Year of Release: 1986
Autophobia is the fear of complete and total solitude: the morbid fear of being by one’s self, or lack of human contact. It is not uncommon for a person to experience this feeling when left alone for long periods of time, or under circumstances in which human contact is an impossibility. But is this feeling always undesirable, or can it be rather elating? Gunpei Yokoi seems to think the latter.
In the NES classic Metroid, you are Samus Aran: a mysterious and legendary space bounty hunter who has been assigned with the task of infiltrating the planet Zebes, and eliminating the entity known as Mother Brain, who is harnessing a life form with limitless energy (the Metroids) and using them to her own ends. Samus arrives on planet Zebes, alone, to carry out her mission.
From the games outset, the player begins to feel pangs of loneliness and isolation. There are no “stages” in Metroid: there is one, large world, filled with ancient corridors and bizzare alien creatures. Most of the world is accessible from the get-go, though the heart of the entirely non-linear gameplay in Metroid comes from the necessary exploration that must take place. This is essentially the meat of the gameplay: In each area, there are several areas that at first seem impassible; say, for example, a ledge that's too high to reach. One may initially be confounded, and backtrack because they are unsure what to do. Once the high-jump boots are acquired though, the proverbial lightbulb shines on in the players head; the player returns to the aforementioned ledge and goes onto a new area. Bombing is also extremely important to this end. Secret passages can be found by strategicially placing bombs against seemingly impassable walls; these passages can lead to new items and areas which allow Samus to progress on her journey. This extremely non-linear style of exploration is extremely unique to games of Metroid's day and age, which is one of many reasons it holds up so well.
The planet Zebes is huge in size and scope, and can completely dwarf the player. Labyrinthine corridors, secret passages, and ancient ruins long devoid of life (save the various alien creatures that live within) abound. However, where Metroid really pays off is that eventually, once the player has settled into this feeling of autophobia, there exists an extremely elated feeling: the excitement and wonder that comes from being alone whilst exploring a sprawling, subterranean alien world under extremely hermetic conditions. At 3:00am in a dark room, after playing for several hours gaining the necessary energy tanks, missiles, and various projectile weapons necessary to defeat Kraid. I sat wide-eyed in front of a TV screen, both mezerized and even slightly creeped out by the music and scenery in Kraid's lair, I felt strangely comfortable on planet Zebes. I was exploring a bizzare and foreign world that was unlike anything else I had experienced. I was trudging onward toward the final foe and I would not stop until that disembodied bitch of a brain was laid to waste.
The music in Metroid is extremely effective to this end: Hiro "Hip" Tanaka's hypnotic, winding sine waves of blips and bleeps serve to further amplify the feeling of isolation while delving into the depths of Zebes. Perhaps the best example of this effect is that, the further you delve into the planet, the more sinister and warped the music gets; from the seemingly innocent brinstar theme to dark, twisted aural assault that is Tourian. Few game soundtracks today contain a melody that’s anywhere near as twisting and mesmerizing as the music in Kraid’s lair, or as desolate and lonely as the music in the fiery depths of Norfair. The graphics too, accent these feelings very well; though the black void that serves as the background is more or less a result of technical limitations, they somehow manage to make the already alien world seem that much more foreign.
The game's ending would serve to further surprise players: after an adrenaline-rushing escape sequence that follows Mother Brain’s destruction, if one had beaten the game in less than three hours, it was revealed that this mysterious bounty hunter in an advanced suit of robotic armor, was in fact, a rather ordinary looking woman. Though this plot device may seem cliche by todays standards, it was extremely well done for it's time and was quite a revelation. I know I didn't expect the person within the ancient Chozo power suit: fearlessly going into the inner sanctum of an unknown planet, defeating all enemies that crossed her path to be an extremely petit female.
Despite the fact that Metroid was released almost 18 years ago, and has even been spruced up a bit with an updated remake (see this years Metroid: Zero Mission on the Gameboy Advance), the original NES version still holds up well, and I would even go as far to say that this remains the quintessential non-linear adventure game. You're on you're own for this one, with nothing but your arm cannon, missiles, and wits to rely on, but I guarentee that you will have never felt so alive.