Berfrois

A Harvest of Ice

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Metroid
Metroid, Nintendo, 1986

by Joseph Spece

Winter’s the mood for the gnomic. So I write: There is no neutral re-entrance.

I return to Wuthering Heights—say. My major attention is on Heathcliff’s deep darkness. I may like Nelly better or find waifs knocking thunder at the window, but neither of these shifts color what’s Archetype to me, and that’s Heathcliff. Nights and nights I’ve stopped short of a thick oak trunk, considering what passion could drive me to dash my head against it. H. had that for Catherine.

A little pith—There is no neutral re-entrance. Is it casuistry? I think of Matt, with whom I’m trying to rekindle a casual intimacy. (Casual intimacy—that’s casuistry—but—.) The attempt’s failing because I acted cruelly, hid behind the bisex moniker to cheat away our previous affair. Matty, slim, big-eyed, with tousled brown curls, smiling: re-entrance for him will include being badly wronged. Re-entrance for the Matt is TRY AGAIN, not new-disk new. And: if tonight I’d like to watch GI Joe: The Animated Movie for the 99th time, won’t I only be wishing for a play loop of Pythona infiltrating the Terror Drome as the second scene unfolds? Pythona and that creaturely Cobra-La weaponry, her claws dripping bane.

At work, too, I’ve lost the Neutral. I approach the tenth Trinidad Sour of my life with the bitters of the first in tow—marvelling as much at the clay color, but not surprised when I pour.

It’s a little pith, There is no neutral re-entrance.

This afternoon I’m nested in a striped comforter, looking out the window at four snowy oaks. In the foreground, the shrivelled leaves of the hydrangea, mostly buried in drifts. The television screen is static, paused on a scene in the game I honor before every other, Metroid.[1] The scene is one of two major sorrow-sites in my long acquaintance with her, Metroid. I cannot return to the game neutrally, playing. The pain burnt with a brand defines my pressing START. Surprise.

It’s an icy brand that makes the burning, since Zebes—Metroid’s setting—is among the most cold, antiseptic spaces in gaming history. I’m positive the chill pervading the game is real, but have to puzzle Why. Puzzle, puzzle, try to state succinctly. It’s not simple sparsity, or else Atari’s Breakout would have menace; it’s not visual bleakness, since the game is punctuated by strong color, like Samus in pink armour and the ice-blue Waver (—the Waver, with its appropriately liquid, loopy flying . . .  playing as a kid, I would sometimes assume the morph ball position and turtle in a corner, watching it dip, open its blue wings, close, repeat). Nor is it majorly Hirokazu Tanaka’s minimalist, organic, anti-melodic score.

I look up from my laptop at the nasty scene, again. Maybe I narrow my eyes. Its threat is suspended in time. Samus stands as if she had never seen the place before.

I get up then and spread the square poster-size map of Zebes I bought at nesmaps.com on my kitchen table. Using a magnifying glass, I find just the spot in Norfair where my sorrow sits. I haven’t framed the map yet because I wonder what sort of power it will exert over the apartment when hung—whether I want to pass its cartography every morning before toast. After a few moments of moving over the print with the glass, I notice the books I’ve grabbed to keep the corners from folding. There rises in me the feeling of too-accurate palmistry: the stories of Kafka; Tom Eyers’ Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’; Samuel Weber’s Return to Freud; Taschen’s book on Francis Bacon. I chuckle then, thinking. I look back across the room at Samus. She stands as if she had never seen the place before.

//

In addition to sparsity, then, in addition to swaths of colorlessness and weird music in Metroid there is—more cold. I want to make a list of Metroid’s whys of cold:

—there’s a sympathetic agent at center;

—the planet is all utility;

—when Zebes is more or less than utility, surplus or debt feels supplied by the malefic;

—its sometime maleficence seems completely disinterested in me.

I make the point about agency to elucidate—perhaps only to myself—the difference between Metroid and games like Tetris or Breakout, which exist in likewise alien space but lack a protagonist; I include ‘sympathetic’ to separate it from Pac-Man, which features an agent that never inspired care in me; and I choose ‘agent’ for the lessons of Ecco the Dolphin and Ōkami—that humanity is not a prerequisite for sympathetic avatarhood (Amaterasu the lady-goddess be damned). So: in all this pitch space cut up by ledges and foreign organisms, there is someone, and there is a directive by the Galaxy Police that seems worth following. There’s a warm thing against which the chill presses.

Utility cannot help but feel cold, can it, since its governance is elsewhere, disaffected. That which marks itself by utility may retire to simply being. It need never explain. Often utility is a ruse—that the Internet is now considered a ‘utility’ shows only how skinny our vitality has become—but in Metroid a utilitarian design makes Samus feel the subject of an unfortunate humanity, a bumbling too-human shape and sense. There are not simply blank extant ledges, as any mountain to the climber, but creatures the shape of fat hyphens, happy to live their lives in perpetual slow motion between that ledge and the wall. They also tend to match or compliment the ledges’ hue. Those Rippers—they also happen to be the perfect size to bother the trajectory of Samus’ casual jump. Also to have a rhythm excellently suited to chip-damage Samus in time-saving long-falls.

This isn’t the common video game case, where the enemies seem staked to outwit and outposition your avatar. Even Metroid mythos says the creatures on Zebes are not indigenous, but vagabond—pirates. On playing, I cannot claim they have native advantage, only that they are lucky or supremely adept.[2] Meaning: the classic gamer fire (rage quit before rage quit had a name) that rises when encountering pipes in Brinstar that force Samus into her vulnerable morph-ball form while the spike-topped Zoomers pipe-jaunt gaily along is a heat unsuited, finally, to cards-as-they-lay. I sublimate?—well, I end up admiring a series of invasive species for their pilgrim capacity (after all, they’ve set-up base in every on- and off-grid[3] locale Samus enters), barely muffling my rage at being juggled by reappearing ghost bricks that vanish just long enough for a Dragon to hem me in with her parabola fireball.

STUPID f—. . . YEA f—n RIGHT YA mf . . . YEA just try that again YA b—

Then I look around the room apologetically, as if Samus deserved a cohabiter more suited to her own boot-clicking, shut-mouth resolve.

‘Whys of cold’—sympathetic agent; practical planet; nasty practical planet?; then—

You remain in question about what I call Zebes’ ‘incidental maleficence.’ An exemplar is the first of two sorrow-sites I mention, a screen-set I call The Brinstar Drop. Preamble: a player’s first experience with the Drop will inevitably be preceded by a similar in-map revelation, by bombing, of a passage to Kraid’s Hideout off the game’s starting corridor. There, in a great pilgrim moment of her own (without a playthrough, code, or cheat guide, the game simply cannot be completed without a heart-toward-scouring), Samus reveals Zebes’ greatest rogue propensity—to give no visible clue of its depths—and thus the Metroid gamer learns to test the fastness of every space that seemingly indicates END. (Incidentally, the reward for that first discovery is a menacing elevator shaft whose lowest floor swims in bone-white blocks, impossibly-angled jumps and jump/bomb strategies, and some of the most unsettling ambient music you’ll ever encounter.) Main narrative: when Samus stumbles upon a very similar-looking room in Brinstar, player-Samus thinks: Jackpot. Similar blocks in blue, rank-and-file Wavers where the Zoomers were, same bubble-door flanks. She bombs and drops—good God, my stomach turns at the emblazoned memory of it, the screens just scroll by as she drops, they scroll and scroll—into a pit punctuated by four fat hyphens and two looping, wheeling Wavers. Equipped with the freeze ray, you’ve got a good nothing-is-guaranteed hour of freeze-and-jump, carom and collapse back down, get-to-the-top-and-stick-in-reappearing-brick-and-drop. Without the freeze ray, this is simply a RESET moment. Perhaps you’re on your way back from filling your energy tanks, perhaps from securing your Varia (Ha!—Zebes says—er, No . . . it’s too disinvested for that! O o o o, it says)—no matter. Conclusion: you’re incidentally done for. How one interprets the bayonet at the end of this discovery—that your previous neon revelation has got the same skin as your current moment of prostration—is perhaps a matter of mettle.

Mettle. Memory says I learned everything I needed to know about Dave after his run-in with The Brinstar Drop.

When frisbee was out of the question (also: whenever we could weasel out of playing frisbee), Dave and I would retire to the NES. His basement was a completely furnished den, with couches, recliners, and a large boxy 1980s Casio TV. As an only child, all this space belonged to Dave. How I coveted that low-lit place, where the room was permitted to fill with game music and the mystery of unreal environs—Zebes especially. I compared its sanctity to the tangle that rose up whenever I tried to fight my sisters for television rights.

I sat in quiet attention, watching Dave. Not a whit of cruelty was in me when I passed on warning him about the Drop—we weren’t wise enough to map Metroid ourselves, wouldn’t have dared asked for a subscription to Nintendo Power, and both knew Zebes to be full of duplicate screens and sidelong paths to nowhere. I never sensed his Samus in danger. So I watched him bomb about, potato chip high in my hand. Then: the little yellow Aran-ball plummeting, the Rippers in dumb linear pattern, down, down. My mouth hung open—the tragedy was met again, three blocks from home.

Dave went through a perfunctory bomb-about, then simply switched off the power, yanked Metroid from the console, reached into his big basket of cartridges and plunked in Contra. Then he turned, proffering the second controller.

Now my face was screwed-up in puzzlement.

‘But you can’t just—we can’t just play Contra. You didn’t even try to get Samus out.’

His protest didn’t amount to more than a shrug. I held high a chip and an open mouth, he the controller.

‘It would’ve taken forever,’ he said. ‘Anyway, that game gets boring.’

‘You can’t just—’ I stammered, feeling incensed. ‘You can’t just play fucking Contra after Metroid, prick. You know that.’

I knew, at least—little Walter Pater in a Long Island basement. More, I was sure I knew Dave now. He was incapable of feeling the Tragic. He belonged about the streets playing frisbee. He wasn’t entitled to my Samus. He hadn’t the sand to steer her. He wanted 30 lives—and I, one.

//

Boston—still snowy. It’s been four days since a txt to Matt, hoping to set a date—what amounts to a date—to see Argento’s Suspiria in 35mm. The film. Not exactly classic wooing material, but big-screen Argento has got versatile mojo as events go. A reply comes two days after I’ve traveled to Cambridge to see the film by myself.

Hey I can’t sleep and I have to work a double tomorrow. All I can
come up with to text you is that I’m scared to be close to you again.
That’s what’s happening inside my head. A lot.

Samus remains in Norfair. She’s been still for so long she might be mistook for a caryatid. In a series of uneven pillars that rise from a lava pit—pillars made from stacked green globes lit by coiled eye-like matter, vegetal, alien—she stands four-deep from the west door. We got here after more (many) pilgrim hours: poking around and eventually penetrating a seemingly impassable purple wall; navigating a passage just big enough to fit a walking Samus sprite; braving a pit of false lava. Nothing appears amiss; I’ve already despatched the Dragon and Geruta duo, and Samus has the screen to herself. Truly, I might just as easily have paused the game to get a juice box as chosen to sufflate my apartment with the cast and mise en scène of Spece, Remember Your Sorrows.

What happens here feels full of Satsui no Hadō, though I shrink from accusing Zebes, so dedicated am I to its neutral (neutral-malefic) alignment. This is sorrow-site two. Let me be exhaustive: what happens here is that pillars five and six, and the three-pillar sequence seven-eight-nine, flank respective narrow lava pits, and are of such a height that Samus, even in high boots, cannot jump free from the pool if she falls in. Looking at a map of the chamber,[4] it appears any careful gamer could avoid bumbling into the pits—and, yes, the first pit series is simple to maneuver. But a Multiviola (a shimmering featureless pink-violet sphere) drops at a surprisingly slow, awkward 40-degree angle as one presses forward; its angle is perfectly fit to knock a jumping Samus into the second pit series. Bombs out of the Aran-ball form cannot be planted consistently in the pit (it’s unclear why, since Samus can be simultaneously drained by a Metroid and plant bombs without pause), so the ‘climb-bomb’ method will fail;[5] nor is there adequate room for Samus to gain the running momentum she needs to launch into her height-achieving head-over-heels jump. The atonal music plays flatly, punctuated by the sound of Samus’ slowly draining life.

With six full energy tanks, it might take four minutes for Samus to expire. The entire journey into Norfair, headed for Ridley’s Hideout—all the Aha! moments bombing open walls, using frozen enemies to manage passages, the routes forged but not mapped, the weaponry achieved—gone. And this sort of death? Man says: Cold.

Colder still is the fact that, within seconds of falling into the pit-trap, the entire screen empties of enemies. Norfair’s version of the spike-haired Zoomer disappears into an adjoining pit. The Multiviola caroms off a pilar and out of sight. There is nothing but Samus in drawn-out threnody, her wasted movement a funereal dance, urgent or resigned. Yes, controller: I decide how this inevitable death proceeds. What freedom!

Unpause. After all the hours, unpause, unpause. By now I know how to bait the Multiviola properly, so the danger exists more as a patina, a non-neutral marker—conditioning me nonetheless. I move the D-pad with greatest care, wary of even the stalactites—green crystal, like mute guards, their little bubble-ends so many eyes. Anthropomorphic bubble-eyes everywhere, really—passionless, unmoving, always coldly custodial. Past the series of pillars, I trounce the remaining enemies and turn back, mock-heroic. Only my Samus and I—the Samus that’s always been mine, no matter whose console, no matter how knowing and powerful we currently appear—know the first death defines our being here. In us, always, that prevailing freeze.

There’s Dylan Thomas in that, I think: ‘After the first death, there is no other.’ But it seems to me the poem that lyricizes Thanatos’ germ in our second living—the ‘prevailing freeze’—is yet to be written.

In Matty’s case, that germ is acid. He must refuse these arms (puerile, it sounds puerile), though they promise to be gentle and honorable (is it my inability to be but reservedly gentle and but dutifully honorable that makes this avowal sound common?). These arms: their non-neutral stake in our ongoing affair is power—power. I re-enter ‘our’ space with a surplus of power, a heart all intact, having been the wielder of Goodbye. I reaped all the power, made harvest! Here I am, full of it, before the blasted hydrangeas.


Notes:

[1] Metroid: Nintendo Entertainment System, USA 1987. In short: the game follows the mission of Samus Aran, a world-class bounty hunter, who has traveled to the planet Zebes in an attempt to win back the eponymous parasitic Metroid organism from the Space Pirates.

[2] This is contentious, I know it; my conclusion is based largely on the original gamepack instruction manual for Metroid, available at Games Database [http://gamesdbase.com/media/system/nintendo_nes/manual/formated/metroid_-_1986_-_nintendo.pdf]. Here, Zebes is referred to as a ‘fortress planet,’ and then, later as a ‘natural fortress . . . covered with a special kind of stone, and its interior . . . a complicated maze’ (6,7). The manual continues, ‘Samus has now succeeded in penetrating Zebes’—which plainly indicates that her dealings in Metroid are not with a facility, but the substance of the planet (8). She is not entering an enemy base, but natural environs attuned to the base-like, natural nonetheless. If the pirates were native to Zebes, why would the Federation Police have had to conduct a ‘desperate search’ to find them (6)?

For this essay, I am completely disregarding revisionary origin stories for Samus, like, for example, the one that asserts she was orphaned and grew up on Zebes (though I don’t think entertaining this biographical bit true changes the fact that the pirates appear to have superior in-game ingenuity on a planet neutral to both their and Samus’ occupancy).

[3] The so-called Metroid ‘secret worlds’ . . . to be tackled in a following 5,000 word half-exegesis.

[4] The chamber to which I’m referring is, on a map, directly above the room containing the Wave Beam; a room with an identical sequence of pillars can also be found in eastern Norfair.

[5] —or—has always failed me.

About the Author:

Joseph Spece is editor at SHARKPACK Poetry Review. His honors in verse include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, artist fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Corrente Prize in Poetry from Columbia University. His first book of poems, Roads (Cherry Grove), appeared in 2013.

  • Deeply effective piece. My only memories of the original Metroid are of the battle with Mother Brain… I think that’s the only part I ever saw, probably at a friend’s house… so for me, the whole cosmic journey was reduced to a single, cataclysmic final battle between a lone warrior and a giant pulsating embedded neural mass.

    Maybe not with Metroid, but I relate strongly: these early games are part of the primordial literature of my generation. The games I felt strongly about are always clinging to me, right at the surface of my subconscious. I think they shape a lot of my fears and preoccupations.

  • Alex Moser

    Electric Lit brought me here. Great piece. I love the idea of the simplicity of games that draw us further in.