Reviewing the Original "Metroid" Enemy Artwork!
By Jonathan Wojcik
To those of you too young to have lived through the prime of the Nintendo Entertainment System, there's probably nothing I can say to convey just how magic it all felt. With no internet, a few magazines and commercials if you were lucky, you just never knew what a video game would have in store for you, and they even came with books that didn't just explain the basic control functions, no; they also contained stories, comics and original artwork constituting a piece of companion media in their own right.
I was five when Metroid showed up at the video store, a weird looking game with a weird sounding name. It was much too young for me to have any comprehension of a game that consisted of exploration, puzzle solving and a hefty amount of backtracking, and I barely ever even made it past the very first couple of rooms on my original rental, but boy did I ever DEVOUR the game's instruction manual. Everything we are about to see was instantly so special to me, so inspirational, that even my mother noticed I liked it more than the video game itself; and cared enough to indulge that in a really unique way that I'll talk about later.
God, I wish these were still the canon political figures Samus keeps freelancing for. As far as I know, the Metroid universe now assumes the galaxy to be run primarily by humans, which is boring and stupid and NOT MY METROID. My metroid has a galaxy run by, from left to right, the esteemed chairmen Bird Fetus Lizard, Cyclops Bug, Regular Bug, and the Loveland Frog, seen here
FIRST: The Galactic Federation.
They're also the best design of the four, in my personal opinion, but I like how much Regular Bug still kind of looks like a Metroid-style alien. What I wouldn't give for that to be an actual character in the games, maybe the grouchy authority figure who thinks Samus Aran is a dangerous loose cannon but secretly respects her bravery and always does the right thing at a pivotal enough moment. Before we move on to the game's actual enemies, I just have to get out one big BRING THEM BACK to any Nintendoes who might by reading this.
So first, let me say how much I also love the naming conventions of this series. I've seen some people poke fun at the "cute" names of some of these creatures, but to me that always gave them an even more authentic feel. Are the words "wolf" or "eagle" really all that intimidating, or do they sound like someone who's not sure they need to belch or hiccup? I love that a deadly Zebesian creature is called "Mellow" just as much as I love this entire art and design style.
The intense colors, the chitinous horns, the leathery ridges and the slick, shiny sheen to the Mellow's eyes really set the stage for the rest of the bestiary, and all for the smallest, weakest enemy that can possibly exist in the game! They're basically just Zebesian horseflies, hovering around waiting for prey to come too close.
Also pretty weak, this enemy exists to fly out of big, green pipes straight out of the Mushroom Kingdom and get shot for some quick, easy ammo or health drops. It's also a straight-up rhinoceros beetle, which isn't very rare or exciting now, but when I was five years old it was the very first time I'd seen these insects actually referenced in anything other than the backyard insect field guide I similarly obsessed over, so it felt REALLY cool and special. It may very well have been one of the first times I ever got excited for a biology reference in a piece of media, but don't quote me on that. I may have possibly been watching Maya the Bee even earlier than this.
"Zoomer" has coincidentally taken on such a trendy meaning of its own that I found it almost jarring to remember that was really the name of this enemy, actually the very first creature you see in the game and almost as iconic to Metroid as Goombas are to Mario, a straightforward foe that just walks side to side and can scale walls or ceilings with equal ease.
It's a more interesting design than I think anyone else is inclined to give it credit for, too. Maybe you just see a "generic spiky bug," but I love that grumpy beetle face, and in this incarnation, I especially love those gooey looking worm-like feet. I REALLY wish it had kept those, which I've never seen on any other arthropod-like creature design to my knowledge, but alas, later versions of the Zoomer would replace them with the obvious insect-like jointed limbs. Now it's a generic spiky bug.
If the Zoomer is Metroid's Goomba, then the Skree is Metroid's Koopa. Not because they share any similarities whatsoever, no, but that's just how iconic these two enemies feel to me, and while the Zoomer is arguably nothing innovative, the Skree is a pretty damn original creature. Like almost all Zebesian life, it's clearly got a chitinous insect-like exoskeleton going on, but it could otherwise never pass for just an oversized Earth-bug.
The Skree hangs from ceilings with its talons in a similar fashion to a bat, but while it is referred to as possessing "wings," it can't actually fly that we know of. Rather, those crescent-shaped arms are used to shred whatever tasty meat the Skree drops down on from above, and once it hits the ground, the blades are spun to "drill" the creature straight through the soft stone of Zebes' underground ecosystem.
What does it do next? We don't know, but I'll assume it keeps tunneling until it's back to its original roost or breaks through to the ceiling of a deeper level.
As an in-game hazard, the Skree doesn't just pose a threat by dropping from above, either. As it tunnels, it scatters a few bits of rocky shrapnel! It really must have been fun to go into this game blind, and have to observe new creatures for unexpected behaviors like this.
Another that looks suitably unearthly, the Ripper has a lovely little stinkbug-face with what's no doubt a fluid-sucking proboscis and a body hidden deep within a segmented mollusk-like shell. I especially love those weird, scaly green "fingers" surrounding its head in the illustration, genuinely an anatomy unlike anything else I can compare to!
The name, however, implies something very fast and very violent, doesn't it? Instead, the Ripper slowly floats through the air until it hits a wall, then turns around and does it again like an anti-gravity roomba. The manual even calls it a sluggish and brainless creature, and all it has going for it is that its shell resists almost every weapon in the game!
This one always felt to me like it must share some pretty close taxonomy with the Skree, but developed large and powerful jaws as its blades evolved into the lobes of a hardened shell. A really fun looking shell, too! I love how much each half reminds me of some sort of warty mushroom.
The Waver can fly by whatever anti-gravity weirdness propels so many other species on this planet, and in a highly unpredictable pattern as it intermittently opens and shuts its invulnerable casing.
I think this is also spelled "Reo" in some games, isn't it? Maybe I'm wrong. This is just literally a giant alien hornet, with a body consisting of entirely head and just one pair of gnarly, hairy claws. It's an immediately menacing creature at a glance, and it lives up to its aesthetic for sure, repeatedly dive-bombing Samus and surviving more damage than almost anything else up to this point in the game.
This enemy functions identically to the Mellow, but it has a much more unique and original design! Look at that big, beautiful blue eye! I really love those "wings," an odd set of chitinous claws that give me a crab-like impression without even being jointed. I guess this whole creature looks like fragments of a crab put together in an extremely incorrect fashion. I guess that can also kind of describe almost everything in this game.
This one functions just like the Zeb, but for some reason I used to think it was one of the least interesting designs in the original Metroid. I don't know how I ever felt that about a flabby, wrinkly cross between a maggot, a katydid and a lizard, but we all make mistakes. Maybe what bothered me back then was how much the Geega looks like someone wanted to draw an insect and had no idea how an insect works, but, again, that's what almost everything in the game looks like. That's just the literal evolutionary history of Planet Zebes.
"I needed to evolve some bugs real quick cause all the cool planets have them but when I tried to google what a bug looks like I got bored and took a nap instead."
-Planet Zebes, probably
We're going in roughly order of appearance, but these here are MY #1 FAVORITES already, even if they're nothing but a later-game reskin of the Zoomer. How can you not love everything about this design, though? It's just some crab legs and REALLY REALLY BIG stalked eyeballs sticking out of a turtle shell, but what else could you ever need?! I love it so much that I even kept both color variations together. All the manual tells us is that they're "boneless" and that they "normally live underground," which are odd things to specify when I wasn't really under the impression anything we've seen had any bones and the entire game takes place exclusively in a series of caves.
Look at this picture from the Japanese player's guide. It was actually full of adorable side doodles like this!
Look at this one too! I wish they'd had friendly NPC's in this game! Zeela's could have been Samus's Toads!
Haha. The Captain N comic books apparently thought the Zebesian native fauna and the Space Pirates were the same thing. Look at the actual metroid in jail.
But there is NO bad portrayal of a Zeela.
Nope, nope, not even the one in the Captain N cartoon. This loony toon would've been designed by none other than Fil Barlow, who also designed every demon and phantasm in Extreme Ghostbusters as well as countless other animated creatures! We just don't have time to share every version of every creature here, by which I mean I don't have psychological willpower and energy to do so, but there's no lengths I wouldn't go to for this face:
This is another that feels extra signature to this series, and if the Waver and the Skree felt related, there's no way this thing isn't a flightless cousin to the Rio, right? It just put all its chips in bulking up that single pair of limbs distinct to this Zebesian genus, and what truly majestic results! Love the giant suction-cup toes, the hairiness of the feet, the almost unnatural looking segmentation and the warty, knobbly knee segments! Even if the legs didn't look so awesome, the entire visual of a wide-eyed locust-like face with nothing but two huge legs is amazing on its own.
The Side Hopper is of course named for the way it moves by hopping and leaping sideways, like a grasshopper-crab. It's worth noting that most of the creatures in this game are always facing the camera anyway, and it's probably just for the sake of visual clarity in a simple side-scrolling game, but the fact that it's part of this one's name indicates that at least this species is "really" moving sideways, and maybe that's also the case for some of these other critters, too. It's not official lore, but I'd like to interpret that side-to-side movement is actually just the standard for Zebes.
Did I mention this is also one of the toughest regular enemies in the game, too?
Yep, it's your old buddy Kraid alright! Actually not much taller than Samus in this incarnation, and modeled like a cute, hairy rhinocero-saurus, it's really entertaining to think that this creature is actually an intelligent "space pirate." It's also the single most normal looking, most Earth-like creature in the game, but I never got the impression that Kraid was native to the planet Zebes anyway.
This enemy is a reskinning of the Mellow, as emphasized by the similar name, but this inhabits Norfair, the boiling hot region closer to the planetary core. It's just a simple fireball critter with bug eyes and a couple of tentacle-fit straight from the Zoomer, but, that's cute! Actually more interesting than the vanilla Mellow!
So, we run into my first and only significent complaint with this bestiary, and that's that this creature is actually much larger than the Mella, but its artwork really was resized this poorly and I guess the layout artist was out sick that day. If you do that kind of thing for a living, you might be one of the only people who will be suitably offended by what I am about to show you:
Look. At this. Malarkey. There's at least a little more space for the Squeept right next to it, and more space than that was also given to a "lump of lava with no life force." That ain't even a creature, by their own admission! They couldn't even just cut back on some of the text, either? The world truly needed every last letter of this literary masterpiece?!
So thank goodness Wikitroid somehow has a larger, clearer scan of this sweet child, because it's definitely another of my favorites in the game, and another I'd classify along with the Rio and the Sidehopper, consisting as it does of just a single head segment and a single pair of limbs. Far more specialized than those other species, it swims in molten magma with legs that have evolved into shorter "paddles" and employs some sort of biological rocket propulsion to launch itself at prey, wielding those same paddles like a set of grasping forceps! The whole effect of the creature is like the disembodied head of a beetle or an antlion with huge "mandibles," and every single part of it, at least according to this drawing, has always enthralled me. I can't get enough of the almost coral-like texture of its face! Positively gorgeous! Why don't I have anything with a face like that?! I'm going to fix that. You'll see. You'll all see and you'll be sorry you laughed at that graphic design failure from before you were probably born.
This is the third and final wall-crawler enemy, like the Zoomer and the Zeela, none of which share quite enough anatomy to feel that related to one another. It's interesting that this one is drawn like it's on fire, but according to its accompanying text, it's just covered in a "spiky, fireproof wool." I like that a whole lot more than the fire option. I like the idea of an alien bug that lives in blazing hot environments and protects itself with a big poofy asbestos-like coating!
This one is a reskinning of the Zeb, another enemy that just infinitely spawns from pipes and flies in a straight line, but this design is something else. This stands out as bizarre even by the standards of this game! The Gamet has an almost fish-like face, but it's still clearly covered in the thick shell so common to this planet, it's got pretty little birdy wings and nasty taloned feet and lovely eerie eyes and a unicorn horn, and then...what is that? Why is there just a little bean thingy hovering in the Gamet's mouth like that? It's in their sprite, too, just a pixel suspended in nothing?!
Well...after all these years, it finally occurs to me that there probably just wasn't enough communication between the designer of the enemy in-game and whoever drew this particular artwork, because I'm pretty sure the real intention of this sprite was that the pixel is the eye, peering out of a visor like a knight's helmet. The lighter pixels near the horn are obviously nothing but a shine on the armor, since that's also present on the lower jaw!
There is, in fact, a Japanese strategy guide portraying every single enemy in a very different style, and corrects this oversight, and awwwWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Five-year-old me LOVED the Gamet as a surreal, flying bird-fish head with an unexplained hovering nucleus in its throat, it's the kind of quirky weirdness that's difficult to "force" into a design, but I'm definitely a complete and utter sucker for the true intent of its anatomy as well. Every Gamet is an angel.
This was, and still is, not only another of my favorite classic video game enemies but one of my favorite video game enemy illustrations. What the planet Zebes calls a "dragon" is remarkably similar in shape to an Earthian seahorse, maybe because Japan alludes the same animal to a "dragon" as well, and the idea of a totally alien creature incidentally evolving that same unique body plan REALLY REALLY stuck with me, to the point that decades later I still find myself making up monsters that are seahorse-shaped without actually even being fish.
The sprite is more of a straight-up seahorse, but that artwork really drives home that this is something from another world. I adore this bubbly, gnarled and knotted monstrosity every bit as much now as I did when I was five. This thing is a masterpiece. No wonder I loved Skrelp as much as I did.
This is a Norfair counterpart to the Rio, and its wings have evolved into a set of flaming jets! That's cool! I'm inclined to like it a great deal more, too. Its face looks less like a copy/paste of a regular arthropod and I just really like the whole silhouette of this round crabby critter with great big meaty mitts on those gnarly arms!
I also said I wouldn't show too many more alternative designs, but we need to look at Captain N. Again. We NEEEEEEEEEEED too. Oh my god.
BLESS YOU BARLOW. BLESS YOU.
SNOOZER!!! I include this only because it is explicitly referred to as an "organism," but come on, just a fireball that bounces around? Not even a couple of bug eyes in it?!
What's marginally more exciting, I guess, is what's also referred to as the "larval" stage of the Multiviola. So their immature form has a face? I guess that makes them a little more intriguing, but still, this is the kind of enemy they put in a game when they're really running on creative fumes.
That's more like it! This is just another pipe-dwelling enemy and another that just looks lifted from Earth's insects, but what a TOTAL cutie pie! Look at Zebbo's big eyes! Full of hope and wonder!
A very cool one. This is the final sprite-swap of the Rio in behavior, but this durable late-game enemy has a truly weird and ominous feel. Superficially you might be inclined to interpret it as more machine than life form, like some sort of horned robotic sentry drone, and I wonder if that wasn't the original intention when it was first conceived. I must say I strongly reject that if so, because an actual ANIMAL that just happens to look like a diabolical cyclops helmet with rockets on it is so unique, and might actually feel more like a product of extraterrestrial evolution than a single other creature we've seen! Even the name is suitably odd and threatening. That sure is a Holtz alright.
...And how supremely nightmarish do the Holtz look in this manga incarnation!? Damn!
The game's one and only variation on the sidehopper! This is in fact the last native Zebesian species ever seen in the original Metroid, and appropriately also the very strongest. I don't find it quite as lovable as the Sidehopper, personally, but I like how this one's face looks more like a retro comic book understanding of an ant, with those cute little knob-tipped antennae on top, and the thick legs covered in unpleasantly segmented spikes is a pretty cool 'sthetic! ...Is that a thing? Just saying "'sthetic?" I don't think it is. I take it back. I don't want that to be a thing. I don't want to be the one who coins that.
Yes. YEEEESSSS!!! HE'S HERE!!!! IT'S ***MY*** RIDLEY!!! You all know him and love him as a prickly reptilian space-buzzard bent on eviscerating Samus Aran and now also Donkey Kong, sometimes even Solid Snake and Sans Undertale from time to time, hot damn what the hell even is Smash Brothers, but deep down in my heart this feared and respected video game villain is always going to be a tubby, oily gargoyle with toothless fish lips and big glassy bubble eyes.
Yes, EVEN IF it's clear from the in-game sprite that Ridley's intended design always was the scaly bird-demon everybody knows him as. I don't care. Instruction Manual Ridley, Unintentional Ridley if you will, looks like a pterosaur that inexplicably lives in a deep ocean trench, and I have no difficulty taking that seriously at all. In fact, I'd say Instruction Manual Ridley looks all-around more memorable, more interesting, and even kind of scarier than Intentional Ridley, and I say that wholeheartedly agreeing that Intentional Ridley is himself one of Nintendo's coolest and scariest characters. How I would love for Unintentional Ridley to just be a Smash Ultimate DLC skin. As marvelous a roster as it has, the game actually still lacks a single character that truly feels "me" enough to "main," but if I could play Unintentional Ridley??? I only wonder what else I could say here to make any of this paragraph more baffling and impenetrable to anybody reading this who doesn't know video games.
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST......
The name of the game! Metroid Undertale himself! Cowboy Bebop at his Nintendo Wii! Could you guess that I wrote this all night long instead of sleeping? Anyway Metroid is the star of Metroid, that's why it's called Metroid! Samus isn't Metroid, dummy!!! And she's a girl!!!! And boy was it a SHOCKER to us kids in the 1980's to find out that the cool space marine with the cannon arm was a woman lady gal because we were that much more accustomed to media made by idiots.
Anyway Metroid is the star of Metroid, an alien organism that can just suck all the energy out of another living thing and kill it. It's so good at doing this and can multiply so rapidly, it constitutes a threat to the safety of all life in the galaxy as we know it, and I have NEVER stopped loving that one of the deadliest menaces in sci-fi gaming is just a pretty green jellyfish.
I really like this design with the little worm-like tentacles, but most people reading this know that a Metroid is supposed to have four fang-like claws instead. Like Ridley, this was already the case from the start, and whoever made these nonetheless beautiful drawings just didn't get the memo.
WHAT an iconic design that really is, though. I know I'm not the only one who can't help reading the core as a set of weird eyes, making the entire creature feel like yet another "floating bug head." It's so unique and special that I strongly dislike the revelation in Metroid II: Return of Samus that this is nothing but the "larva" of a more tetrapodal space monster, and while the later Metroid growth stages are all certainly cool as designs in their own right, I will to my dying day vehemently reject them as the truer or more complete forms of a Metroid.
There's a little more I could talk about, here, maybe even Mother Brain, who wasn't actually shown in the original manual, but then that wouldn't be authentic to my childhood experience with this particular menagerie. And speaking of which, I mentioned that my mother did something really special for me when she saw me reading, and re-reading, and reading, and re-reading this same silly little paper booklet for an entire weekend straight.
I don't have a single relevant picture to share because I no longer have a single remaining scrap of evidence from this memory, but I was five years old, a couple pages of weird fictional bugs had become my ENTIRE WORLD overnight, and soon it would have to go back to the video store along with the game I had all but already given up playing at the time.
So, I woke up to find that my mother had taken some sheets of tracing paper, a pen, and magic markers, and she had duplicated a selection of the creatures you've just seen, then asked me to pick out the rest of my very favorites. She traced them and colored with accuracy down to the cross-hatching in my memory, just so I would still have them to look at once I no longer had the book itself. Then she pasted them to pieces of thin cardboard, and she cut them out for me to play with, because I already had a rather strange love of paper cut-outs as "toys" at the time.
I guess it's pretty emotional to remember this now, and realize how lucky I was, compared to a lot of people, to have a parent who gave even a fraction of a single shit about what I found interesting, let alone one who thought it was important to indulge what I cared about to that kind of degree. I wish I still had even one of those little cut-outs to share now, but I guess it's not actually the drawings themselves that even matter. It's that memory that I still have, and that still feels good to have, and I think might have made me at least a little bit nicer sometimes than I might have otherwise ever been. I especially have no doubt that it made me all the more interested in drawing, and imagining, and designing things I might like that were entirely my own, which today is how I actually make a living that, while just barely enough, is something I also feel very very lucky and very very privileged to have.