Metroid’s Samus Aran

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of Nintendo’s series-spanning heroine Samus Aran, curated by Video Game Heart‘s Grayson Davis.

Since 1986, the Metroid series has received much attention. The NES original, 1994’s Super Metroid, and 2002’s Metroid Prime are often regarded as some of the best games in Nintendo’s catalog, if not among all videogames. Linking all of these games is a character who has transcended the games themselves to become a provocative figure in her own right: Samus Aran.

She is one of the most prominent women characters in gaming, and as such her portrayals have been both celebrated — for allowing players the rare chance to play as a complex, proactive woman — and criticized — for so often reducing that same woman to a painful stereotype and sexual object.

Despite her sometimes widely criticized portrayals, Samus has inspired a diverse and devoted fan base. Samus has always stood out as a badass bounty hunter, but to call her simply “a strong female character” does not capture the many identities explored by the writers below — identities with a deep, enduring appeal to players who struggle with the marginalization of a character who speaks to them on so many levels.

Samus Is a Woman

“The fact that Samus is a woman matters, and it has always mattered.” Maddy Myers

Any discussion of Samus has to begin with the simple acknowledgement that she is a woman. This has always been a heavily discussed part of her character, and, indeed, it was intended to be a shocking twist to players in 1986. The common hagiography for Samus paints her as a breakthrough woman character in a masculine space, as if she kicked open a door in 1986 that has remained open ever since. As Empire Online wrote in its 50 Greatest Videogame Characters, where Samus placed 26th:

Many observers have heralded Samus as a feminist icon in a male-dominated industry, who’s able to save the day and slaughter the bad guys without needing to slip into sexy shorts or a bulging tank top. But whether you see her as a breakthrough for feminism or just another faceless sci-fi warrior, 1986’s unexpected reveal that showed women could be more in gaming lore than eye candy for geeky boys was a refreshing and unforgettable moment.

This theme of identification, of the player placing themself in Samus’s shoes, is common among writers. After all, Samus is a power fantasy that games rarely offer. Writing for Gamers With Jobs in 2005 — before the release of the highly criticized Metroid: Other M — Lara Crigger states:

She’s what most women aspire to be, and hope to teach their daughters to become…Confident, intelligent, and competent, Samus Aran exudes self-assurance as if it were perfume.

In an interview with The Guardian, Zoe Quinn described the kind of roleplaying that Samus inspired:

A friend of the family gave me a Game Boy when I was very little, and it was amazing. I used to run around the woods pretending to be Samus Aran, using sticks as swords, imagining I was beating up aliens.

The reality, of course, is more complicated than that. Samus has represented women in a typically hostile space, but she has not survived unscathed. As players grow older and cast a keener eye on the character, greater nuance and deeper problems have emerged. In a 2012 interview with Anita Sarkeesian, Carolyn Petit states:

Like you, I grew up being exposed to video games. When I was young, I was excited to discover that Metroid‘s Samus Aran was a woman. But as the years passed, I realized that in many ways, Samus is handled problematically.

Amanda Lange, writing for her blog, describes Samus’s initial appeal, as well as one way Samus drifted away from those early portrayals:

It’s true there was a Samus I loved and a Samus I now love much less. I idolized not just Samus Aran, but the Samus defined by Captain N Comics and the NES instruction manuals. In my mind, she wore her armor in part to hide her identity from hunters uncertain that a woman could do such a violent and cruel job. She kept her cards close to her chest and opened up for almost no one; like Artemis, a lone huntress who refused to love. I wasn’t such a fan of the character that she slowly became: the chosen savior of an ancient race, bound by prophecy. I thought it was kind of weak to tie a self-made character to a burden like fate.

Sarkeesian herself would eventually discuss Samus in an episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, “Women as Reward” (video). Sarkeesian describes a famous scene at the end of Metroid where Samus, if the game is beaten in a short enough time, is presented to the viewer in a skintight bikini. (Later games would continue this tradition, showing Samus in progressive states of undress depending on how quickly the game is beaten.) Sarkeesian states:

In one sense Samus Aran definitely did subvert traditional gender tropes of the 1980s by taking on the role of intrepid hero. However, she and her body were still presented to players as prizes to be won.

Samus Is Transgender

“Samus Aran is a trans woman. Simple fact.” –Erin

While many players assume that Samus is cisgender, it has been blatantly obvious to others that she is in fact a transgender woman. There have been clues both subtle and direct. Samus has always had a distinctive physical appearance and a backstory that obfuscated her gender, and Metroid developers have made several suggestive comments. To those keyed into such signals, nothing could have been more obvious.

In September 2015, Briannu Wu and Ellen McGrody stated this as a challenge to skeptical readers in an essay titled “Metroid’s Samus Aran is a Transgender Woman. Deal With It.” In their essay, they describe one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence for this claim — in 1994, Samus co-creator Hirofumi Matsuoka used a Japanese word for gender variant people to describe the character:

In 1994, the writers of the official Japanese Super Metroid strategy guide asked Metroid’s developers if they could share any secrets about the intergalactic bounty hunter. Hirofumi Matsuoka, who helped work on the original design for Samus Aran, claimed that she “wasn’t a woman,” but instead, “??????,” or “newhalf.” This language has its own issues, but terminology used for gender in the early 90s was as different in Japan as it was in the West.

Wu and McGrody are not the first to explore Samus’ gender identity. A year earlier, Claire Evans looked at some of the thematic suggestions that Samus is transgender:

Yet, there is a twist. Samus’s near-anagram of Kafka’s Samsa (The Metamorphosis) might make us wonder about her exoskeleton-like suit, as if such metamorphosis might likewise be allegorical. Was this a simply some half-naked woman wearing a man’s suit, or a sullen boy player masked under a woman’s identity? Could the suit — essentially a costume, like some superheroes’ e.g. Iron Man, Batman, etc. — be some existential armor that protects man from his self-loathing and body dysmorphia?

In January 2015, Robyn Tyrfing wrote a bold declaration titled “Disregard Canon, Acquire Representation: Samus Aran is a Transgirl!”:

Samus Aran is totally a transgirl; how could we possibly have missed it? To start, she’s huge and supposed to be built like a brick house, as illustrated above! While short transgirls tend to exist that’s not to say they cannot be tall, and in fact many transwomen are usually really tall with regards to cis women. As well, the amount of muscle she has and her weight also lean toward her being trans, as that’s especially common among transwomen who transition later in life. Between all of that, there’s also the fact that this is a science-fiction universe, and it’s not so far-fetched that transness could be detected early and Samus could have been given the proper chemicals, hormones, and body reconstruction to ensure she developed through childhood as feminine as possible! There’s all sorts of ways for Samus to be trans, and it’s really not that outlandish, anyway!

These sorts of statements go on and can be found everywhere, ranging from simple statements to self-deprecating jokes to incredulity that anybody could think otherwise:

“im like samus aran in that I also am a huge trans lady who curls up into a ball a lot and I shoot blue projectiles that freeze things, they’re my tears” –Punlich

Samus Is a Hunter

While it is important that Samus is a woman, it is just one quality among many that has resonated with people. She is also a woman with an occupation: bounty hunter, archaeologist, conservationist, whatever you want to call her unique brand of (to use the video game terminology) action-exploration. In Lara Crigger’s ode to Samus above, she credits Samus for being, “unlike nearly every other woman I’ve ever encountered in video games,” a “consummate professional.” Samus’s analytical approach to alien worlds results in games that, despite all of the alien-blasting, feel slow and thoughtful, as Zach Budgor writes in Kill Screen:

Despite the cannon on her arm, Samus is something of an archaeologist in Prime. Scanning enemies and the environment are the most important actions a player can take: outside the information gleaned from Samus’s scan visor, the game does not explain how to take down enemies or solve puzzles. Observation is thus placed before action. Ascending a moss-covered chamber necessitates scouting the area, looking for obstacles before beginning the climb. Taking down a massive creature means scanning first, before shots are fired, to learn that it hyperventilates after attacking, giving you an opening.

Writing for The Ontological Geek, Sebastian Atay discusses other ways that Metroid Prime emphasizes Samus’s identity as a hunter with keen senses, rather than yet another hero who runs in guns blazing:

Visually, Prime is filled with fine detail that rewards close attention […] Water streaming down Samus’s cannon; fish flitting to and fro in lakes; tiny plants that encrust uneven, organic terrain…vital missile expansions and energy tanks lurk in obscure regions, and divining their location takes effort.

These details encourage a mode of play focused on patience and awareness, acclimating the player to Samus’s perspective. Atay continues:

Most of the regular enemies in Prime will never attack you directly. If you want a great litmus test for this — walk into any room in Prime and stand perfectly still. Almost every time, Samus can stay there indefinitely without getting hurt. This sort of design empowers the player to work out the best way of dealing with each creature before being forced to act.

(I think that’s part of the reason why, in Prime, I feel like I inhabit the character of Samus so closely: I am the Hunter, free to track down and obliterate the enemies of Tallon at my leisure.)

Samus’s skill as a space explorer is such an integral part of her character that many writers felt Other M betrayed Samus by diminishing her abilities. Writing for the now-defunct G4TV website in 2010, Abbie Heppe describes how deep a gap is left when Samus is reduced to a helpless bystander. Heppe peppers her review with headlines like “Diary of a Wimpy Bounty Hunter” and writes:

In short, you’re asked to forget that Samus has spent the last 10-15 years on solitary missions ridding the galaxy of Space Pirates, saving the universe and surviving on her own as a bounty hunter. Instead, Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man.

Heppe takes particular umbrage with the game’s infantilization of a character who had been portrayed as a skilled, capable adult. The Internet Archive should be thanked for preserving this succinct description of what we expect from a Metroid game:

I also didn’t want to hear the phrase “fledgling girl’s heart” in anything but the phrase “I disintegrated the fledgling girl’s heart with a plasma beam.”

Samus Is Alone

There are many practical, objective elements we expect in a Metroid game — certain weapons, items, enemies, and abilities. But the Metroid series is also well-known for establishing a certain mood that can’t be so easily named. Samus, perhaps more importantly than any other characteristic, operates alone, exploring planets with little contact with anybody else. This sense of solitude lends the Metroid games a feeling of loneliness and even sadness, giving writers an opportunity to process these feelings through Samus.

In 2013, writing for the short-lived ReAction zine, Maddy Myers uses Samus to explain a difficult period in her life. (Myers is featured several times here for good reason; she has written an impressive amount on this subject.) In a piece called “Samus Acts Alone,” Myers starts with the usual fantasies: “Did I dare pretend, role-play, allow myself to act as Samus? Could I be that cool?” But she then descends into darker parts of Samus’s character, describing how Samus must also feel lonely and anxious:

I could understand feeling like one’s self is one’s own worst enemy. And like Samus, I had to forage for the parts for a power suit — a metaphorical one, made of alternative appraisals. The anxiety never goes away. You just learn how to cope with it. The lava never goes away. But Samus gains the strength to keep walking through it.

Myers acknowledges that there might be some projection at work, that people impose qualities onto Samus that she may not actually possess, and that Samus herself has been portrayed in different, contradictory ways, but she concludes, “I was Samus for a time. I lived inside her. I pointed a blaster barrel at space pirate chests. Don’t tell me I don’t know what she was thinking — I was there, inside her head.”

Indeed, some people feel that Samus’ feelings of weakness and anxiety make her a richer character. Writing a rare defense of Other M on Videodame, Jared Ettinger explains how Samus’s experience in that game mirrored his real-world challenges with social anxiety. Ettinger acknowledges the common criticisms of the game but argues against them: “The way I see it, her weakness does not detract from her character, it adds to it by fleshing her out and making her more human.” Ettinger argues that Other M is a story of a woman coming to terms with “fears and insecurities” that “come to a head in the boss battle with the reptilian space pirate Ridley”:

This scene resonated with me because I’ve had huge breakdowns in the past. Throughout most of my education, when I took exams, I would completely freeze up… I’d be consumed by anxiety and forget practically everything I’d studied. This is why the Ridley scene resonated with me so much.

Writing for Kill Screen, Levi Rubeck argues that perhaps Samus’s isolation is a vital part of her character, that her loneliness and separation defines her as much as her weapons and power-ups. In Metroid Prime 3, as Rubeck explains, Samus is forced to turn on fellow bounty hunters after they are corrupted by galactic powers. Rubeck is careful not to overstate his case, saying that Prime 3 “doesn’t transform Metroid, but cracks it open just a bit wider.” Rubeck argues that there is an essential sadness to Samus’s life, one that has obviously resonated with many players:

While you explore these planets that self-destructed on the power the Chozo shared with the best of intentions, you are more in line with the tragedy of Samus, forced to cut down the only people who understand the loneliness of being a space bounty hunter. For a bunch of games defined by isolation, what else could serve to reinforce that feeling than a flicker of what you are truly isolated from: other people.

Samus Is Shrinking

Since her debut — almost unanimously described as a “breakthrough” — Samus has unfortunately been at the mercy of clueless developers. She has been quite literally diminished. Samus, who was once 6’3″ and 198 pounds, is now visibly shorter than the male characters in her games. In “Samus Is Slowly Shrinking,” written in 2010, Amanda Lange presents a detailed history of how Samus’ creators have brought her in line with stereotypically feminine characteristics. While she, like many others, criticizes Other M, she observes that Other M is not solely to blame. “It’s true,” she writes, “Nintendo did change Samus Aran. But they didn’t change her instantly. Team Ninja’s take on her as a weaker, and frankly, smaller protagonist was not an overnight transformation.” Lange draws from games, manga, and other media to illustrate this process.

Since its release, we have been presented with more proof that Other M was not an unfortunate misstep. The 2014 release of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U inspired a wave of responses to a brand new design for Zero Suit Samus, a version of the character who already possesses a skintight outfit and exaggerated proportions. Samus, it seems, now wears heels. As Kevin Wong, writing for Complex, describes, “Tall, six-inch, platform heels. This is wrong and awful, and we’re going to explain why.” To Wong, this blatant sexualization flies in the face of what makes Samus great. A Metro editorial makes much the same argument, criticizing Nintendo for carrying on the “execrable, misogynist” traditions of Other M.

(Here, it must be said, that the above two editorials were written by men, both of whom express an attachment to the character. In another essay, Maddy Myers argues that even the proactive, armor-wearing Samus can be seen as a type of straight male girlfriend fantasy.)

Though Samus has always had flaws, the turn towards a meeker, more sexualized character has prompted gloomy appraisals of her future. The Metro editorial above dramatically describes Samus’s new appearance as “The Fall of an Icon.” A 2010 IGN article by Audrey Drake argues that Other M outright “ruined gaming’s greatest heroine.” She writes with obvious dismay at the dismantling of a figure who was once, as others have written, a role-model, as if Samus was not just shrinking but had finally disappeared:

In Other M, I heard Samus speak for the first time, and I was devastated to find that my longtime friend wasn’t the woman I thought she was. Someone who was once my favorite heroine, and an inspiration, was now a woman I wish had just kept her mouth shut.

The Return of Samus?

There may have been a time when Samus could be understood simply as a badass bounty hunter. The first few Metroid sequels, despite being classics of game design, attract relatively little commentary about Samus herself. In Metroid II and Super Metroid, Samus was the same alien-blasting, planet-exploring heroine she had been before. But as the series has expanded, so has our understanding of Samus.

The articles above do not, in fact, fit neatly into categories: Samus, or at least our relationship to her, is complex and intersectional, and the above writers reflect that. I opened with a quote from Maddy Myers about the importance of Samus being a woman, but it would be dishonest not to mention that the article is about much more than that — how developers who attempt to imitate Metroid often forget the “emotional nuance and depth, the shying away from the grit of loneliness, the dark existential depth of outer space, and the murky waters of motherhood.” All of these qualities and more swirl around Samus.

And it is easy to forget given the impact she’s had, but worth remembering, that Samus is a fictional character. For all the inspiration and disappointment, she will be portrayed and interpreted in different ways by different people. Writing for the now-shuttered in 2006 in a twentieth anniversary retrospective on Metroid, Nadia Oxford captures these many identities and the contradictions they contain:

Samus is hard to define as a character, which adds to her appeal. In the scrolls of the Chozo, the avian race that raised her after she was orphaned, she’s recorded as The Newborn, and the hope of their depleted race. To the Galactic Federation, she’s the protector of the galaxy. To Space Pirates, she’s the Huntress, or a handful of vulgar alien words. To gamers, Samus is mostly an enigma.

“Enigma” may be too strong a word. Samus has the mark of a great character, someone who has broken free of corporate ownership and exists more freely in the imaginations of players. There, she is no enigma. She has many diverse and perhaps incompatible identities, and the vision in my head can exist at the same time as the vision in yours.

But Samus does seem to resist close examination, and there is perhaps a distance between Samus and players that we will never be able to cross. Because this article began with Maddy Myers, it is only fitting that it ends with her as well. In an essay titled “You Don’t Know Samus — And Neither Do I,” she summarizes, as well as anybody can, the deep ambivalence surrounding the character’s past as well as future:

I come here to bury Other M, not to praise it. If the Metroid series must continue, let it be with a reboot and a completely new collection of writers (including some non-male ones). Let Samus be reborn with a personality — perhaps even a vulnerable one — but let her have that personality from the get-go, rather than just a bikini and a power-suit. Or if she must be a cipher, then let her be a cipher forever, until she quietly fades away into the blackness of space.

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