After twenty-five years, a carefully composed structure of musical accompaniment remains a defining piece of the unmatchable Metroid experience.
Since its inception twenty-five years ago, Metroid has existed as a foil of sorts for the rest of Nintendo’s library. In an era when the industry giant made much its mark with titles of infectious pep and catchy, lilting ditties, the game’s precedential lack of guidance and oft-bleak atmosphere were ostensibly the antithesis of Nintendo’s cheery image.
An impeccably unique vision for the sound design was an undeniable factor in the effectiveness and believability of the original Metroid’s environments. Composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s ambition was for the game’s audio to be a seamless, organic construct, a holistic aural experience to imbue the player with reactions and emotions relevant to the situations on screen.
This vision has stayed with the series ever since: Across the eras of its existence, the sober echo of Metroid’s music has expanded and evolved, though never strayed far from its landmark roots, set down so many years ago.
The Early Years
The title track, an ominous boring of a single-note bass line and an echoing minor note progression—backing a cold, unyielding title screen—voiced the twin tones of the game’s audio accompaniment without hesitation. After sending single notes of unrest out into space, the iconic theme settles into a nobler, more enchanting style before returning to the emotionless drone.
The rest of the score follows suit, falling into either the category of unsettling isolation or bright resonation. The two styles are employed on an even basis throughout the game: The marching space operatics of "Brinstar" and "Escape" are matched by the plodding dirge of "Norfair" and dire, racing pulse of "Tourian," for example.
In addition to introducing a slew of memorable themes and distancing the series from anything that had come before, Metroid’s music laid extensive tonal groundwork for the games that would follow to expand upon.
Metroid II: Return of Samus
The originality and unprecedented atmosphere of the first Metroid’s soundtrack was matched five years later by the off-kilter, hyper-organic aural qualities of Metroid II: Return of Samus. Though several tracks (the game’s title theme, “Samus’ Appearance," and “Enter SR388," for example) capture and largely improve upon the layered style established by the first game, the remaining majority of songs are ambient affairs. Tracks like “Ruin," or the “Cavern” series of pieces are strangely paced, stumbling experiences, resorting to dribbling electronic beeps and boops and lacking the thematic qualities of a Metroid song.
Despite taking the direction of ambiance imbued by the first game’s songs to a literal level, Metroid II is successful in highlighting the interplay between low drones and high tension through its audio. As a whole, it’s certainly the least inviting of the series, but tracks like “The Metroid Hatchling” and “Ending”, which venture away from the organic into more traditional territory, should not be missed.
The Turning Point
As it did in so many other regards, Super Metroid signaled a dramatic shift in the aural style of the series. As “Destruction of the Space Colony” slips from an eerie whisper into a more menacing version of the well-known title track, the change in quality is nearly palpable.
Many tracks, most notably the theme, introduce and incorporate a fantastic blend of faux choral, brass, and percussion accompaniment to the Metroid formula. Tracks like “Arrival on Crateria” and “The Space Pirates Appear” benefit immensely from this new layering of older organic sounds and new samples. Others, like “Brinstar Red Soil Swampy Area," feature ominous, pulsing beats rolling slowly beneath piano and woodwind tones, adding musical depth to the environmental ambiance of Metroid II and adding space to what can otherwise be constraining tension.
The heightened instrumentation and introduction of background chanting/singing in Super Metroid set a deep musical direction -- along with its use of literal operatic elements, cinematic cues, and more pronounced examples of both burgeoning unease and airy catharsis -- which every game in the series since has followed, and often expanded upon.
The Prime Years
After Super Metroid, the series slept for nearly a decade. When it reemerged in the Metroid Prime trilogy of games, the structure took on a drastic new form, as did the music. The title track of Prime set the stage for what would be the fullest realization of the disparate elements from the past games, with squirming biological background noise, pounding rhythms, and a hauntingly melodic strain.
The GameCube allowed the Prime games plumb the depths of the tone the series was known for. The resulting diversity could already be seen in the first game: “Planet Tallon IV” exuded cold wisps of choral ambiance”; “Energy Core” was a focused electronic track with a foot-tapping beat; “Ice Valley” and “Wrecked Ship Frigate Orpheon” are an expertly layered pair of relaxed, exploratory piano pieces.
While in the same vein, Prime 2: Echoes was very low-key, a bit tribal, and darkly ambient -- an experimental sort of divergence similar to Metroid II. It was not entirely noteworthy, but it was consistent in its aural representation of the light/dark mechanic within the game. Notable tracks include: “Torvus Bog," “Darkness," “Sanctuary” and “Dark Sanctuary”.
The final installment in the trilogy, Prime 3: Corruption, was a stylishly detached return to form after the previous game. Heavy on choir and chanting (listen to the piercing, thundering choral orchestration on the title track, and the tribal, exploratory traits of “Bryyo Cliffside” ), it was certainly breezier than Prime 2 (“Bryyo Ice” is a synth-y stream of crystalline drips and drops), though more of a refinement of the first Prime’s music than any sort of revelation.
Even after so many years, Metroid’s music remains infinitely re-listenable. In fact, talented fans of the series have long been crafting and remixing the source material into personal and varied forms. Essential listening includes:
- The recently released “Harmony of a Hunter," a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of music from the entire arc of the series.
- “Super Metroid: Remastered," a full-length orchestral and ambient remix of the classic soundtrack.
- Metroid Metal, the former-one-man-band-turned-five-piece-metal-machine interpreting the music of the series in a surprisingly natural-feeling, thoroughly head-bangable way.
- “Crystal Flash EP," another fantastic ambient twenty-fifth anniversary album.