As we all know, Metroid celebrated its 35th anniversary this past year with the release of Metroid Dread. Longevity like that is an incredible achievement, and really makes you appreciate how much Metroid has changed and evolved over the years, something that’s undoubtedly lead to the staying power the series has enjoyed over that time. These evolutions have ranged from incredibly daring – the transition to 3D and implementing the first person perspective comes to mind – to natural occurring instances that keep the series fresh and modern – really, anything from Metroid Dread could be used as an example, from the graphics to the engine to the almighty slide. I think that the ability to adapt and evolve is one of the most important factors when taking a look at series’ that have been around for decades plus.
This reflection into Metroid’s evolution over the years actually threw something into clear view for me: while the Metroid series has evolved over the years, the way that the series presents its villains has not.
Now, don’t get what I’m saying wrong. Ridley is obviously an incredible adversary for Samus, and a big part of what makes Metroid games so enjoyable. Mother Brain is an iconic villain, Dark Samus was a fantastic threat over the course of three games, and any time the player sees an Omega (or even Queen) Metroid, you know that you’re in for a hell of a battle. All of these villains are great, but they also all have one thing in common: they are all the exact same kind of villain. These aren’t characters with strong motivations, relatable intentions, personality quirks, etc; they’re all glorified enemies. In fact, calling them “characters” is sort of a stretch in and of itself, because that word to me implies characterization, which all of the above have very little, if at all. It might be more accurate to describe Ridley as a threatening force of nature than it would be to say he’s a nuanced character.
Now, I understand that what I just laid out probably sounds like a criticism, but it’s actually not. There is room for these kinds of characters in media. Beast Ganon from Zelda comes to mind as an example of this, as does a character like Doomsday from Superman. Think of The Terminator from the first movie or the Xenomorph from Alien. These are all great iconic characters… but after 35 years, this type of character is all Metroid has ever known, and I think it’s time for a fresh look.
There have been flashes of three dimensional villains in Metroid before. Scans and Pirate Lore from Metroid Prime have presented the Space Pirates not just as generic bad guys, but a real organization with structure, leadership, and depth. The problem is that the games don’t really follow up on this. We may read about the Pirates plans, but at the end of the day, we still only see the Ridleys, the Omega Pirates, etc, as monstrous obstacles rather than characters. Metroid Prime 3 gave us a selection of bounty hunters that Samus needed to take down, with Gandrayda in particular seeming somewhat antagonistic, but likewise, you can’t really call any of them three dimensional villains eithers since they were acting under the influence of Phazon.
Raven Beak was close. He was really close. To be honest, if you the reader were to argue with me that Raven Beak was a pretty three dimensional villain, I probably wouldn’t argue with you. But again, for my money, we have a character that has some pretty generic motivations (He “prays at the altar of power”, remember?) who was killed off before we could really dig into the Chozo warriors psyche. There was a lot of potential there, but arguably, Metroid Dread jumped the shark and rushed the finale of the story before it was fully seasoned.
Ironically, the closes that Metroid has come to producing a great three dimensional villain came in the game that told the worst story in the series. Yes, I’m talking about Other M. Melissa Bergman, aka MB, aka the android that Madeline Bergman created to control the Metroid’s using the same telepathy that Mother Brain used, wasn’t actually a bad idea at all. Artificial Intelligence gone wrong is a well-worn trope, but one that can be really effective and engaging if done right. It’s just that, unfortunately… Other M didn’t do it right. I would actually argue that the MB angle was one of the least offensive story beats in Other M, but there’s no denying that the overall story was a complete catastrophe. And honestly, I worry that the failure of Other M might make Nintendo a bit gun shy when it comes to presenting a really nuanced story in general, and a great character villain specifically.
Sylux has potential to be that villain, assuming he plays some kind of role in Metroid Prime 4, but I think we’re at the point where we need to learn about and identify with Sylux and his point of view to really have him break out above the other villains. We know he hates the Galactic Federation; why? How does this motivate him? What would cause him to cross the most powerful governing body in the Metroid universe? What is his plan? Is it just to accrue power like every other Metroid villain, or does he have a specific endgame in mind? These are the kind of questions that separate the three dimensional villains from the rest.
We’ve seen how great villains can make not only their stories better, but the heroes of those stories as well. What would Charles Xavier be without his dark reflection in Magneto? How about Solid Snake and Liquid Snake, the brothers who wrestle with the circumstances of their birth and place in the world? Thanos, on his quest to restore order and balance to the world, as misguided and horrible as it might be? Kuja, and his rebellion against his destiny, looking to prove to his creators that he is worth life. All of these villains have clear (misguided maybe) motivations, arcs, traits, definitive beginnings and endings, and maybe most importantly, are vessels through which we can also learn more about our lead protagonists. There’s no reason that the Metroid series should shy away from the same types of characters to oppose Samus.
We’ve had our fill of monsters in Metroid. It’s time to bring in a new type of villain.
Andy Spiteri is the Webmaster of Omega Metroid and Host of the Omega Metroid Podcast. Probably drinking a Tim Horton’s Double Double as you read this.