Stamper, were also the founders of Rare, the first western developer ever to be published by Nintendo.
It all started when the Stampers imported a Famicom from Japan within a year of the console’s release. They were immediately determined to program games for it. And even though their first Nintendo game wasn’t published until 1986, they may have been in talks as early as 1984, when Zelda was just beginning development. Upon release, the Stampers were clearly aware of Zelda‘s similarities. When showing the game to a recent hire a few years later, they joked: “This is Miyamoto’s ripoff of Sabre Wulf, the cheeky bastards.”
But it’s Saber Wulf‘s rarely discussed sequel that I really want to talk about. Underwurlde turned the series on its side, placing you in a maze that connected horizontal passages with tall vertical platforming sections in a way that I didn’t think existed before Metroid. Mind you, it plays very differently from Metroid, in that none of the enemies can actually hurt you. Instead, they just shove you around in hopes that you might die from fall damage.
This green jellyfish initially caught my eye, but it’s probably nothing, since they come in a wide variety of colors.
But then I discovered this strange enemy, that couldn’t be hurt. It just stands there in the doorway, blocking my path like a sentient door, doing I don’t know what.
It turns out that this is a Guardian, similar to the one in Sabre Wulf, but now there are three of them. And this time they don’t want you to piece together an amulet. Instead, your objective is to find the three weapon upgrades scattered around the maze, and then figure out which weapon opens up which specific sentient door. In other words, the founders of Rare were possibly the first developers to implement a weapon as key mechanic. Was Underwurlde the prototype for Metroid?
But even if it was Underwurlde was still missing one key component: the boss fight.
Influences On Metroid’s End Boss
Metroid memorably ends with a face-off against a giant brain. But at the time, brain enemies weren’t as uncommon as you might think. We could point to Baraduke, of course, but those brains were merely normal-sized enemies that had slightly more health. I think we can do better than that.
One possibility is that Mother Brain was inspired by L-Brain, the final boss of Capcom’s Baraduke clone Section Z but L-Brain was likely inspired by Xearous Brain, the final boss of Gradius, a game that pretty much defined the side-scrolling shoot-em-up. The developers of Gradius say its two biggest influences were Star Wars, and Lensman, a then recent animated film where the enemy ships looked like giant brains.
Lensman was loosely based on a series of American science fiction novels by E.E. Smith. First serialized in the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction in the 1930s, the novels inspired among other things the creation of Spacewar!, the very first video space shooter long before Gradius.
The books are also believed to be a major influence on the Silver Age Green Lantern, whose Green Lantern Corps, like the Lensman, were an organization of space police whose powers were granted by a piece of space jewelry worn on the hand or wrist.
But if all the franchises Lensman is believed to have inspired, the biggest by far is Star Wars. Which is probably why these animators took such a great interest. You get the feeling that they really wanted to be making a Star Wars movie, but settled instead for taking one of its rumored influences and making that into a Star Wars movie. Viewers simply assumed the similarities were a testament to just how much Star Wars had ripped off from Lensman, when in reality it was mostly the other way around.
If that wasn’t enough, the animators also ripped off the origin of Green Lantern by having the hero inherit his ring from a dying Lensman. But where the dying Lantern at least explained things before transferring his ring, the hero of this movie watches in confusion as the lens suddenly attaches itself to his left hand.
The TV series that followed tried to be at least a little more faithful to the books, but strayed in other ways. For example, it somehow introduced Zelda before Zelda, and Aliens-style Power Loaders before Aliens. Very strange.
But the biggest difference between the movie and the TV show was the removal of the Green Lantern origin and the introduction of Mentor, the creator of the lens. In the books, few ever see Mentor’s true form, because in reality he looks like a giant space brain. Which is probably where the movie’s enemy spaceships came from, since they were just normal spaceships in the books.
Why the movie coded space brains as evil might be connected to the climax of Lupin III, which was directed and co-written by Soji Yoshikawa, the screenwriter of Lensman. Because of Lensman‘s longer than normal production time, it’s possible that Yoshikawa was working on both screenplays right around the same time, which means that even this giant space brain could be inspired by Lensman.
In particular, the book First Lensman, where Mentor first reveals himself to a character named Virgil Samms. But when the Japanese editions were first published in 1967, the name Samms was mistranslated, and to this day some readers still know him as Samus.
Although it’s well known among Metroid fans that Aran came from the birth name of soccer star Pele, maybe Samus came from here. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the Samus “S” looks so similar to the Lensman “S.” Or why Samus wears a lens on her left hand.
But Lensman wasn’t the only series that potentially contributed to the creation of Samus Aran.
Influences On Metroid’s Samus Aran
When not in her bulky space armor, Samus is typically seen wearing an outfit dubbed the Zero Suit, a form-fitting blue bodysuit in the tradition of a comic book superhero. Along with her pin straight blonde hair, variations of this look have been her go-to for nearly two decades. But before this outfit was introduced in Zero Mission, she spent nearly as long without a standard look at all.
In Metroid Fusion she wore a blue halter top and hot pants, and her blonde hair was parted in the middle. In Super Metroid she sported a black leotard with a belly button window, and her hair was full and wavy and closer to a strawberry blonde in color.
Which came as a big surprise to anyone who bought the Player’s Guide before beating the game, or who read the comics in Nintendo Power, because there Samus appeared in a purple bodysuit with purple hair to match. The artist did similar illustrations for the Japanese Guidebook, but for some reason her hair was made a little more ambiguous.
Before that, in Metroid II, she undressed down to her underwear and a camisole, which was likely a reference to the ending of Alien. And in the original Metroid she wore a long-sleeved leotard, with hair that was full and wavy, and brunette in color.
In the North American release you could play as Unsuited Samus by entering the name Justin Bailey on the password screen. A long debunked rumor claimed that the password actually said “just in bailey,” a bailey supposedly being a slang term for a type of swimwear which, while ultimately untrue, was just cute enough that I’ve since taken to using the word to describe any leotard long sleeves.
A second part of the myth that’s since been proven untrue is that the bailey was only accessible via the password system. In actuality this outfit was unlocked simply by beating the game in five hours or less, and then immediately starting a second playthrough. Which few people realized because who didn’t turn off their game immediately after watching the ending?
But the big mystery is why her hair was green instead of brunette like it was on the end screen. Some assumed it was down to technical limitations, but as it turns out, her hair actually is programmed to be brunette. It’s just that it changes color depending on what item she currently has activated. So when missiles are active her hair turns blonde, when she gains the various suit her hair turns green, and if you activate missiles with the various suit her hair turns light green. Which is strange, but not as strange as Samus still being able to turn into a morph ball.
The reason Samus has green hair when you start your second playthrough is because you retain all the power ups you gained in your first playthrough, making this possibly the first ever example of a New Game +.
But just in case you were wondering: No, beating the game in one hour less does not unlock a playable version of Bikini Samus. If you wanted to play as a woman wearing a reddish bikini and boots, your only option was SNK’s Athena, a game that surprisingly came out just one month before Metroid. Which makes me wonder if they shared some sort of mutual inspiration. Was there something that happened in the early 80s that made this a sudden trend?
Speaking of sudden trends, let’s talk about the arm cannon. Shockwave had one. Samus had one. Mega Man had one. But who was ripping off who? Although Astro Boy was one of Mega Man’s many influences, Astro Boy didn’t get his arm cannon until 2003. Originally his only ranged weapon was butt guns.
The earliest bearer of an arm cannon appears to be Cobra, star of Cobra, a comic serialized in Shonen Jump that was later adapted into the TV series Space Cobra, as well as an animated film called Space Adventure Cobra.
Cobra is a space pirate turned outlaw famed for his legendary Psycho Gun, which he keeps hidden inside a prosthetic hand. Along with his sidekick Lady Armaroid, he travels the galaxy in search of excitement and adventure, while trying to steer clear of bounty hunters, space pirates, and the galactic–
What the f*ck?
Did you see that?
That’s that’s a f*cking morph ball!
Let’s start from the top
Influences On Metroid’s Samus Aran
Of all the movies, TV shows, and video games that have in some way inspired Metroid, the biggest influence by far is Buichi Tarasawa’s Cobra. If you took the three main characters and put them in a blender, you’d basically get Samus Aran.
Cobra has the arm cannon. His sidekick Lady Armaroid is a cyborg. And Jane Royal is a blonde bounty hunter who sports a blue bailey. The name Lady Armaroid is a portmanteau of armor and android in the same way that Metroid combines metro and android. But Cobra simply calls her “Lady.”
She even gets a brief Samus reveal of sorts. The story begins when Cobra is five years into a sort of outlaw protection program that involved undergoing elective amnesia. He now believes he’s an unhappy corporate employee named Johnson with a robot assistant named Ben. But when space pirates show up to his apartment, Ben is killed in the resulting scuffle, only to reveal that it was actually Lady Armaroid all along.
Later Cobra meets Jane, who he discovers is one of three identical triplets, and her sister Dominique’s default outfit is a reddish bikini with boots. There it is.
In the movie her hair is purple, I guess because they were trying to make each of the sisters look more distinct. So Jane and Catherine become turquoise and green, in comparison to the TV show’s more traditional shades.
But where Jane is a bounty hunter, Dominique is a member of the Galactic Patrol. Except she’s currently on an undercover mission infiltrating an all-woman band of space pirates whose emblem happens to look like a profile view of Samus’s arch-enemy Ridley.
There are also bird people. Though they’re much shorter than the Chozo people who built the various Chozo statues in Metroid.
And then there’s the morph ball girl. Although she only demonstrates this power once, the sequence seemed to inspire a strange obsession with bubbles in the movie adaptation, which took major liberties with the source material women in bubbles float by during the opening credits sequence. And a mentor character invented just for the movie floats in one whenever he reveals himself. But in a weird feedback loop, the TV show added a sequence where Catherine gets imprisoned in a bubble, which happens to look similar to the Chozo rejuvenation bubble in Nintendo Power.
Sadly, Jane was written out pretty early on, as if she and her sisters were little more than Bond girls, but her absence left an indescribable hole that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, until I discovered that the unpublished prototype version of Cobra originally starred Jane with a Psycho Gun. It turns out that she was the true spirit of the series all along!
And if her outfit reminds you of Super Metroid, I believe it’s because they share a mutual inspiration Jane Royle was based on Jane Fonda, the strawberry blonde actress of Barbarella. And that’s not the only thing Samus shares in common with Barbarella.
Both are known to travel through their fair share of tubes. Both are unofficial women of the lens. And I feel like if you took these bird heads and combined them with this giant bed, you’d be well on your way to constructing a Chozo statue.
But it’s the beginning that I think we should end on. The movie opens with a floating astronaut, a clever special effect that captivated audiences earlier that year in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only, when the gloves come off, this astronaut is revealed to be a woman.
Is this where Baraduke got the idea from? Is it where Cobra got the idea from? Is it– wait, she’s still undressing.
And yes, she’s going to continue undressing until she’s completely naked.
Is this where Metroid got the idea from? Did Barbarella‘s risque opening inspire Metroid‘s risque ending?
Was the Samus reveal really a Barbarella reveal?
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- The Legend Of Namco VHD (Youtube)
- 2D Metroid Commercials (Youtube)
- Legends Of Localization “Was Samus Called He In Japanese Metroid Too?” (Aug 13, 2013)
- TV Tropes “Samus Is A Girl”
- The Book Of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross (1979)
- Mediascene #35 (Jan 1979)
- Alien (Facebook) “From concept to construction” (Apr 8, 2016)
- Shmupulations “Yukio Yakahashi – 2009 Developer Interview”
- Tor “The Real Magic Of Moebius’ Edena“ (May 9, 2017)
- Rogue 3.6.3 (Youtube)
- Colossal Cave On ESP32 On ASR33 (Youtube)
- The Interactive Fiction Archive
- Atari Archive “Adventure” (Youtube)
- Crash #51 (Apr 1988) “The Best Of British”
- Gaming Alexandria “Legend Of Zelda Development Files” (July 24, 2019)
- Legend Of Zelda Commercials (Youtube)
- Retro Gamer #19 (Dec 2005)
- Gradius Arcade Longplay (Youtube)
- Shmupulations “Machiguchi Hiroyasu Gradius Interviews”
- Masswerk Spacewar! In-Browser Emulator
- SF New Century Lensman movie (1984)
- Lensman Galactic Patrol series (1984)
- Lensman (JP Wikipedia)
CHAPTERS 4 & 5
- Shmupulations “The Birth of Mega Man – 2011 Developer Interview”
- Cobra fan translation (1978- )
- Space Adventure Cobra movie (1982)
- Space Cobra series (1982)
- Cobra (JP Wikipedia)
- Sigma 45 (JP Wikipedia)
- Journal Du Japon “Buichi TERASAWA, le père d’un pirate immortel nommé Cobra” (Mar 24, 2016)
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