Why so Badass, Samus?

Milton Guasti is a game designer whose best-known work cannot be purchased. At least not officially. Another Metroid 2 Remake is his remake of the Game Boy classic Metroid 2: Return of Samus. Despite Nintendo’s copyright claim, the download can still be found in the vastness of the web, of course. The game is very well done and seems like a marriage between the time-honored original and Super Metroid, the third installment in the series, which was released for the SNES in 1994.

Almost simultaneously, MercurySteam, who would later also be responsible for Metroid Dread, developed an official remake titled Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS. And as fun as the newer Metroid installments are, Guasti proved with his remake that he understood the legacy of Metroid and Super Metroid differently, perhaps even better, than the official remakes. As if the original concept was somehow outdated, MercurySteam brought significantly more action and more linearity to Metroid‘s gameplay. But they don’t just change the flow of the game, they also change Samus herself, her character, the way we’ve been reading her so far.

Just like the first three original parts, Guasti’s AM2R portrays a Samus who is cautious and deliberate, who knows that wrong decisions can have fatal consequences. Her posture is straight but defensive. The suit she wears is reminiscent of a tank. The movement in it is slow and sometimes clumsy, changing ammunition takes time, movements like the wall jump have to be learned and trained. If Samus hits projectiles or enemies, she backs away almost as if with a groaning sound. Every item found is a reason to cheer, every defeated boss one to breathe a sigh of relief. Samus has a job to do, she does it because she has to, not because she takes pleasure in breaking her back umpteen times on alien planets in hostile flora and fauna (the morph ball thing), always on the verge of exodus in areas that are too cold or too hot. She must do nothing less than save the galaxy from a catastrophic danger.

Already since Metroid: Other M, but at the latest since Samus Returns, these restraints give way to more fluid, brash movement patterns. In the recent past, Samus has often been described with the word “badass”. Samus Aran a daredevil? A cool bastard without scruples or conscience?

The Ur-Metroids are no run-and-guns, no shoot-em-ups. They are not called Turrican or Mega Man. Even the 3D parts Metroid Prime 1 to 3 are, despite first-person perspective, not first-person shooters. They are well-designed encounters and worlds that have more in common with Zelda dungeons than battle arenas. If Samus didn’t have the backstory she does, I’m not sure she wouldn’t seem just as generic today as a certain Master Chief. Of course, it’s old hat to lament that most narratives over time try to outdo themselves to get faster, higher, further, supposedly better. Dead Space evolved from space horror to space bombast, Resident Evil from survival horror adventure to cover shooter (most recently back in the other direction, but that’s another story). And I won’t even start with action cinema in the past and today.

Samus Aran is so badass in her last game that the trope “Cool guys don’t look at explosions” could have come from her. I get flashbacks from discussions about how more bombast and more coolness would somehow have something to do with maturity and growing up. Today, games can also be more explicit and better represent what was previously reserved almost exclusively for movies.

However, cool-ass power fantasies have little to do with growing up, but rather with infantility. Extremely masculinely charged infantility. The more dangerous the circumstance, the more badassery is required; coolness is just another word for denying emotions. Of all things, “mature” games like God of War (2016) or The Last of Us prove that they can hardly tell useful stories about human emotions besides destruction and toxicity. And now Metroid, too?

Not that Samus was ever functionally anything other than a fighting machine, and even the depth of her character is only a fraction official canon, the greater part projection. But the comparison has always been more along the lines of Ellen Ripley than Captain America. Samus, in her helplessness and overwhelm on an alien planet, draws strength from systematic action, not agile superiority. This moment is reserved for the endgame, where step-by-step acquired skills and experience pay off and even the greatest challenge has an inherent chance of victory.

Perhaps Samus has grown tired over the years of having to constantly react from the defensive and has therefore adopted the completely overpowered parry move that makes Samus Returns and Dread so dynamic. Perhaps the bounty hunter’s late cycle is the quintessence of all her previous adventures, and who likes to start from scratch over and over again or have all their abilities stolen again after the first level?

But what remains of cautious Samus, when after only a few hours I can use shine spark and screw attack to tear down entire areas, including enemies? My thoughts stray to Lara Croft, who in the 90s could already be pushed to the limit by a few wild animals and for whom every acrobatic move was a risky challenge. Her reboot, on the other hand, has been relying on more automation and more power since 2013. There, she not only floats effortlessly over parcours, but also mows down militias armed to the teeth in a chord. Badass sunnyboy Nathan Drake would have done the same. Or any other white dude with a three-day beard.

Okay, cynicism aside, where if not in video games do power fantasies of this nature work better? I spent many fun hours with Samus Returns and Dread. But a direct comparison to the remake of Guasti not only shows the radical change of the last years, but also doubts whether we will ever again control a cautious and underpowered Samus – or whether we can expect to deal with a kind of superheroine in the future, who won’t care about anything except style. Both have their justification and probably also their fans, but I would always defend the thesis that cautious Samus is a more unique concept than super Samus. Because there are significantly more of the latter in our fantasy worlds, even if they’re not all named Samus.

Honestly, given this diametric legacy, I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the development team behind Metroid Prime 4. If that even still exists.

The development of Another Metroid 2 Remake, which was “released” in 2016, can still be read on the blog of DoctorM64, aka Milton Guasti. Guasti, fittingly, would later join Moon Studios on the Metroidvania Ori and the Will of the Wisps (released in 2020). Perhaps the attention brought to it by Nintendo’s copyright claim is not entirely without blame.

This post is also available in: German