Character Analysis: Samus Aran
One of the most distinctive characters of the Nintendo staple, a very early heroine; it is perhaps bemusing but accurate to compare Samus Aran to the Mario character. Popular in appearance, in the satisfaction of gameplay and marketing. Where we do not really consider -aside from the inventive RPG titles- concepts such as role and gender for Mario and his somewhat more empathetic and soulful brother Luigi, a sense of hard-bitten character and positive violence and militarism is intrinsic to Samus from the first title Metroid (1986).
Indeed, unless (in fact, rewarding) pursuing the completionist bent one does not easily realise the woman beneath the armour, similar to many knightly or technological tropes, revealing common humanity itself as something of a revelation It is curious that while we are the most common thing to see on earth, in fantasy and story, sometimes seeing a fantastical character be in similar form to us is a surprise, either for tragedy (Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader) or encouraging us to virtue (The Knight of the Laughing Tree, regarded by this writer as a persona created by Lyanna Stark).
Samus’s appearance, and to some extent her gender is of importance given Metroid’s theme of predation and injustice verses the human and just. A human in contrast to Ripley, a virtuous heroine in comparison to the Mother Brain. Fitting of an adventure title, where the threat of death via attack and environment, and also the lethal element of a countdown clock place audience and character at the heart of a protagonist who is stronger for overcoming obstacles. Smaller than boss monsters, but more agile. Outnumbered a hundred to one, but gathering knowledge in the form of visual items, power ups to be seen on screen and utilised.
Her aesthetic is weird as it is memorable and enjoyable. A 36-year-old protagonist that arrived on NES screens in 1986, whenever a strong heroine is touted in gaming I think of the original precursor and one I think remains unbeaten in terms of popularity, striking visual design and fun to play. Pauldrons, arm cannon and the stark orange and green that make her easily identifiable even within the saturated genre of science fiction and space marines. Her offensive/defensive capability is obvious and impressive, and a brilliant way this is conveyed to the player more used to using her positively is facing Metroid Fusion’s ‘Dark Samus’. Just as armour, even moving somewhat slowly the player can only retreat from. Metroid is fond of using the Protagonist-as-Shadow archetype or the ‘Mirror Match’ technique of inventing an enemy, having the protagonist face a visually identical or literally shadowy or black-painted foe who is implied to possess the form, strengths, even the intellect of the character.
While the most famous example of this in gaming would probably be Dark Link (originating in 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link); narratively ‘Dark Samus’ or ‘Phazon Samus’ is a type of antagonist Metroid has loved to repeat throughout the franchise. And this is for the reason that both competition and fright, key concepts within the series are activated and rewarded. In observing how ruthless and destructive the enemy Samus, the corrupted Samus can be, it is satisfying to defeat the creature much in the same way as destroying a Terminator, and on completely equal footing. The inventiveness of Metroid has spawned so many imitative and inspired works such as Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight; but Metroid will always posess the unique charm of the titular character herself. There is a unique quality to these stories, dark and serious, but not entirely oppressive. And this is due to the power fantasy of playing the heroine, who appears as suited to any H.R. Geiger environment as any explorer. Both the environment, and the anthropomorphised Jungian ‘shadow’ of Samus show indirectly what the character is not, what she is against much like the psychological projection in gaming which makes the Silent Hill games so popular. The possession of great power, even of seeing and inflicting dread is part of Samus’s nature; but the ability to evade, escape, recover from damage and destroy omnicide threats is intrinsic to the character’s heroic overcoming.
Credit: Mike Szabados
Samus’s adventures, the Metroid missions are part pest control, part supersoldier deployment. How many games have you land one warrior on a planet and just rip out the threat? Many contrived narratives catch at conspiracies or powerful items affecting a world, but like classic Castlevania, or Halo: Combat Evolved; the straightforward objective amplifies the sense of the heroine’s power. One judges themselves by their enemies, and the massive contorted and tenacious alien swarming Samus or fought as bosses highlight her ability as she wrests more weapons and earns more power fighting them, a simple, well-worn but effective psychological tie to the audience enjoying the progression and empathising with a character earning or rewarding with sequels her ability through not just combat but the wit to find hidden doors and the curiosity to face the unknown. Gameplay suggests consummate professionalism because her speed, agility, the thought required to find all the hidden secrets would mean behind the armour is a woman capable of strategizing, testing, adapting and experimenting with her environment.
Samus’s maternal care and willing adoption of the baby Metroid in the classic Super Metroid echoes her own raising by the Chozo, a positive chain of care and adaptation that speaks as much to Aran’s character as her professionalism. Samus destroys unambiguously malevolent monsters and fauna of corrupted worlds for the benefit of the greater continuity. A reverse of The Mandalorian; clearly not a bounty hunter in the sense of being paid for violent services and capture, but she is shockingly competent and built to destroy. Samus possesses technology, and at the least an impressive academic study of the galaxy from a truly alien precursor civilisation, which is demonstrated wonderfully through the gaming medium. Yes, film and literature can convey the impression of alien culture and art, but Metroid’s awareness of being a video game series allows fun to coincide with frankly bizarre exploitations of physics, suggesting a far wider and more technologically advanced view of the universe. Able to compress her body into a sphere, explore a completely alien and utterly hostile planetary environment alone, seeing the shrines of avian aliens who raised her and bequeathed the unusual suit she wears provides an in medias res series of tales, where the player is having fun but also teased imaginatively, wondering at the backstory to this experience gives as much expression of character as controlling a player who does not time to contemplate the gigantic vampiric jellyfish or the mechanical and necrotic hostiles; but dodge, jump, run, and fire back at them.
The term ‘bounty hunter’, as with ‘space pirate’ is about as generous in this universe as ‘pirates’ are in One Piece. It’s a catchy, fun word. No doubt effective at catching Western audience attention, but I wonder if there’s a translation or linguistic reason from Nintendo at the time, appealing to broad archetypes of things that became hits long before people could comment on how a thing just became very popular entertainment. Mario the plumber, Link and the Master Sword, Zelda in her Princess and Sheik personas. Samus is this iconic down to the head scratchingly effective staying power of her aesthetics. Even before colour there is the characteristic armour, malleable, highly destructive. Both slender in a feminine or androgenous way, but this balanced deliberately with the odd science fiction style pauldrons and arm cannon. This character is intended to destroy monsters and explore her environment to the maximum, but from this straightforward action of play in hindsight it’s quite altruistic in context. The Xebes mission, her encounters with Ripley, and the very direct messages of Metroid Prime: Corruption make it abundantly clear Samus Arran does these things for altruism rather than reward, similar to the popular later book/game character Geralt of Rivia. This becomes more evident in the narratively more expansive Metroid Prime games, further immersing the player due to a first-person perspective and ability to read text (although it is worth noting that the Metroidvania platformers contained beautiful manuals which themselves can be considered pieces of retro-art in their own way).
Credit: Danderful Dan Madrid
Scanning is a process that can be applied to character analysis as well as being part of character gameplay. Completionism and exploration are intrinsic parts of Metroid and most of the difficulty and entertainment, it is the character being directed by the player. Samus possesses this quality too, in playing out both game and story. Scanning in the Prime games is an evolution in the series gameplay formula and another nuance in Samus’s character. She is not just resourceful, but curious, and this may be for as varied reason as the player has. Optimal efficiency? To reward her completionist instinct? Perhaps learning about alien planets, architecture, flora and fauna possesses an academic pleasure simply to read, as after all there is text on these things that the player/Samus synergy reads. Again, as a precursor to the Witcher series, Samus is rewarded with both lore and effectiveness in combat by researching her enemies. She’s adept with technology, tracing, extrapolating and this conveyed subliminally simply by the game’s interface, fed by the player’s engagement playing the game itself.
I think that Samus interactions with the Baby Metroid are not just brilliantly simple from the perspective of being entirely within gameplay, but an elegant demonstration of heroic compassion and maternal care. It’s clear, it’s heartwarming. The also rather bluntly named Mother Brain demonstrates like most female villains in Metroid (The SA-X and Dark Samus still being some of the most intimidating female villains in gaming as well as the iconic mirror match antagonist) her brutality and power by annihilating Samus with her energy blasts. Samus very much romanticises the positive employment of technology and defensive technology, human form and empathy within a suit controlled very mindfully. Against this, the psionic, unfleshed matriarch dominating the environment and possessing nothing but murderous screams and killing rage.
Credit: Carlos Alberto Andres
The sudden flight of the Baby Metroid coming onscreen, sacrificing itself to give you the ultimate power-up and destroy Mother Brain is tragic and touching in a way build to last in the minds of children and the first gaming generation. Her care is wedded to the players action, the Baby floating around you designed to be cute and it’s sacrifice the emotional and technological fuel to destroy the antagonist. But concerning Samus herself, it speaks to her care being expressed in a tangible way even to the child of a dangerous enemy, the titular Metroid. Her power comes from her compassion, and compassion giving her power and saving her life in turn is the kind of cycle of devotion that’s memorable even 28 years later.
As bright and obvious as her multicoloured armour, Samus Aran remains one of the most evocative heroines in gaming. A liberal example, but if we accept it; also one of the most prominent bounty hunters of all time. One of the ideal protagonists when taking the gateway into gaming, her stories and the vicarious experience of ‘playing’ her adventures teaches the virtues of resourcefulness, adaptability and acting as defender and explorer.
Carlos Alberto Andres, ‘Samus Aran 2020’. Available at: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/mDg5d8 [Accessed 02/01/23].
Chriskot, ‘Portrait of a Hunter’. Available at: https://www.deviantart.com/chriskot/art/Portrait-of-a-Hunter-587061401 [Accessed 02/01/23].
Danderful Dan Madrid, Untitled. Available at: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/4XR0n2 [Accessed 02/01/23].
DrLobo1er, ‘Samus Aran’. Available at: https://cdnb.artstation.com/p/assets/images/images/049/140/753/large/drlobo1er-samus-portrait.jpg?1651775081 [Accessed 02/01/23].
Metroid. Nintendo, 1986.
Metroid Fusion. Nintendo, 2002.
Metroid II: Return of Samus. Nintendo, 1991.
Metroid Prime. Nintendo, 2002.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Nintendo, 2004.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Nintendo, 2007.
Metroid: Zero Mission. Nintendo, 2004.
Super Metroid, Nintendo, 1994.
Mike Szabados, ‘Metroid – Metroid Fan Art’ Available at: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/PolQW8 [Accessed 02/01/23].
Disclaimer: All Metroid material is the intellectual property of Nintendo. I do not own the rights or have any association to the property, its games and associated literature; and only make this article as an individual consumer.