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The 2D Metroid saga quietly tells the best story in video game history

After more than a decade of disappointment, Metroid fans are currently thriving in the Nintendo Switch era. That’s a result of recent releases like the fantastic Metroid Dread and an excellent remaster of Metroid Prime. That list expands today thanks to Nintendo Switch Online, as Metroid Fusion is now available to play for Expansion Pack subscribers. The addition of the Game Boy Advance classic marks an important moment for fans of the series, as the complete 2D Metroid saga is now available on one system.

That might not sound like a big deal depending on your familiarity with the series. From an outside perspective, Metroid games are more known for their genre-defining exploration gameplay more than their narratives. The original Metroid, for instance, tells a fairly bare-bones story of a bounty hunter heading to a planet to kill aliens. Most of the series’ 2D games seemingly function as standalone adventures that place their heroine in self-contained adventures every time.

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That would be underselling one of gaming’s greatest narrative journeys, though. Taking the core five games as a whole, the 2D Metroid saga tells the intricate story of a bounty hunter with a reckless attitude forced to battle the long-term consequences of her actions. It’s a harrowing tale of a woman trapped in a nightmare of her own design, as her unwitting involvement in an ecological crisis becomes a persistent threat that chases her across the galaxy.

Becoming a hero

The 35-year 2D Metroid saga begins with a simple bit of sci-fi storytelling to justify an outer space adventure. Set in the year 20X5, the Galactic Federation discovers that a band of ruthless space pirates are experimenting with Metroids, life-sucking creatures native to Planet SR388. After a failed attempt to thwart their operations, the Federation calls on famed bounty hunter Samus Aran to storm into Planet Zebes and take out the space pirates’ commander, Mother Brain. Samus gets the job done with ease, escaping from a time bomb that puts the space pirates’ plans to rest. Mission accomplished.

Well, not quite.

Samus Aran’s true archnemesis is Samus Aran.

Samus’ decision to take that job sets off a complicated chain of events that puts both herself and the galaxy at risk. The situation escalates in Metroid II: Return of Samus, as the Galactic Federation determines that the only way to ensure the Metroids can’t be used as a biological weapon is to drive them to extinction. After another series of failed missions (as we quickly realize, the Federation isn’t very good at its job), Samus is once again called to kill every single Metroid remaining on SR388. She accepts without hesitation and hubris ensues.

Out of every game in the series, Metroid II is the one that most heavily leans into the bounty hunter premise. Samus finds and kills every Metroid on the planet as a number on a hit list ticks down at the bottom of the screen. It’s a mechanical gameplay flow, almost cruel in how it reduces the species to a dwindling statistic. That monotonous loop is part of why the sequel is often painted as one of the series’ weaker entries, but it’s also perhaps its most deliberately designed one. Of course it’s tedious; the mission is just a job to Samus. She’s there to check every box on her kill list, head home, and get her payday.

Samus shoots a Metroid in Metroid 2.

That’s when the series pulls its first true punch. After defeating the species’ queen and successfully eradicating every last Metroid, Samus discovers an egg. A baby Metroid hatches before her eyes and immediately imprints on her, recognizing Samus as its mother. The final moments of the adventure see Samus traveling back up to the surface of the planet with the baby following behind, enthusiastically helping the escape by chewing up blockades. There’s no exciting timed escape. There aren’t even enemies to blast — Samus already killed them all. It’s a somber, shameful ending where Samus is forced to become a guardian for an innocent creature as penance for wiping out its species.

Nintendo would try to soften that tragic ending with its 2017 3DS remake Metroid: Samus Returns. The final climb to the surface isn’t so eerie, as there are plenty of aliens still crawling around. It also throws in a last-second Ridley boss fight that tries to establish the dragon as the series’ overarching big bad. That little change takes away from the truth that becomes apparent at the end of the original version: Samus Aran’s true archnemesis is Samus Aran.

The pause screen for Super Metroid shows a Metroid floating in a jar.

The first half of Samus’ story concludes in Super Metroid, which acts as her redemption arc, which is perhaps a reason why it’s so easy to love. After handing the baby over to a space colony, scientists discover that the Metroids’ powers could actually be harnessed for good, just as they could be taken advantage of to create weapons. Metroids had been the victims of the saga all along, but Samus’ refusal to question orders hid that possibility from her. When the baby is kidnapped by space pirates and taken back to Zebes, Samus is given the ability to do her first mission over again — but fighting for the right reasons this time.

Her three-game arc comes to a neat conclusion during the final boss fight, where the baby Metroid (now fully grown) sacrifices itself to protect Samus from a reconstructed Mother Brain. It’s a bittersweet moment. Samus is saved by the very “evil” species that she didn’t hesitate to wipe out for a buck. It’s the ultimate act of selflessness, one that we’re left to believe has made an imprint on a changed Samus after she escapes Zebes. Perhaps she’s finally ready to take responsibility for her actions and use her power responsibly going forward. She’s no longer a cold bounty hunter. For the first time in the series, she’s a hero.

Two Samuses

If you stop the series at Super Metroid, you’re left with a somber, but still relatively feel-good conclusion to Samus’ arc. But she doesn’t get off the hook for carrying out an alien genocide that easily. Enter Metroid Fusion.

The Game Boy Advance classic marks the start of the 2D timeline’s second act, where the series moves into horror territory. On a scientific return mission to SR388, Samus is attacked by a new organism that she hadn’t encountered on the planet previously: an X parasite. She’s infected with a deadly disease and is only saved by a vaccine created from the baby Metroid (which continues to save her life even in death). Armed with some vaccine-induced powers and a fresh suit, Samus sets out on a mission to investigate an abandoned laboratory overrun with X parasites. That’s where Metroid Fusion gives players the key to understanding the entire 2D saga. Samus is shocked to discover that a parasite dubbed SA-X has replicated her appearance and is now stalking her like a Xenomorph.

I wasn’t waxing poetic when I claimed Samus is her own nemesis earlier. In Metroid Fusion, that’s literally the case.

Samus stares at her hand in Metroid Fusion.

Metroid’s big picture becomes clear at that moment. The primary conflict of the series isn’t about a galactic war with the space pirates; it’s a personal one within Samus. Try as she might to distance herself from the bounty hunter who carried out a massacre, Samus can’t fully outrun her past. She’s haunted by the cost of her carelessness, so it’s only fitting that Fusion’s antagonist would be Samus herself. It even dons her iconic orange armor, while the newly reformed heroine sports a contrasting blue suit to visually distance herself from the monster she was. The series would later explore that doppelganger imagery even further with Metroid Prime 2 and 3’s (less subtle) Dark Samus.

The extent of her mistakes become apparent quickly. During Fusion, Samus learns that the Federation that hired her for her first two missions isn’t that much more righteous than the space pirates they ordered her to kill. They plan to detain SA-X and turn it into a military weapon — the very plan she was ordered to foil in her first outing. Understanding the much graver threat the X parasites would pose to the galaxy were they to infect the Federation, she’s backed into a corner. She has no choice but to once again do the very thing she did in Metroid II and exterminate the X parasites.

You can read Metroid Fusion’s moment as heroic if it helps you sleep better, but there’s a dark underbelly to it. Samus is forced to tap back into the side of her she desperately wants to escape from. She must become a one-woman wrecking machine. SA-X is only a clone mimicking its host; the “evil” version of Samus is a product of her own DNA. She can heroically outrun a time bomb, but she can’t escape herself.

Descent into Dread

Metroid Dread’s story is much more harrowing coming off that conclusion. The setup here is familiar, directly mirroring Metroid II. The Galactic Federation have located a living X parasite on planet ZDR and carry out an operation to eradicate the species. They get a little more clever this time by sending an army of robots, dubbed EMMI, but in their infinite incompetence, those never return home. Surprise, surprise: Samus is once again called to clean up the mess. That’s where her journey culminates in one final nightmare.

Samus’ abilities are stripped by a villain named Raven Beak, a creature from the Chozo race that raised her, and she’s trapped deep beneath ZDR’s surface. If Super Metroid gave Samus a chance to heroically redeem her first mission, Metroid Dread forces her to grapple with the horror of her second one. That’s even apparent in its mirrored structure; Metroid II has Samus confidently digging down into a planet’s depths, while Dread has her escaping upwards.

Samus aiming arm cannon in Metroid Dread.

There’s another key difference between the two games: She’s the prey this time, as the seven reprogrammed EMMI hunt her down. Note that we get another callback to Metroid II here in the form of a piece of UI counting down the number of remaining EMMI on the planet. It’s the most powerless we ever see her in the series, as she’s forced to scramble away from robots that are capable of killing her in one strike. It’s almost as if she’s taken on the role of a Metroid that’s being hunted into extermination.

As it turns out, that’s exactly the case. Samus learns that she’s been lured to the planet because Raven Beak wants to extract the Metroid DNA flowing through her veins due to the vaccine she received in Fusion. If that wasn’t explicit enough, Samus discovers that she has quite literally begun to transform into a Metroid. It’s a shocking revelation that reads like a karmic punishment for her actions. The series to this point has followed Samus’ struggle to control and own her identity. In Fusion, it manifests into a monster hell-bent on replacing her. The threat is even more serious in Dread: She stands to lose herself entirely as she becomes one of the very creatures she wiped out.

To wedge the knife in further, Raven Beak plans to harvest her Metroid DNA for military purposes, just like the space pirates had planned. If his plan succeeds, she’ll become the very thing she’s been trying to escape since Super Metroid: a living weapon.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, until they are. At around the midpoint of Dread, Samus learns the full extent of the consequences she faces for her previous actions. It turns out Metroids were the natural predators for X parasites, explaining why they’d never previously been a threat to the galaxy. When Samus wiped out the Metroids, it sent the SR388’s ecosystem haywire and turned the X parasites into an invasive species. Had she never done that, she wouldn’t have been infected by an X parasite. If that never happened, she would have never received a Metroid-infused vaccine. And had that not occurred, she wouldn’t be turning into a Metroid and hunted by Raven Beak. Samus is the long-term architect of both the galaxy and her own personal downfall.

Metroid Suit from Metroid Dread.

Everything comes to a head in Samus’ final encounter with Raven Beak, another sequence that’s either badass or distressing depending on your reading of the saga. When all hope is nearly lost, Samus completes her transformation into a Metroid. Her suit fully corrupts in a classic moment of body horror akin to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. For a moment, the nightmare is complete: Samus becomes the weapon of mass destruction she fought to destroy. She stopped the space pirates, Raven Beak, and even the Galactic Federation from achieving that goal, but Samus herself is the one to inadvertently create it.

Dread does allow her to escape from that nightmare in the end. She absorbs an X parasite in the game’s final moments, canceling out the Metroid DNA and returning her to normal. It isn’t ZDR that she escapes in the game’s closing moments, but her past. It’s a clean conclusion to the 2D saga that finally absolves Samus of her sins 35 years later.

Cautionary tale

Whenever a conversation about great video game stories springs up, Metroid isn’t usually included. Those debates are generally reserved for dialogue-heavy games like The Last of Us, whose writing mirrors that of a typical film script. The Metroid games, on the other hand, hardly feature a word of dialogue. Super Metroid’s climactic sacrifice occurs entirely within a few repeated pixel art animation cycles. There’s more written content in Metroid Dread, but many of its biggest story beats are told through Samus’ wordless body language. Its most pivotal character moment, for instance, comes when Samus tries to suck an alien’s energy out with her free hand rather than blasting it with her cannon arm. She stops short and recoils in horror, realizing that her Metroid defense instincts have begun to override her human ones.

It tears apart the notion of “good guys” and “bad guys” just as effectively as The Last of Us ...[/pullquotes]

Don’t mistake its few words as a lack of storytelling, though. In fact, the 2D Metroid series is a perfect slice of science-fiction that stands toe-to-toe with some of the best uses of the genre. As a literary concept, sci-fi is a complex tool that can be used to entertain, educate, satirize, predict, and more. In some of the genre’s best work, though, futuristic setups are used to shed some light on the human condition. That’s often accomplished by exploring the ethical implications of far-off technology and how humanity grapples with them.

Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance. It isn’t just a light horror story about a science experiment gone awry; it’s a tragedy about an innocent creature that’s shaped into a monster by a society that treats him as such. He’s born with the potential to be an upstanding citizen, but it’s beaten out of him by the world’s repeated cruelty. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” the creature says, “Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” It’s through those painful words that we’re given space to reflect on how mankind is sculpted by the ways we treat one another.

An E.M.M.I. attacks Samus in Metroid Dread.

Metroid follows that same tradition. It’s entirely through Samus’ relationship with an alien species that we learn about her nature and watch it evolve. When we first meet her, her attitude toward the universe is cold and reductive. Animals like Metroids are inherently evil and must be wiped out to protect humanity. Each subsequent game challenges that worldview further until it poetically snowballs into a Twilight Zone-style parable. Her blind belief that Metroids could be turned into weapons causes her to transform into the very danger she fears. It’s Frankenstein’s classic “Who’s the real monster?” debate played out in an intergalactic soap opera.

Despite all its out-of-this-world creatures and biomechanical brains, there’s a grounded lesson to learn from the 2D Metroid series. View it through a political lens, for instance, and you can read Samus’ journey as a sharp critique on interventionism. Perhaps we can draw parallels between her story and that of a government so intent on protecting itself from foreign threats that it’s willing to make a monstrous preemptive strike under the guise of righteousness. It tears apart the notion of “good guys” and “bad guys” just as effectively as The Last of Us, but with a fraction of the words.

The possibilities for a close reading are there, but like any good Metroid game, you need to be willing to explore if you’re going to get the most out of the series.

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