When Nintendo announced the game Metroid: Samus Returns at E3 in 2017, I was casually interested in the game. I enjoyed the Metroid Prime series but those games were my first non-Smash Bros experience with Samus Aran. As a kid, I never played the 2D Metroid titles, but as an adult I have heard from various members of the fandom that the 2D games are the definitive Metroid experience. I kind of got the vibe that I wasn’t a true Metroid fan if I didn’t like those games. So when Samus Returns hit the shelves, I waffled back and forth on it for a bit and finally decided to put it on my Christmas list. I received it over the holidays and put some hours into the game before realizing the terrible truth:
I don’t like 2D Metroid.
At the very least, I don’t like this one. Samus Returns kept me engaged in the early hours but it didn’t take long for frustration to override the desire to put more time and energy into the game. At first I told myself that what held the game back for me had to do with repetitive bosses, limited enemy types, and the lack of Metroid Prime’s deeper focus on lore and discovery as a result of the Scan Visor. But if I’m honest with myself, the problem that ultimately made me put Samus Returns down for the forseeable future is the constant agony of wandering a mazelike map trying to stumble onto that one freaking piece of gear you need to open the weird door on the other side of the maze that you have to open in order to progress to the next part of the game.
“Uh, Ian, isn’t that stuff basically the whole point of Metroid?”
Oh, I know, adventurers. I am well aware of the Metroidvania school of design, with all the backtracking and the discovering and the atmospheric worlds and so on. I know that this design choice is intentional in order to enforce the feeling of being completely lost in an alien world, fighting tooth and nail to finally discover where it is you need to be. But as much as I appreciate all of that from a critical/artistic perspective, as a player of video games it is a really frustrating method of design. I don’t want to get stuck at a chokepoint and have to rewander the same corridors three times so I can find the one obscure thing I need so that I can finally start playing the game again.
Please understand that I get this is a personal preference. Some of you reading this most definitely enjoy the Metroidvania approach to design. I wouldn’t have even given this game a second thought if not for all the people I know who have stated online that the 2D Metroid games are these incredible masterpieces. But ultimately this blog is about sharing my personal experience, and for me I have a difficult time seeing the appeal of what is essentially spinning my wheels. Traversing the same place over and over to make no progress feels like a waste of time to me. Yes, it makes a statement, but nine times out of ten I don’t buy video games for the statements they make – or ask for them for Christmas (sorry Mom!).
My negative experiences with Metroid got me thinking a lot about this principle in tabletop gaming called the Three Clue Rule. I’m not going to go into a massive explanation of the concept here because it has been done much better on The Alexandrian; instead, I’ll just focus on the parts most relevant to this discussion. The three clue rule is a design principle for chokepoints in mystery scenarios – specific mysteries that players have to solve in order to continue progressing. The rule states that for any deduction the players must reach to continue their investigation, there should be at least three clues pointing to the correct conclusion. Now this can be expanded beyond a mystery setting specifically and summarized in this way:
For any problem the players have to solve in order to continue the game, there should be at least three potential solutions.
Why three? Well, we can assume that the players aren’t going to figure out all three solutions – they probably won’t think of all the possibilities that you as the designer might. They’ll walk right by one way around the problem, or maybe try one of them and fail. Having at least three ways to deal with the same problem creates a pretty good chance that the player will be able to progress beyond that point of the game.
I feel like the Metroid formula – at least as it is presented in Samus Returns – could benefit from application of the three clue rule. This game is filled with numerous chokepoints that for the most part only have one solution. It’s a perfect storm for creating player frustration; if someone misses the one possible solution, progression stops until they find some way back to it. So what we need is one of two things: we either need more solutions, or more things pointing us to the one solution that the game wants us to use.
To demonstrate, let’s look at the same theoretical scenario from both perspectives. In order to defeat the last Alpha Metroid for sector A and get its DNA in order to progress to sector B, you have to enter a room where the temperature is too high for Samus’s standard power suit. Metroid veterans will recognize this as a situation where we need to locate and equip the Varia suit. First, we’ll explore a scenario where obtaining the Varia suit isn’t the only solution to the problem of the high-temperature room. Then we’ll explore a scenario where we have clues pointing us to the location of the Varia suit.
So what could some other solutions be? Well, perhaps by using her Scan Pulse, Samus could find a segment of earth that can be destroyed by her power bombs and lead to an underground passage. Following this passage to its end leads to a chamber filled with insulated pipes and guarded by space pirates. Defeating the pirates, Samus can activate a mechanism that drains burning liquid from the room above down the pipes and into a vat, therefore lowering the temperature of the room she needs to enter and rendering the Varia suit unnecessary. Or, perhaps this underground passage leads to a long, complex series of tunnels that present Samus with a puzzle she must navigate in morph ball form. By reaching the end of the puzzle, she is fired from a cannon into the chamber on the other side of the high-temperature room, circumnavigating it instead of having to cross directly through it.
Now let’s look at how the game could give you clues leading to the Varia suit instead of giving you more solutions to the problem. When Samus reaches this room she cannot survive without a new suit, perhaps there is a screen next to the door displaying characters in an alien language. By defeating a nearby group of space pirates, Samus’s suit is able to learn to translate that language, and returning to the door reveals a message telling any pirates who are trying to go inside to “get a suit from Room 77C first.” She then pulls up her map and charts her way to that chamber. Or, failing to realize that she can find a way to translate the letters, Samus backtracks a bit into another room she has visited before. She notices that the local insects seem to be disappearing into the floor in a certain spot. Bombing that spot reveals a passageway that will lead her to Room 77C where the Varia suit is located.
Both of these methods give the player options when they reach a chokepoint in the game – either more options for getting around the chokepoint, or more options for discovering the one true avenue of overcoming it. Personally, I feel like the second method probably feels a little more Metroid and from a game design standpoint it makes more sense. Why? Notice how, in the first method, my other solutions still assumed that Samus had discovered her morph ball upgrade and the power bombs. If you design the game so that there are multiple solutions to each problem, you have to assume it’s possible that Samus won’t get any of her upgrades and therefore create a path that allows her to get through the whole thing with her most basic abilities. Or you have to somehow make it so that each different way of getting around the problem still ultimately leads to the same upgrade. It’s ultimately simpler to plant evidence helping the player reach the correct conclusion, in my view.
Of course, I suppose you could just “Breath of the Wild” the whole approach and have Samus start the game with all of the equipment she would need to solve any conceivable puzzle, but at that point you’re really starting to get away from the essence of Metroid.
While I do think that for me personally Metroid: Samus Returns could learn a little something from the three clue rule, I think the real answer here is that there are some quality-of-life changes that could be made to the game that are a lot simpler. The game’s map is very difficult to read when it comes to differentiating between the types of doors that can stop you from progressing, making it possible to confuse a door you can open with your current gear with one you actually cannot. The game doesn’t tell you where to go with quest objective icons or anything like that (and again, that’s an intentional part of the game’s atmosphere), but I don’t see any harm in allowing the player to set their own objectives or take notes. You’re really telling me that the complex technology operating Samus’s battlesuit doesn’t allow her to jot down notes about the places she’s been before? The player has the option to do this with a notepad on their own but building this sort of mechanism into the game makes a lot more sense. A lone bounty hunter exploring an alien planet where she has no allies would be a little more organized than Samus Returns allows you to be within the confines of the game.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts, adventurers. Do I just need to “git gud” and start carrying a pad and pen with me when I play Metroid? Should the game include some quality of life changes, or add helpful design principles like the three clue rule in order to prevent players getting stuck at chokepoints for long periods of time? How did you feel about Samus Returns, if you’ve played it? I love hearing from you folks, so let me know in the comments below!