Monday, August 8, 2011

Thoughts on Metroid's 25th birthday

Twenty-five years ago this past Saturday, the first Metroid title was released on the Famicom in Japan. Plenty has been written on how the game revolutionized non-linear gameplay, how it broke gender barriers, how its dark, melancholic mood redefined atmosphere in games, and how Team Ninja bastardized the franchise with Other M. You can find all those articles on other websites.

The story of Metroid is really the story of its creator, Gunpei Yokoi. He's by far the most tragic figure in the Nintendo game design pantheon--if Shigeru Miyamoto is gaming's Thomas Edison, Yokoi is Nikola Tesla.

Yokoi's life parallels the story of the Metroid franchise. Both are integral figures at Nintendo, still the most important game company in the world. Both had moments of sheer greatness followed by moments of neglect and disaster. Both are black sheep in the Nintendo family whose legacy is too often forgotten today.

Along with Metroid, Yokoi is the creator of some of Nintendo's most important works. Among them: the Game & Watch, Kid Icarus, the Game Boy, Dr. Mario, and Fire Emblem. While many of these were popular and influential, nothing reached the stardom Miyamoto's creations.

And there were the failures. In 1985, Yokoi created R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy! It's a cult classic today, but when it was released, it flopped. The plastic robot add-on for the NES only got support from two games, and it was shortly discontinued.

He was also the father of Nintendo's first foray into 3D gaming, the infamous Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it was such a failure that it led to Yokoi's departure from Nintendo in 1996, after three decades of service.

A year later, he was hit by a car and killed. And today, unless you're a huge gaming enthusiast, you have no idea who Gunpei Yokoi is.

(Side note: I wonder what Yokoi would think of the 3DS. It's the spiritual successor to the Game Boy and Virtual Boy combined!)

What about Metroid? It's often grouped in Nintendo's "holy trinity" with Mario and The Legend of Zelda. But is it really up there? Metroid has never enjoyed the commercial success of its Miyamoto-created brethren.

To me, it's personal. As a kid, Metroid was the first series that made me realize video games could be something deeper as an art form. It's the most important game franchise to me. If it weren't for Metroid, I'd be another 14-year-old boy on Xbox Live chugging Mountain Dew and calling people homophobic slurs in Halo.

So even if Nintendo refuses to acknowledge your existence in 2011: happy birthday, Metroid. And thank you, Gunpei Yokoi. I'll pour one out for ya.

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