Samus is second on my list of favorite women in all of games, and is arguably my favorite overall character design in the entire industry. Her armor encapsulates excellence in design, and her abilities and arsenal give her a plethora of tools to eke out her objectives. She’s an incredibly capable, powerful and frankly badass woman who is a joy to fight as in nearly every game I’ve experienced with her.
There is a side to Samus that clouds her agency — completely unnecessary titillation. This is a component of her character that feels grafted on; an immaturity that inflicts a lot of damage to her personality and depth. It’s unfortunate that Samus continues to suffer from this puzzling desire on Nintendo’s part to hypersexualize her, typically only in ending segments that are entirely separate from the games proper. It’s almost as if Samus is split into two rivaling halves; the avatar of Samus that is a confident bounty hunter, and the choice of her creators to offer Samus as a visual reward to players as a “treat” to ogle her body. One half considers Samus as a human being; the other merely as an object of visual attraction. However, as one might imagine if you’ve been following my writing for a while, I don’t give a fuck about the fanservice. To me, this misogynistic garbage is not a proper representation of Samus.
This is Samus.
So this essay will not focus on the Samus stripped of both her agency and her armor. Perhaps another time I will tear it down better than I did here, but not this day. Instead, I want to discuss why I feel she’s so fantastic.
Samus Aran is unquestionably Nintendo’s most prominent female protagonist. Since her debut in 1987’s Metroid, she has continued to star in the series, only being sidelined in one of the titles (the recent Metroid Prime: Federation Force). She was the only woman to join the initial roster of Super Smash Bros., and has maintained her spot on the roster ever since. She was among Nintendo’s earliest cameos, appearing in Famicom Wars, and making several other notable appearances in Kirby Super Star, Kirby’s Dream Land 3, Super Mario RPG, the NES Tetris and the DS Tetris DS, the Animal Crossing franchise, and even third party titles like Fatal Frame, (sigh) Dead or Alive, Bayonetta, Tekken, and Monster Hunter.
Why she has endured from the original NES game and into the present day is her fantastic design. Her armor is iconic, with several variations (as sampled above) all maintaining a semblance of power, grace and technological prowess. Samus looks fearsome, sleek, and cool as fuck. Her primary color scheme of red, orange and yellow (with some green highlights for her visor and various lighting, as well as her greenish-gray Arm Cannon) is striking, and when the Varia Suit adds in the bulky shoulders and slight armor tweaks to the overall design, it’s unarguably one of the greatest suit concepts ever executed in a game. Hell, to me there’s nothing else that compares. And her Power Suit’s basic core tenets have more or less stayed the same throughout the series — only Fusion and Corruption have radically thrown out a lot of the established canon for something entirely unique but still distinctly in touch with what came before. The Fusion Suit is more organic and initially abandons the trademark color scheme for a teal/yellow/red combination (the Gravity Suit is orange). But it still works and highlights Samus’ connection to the Metroid genus that saved her life, so I like it (but not as much as her standard armor). As for Corruption, it tried to modify the classic suit with some Federation tech, but I found it sort of unappealing so I’m going to refrain from commenting on it here. In short, Samus has a memorable and (in my view) eternal visual style that rises above most other characters in this medium.
But what makes this armor (and its wearer) truly amazing is her moveset. Samus has accumulated a ton of cool weapons, gear and maneuvers over her 30 year tenure, and it would take me a long time to go over them all (and I have once, on this very site!), so let’s touch upon what I feel are her five most stunning skills:
- The Morph Ball. Samus’ very first powerup in the original Metroid has continued to be a defining attribute to her arsenal, and it’s easy to understand why. First off, it’s fucking slick as shit to watch a fully armored warrior suddenly shrink into a perfectly round ball and back…especially in the Prime games (pictured). It gives the series some puzzle elements, as well as its perhaps most peculiar means of platforming via bomb jumps. The bomb is another major staple of the form, granting Samus a minor means to deal with enemies in a usually otherwise defenseless state (Prime added the Boost Ball and Super the Power Bombs, just to be clear), but it’s their capability to launch Samus and to blow up blocks in her path that prove the greatest asset to her. In some games you can cling to walls or rails via the Spider Ball, or even jump without bombs while balled up, but it’s easily my top pick for Samus’ best known and greatest gift in her vast toolkit.
- Her Arm Cannon. Every game in the Metroid series starts Samus off with her basic Arm Cannon, equipped with the Power Beam, a basic long-distance attack (in Metroid and Zero Mission, you have to find the Long Beam to make it shoot full screen) that quickly becomes the weakest option for her to properly handle the alien masses swarming her. Thankfully, Nintendo provided plenty of nifty upgrades to boost its potency throughout her many adventures, with a few standing out as real highlights. Namely, missiles, the Ice Beam, and the Charge Beam. Missiles (and their powered-up Super variant introduced in Super) act as concussive blasts that deal out more damage and can pierce things her standard Beam can’t penetrate; a useful addition indeed. While missiles cost ammo, they are easily replenished through beating enemies (especially at “spawn” points designed to aid the player in this act) or at specific locales within most of the games. But the standard beam gets several modifications, too, with the most notable among them being the Ice Beam. Capable of freezing the majority of foes, it allows Samus to utilize their icy bodies as platforms, or to simply chill out the environment for a quick breather. In Fusion, she lost the Ice Beam due to her Metroid DNA, but gained Ice Missiles instead to compensate for it. Lastly, the Charge Beam gives Samus an extra boost to her offensive power if she can display some patience in readying it over a second or two. Combined with other Beams, it becomes a central part of Samus’ means to deal with any opposition.
- The Screw Attack. Usually acquired fairly late in a particular game, the Screw Attack grants Samus immunity in her jumps, allowing her to shred any enemy unfortunate to be caught in its destructive energy without penalty. It makes backtracking and exploration a snap in most cases, as you can simply jump your way through the hordes of aliens without taking a single blow along the way, and it’s one of the faster ways to get through areas. And it’s just awesome as hell to look at. Samus radiates pure unbridled power with the Screw Attack. Oddly enough, Masahiro Sakurai deemed it worthy of an item in the Smash Bros. series, still the sole representation of the franchise in the game’s vast assortment of pickups. Unfortunately, Samus’ version of the move in Smash is untypically petty, as it doesn’t really have a lot of oomph without some tweaking in SSB Wii U/3DS. Still though, as a reward pretty late in the game, I feel the Screw Attack is one of Samus’ most epic moves.
- The Speed Booster. Introduced in Super Metroid, the Speed Booster is a bit like the Screw Attack in that it transforms Samus into an invincible force to be reckoned with, but unlike that move it requires some buildup to enable it — namely running. Once Samus has some distance, she will begin to glow and emit a humming noise. Now, you can just blaze until you hit a wall, but crafty players will know that they can duck while running to set up a “Shinespark”, one of Samus’ most technical abilities. The Shinespark holds for a few seconds, and once Samus is directed to go in a particular direction with a button press, she will pause and then launch in that direction until something stops her. Tons of secret powerups are hidden in the games requiring this technique to reach them, especially in the GBA games. But it’s a massive part of the level design from Super to Fusion to Zero Mission, and a lot of fun to use, too.
- The Grapple Beam. This is probably the least impressive item on my countdown, lacking the nifty transformative aspects of the Morph Ball, the offensive options of the Arm Cannon, or the sheer badass feelings inspired by the Screw Attack and Speed Booster. But I think the Grapple Beam is still one of Samus’ best gadgets, and here’s why — from its debut in Super Metroid, where the Beam was a secondary tool that helped progression in the absence of the Space Jump, the Prime series took that basic mechanic and made it into some of the best 3D platforming I’ve come across. Landing tricky leaps with the aid of the Beam felt SO GOOD. Especially since it’s all first person, a tricky proposition. Another series where it’s had a chance to shine is the Smash Bros. line, where it stands in as Samus’ throw. Being able to not only pull in opponents but also toss it out in the air to tether to the edges of the arena is a thrill and a half.
So, Samus looks awesome and has some great tricks up her armored sleeve. Her overall narrative is mostly solid (save Other M, but the less we speak about that the better), with Samus constantly thwarting Space Pirate schemes and coming to terms with the titular creatures of her franchise (especially when she has to undergo surgery in Fusion where she gains Metroid DNA to combat the X virus). She is typically silent save occasional breaches of dialogue or monologue, and in most cases this is adequate and fitting with her persona on-screen (save Fusion getting perhaps a bit too talky and the aforementioned cesspool of character assassination that is Other M). Prime and its two sequels allow world building through Samus’ Scan Visor, a clever means for both Samus and the player to learn about the world she’s exploring. But ultimately the player is allowed to stand alongside Samus as she stoically delves deeper into these alien planets, granting them plenty of opportunity to role play and generate their own idea of how Samus is handling these situations. And for me, that’s perfect. I adore Samus as the quiet, proficient and confident bounty hunter she is conveyed as in-game.
Overall, Samus is a stunning example of excellent artistic and gameplay design. She excels at her profession, and grants players an opportunity to feel like they are as sensational as she is. It’s truly a shame Nintendo has gone to great pains to undermine her with her pin-up ending rewards, the skintight Zero Suit, and the sexist abomination that was coughed up in Other M that unraveled the confident woman who seemed incapable of fear and displayed the intelligence in prior games to be able to rationally control herself and her destructive weaponry in hazardous situations (I mean jesus fucking christ Sakamoto she didn’t need Adam to fucking limit her Power Suit like her father who fucking died at Ridley’s hands oh yeah she’s suddenly got PTSD about that now too so Ridley scares her shitless, after 4 canon appearances of them fighting in the games prior to Other M where Samus did not lose her cool, fucking hell fucks…see, this is why I didn’t get into Other M earlier) for whatever pointless climax they couldn’t tell without signifying Samus’ “feminine” aspects…ugh. But I think it’s also a testament to how wonderful Samus is; she has overcome all of these sexist tropes and fanservice tossed her way by her developers over the years to become such an iconic character. And I hope this essay has highlighted why I feel she is so great.