When you think of Nintendo games, the first thing that comes to mind is usually not horror, gore, or graphic human violence. These elements of fiction are very common in non-Nintendo games such as Outlast, Resident Evil or Dying Light. In reality, you don’t need any of that to scare a player. Games, as well as movies and TV, exploit our other fears. Metroid is known to have taken heavy atmosphere and plot inspiration from the Alien movies, which lends itself well to the alien settings and the constant feeling that danger is right around the corner.
Ask any Metroid fan what the scariest villain in the series is, and they’re likely to answer that it’s the SA-X. Marketing for Metroid Fusion stated that Samus would face her greatest fear, herself, and this was no false advertising. The X Parasite mimicking Samus has terrified me ever since it first blasted out from that wall and showed its soulless, empty eyes to the camera, before demolishing a door like Wal-Mart shoppers on Black Friday. Its unforgettable stomps still haunt me, more than thirteen years after the game’s release. I only saw the SA-X a few times during the course of the game, and yet I always wondered if it was in the next room, waiting to end me.
Equally terrifying in Fusion is Nightmare. After startling me with a loud noise as I left Sector 5, it breaks out of containment and ruins the sector. I felt as if I was doomed when I confronted it. Unfortunately, it is more annoying than scary in Metroid: Other M, particularly when its mask comes off…
The original Metroid Prime captures horror in the most subtle of ways. A prime – pardon the pun – example is the Chozo Ghosts. The first time I ever encountered them in the Hall of the Elders, I nearly lost it. I think I shut the game off there, unable to continue on because it was so scary, but eventually I went back and took it down. They would surprise me every time I encountered them in a new room too. I’ll go get the Wavebuster before I venture into the Phazon Mines… Ack! There they are again!
Metroid Prime’s horror begins more earnestly after emerging from the crashed and surprisingly idyllic Frigate Orpheon. The peace is broken, however, upon exiting back into the Tallon Overworld and entering the corridor leading to the Phazon Mines. This hallway, rich with Phazon, is the first sighting of the radioactive substance, and the disturbing music immediately renders the player uneasy. This is to say nothing of the lowest level of the Phazon Mines, where the floor is Phazon, the mentioned music is unending, and one wrong step can mean death. Those who take the time to scan and read Space Pirate and Chozo logs will gradually realize exactly how dangerous Phazon is, and the aberrations it creates. To this day, entering the Impact Crater gives me great pause. Something about the decayed, rotting corpse of a Leviathan filled with dangers unknown still unsettles me, even though I’ve completed the game dozens of times.
One of the scariest moments for me was exploring the Xenoresearch Labs in Metroid Prime 3 for the first time. When I first opened the door to them, a Pirate Militia, drained of its energy, disintegrates in front of me. I’ve done multiple playthroughs of Corruption and that gets me every time. This ancient research facility has been used to store Phazon Metroids, which screeched at me as I passed them in their containment units. At the end of the labs, I would discover the Seeker Missiles inside one of the cells, and have to shut down the power in order to access them. As soon as I stepped out of that chamber I thought, Oh shit, what have I done? The foreboding music immediately made me sweat. I cautiously proceeded back through the labs, expecting hordes of Metroids to attack me around every corner. Each one that ambushed me sent me into panic mode, firing everything I had at them until they died.
The G.F.S. Valhalla is likely the darkest area explored in a Metroid game to date. On the first visit, one can tell that massive devastation has engulfed the ship, but as soon as I reached the Aurora Chamber, the horror quickly sunk in. Destruction, chaos, breaches in the hull, and an eerie silence. The Valhalla was once a bustling ship full of technicians, mechanics and troops, and now, it’s too quiet. The bodies of Federation Marines are strewn around everywhere, killed either by the Pirates or the Phazon Metroids they brought with them, reducing these soldiers to brittle husks. These corpses have clear and brutal injuries, and those that were killed by Metroids crumble to dust with a chilling screech when touched. One corpse that was not drained can clearly be seen with their visor shattered. Look close, and you’ll see bulging eyes and blood leaking from their nose.
The Prime series is very well known for its Game Overs, which became progressively darker over the course of the original trilogy. They began with Samus’s visor being cracked as an alarm blares. In Echoes, she would go into cardiac arrest before flatlining, and in Corruption, her blood fills the screen. Each sequence is chilling to the bone, and a surefire motivator to the player to work harder to keep Samus alive, so they would not see such a sequence again.
Until recently, Metroid II: Return of Samus was heavily overlooked in terms of its atmosphere. Hardware limitations of the Game Boy meant that its barren, dead tunnels and caverns made up the majority of SR388. The minimal amount of music only added to the tension, which explodes with the loud sting that accompanies an attacking Metroid. I feel that players of Metroid II who were children, and made it to the final area of the game would tell you how terrified they were. The haunting melody that echoed the halls of the Metroid Nest leaves a lasting impression. Samus has battled Metroids in dilapidated facilities, army bases and research stations, and it was never much effort as long as she had her Ice Beam and Missiles. Now, she’s in their hive, vastly outnumbered, and moments away from confronting the ferocious mother of all Metroids.
One of the downsides of the reimagining, Samus Returns, is that a lot of this atmosphere was lost in favor of updating the game’s audio to match modern Metroid titles. However, the extended ending partially makes up for that. One might have expected to return to the Gunship with the baby in peace, but upon revisiting the Surface, the player is confronted with a dark storm, hordes of enemies and a chilling remix of the iconic arrival on Crateria from Super Metroid. Even if I had an idea of what was coming, I still proceeded with caution until being surprised by none other than Ridley!
Ridley’s characterization in the Metroid manga is the darkest, and perhaps most telling depiction of Samus’s arch-nemesis yet. He is portrayed as a bloodthirsty psychopath who enjoys killing and violence. During the attack on K-2L, he encourages the Space Pirates to kill as much as they want, and have fun. We learn that he manages to revive himself after every defeat by feeding on the flesh of those he kills. He taunts and beats poor Samus, overcome with posttraumatic stress disorder at the sight of Ridley after so long, by claiming that her mother might have been among those he ate.
Thanks to you, the Afloraltite exploded and I was also engulfed in flames! Can you imagine how I managed to survive?! Shall I tell you what I had to feed my injured body hmm?! FLESH!! I somehow survived by consuming the bodies of your kind, tossed every which way. Foul, foul human flesh. You don’t know, maybe I even ate your “mama” so that my cells can live, hm? Is she here, or here? AT LEAST PAY YOUR RESPECTS!”
After Ridley leaves, Samus completely breaks down, begging to be killed because it’s hopeless to run from the Space Pirates. Her repressed memories of the attack on her colony return, and there’s a harrowing scene in which she hallucinates Ridley holding her parents by their heads, crushing them in his hands. The reader is released from the tension, when Samus recovers from her PTSD episode and later triumphs over Ridley in battle.
Metroid has long been the closest franchise Nintendo has to a horror series, and there are many great examples from across Samus’s adventures, going far beyond what I’ve highlighted here. Notable mentions include the zombie researchers from Metroid Fusion, Crocomire’s flesh melting off in Super Metroid, and the Dark Troopers in Metroid Prime 2. Metroid flirts with horror and fright to create an atmosphere of dread and despair that is only released when you complete the mission. Perhaps in the future, we will have a Metroid game that outright embraces horror and tests those of us who have been fans of the series for a long time. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Nintendo games are for kids. Metroid games certainly are not, and that’s part of why they’re great.
Written by RoyboyX