Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Relationship with Samus Aran - Part 1

A memorable and powerful quote from one of my favorite films, Batman Begins, has Rachel Dawes express to Bruce Wayne with contempt, “…it’s not who you are underneath; [but] what you do that defines you.” It’s ironic at the time because she does not yet know that (SPOILER!) Bruce Wayne is Batman and is doing more than most to help clean up Gotham City. This parable succinctly characterizes exactly what I love about Samus Aran. From 1987 to 2010, Samus Aran has been defined by the culmination of her actions and not by the person under the power suit.

I was seven when I first met Samus Aran while playing Metroid in 1988. It was among the first handful of games I owned for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the first game console I ever owned. Metroid was the first game for the NES that allowed the player to revisit previously explored areas in attempts to find more hidden secrets with newly acquired abilities. It allowed movement not only from left to right, up and down, but also vice-versa which was unique at the time. Contemporaries such as Kid Icarus and Super Mario Bros. only progressed in one direction and did not allow you to move your screen back left once you had proceeded to the right. Metroid also had some surprise endings in store for me, which made it the second game to have multiple endings after Bubble Bobble.

Metroid is such a difficult game on the NES that I guarantee it took me over a year to beat. This was mostly a testament to how awkward and difficult the pass-code system was for a seven year old. They were 24 characters long and you were done for if you put a “0” instead of an “O” when writing it down. It was truly terrible and I was not the most organized seven-year-old. Therefore it took me a long time to work my way through the fortress planet of Zebes and stand toe-to-toe with Mother Brain. Times were different back then. The internet as we know it didn’t exist. Playing video games wasn’t the mainstream thing all the cool kids were doing (quite the opposite) so it wasn’t a heavy subject of recess conversations. I lived in a spoiler-free world. I had no idea what was about to happen once I defeated the final boss. I had no idea that Samus would remove that suit and personally congratulate me. I was not prepared for it.

He's so cool.
The ending of Metroid is ranked #1 in most “Memorable Moments in Video Games” for me. That moment when Samus sheds the power suit and reveals for the entire world to see that she is actually a woman underneath was monumental for me. It isn’t really so much that Samus is a woman that’s important, but that I had been led to believe otherwise prior to her unveiling. In the wonderful world of 8-bit gaming, the only story you got was detailed to you in the manual itself and then you were left to your own devices to work out the plot as you progressed through the game. Most games only got a paragraph or two, but games like Legend of Zelda and Metroid got considerably more. Metroid got 8 pages of background story explaining in detail the rise of the Space Pirates and the Federation turning to their last resort, Samus Aran. I remember rushing to consult this story while keeping my eye on Samus on my TV in case she was about to do anything else equally mind blowing. Just as I had thought! It continuously refers to Samus as a man. What was Nintendo of America playing at here? Had they intentionally tried to deceive me or was this some horrible inattention to detail while translating from Japanese? I honestly would not know for many, many years (again: no internet). 

Great!! You fulfilled your mission. Also, I'm a woman! Suprise!
As a child, I thought it was so cool that Samus is “a girl.” It endeared her to me for reasons I couldn’t adequately express. I couldn’t articulate why it was cool in any other way than it surprised the hell out of me one fateful afternoon. I didn’t see then that it was so rare to be playing a woman rather than saving one from a castle and so the entire concept was stimulating to me. It was the first time I ever played a strong, independent female character. The video game industry has always been so overpopulated with male protagonists that it didn’t even cross my mind to question the ruse laid out in the game’s manual.

In 1994, I was next reunited with Samus in Super Metroid, after missing out on Metroid II: Return of Samus for GameBoy. Now, Super Metroid is my favorite action side-scrolling game ever made and I won’t dwell on that, but I think it is video game perfection. Super Metroid does not attempt to hide Samus’s gender in any way. In fact, every time you fail as a player, you see her power suit fall apart and the woman within die. It is a constant reminder that while she is strong and powerful, she’s also only human.

It's true we get to see her underpants for a brief instant, but hey, it's hot in Chozo battle suits.

There is a stark contrast to my reaction of seeing Samus in her power suit and without it. When I see the image of Samus as a woman, it strikes me as beautiful and delicate. Although I still wouldn't say she appears weak, she certainly appears vulnerable. When I see her in the power suit, I still know she is a woman underneath, but all I see is strength and power. She appears indomitable and invulnerable. I think this contrast is what makes Samus so unique and important. Most women in video games are under-dressed for their occupation, so even the strength of their role is undermined by their lack of clothing. Those types of women ask me to suspend disbelief that they can wage wars in their underpants, simply so I can see quite a bit of skin. This is not so for Samus. Much like Batman putting on his suit to do the things he knows Bruce Wayne cannot do, Samus wearing her suit is doing the things many of us are groomed to think women cannot do – and that’s why it’s so amazing she can do them and she does so without sacrificing her dignity or suspending my disbelief with her outfit. Samus defies and redefines gender roles unlike any other character in video gaming. That’s why I thought Samus being a girl was so cool when I was young, but I just didn’t understand all the implications and nuances of society to express it. 

There is something to be said about the dark tone of the "Metroid" series as well.  Unlike Nintedo's other series which feature bright colors and backgrounds, the "Metroid" series is dark and eerie. While Mario might have to look for his Princess in another castle, he can be sure that his trip there will be bright and cheerful, slapping shiny stars and picking fire flowers. Samus on the other hand will be scouring the dark corners of Brinstar, colored with a darker pallet and emphasized by haunting music, to find her power-ups. Not only is Samus strong and brave, but her game environments and the accompanying music were among the first to test the bravery of the player as well. While Metroid titles aren't on par with Silent Hill, I can certainly tell you I have been nervous running through the dark corridors of Super Metroid, and literally scared out of my seat by Space Pirates in the dark rooms of Metroid Prime.

Samus has more evolutions than most Pokemon.
Samus Aran is an amazing character. Not only is she a warrior and a hunter, but she is the best at what she does. Raised by an ancient, mysterious race of anthropomorphic bird warriors who were thought to be extinct, she was trained in their combat style and given her powerful suit of armor that only she can utilize. She has saved the Galaxy numerous times, and driven a dangerous, powerful species to the brink of extinction. She is strong and quick-thinking. She is fearless. It is her determination and her skill as a warrior that defines her. Everything else about her has always been a footnote. It is an important footnote, however, because Samus's ability to defy stereotypes and be a proud, strong woman is part of her identity. This article wouldn't exist if she weren't a woman, and while she would be a cool character, I wouldn't feel quite so enamored by her strength if she was simply meeting the status quo of most video game characters - either a man, or a scantily clad woman.

Playing as Samus remains a unique and rewarding experience for me even 25 years later.

In 2010 Nintendo attempted to redefine Samus in the Wii title Other M. Next week I will discuss how well I feel this redefinition did at fleshing out Samus Aran as a character.