Tools for the Job: Asserting Femininity in Super Metroid

Ray Huling pointed out in an article for The Escapist that the only thing that video games rarely borrow from the film Aliens are the motherhood themes (“Woman, Mother, Space Marine”, 18 November 2008). The tough image of space marines, the indomitable alien force, or the barren sense of isolation have all been incorporated into various titles. But the theme of being a mother, particularly one that is driven to action in defense of her child, has only been touched on a few times. The most popular example, Super Metroid, draws heavily on Aliens for inspiration while presenting those themes in multiple ways.

Usually the Metroid games feature the heroine wearing an androgynous suit of power armor. An essay on female avatars by Sara M. Grimes highlights the effect that this has on playing Metroid Prime as opposed to when playing Resident Evil. Grimes points out that Jill from Resident Evil is a sexualized avatar throughout the game. She wears no body armor while everyone else does, and even while playing as her, she must be rescued by male characters. It’s a fairly stereotypical depiction of women in games. Concerning Metroid Prime she writes, “Samus typified the notion that action heroines operating within the conventions of a predominately male genre tend to engage in traditionally male activities. In the role of intergalactic bounty hunt, Samus engaged in unlimited acts of violence and aggression”. This point recognizes the most prominent thing on Samus’s suit: the huge phallic gun on her arm. As an avatar, her sexual identity is obscured and the gun arguably makes her more appealing to a male audience.

As a consequence of the power armor, Samus’s femininity is usually ignored. In many ways, that is what is empowering about her; the games never put her through the usual nonsense that someone playing Jill in Resident Evil must go through. KaterinLHC in a post at Gamers with Jobs writes, “I find great satisfaction that what matters in a Metroid game is not that the heroine nets her love interest, but rather that she completes her mission successfully. Samus is judged not by her interpersonal skills but by her abilities and her talents. Samus is a woman, but her sexuality is irrelevant.” This is true for the entire series, even Metroid Fusion in which Samus speaks a fair amount. When she interacts with a character in the two latter sequels in the Prime Trilogy, she is addressed as a soldier and nothing more. Super Metroid is unique in that it is the only game in the series that addresses something distinctly female about Samus besides her looks: motherhood.

The game begins with Samus describing a baby Metroid that she finds as a “confused child” after killing the Metroid Queen. She takes it to a space station named Ceres (the Roman Goddess of Motherly Love) where it will be taken care of and studied in an effort to help all civilization. The player rushes back when the station is under attack and is overpowered when the dinosaur-like Ridley kidnaps the Metroid. Although the outcome is pre-determined, you still have to dodge Ridley’s attacks and fire helplessly as he carries the adoptive child away. The station is set to self-destruct and Samus can only flee and follow Ridley back to Planet Zebes. Considering the dangerous consequences of coming between a mother and her child, Super Metroid is able to bridge the gap between female and male audiences by providing the action that the target demographic of men seeks but justifying it through maternal instincts.

This sets up the rest of the game as you explore the planet, fight the various creatures that live there, and try to recover the baby Metroid. Like the reference to Ceres at the start of the game, there are numerous allusions to motherhood on planet Zebes. Every single boss except Ridley and Mother Brain has a child present with it. A clumsy baby dinosaur sits outside the lair of its larger parent, Kraid. On the crashed alien ship, the Boss Phantoon hatches bouncing blue eyes that we must shoot down. In the underwater level of Maridia, the final Boss is carried away by its children after we defeat it. Even the helpful aliens are shown with young such as a birdlike creature guarding its egg or a turtle with its litter of baby turtles. The power-up abilities that you collect throughout the game are housed in eggs held by giant bird statutes. These details constantly remind the player of their own surrogate child that they are searching for.

Coupled with this imagery is a game design that emphasizes exploration and personal improvement over simple violence. The game creates what Henry Jenkins describes as a female gendered space. He bases this concept on children’s literature, using The Secret Garden as an example of a book specifically targeting girls. He notes, “In such stories, the exploration of space leads to the uncovering of secrets, clues, and symptoms that shed light on character’s motivations. Hidden rooms often contained repressed memories and sometimes entombed relatives.” In this way, what is often called the “Metroidvania” style of gameplay, exploring a large area and accumulating abilities to solve puzzles, is a unique combination of gendered design themes. The action and empowerment that are the traditional activities of “masculine” game design are coupled with exploration and problem-solving.

For example, while many rooms will require you to kill off aliens to unlock the door, they will subsequently allow you to pass through without dealing with the creatures. As a consequence, once they become strong enough, the player begins ignoring the wildlife on Planet Zebes. Weapons are rarely used for just increasing damage but rather add new abilities to open up areas such as the Super Missile unlocking Green Doors. When you need to recover health or ammo, the game sets up hunting spots that you just sit and harvest from or a recharge station. The game design does not encourage mindless destruction because there is no leveling up like in Symphony of the Night, killing anything except the bosses or completing room-locked encounters is unnecessary. Instead, puzzling your way through rooms, studying the map, and collecting items are the chief occupations of the game. By de-emphasizing conflict and destruction, the game reduces the “masculine” overtones of dominance and creates room for a balance for “feminine” design elements to develop.

The final battle takes place in an area called Tourian against the leader of the space pirates, Mother Brain. As with the rest of the game, feminine imagery is present everywhere. Several baby metroids float around the base. The guns shoot O-rings, which unlike Samus’s phallic laser beams might be more closely connected with the traditional vaginal symbolism of the O. Eventually the player stumbles upon the lost child only to see that it has grown enormously. It quickly overpowers the player no matter what the player does and drains Samus nearly to death. Realizing that Samus is its mother from the sound of the alarm on her suit, the same one that indicates her armor is about to crack and reveal her female form, the Metroid backs off and flies away. In the final battle against a gigantic Mother Brain, who again shoots O-rings at Samus, the player must be rescued by this same child in a battle that no amount of guns, bombs, or missiles can win. Only the maternal bond with the baby Metroid allows Samus and the player to save the Galaxy.

There are technically only three moments in the game in which Samus’s gender is depicted. The first is the beginning of the game when the only thing that is represented on screen is a feminine eye while Samus’s voiceover explains the game’s story. The second is when the player loses all of their health. The suit’s alarm emits a high-pitched warning before the armor bursts off, revealing Samus in a sort of leotard. The third moment comes at the end, and whether the players sees it or not is dependent on how well the player has done in the game. Depending on how many items that they have collected in the game, Samus will remove her visor, helmet, or entire suit before giving the player a thumbs up. The moment is seen as a reward, one that works because the male player is observing Samus instead of playing as her. The tradition of Samus disrobing at the end of the game as a reward has been present throughout the series.

Rumored to be an afterthought in the first Metroid, this “ending reward” was maintained in the Gameboy sequel and emphasized in Super Metroid. Subsequent sequels have varied or toned down these sequences. In the Metroid Prime trilogy, we only see her remove her helmet or a cut that pans down to her in a blue jumpsuit. The Gameboy Advance titles of Mission Zero and Metroid Fusion only showed brief anime style drawings of her in stylized gym clothing. Only Super Metroid outright depicted her in something resembling a futuristic bikini. The reason for this goes back to the way that Super Metroid is a homage to the film Aliens.

In Aliens, Ripley stumbles upon the child Newt and adopts her. Quickly proving that she is the only competent person left in the space marine squad, she takes command when everyone else is falling apart. During the finale when Newt is kidnapped, she doesn’t hesitate to duct tape two guns together and tear through the alien nest to find her. One of the more odd moments of the film is technically the last scene where we see a brief shot of Ripley in her underwear as she prepares the sleeping pod. She has cast aside the guns, the power armor, and the tough image as she reassures her adoptive child that everything will be alright.

Her femininity is reasserted, the masculine identity only a temporary one to get the job done. Super Metroid handles many of the elements of the Aliens story in its own unique way, but the final reward sequence where Samus is shown in a way that emphasizes her female biology draws on a similar theme of the film, as well. The brief flash of skin reasserts Samus’s femininity and that her power armor, phallic gun and all, are just tools for the job.