Samus Aran: Video Game’s First and Best Female Action Hero
Samus Aran is the ultimate galactic bounty hunter, the most badass heroine in video game history, and the champion of GameDynamo's Ultimate Character Showdown. Readers voted Samus the victor over the likes of Lara Croft, Nariko, and Mass Effect's Miranda Lawson, amongst many others. The reasons are manifest - she’s a versatile warrior with the ability to incorporate new weapon systems into her arsenal; she can analyze complex anomalies that mottle the worlds she traverses; and she flexes her gymnastic acumen to take on legions of "metroids." She’s also video game’s first real female action hero, and unlike other popular game series, the Samus from the original Metroid remains the same throughout the years... almost.
This article is meant as an overview of Samus and the entire Metroid series, in tribute to her victory in the Showdown. Nintendo developed Metroid in response to their two other big franchises, combining the branching-world elements from The Legend of Zelda and the action platforming from Super Mario. However, Metroid was also a reaction to the vibrancy of Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. The game oozed with a dark, moody atmosphere. The music throbbed in suppressing tension. There were no princesses to save and no gold coins to gather. Samus landed on a dead world infested by space pirates, finding equipment in the ruins of the Chozo, the alien race who had once raised her. It was a homecoming, but not the kind she’d imagined.
Samus was originally born on K-2L, a mining planet where her parents were brutally murdered at a young age. The culprit was Ridley, leader of the pirates, who also destroyed the planet. This was the inception of Samus’ lifelong crusade against the pirates. The Chozo, an ancient alien race, rescued her and took her back to their homeworld, Zebes. She was injected with their DNA to make her resistant to alien environments and trained as one of their warriors. Aided by the Power Suit and a driving sense of vengeance, she joined the Galactic Federation for a brief period, where she served under commanding officer Adam Malkovich. She left to become a bounty hunter, and her adventures post-Federation comprise the canon of the Metroid games.
The first Metroid was inspired in part by Alien, Ridley Scott’s horror / science fiction film. Ridley, one of the main Metroid villain’s, shares the director’s first name, while the female protagonist of the movie, Ripley, could be considered the inspiration for making Samus female (it was decided by vote when a developer suggested the idea). Another influence was H.R. Giger’s tumultuously provocative art design, which found its way into Metroid’s labyrinthine structures. The planet of Zebes was one of the first to integrate backtracking, with the screen going right to left. A surreal architecture and landscape contributed to the alien milieu, while the lack of a map and specific objectives increased the sense of isolation - Samus was the only human on the entire planet. That alternated with a feeling of intense claustrophobia, especially in tight corridors with Zebbos and Sidehoppers all rushing your way. It would have been overwhelming if Samus didn’t have a couple things going for her.
First and foremost, her acrobatic prowess. The suit and lower gravity allowed her to jump very high, flipping multiple times to squeeze between Rippers and Wavers. The controls felt tight and responsive at the same time. Add the high jump boots and the screw attack, and it was exciting just to vault from ridge to ridge. Her flexibility also granted her the staple Metroid power, the morph ball, originally referred to as the Maru-Mari. I can only imagine how many hours she spent stretching and practicing impossible yoga moves to get into that pose! It’s no coincidence that it’s the first upgrade she receives, because it encouraged exploration, opening up pathways otherwise impossible to reach. This also highlighted Samus’ style - not brute strength, but finesse and elegance of motion.
Her second advantage was her power suit. Whether gathering upgrades from the Chozo or - later in the series - the Luminoth, players could feel her increased strength. This included acquiring bombs, a wave beam, and the different suit upgrades. Her suit emphasized adaptability and was flexible enough to absorb other powers. Her aim was remarkable, even in alien gravity fields and adverse climate conditions. According to the original NES manual, Samus, “is the greatest of all the space hunters and has successfully completed numerous missions that everybody thought were absolutely impossible. He is a cyborg: his entire body has been surgically strengthened with robotics… But his true form is shrouded in mystery.” The reference to the masculine pronoun is because her identity as a woman was initially meant to be a secret, one that young NES gamers all over the world would uncover and marvel over.
In terms of physical appearance, Samus was originally a brunette, though the addition of the Varia suit dyed her hair green. In Metroid 2: Return of Samus, she went through a red phase before settling on her natural blonde in Super Metroid, with which she’s stuck to (her look was inspired by Kim Basinger, including a beauty mark below her left lip). She’s a whopping 6 feet 3 inches tall. Her name, Samus, is a female version of Seamus which means, “She who supplants,” while Aran is speculated to mean a set of islands. Loosely interpreted, her name can mean, “One who forcibly takes over a remote area.”
Metroid 2: Return of Samus came out next for the Game Boy. Samus was tasked with the objective of exterminating all Metroids on their homeworld, SR388. Metroids were the parasitic creatures developed by the Chozo to thwart the deadly X Parasite, though they became the eponymous enemies after the pirates exploited their energy harnessing abilities for military purposes. In the Chozo language, their names mean, “Ultimate Warrior.”
Return of Samus introduced key items like the Spider Ball, the Space Jump boots, and the Gunship. The designers, wanting to have a visual cue to separate the Varia suit upgrade, added round shoulder pads, a change that would stick throughout the series. After an arduous battle against the hordes of Metroids in their different evolutionary phases, Samus succeeded in taking out the Queen Metroid. As she got ready to leave, she came across a hatchling Metroid. Her mission dictated she should eliminate it and wipe out the threat. However, in a moment of compassion or maternal projection, she spared the baby. It was the first time we, as players, witnessed something human through Samus’ shell. She led the hatchling back to her ship. This decision would have huge repercussions in the next game.
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He has been working in film and games for over a decade. On his off time, he likes to travel the world. His short story collection, Watering Heaven, was just published by Signal 8 Press.
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