The Metroid series of games began in 1986 with the release of the first Metroid game, “Metroid”. It has been a popular Nintendo IP ever since.
When Metroid was first released in 1986, Feminism was already in full swing. Corazon Aquino was inaugurated as the first woman President of the Philippines in February 1986, The US Supreme court overturned a law from Pennsylvania which was designed to discourage women from seeking abortions in June 1986, but also, more negatively, US President Ronald Reagan rhetorically asked the women of America if they would “be prepared to give up their diamond jewelry to impose sanctions against South Africa in August 1986, which kicked up quite a fuss from those in feminist circles.
Samus Aran is a very revolutionary character in a video game as she is a member of a very exclusive club. She is seen as one of the first female lead characters in a video game. I am going to use this essay to detail some of the major developments on this front from a feminist point of view.
When Samus was created, the character’s gender did not seem to have been considered. It was not until midway through the development of the game when the gender of the character was considered, as series co-creator, Yoshio Sakamoto recalls.
“We were partway through the development process when one of the staff members said ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?”
Yoshio Sakamoto, Co-creator – Metroid
This could be seen as potentially sexist as one would assume that during the creation of a character, you would have an idea as to specifically what gender that character was so as to get some of the gender characteristics correct in initial designs. However, at the time of Metroid’s release, it was still common place to have characters that did not exhibit any gender based qualities or features. As it turns out, the game’s atmosphere was heavily influenced by Alien. It is very possible that the inclusion of Samus as a female character could have stemmed from Alien, as that film also featured a female lead.
Another interesting fact on the development of Samus’ character is that all promotional materials and even the game’s instruction manual referred to Samus as male. This is an interesting route to take. It is believed that the team working on Metroid decided to do this to keep Samus’ true identity a secret until the end of the game (which featured a cut scene in which Samus takes her armoured suit off, thus revealing the character as female).
This leads to a very interesting conclusion for the player. Put yourself in the mind of someone in 1986 who is playing Metroid for the first time. The object of the Metroid game is to recover samples of Metroid creatures from Space Pirates that have stolen them. This is achieved by shooting aliens. Samus’ character is a bounty hunter. At the time, this perhaps could still have been seen as a fairly masculine role. So, fast forward to the end of the game where the true identity of Samus is revealed. How surprising it must then have been for a player who just presumed that Samus was male all the way through the game, to find out that Samus is actually a woman!
This leads me on to an interesting point about the reveal of Samus’ true identity. Depending on how fast the game was completed, an extra item of clothing would be removed from Samus, with the fastest players seeing Samus in only a bikini.
It could be argued that this portrayal of Samus objectifies women. This can be seen when you consider that at the time of the game’s release, there were various rumours going around that there was a cheat code in which you could make Samus appear completely naked. This could only have been fueled by the appearance of Samus in her underwear at the end of the game.
However, it could be argued that due to the very limited technology available at the time, it would have been very difficult to represent Samus as a woman by any other means. Samus’ sprite (the player controlled character) does not exactly appear to have feminine features, and the whole point of this ending was to surprise people. It is also worthy of noting that it was one of the team’s priorities to express Samus’ femininity without turning her into a sex object. Samus’ design is actually based on the actress Kim Basinger as portrayed in the films “9 1/2 Weeks” and “My Stepmother is an Alien“. Whether or not they succeeded with this is entirely open to interpretation.
This actually carried on throughout the Metroid games up to the most recent games, except the clothing underneath the suit has become considerably more modest, to the point where in the most recent game, Samus is wearing a skintight suit under her armoured suit.
So, in conclusion, I mentioned that Nintendo had aimed to express Samus’ femininity without objectifying her. Do I think they succeeded? Everything taken into account, I believe that they did, Eventually.
It is easy to look at the early entries of the series (especially at the various endings in the first game) and say that they absolutely did not succeed. But times have indeed changed since then, and as times have changed, so have people’s ideas in terms of depiction of women in media. What was once acceptable in terms of depiction of women is no longer acceptable.
No matter how many changes have taken place in the Metroid series, one constant has remained the same. Samus has always been portrayed as a heroic, brave and powerful character, overcoming all the odds to complete the mission at hand. Having access to all the cool gadgets and weaponry. I think that Samus’ portrayal has evolved over time to become what it is today.