When the gods dance...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mysticism vs. Science in Metroid




Mysticism vs. Science in Metroid

Cover Story: Who says the Metroid games are pure sci-fi? A look into the series' other side.

From the beginning, Metroid has always delighted in presenting its players with different twists. Samus being a female is, of course, one of the best-known and most talked about, while others have come later. These have included Ridley's connection to Samus' past and origins, the frequent return of Samus' worst villains after having their planets blown to Kingdom Come, and pretty much everything about Other M from the moment it was announced. And then there are the Chozo, the bird-like race of humanoid beings who are responsible for numerous twists all on their own, undoubtedly with more to come once the series finds new footing.

People who know the Metroid series immediately recognize it as a work of science fiction: A bounty hunter with a super-powered spacesuit goes from planet to planet in her starship, fighting various alien races all the while through games inspired by the science fiction classic Alien. In fact, we would bet that when it came to this week's theme of discussing technology in games, at least a few of you thought of Samus Aran and her Power Suit. In Nintendo's top-tier trinity, Mario tends to represent the anything-goes cartoon world, Zelda the high fantasy, and Metroid the science fiction.

But what if it isn't science fiction? That is to say, not purely science fiction. What if there is more of an element of mysticism, of fantasy, of magic that we've overlooked during the series' 25-year run?

That isn't necessarily to say that we think that the developers have actually designed the games to go beyond what we know as sci-fi. But if the next Metroid title were to incorporate such elements into it, would they really have come out of left field? We don't really think so -- not after a careful look back at the series and some of its more unusual and sometimes unexplainable elements.

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Part of this comes back to an oft-recited line from the British science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, specifically his Third Law, which states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Traditionally, this suggests that what is perceived as magic can actually be a feat of science, though said science may be so advanced that to those of lesser scientific knowledge would perceive it as being magic.

It was with this idea in mind that Marvel Studios recently managed to fit a Norse god into their movie universe, one in which the grounding of all the other characters was scientific: A genetic supersoldier, a man in a high-tech suit of armor, a gamma-irradiated scientist with anger issues, and an organization of secret agents with enough tricks to make James Bond blush. Rather than dump their god into this world as-is, they instead consulted the scientific community to turn Thor into a member of a race so advanced that even we look like neanderthals by comparison.

But could it not work the other way as well? In a civilization, and a galaxy-spanning one at that, so filled with advanced technology of all sorts capable of miraculous feats, is it not possible that what some may simply see as being highly-sophisticated technological achievement could actually be mystical in nature?

Furthering this thought is that science contains many branches, such as chemistry, physics, and biology. To go back to Marvel once more, it has been put forth that perhaps magic could be considered the opposite side of the same coin as science, with Tony "Iron Man" Stark even suggesting that magic could be a form of science, albeit one he admittedly doesn't understand.

Bringing this all back to Metroid, what would lead us to suggest that there are parts of the franchise which go beyond the scientific, fiction or otherwise? For one thing, just take one look at Samus' benefactors and mentors, the Chozo. Though they are renowned for their scientific advancements throughout the galaxy, they don't really look very much like science users, do they?

Granted, looks aren't everything, but they nonetheless not only give off the appearance of being mystical or spiritual in nature, but events revealed over the course of the series seem to back up the visual representation of bird-like sages. This includes their appearances as ghostly entities, as well as their ability to portend visions of the future. From Wikitroid:

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Most Metroid games mention the intelligence of the Chozo, but they mention only their technological inventions until Metroid Prime. They saw the future of the Leviathan and Metroid Prime. The method for how the Chozo looked into the future is unknown, only that they went to Tallon IV to rid themselves of their technology so it may have been some sort of advanced spiritual/supernatural ability. The lore in Metroid Prime states this:

"At the highest point of our city lies the fountain, a wellspring of pure water that flows throughout our civilization. It is the jewel of the Chozo, the life-giver, and yet its waters speak of a clouded future. As we come to understand the paths of time and space more clearly, we have begun to glimpse rough tatters of past and future, glittering behind reality like soft lights behind a curtain. We have seen the fountain in these glimpses, pouring darkness instead of water, and we cannot guess what the visions mean."

As for the scientific prowess they are renowned for, that too presents an interesting case. Certainly, the games describe some of what we see as Chozo "technology" while leaving it vague at other times, but then again, they also led us to believe Samus was a man at first, too. And if the tribe abandoned technology for spiritualism, would it not be possible that they would suitably equip Samus as such, even in such a way that could be compatible with their relics?

Following are some more examples of the Metroid lore which seem to lend themselves, in one way or another, with the mystical, the spiritual, or the magical. And we begin with a fan-favorite...

The Morph Ball

We all know this one well: The Morph Ball is the first power-up Samus tends to get in her adventures, and was the very first one encountered in the series as well. When activated, Samus' bulky frame curls up into a relatively small spherical form with herself still inside (so far as we can tell). It's a handy trick, and one for which no explanation has been given, though that hasn't stopped some from trying, as in this well-documented incident from Metroid Prime:

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Science Team is attempting to reverse-engineer Samus Aran's arsenal, based off data acquired from here assaults on our forces. Progress is slow, but steady. Command would dearly enjoy turning Aran's weapons against her. We believe we can implement Beam weapon prototypes in three cycles. Aran's Power Suit technology remains a mystery, especially the curious Morph Ball function. All attempts at duplicating it have ended in disaster; four test subjects were horribly broken when they engaged out Morph Ball prototypes. Science Team wisely decided to move on afterward.[29] --Metroid Prime Logbook "Hunter Weapons" (Metroid Prime)

16 years after the franchise's humble beginnings on the Nintendo Famicom Disc System in Japan, we finally gain some insight into this key item. On its own, it doesn't really tell us much about the specifics of the item itself; however, what it does do is reveal to us just how extraordinary Samus' weapons and equipment are, even in a galaxy filled with high technology. Sure, there are other Hunters in the cosmos with their own abilities, but it seems as though Samus is in a class of her own.

While they can seemingly recreate some effects, others are significantly beyond their understanding. And the Space Pirates aren't exactly slouches, either, even in matters regarding the Chozo. After all, they did manage to corrupt the Mother Brain that the Chozo had installed on Zebes, as well as figuring out-- to a degree-- how to get Metroids to reproduce, even if managing them was another matter entirely.

The Crystal Flash

More than a mere video game trick, such as restoring one's health and curing all injuries by eating meat taken from a wall, the Crystal Flash is a technique used by Samus to restore her diminished health. She can perform this at the expense of 10 missiles, 10 Super Missiles, and 10 Power Bombs, in addition to the Power Bomb she must use to initiate the technique.

And while the intense heatwaves of a Power Bomb won't hurt Samus in Super Metroid and some other games, their destructive power is made abundantly clear in Metroid: Other M as Commander Adam Malkovich notes that they could easily wipe out his men and instructs Samus not to use them while the other crew members are on board.

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So while it may be possible that Samus' Power Suit can withstand the blast of a Power Bomb, the Crystal Flash involves Samus being outside of her suit and absorbing the energy into herself to restore her health. This is noted as more than a mere video game trick due to the fact that it actually has a place in the lore as well.

In the Super Metroid comic featured in Nintendo Power magazine, Samus is forced to use the technique to hurry her recovery along so she can return to Zebes and free the captive members of the Galactic Federation and the baby Metroid. And though there was no Federation subplot in the games, much of Samus' history does feature those characters and her mentor, the "Old Bird," as well as her origin. Altogether, more of the comic seems authentic than not with many of these elements appearing in the official manga and some even in the games.

As she uses it in the story, Old Bird notes that while Samus can use the energy of the bomb to heal herself, she can also risk great harm to herself if she fails. Suffice to say, without her Power Suit involved, the Crystal Flash seems almost anything but scientific, save for the possibility of photosynthesis. And even with Chozo blood, that seems like a bit of a stretch.


This is one of the more recent introductions to the Metroid mythos, but is no less noteworthy. Introduced in Metroid: Other M, the act is like a variation of the Crystal Flash, though rather than depleting her weapon supplies to restore her health, it can also be used to replenish them instead.

When Samus is low on health, she can stop and concentrate energy through her arm cannon to restore a small portion of it. In addition, this can also be used to restore her missile supply quickly.

The catch is that "concentration" isn't just a name; it is not an automated process, as Samus seems to actually need to concentrate in order to succeed at restoring her supplies. She cannot be hit in the process, or else it will be canceled out.

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One could easily wonder where Samus is able to store hundreds of ballistic projectiles in that suit of hers, but Metroid: Other M introduces a new reality to us: They aren't stored, but are instead apparently conjured from seeming nothingness, only adding to the seemingly mystical nature of Samus Aran. That she can somehow create these items and launch them at her enemies makes the missiles themselves seem more along the lines of a spell (a "magic missile," if you will) than simple military-grade hardware.

With that, it also casts more of Samus' arsenal into question, such as her beam weapons. Whereas the Federation is able to approximate some of the weapons in Metroid: Other M, they do so with more cumbersome handheld forms with large energy sources, rather than the small arm cannon Samus wields. Which, we might add, has much of its space occupied by her arm as she coordinates her fingers according to the type of beam she wishes to use.

Casting magic or operating technology? You be the judge.

Power Suit

Of course, concentration does far more than simply restore her energy or missiles; it is, in fact, key to the entire utilization of her Power Suit.

Metroid lore, including the Super Metroid comic, note that early in Samus' adoption by the Chozo, she was infused with their blood in order to give her their natural powers. That alone sounds like something more mystical than scientific, but then again, being bitten by a radioactive spider doesn't sound like it should give someone spider-powers, either.

The Chozo would also teach her combat skills and strategies, but most importantly of all, they armed her with her trademark Power Suit, armor "tough like the skin of a Chozo." However, the armor by itself offers little in the way of protection; Samus must will it to protect her.

Old Bird describes it as like a second skin for Samus, and that if she is somehow distracted or unfocused, or otherwise does not sense danger, then it will fail to protect her. This is seen at different points throughout the series.

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The first widely-known instance is the portion of Metroid: Zero Mission which introduces us to Zero Suit Samus. After destroying Tourian on Zebes, she attempts to escape in her gunship, where she discards her armored form in favor of the more form-fitting attire.

As Yoshi Sakamoto explained in a Q&A session for the game, "For Samus's suit to appear, considerable powers of concentration are necessary. In short, it was too constraining. It's the same as a salary man loosening his necktie when returning from a business trip on the bullet train."

He goes on to further explain "For Samus to remain connected with the Power Suit requires mental energy unfathomable to an ordinary person." The idea of requiring extensive amounts of mental energy to produce a suit of armor which is like a second skin to her sounds less like the product of science, and more of a mystical or even spiritual connection.

Sakamoto continues, "In situations like this when she is under pressure, indeed, even Samus is unable to concentrate her mental energy. However, when Samus completes the trial of the spirit of the mural (God of War), she regains her strong force of will and can successfully integrate with the Legendary Power Suit."

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Indeed; after losing her Power Suit, Samus manages to equip a new, superior suit of armor not by visiting a lab, but by completing the Ruins Test of the Chozo temple in Chozodia. "Only the chosen few can wear the Legendary Power Suit. Those who prevail over the trials of the spirit of the mural (God of War) can integrate it within their body."

And right there we have it: An actual official statement of Samus being a "chosen one"

And right there we have it: An actual official statement of Samus being a "chosen one," implying more prophecy, and that her powers are spiritual in nature, rather than simply technological.

Of course, all of this isn't to dispel the science fiction nature of the Metroid universe, as some might see it. Rather than being purely Alien, perhaps there's a bit of classic (read: pre-Midi-chlorian) Star Wars in there as well, or even a bit of Super Sentai, or other things. Even Samus herself could be a result of the blending of all these ideas-- of spirituality, of mysticism, of magic, of science-- into one complete, well-rounded warrior who embodies it all.

And of course, it could be her understanding and embodiment of all these different facets which keep Samus rolling ahead of everyone else, while the likes of the Space Pirates only wind up as twisted wrecks.

Special thanks to Metroid Database, Wikitroid, and Metroid Wiki for so much of the info and images.


David Oxford

Nyteworks.net's David Oxford tried the Crystal Flash technique for himself once, but used the wrong kind of Power Bomb. Once he peeled himself off the mat, he vowed never to do that again.

1 comment:

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