Metroid II: Setting the MoodMarch 7, 2013
It is the rare video game that can effectively build a sense of suspense that is legitimately frightening for the player. Driven by the need to progress, obstacles increase in difficulty, maybe, but they don’t often increase the wariness one feels in approaching them. The God of War series, for example, kills the trepidation you might feel at facing an enemy several hundred times bigger than your avatar by making such a battle happen early on; when Kratos has taken down a titan, there is removed any reason to feel afraid of anything. In fact, any battle in which you are not battling something huge and fierce and angry feels like a bit of a letdown.
Metroid II actually builds the sort of tension that can be so intimidating as to force the player to put down the machine it’s being played on. As the ever-helpful Metroid Wiki notes, there are more “boss battles” in Metroid II than in any other Metroid game, at a staggering 40 encounters with metroids at various stages of their life cycle.
Now, whether you actually consider those battles “boss” battles or not — for the most part, these “boss battles” are quick little missile-firing sessions, battles of attrition where you fire as many projectiles as possible without losing too much energy — their setup is very skillfully executed. Almost every metroid you need to fight is preceded by the sight of a broken metroid “shell”, letting the player know that a battle awaits in the next room or so.
This is a nice touch, a “be ready” signpost that more often than not had me grinding my way through minor enemies for energy and missile refills before I went after whatever waited for me. The sense of dread is particularly pronounced as the metroids get bigger, as the Giger-esque Omegas and the smaller but quicker and more tenacious Zetas become more and more common. Once you’re startled once by a metroid uncovered by shooting away sand, you realize that they could be hiding pretty much anywhere.
All of that is well and good, but nothing compares to the sequence that awaits the player at the end of the game.
(This gets into spoilery territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put it after the jump. Yes, I still worry about spoiling 20-year-old Game Boy games. Hey, nobody spoiled it for me, why should I for them?
…ahem. Jump. Clickyclick.)
First, there’s a long stretch of passageways and jump-heavy platforming sections with no enemies whatsoever. There’s just creepy Game Boy music, platforms, and lots and lots of spikes. By this point, mastery of the super-useful “space jump” should be a given, so traversing these areas should be an afterthought. Still, the longer you go without seeing anything, the more tense you get, waiting for something to jump out at you. A save point follows, which alerts you to the fact that you’re getting close. Then there’s a room with the items that fill up your energy and missile reserves — another clue that things are about to get hairy. And finally, perhaps most chilling of all, there’s this:
It’s Metroid‘s iconic Chozo statue, the keeper of all things good, item-containing hand ripped off and head split at the jaw. Chozo statues as you know them to this point are indestructible. Thinking about what could have done this plants a very real fear in the player.
Mercifully, the goody that the statue was holding remains intact, behind the busted statue: An ice beam, a necessary accessory for taking out the small drove of mature-but-unmutated metroids (you know, the ones you can only kill by freezing and firing missiles) that lead up to the final battle with a very angry and very, very difficult to kill queen.
The point here is that by the time you even get to the queen, you’re exhausted with trepidation. My own experience was such that I knew I was going to die by the time the queen finally appeared on my screen. Even with a full supply of energy, every energy tank, and a cool 180 missiles (I had missed a few missile pickups along the way), I knew I was going to die. The leadup to this battle is brutal, and masterfully executed given the limitations of the machine it was implemented on.
Aside from, oh, pretty much every minute I played of Dark Souls, I can’t remember the last time I felt such a fear of mere progression. This is how to work within your hardware; this is how to toy with the player’s emotions. Who needs exposition, when the act of simply playing the game can express so much?