This interview is with Behemoth87, a Metroid speedrunner. He has held numerous world records in Metroid II: The Return of Samus and Super Metroid (which you can view by clicking here)."Mazes and Labyrinths" interviews speedrunners and Twitch streamers about disempowerment in Metroidvania and survival horror games. The series follows a pretty set of research goals that specifically examine how mazes and labyrinths, along with their historically "heavy" content, disempower players. To read more about these research goals, and more about Metroidvania and survival horror in general, please refer to the series abstract.
To read other interviews in the series, refer to my interview compendium.
Nick: I'm a Gothic ludologist who writes about horror in videogames. My specialty is Metroidvania, but I also research FPS (first-person shooters) and survival horror.
Behemoth, can you tell us a little about yourself? How long have you been speedrunning and what got you into it?
Behemoth: I started speedrunning around 2007. After browsing the internet around a friend's house (I didn't have a PC or internet at home back then) I found various runs of Super Metroid by legendary runners such as Smokey, Red Scarlet and Hotarubi. I was inspired by the precision on display and the fact that people had taken the time to get so good at a game I held so dear since childhood.
Nick: How long did you practice before you were able to start getting world records?
Behemoth: Well, starting out, and being from the UK, I decided to start running the PAL version of Super Metroid. PAL didn't have any serious speedruns at the time, so I set about trying to research the tech and copy the movement from those runners mentioned above, except on PAL. I would say it took maybe 3-6 months before I got runs that I could say were comparable in the any% category in NTSC. After that, I fell down the rabbit hole trying to push things even further!
Nick: Awesome! I've divided the interview into five sections, which we'll complete one at a time:.
- Ludic, Closed Space
- The Gothic Chronotope
- Gothic Affect
- Historical Contributions
- The Quest for Mastery
Before we start, just a reminder that these are my arguments; they're not universal truths, but extensions of my own research. So if you feel like you disagree, feel free to do so!
Ludic, Closed Space
Research point #1: The Metroid franchise ludically disempowers players by forcing them inside a closed space that spatially limits the power and quantity of their equipment, maneuverability and speed.Nick: What about closed space appeals to you? Why not play something more open, and with a stronger protagonist?
Behemoth: I would say nothing off the top of my head initially appeals to me about playing a closed space game specifically (as I also enjoy a lot of open games). That said, the Metroid series itself appeals to me from an artistic standpoint: Space themes, aliens, spooky atmosphere and of course action. If I was to harken back to a time when I was mesmerized by these games as a child, these were the things that captivated me the most.
Nick: Each of these games has a different flavor of closed space. Metroid II diverged sharply away from the classic, non-linear maze, offering an extremely linear shooting gallery for Samus to try and complete. Conversely Super Metroid offers the player an incredibly brief starting sequence (re: the collection of essential items) followed by an unusually broad and flexible mid-game. It's hard to say how much of this was deliberate. Nevertheless, a lack of ubiquitous gating combined with a generous amount of innate abilities (re: wall jump, mock ball, and bomb jump) lets Samus sequence break with abandon, creating numerous, varied routes that feel like a natural extension of the gameworld.
Combined with Samus' productive starter abilities (re: bomb jump, mock ball, wall jump), copious sequence breaks make Super Metroid very nonlinear. Would you consider it the most non-linear Metroid game?
Behemoth: Not having much experience with other titles in the series (re: Fusion, Zero Mission) I can't say for certain, but Super Metroid has to rank way up there. Years go by and still little things are found, and there's an enormous number of categories people like to speedrun. Although they kind of hit the jackpot with Super Metroid in terms of design, I do think a lot of its speedrun success was unintentional; they upgraded Samus' physics ten fold and, in my opinion, this left many holes that we speedrunners have come to exploit over the years.
Behemoth: Your route choices in Metroid 2 are very limited and set in stone—with the main tunnel acting as a gateway to more areas only after you have rid each area of metroids. There is one notable sequence break we perform in the any% and 100% categories, and that's to dive into a branching tunnel full of acid to reach two metroids. This helps keep the speedrun as linear as possible and thus faster, avoiding an intended backtrack at that point.
With a little bit of expertise there are some minor sequence breaks such as "Skyscraper," where we use the game's unique damage boost capabilities to scale a huge wall early and pick up the spring ball. This item allows us to navigate the rest of the world more efficiently.
Nick: Is there anything about II's rigid linearity that appeals to you over Super Metroid's non-linearity? In other words, why go from Super Metroid, a very non-linear game, to Metroid II, its polar opposite spatially-speaking?
Behemoth: I think for me it's a welcome and less stressful change of pace from Super Metroid. Perhaps this allows everyone, speedrunners included, to appreciate the game by its own merits. Super Metroid is so heavily sequence broken and very fast-paced room-for-room that it's easy to become distanced from its original appeal, aesthetically speaking.
The other thing for me is that I almost always run games that meant something to me growing up. I did not own a NES as a kid, so I never played NEStroid until it appeared as an unlockable in Zero Mission. But Metroid II and Super Metroid were the few games I played a lot in my formative years and formed some kind of bond with. I think I always knew I'd run Metroid II at some point.
Nick: Ignoring their cosmetics features for a moment, does the true boss in Metroid ever feel like the space itself—specifically the maze/labyrinth as something to move through?
Behemoth: Perhaps that is one way of looking at it. It can be a daunting experience when you don't know where to go and how to progress. Perhaps the boss is both the space and the monsters themselves.
Nick: Inside the closed space, do you ever experience emotional feelings of disempowerment—relative to your in-game character and her limited resources—despite your speedrunner expertise?
Behemoth: I would have to say no. The games are made in such a way that you feel relatively capable already when you start the games. It's only until you start to explore that you're gradually drip fed the info that you need to be more powerful (re: certain doors, stronger enemies or large gaps). I don't think there's necessarily an emotional response to that though.
The Gothic Chronotope
Research point #2: The Metroid franchise visually disempowers players through spatiotemporal themes conducive with the prison, graveyard, institution or tyrannical home.
To this, Zebes (and Samus other destinations) typically feel like a prison, graveyard, institution and home—often all at once, and to varying degrees. Ostensibly derelict, they're occupied by dragons and powerful, archaic monsters. These agents threaten Samus with physical and mental destruction. However, the space also attacks her mind, promoting themes of involuntary incarceration, live burial, hereditary trauma, and sacrificial power rites.
You control Samus in Metroid II and Super Metroid; tied to each space and its historical reminders, do you ever feel:
- Buried alive inside, within a tomb that may or may not be yours?
- Part of a larger scheme, one meant to transfer power to you, which turns you, at least partially, into a hideous, tyrannical destroyer?
Nick: In Super Metroid, does the feeling—of being watched—persist for you after the spotlight scene when you collect the morph ball and missles, and the planet has woken up?
Behemoth: If I can think back to being a child and playing Super Metroid, then yes. I remember the feeling of knowing that something has caught me in the act of taking those items and that the enemies have been set loose. Being privy to the players guide/manual and seeing the grotesque Mother brain on the final page, then making the connection—that Mother Brain was probably the thing watching me—was an uneasy feeling.
Nick: Does Metroid II feel a little too clean—or au natural with its barren, primordial caves—to evoke any sense of derelict, civilized history? Or are the Chozo portions present throughout the game to do make the connection?
Behemoth: SR388 is more of an alien world to me with its dominant cave textures. Yet there is just a sprinkling of footprints left by the Chozo. A half-and-half world.
Nick: Often there are no "guides" to speak of in Metroid—no cutscenes nor dialogue to communicate your peril; these world communicate simply by isolating the player inside the chronotope and having them move around.
Without a guide, does exisiting inside a linear space that lines up your targets like SR3888 feel more empowering than a game like Super Metroid, which forces you, guideless, to go off the beaten path and pursue your prey inside a non-linear maze?
Behemoth: There is more of a sense of duty and capability being sent on a linear extermination mission to kill all the metroids, vs a recovery mission into a hostile, pirate-infested world. Both offer a great sense of accomplishment from your progression, but in two distinct ways. Being such an early entry into the series, the developers for Metroid II lined up such an important task for Samus to perform from a story perspective. In retrospect this became such a huge moment in the timeline.
Nick: Regarding these spatiotemporal themes—of conquering these aging worlds and your mission of extermination or rescue—do you feel more aware of them as a speedrunner when either close to death, or when you're being deprived of resources?
Behemoth: From a speedrunning perspective there isn't really a realization of such things, since the speedrunning pursuit is a very clinical, detached one.
Gothic AffectResearch point #3: The Metroid franchise reliably exposes players to Gothic sensations (re: the uncanny and abject) through popular tropes (re: doubles, the Promethean quest) and taboos (re: infanticide).
Nick: This section is more of an invitation to think about this material emotionally. For example, the uncanny is generally a sense of the alien and familiar occurring simultaneously. Metroid often features uncanny residences (or residents) that force the player to confront something they've thrown off of, or abjected from, themselves.
In this sense, abjection is something of a dark mirror that defeats the self-actualization of the Heroic Quest; it disempowers the player in what would normally be an empowering affair by making them a monster.
How well does Super Metroid or Metroid II invite you to ponder Samus' monstrous condition through the space and her actions inside it? For instance, Samus progresses in Super Metroid when she kills the four subjects of the golden statue. Does her dark transformation feel connected to the home as something that's pre-designed to transform her, specifically the boss key system as a blood ritual?
Nick: In Metroid II, Samus is exterminator. Does this feel less disempowering in your eyes, and more like a job that gives you meaning and purpose—i.e., giving Samus monsters to kill versus making her a monster? Or does the metroid larva complicate things?
Behemoth: I think her mission in Metroid II is more empowering and less complicated, while the hatchling metroid larva provides a nice little plot twist to round out the journey.
Nick: Motherhood is a running theme that Nintendo borrowed from Alien when making Metroid.
Maternal competition is explored throughout Metroid II and Super Metroid.
The metroid queen is prehistoric, an archaic mother whose modes of sexual reproduction are grotesque (re: monster babies). Mother Brain has no biological children; she was the "mother" of the space, a kind of grand steward originally guarded by metroids whose exact role was never explained. Super Metroid explores their relationship more directly by having Ridley steal the metroid larva for Mother Brain. After incubating in Norfair, the monster returns to Tourian to guard its "step mother," who carelessly murders it.
How did the deaths of each mother effect you when they died by your hand?
Behemoth: Perhaps with both deaths there's a little sense of sadness actually at first. The metroid queen is essentially a more simplistic monster. The most powerful one of them all, she provides the game's final battle. But hearing her squeals as you do damage is vaguely reminiscent the metroid larva she's guarding. So maybe there's a small feeling of regret as you open fire on the queen and eventually kill her, as she's simply an angry mother guarding her last child.
Mother Brain, while giving the player less incentive to feel remorse as you destroy her, also lets out some harsh, almost human-like cries when you shoot her with the hyper beam. It's hard to explain, but I believe this was intentional (even if only for some dramatic expression to close out the show).
Nick: Apart from the metroid queen and Mother Brain, Samus is the "mother" of the story.
Does being too good at her job (re: killing shit) translate to being a terrible mother? Can this be liberating because the position of mother is, in itself, not always desirable?
Behemoth: I always thought the idea of "mother" for Samus as nothing more than a passing description for her in regards to how the metroid larva behaved when it hatched. But to suggest Samus as a mother figure for the series thereafter doesn't really make sense to me. So, in that sense, I guess I can allow Samus to be as violent as she wants. Or even if she is/was some kind of mother, the act of destroying so much can probably be explained away as righteous (at least in accordance with the Metroid universe).
Nick: As man, did you relate to the metroid larva as a father might its son; or, was it more like a pet in your eyes? Did its murderous qualities make it harder to love; or did you approval, as a father might, of their son's killing potential?
Behemoth: I think the developers did a good job of portraying its infantile innocent qualities with it's restless curiosity and childlike squeaks. I would say I saw it as a small pet, like a puppy or a kitten and felt fond of it, rather unlike its much more evolved aggressive ones from earlier. Perhaps this puts into question the idea of these beings being tamable, and gives the player a chance to ponder, maybe with sadness, the destruction of a race of "monsters" that aren't completely unable to be bargained with.
Nick: The series loves its monsters and gore. The metroids in Metroid II are quite grotesque, and thrown at the player in linear fashion. Trapped in the room with them, you must watch their bodies evolve before you eyes; often they become bigger, but also more humanoid.
Behemoth: I think I read somewhere that the developers originally planned to have the Zeta and Omega metroids stand on the ground and move around with their newly evolved legs, but there wasn't enough time (or programming expertise) to pull it off. So there is a little bit of goofiness to how these stronger metroids behave. Still, the encounters themselves allow you to use imagination. When I think back on it, I always thought, "Perhaps they do indeed fly or hover around using their own powers in some way."
Currently the encounters for me are nothing more than encountering an alien in a video game or a movie, and are fairly easy to decipher (especially having been exposed to some grotesque movie aliens and monsters; re: The Thing, Predator, Alien, etc).
Nick: In Super Metroid, Ridley, Kraid and Draygon are basically dragons. Phantoon is different. With his bulbous floating body, he appears and disappears at will, attacking Samus with spooky blue fireballs.
Compared to the other three, does Phantoon feel more menacing in a supernatural kind of way?
Behemoth: Absolutely. I believe people to this day aren't completely sure of where Phantoon came from. There seems to be a theme in Metroid of large headed monsters/bosses. Along with the Cyclopean eye is Phantoon somehow distantly related to Mother Brain? Another puzzle is also the Wrecked ship.
Nick: Doubles can intimate past atrocities tied to the hero's sense of self. They can be the actual home, or its inhabitants. For example, Samus must confront a ghostly area while on Zebes: Mother Brain's destroyed lair. Shown in a cutscene whose footage predates Metroid II and Super Metroid, the ruined chambers are re-explored as soon as you arrive.
Behemoth: I think those areas to me evoke a sense of the evil once contained within them rather than what Samus ever did inside of them. Specifically the pit room once being home to Mother Brain in NEStroid. I do like the way these previously well- hidden, incarcerated rooms are so easily found in Super Metroid. Even so, there remains a mysteriousness to Zebes—that the planet is doomed to repeat past atrocities.
Nick: Regarding the Chozo statues, did their tendency to serve both as animate and inanimate objects ever feel uncanny to you, but also a ghostly reminder of the destruction once visited upon their maker species (that's currently facing Samus)?
Behemoth: It's not apparent early on that the Chozo are even on the good team. After such a large expanse of time, these artifacts and their statues don't necessarily feel as though they have your best interest in mind, but rather you've stumbled across them—a neutrality forged from the time spent adrift in space.
Nick: Especially the ones that turn gold and try to kill you. Does this conflict with the idea that Samus was even raised by them? Something about the planet feels far older than Samus.
Behemoth: I agree. In regards to how the statues come alive, this can be explained as their response mechanism to intruders. All the same, shouldn't they identify Samus and allow her to take the artifacts? Is it the passage of time corrupting the technologies, or is Samus really THAT important to them to begin with?
Nick: Samus' destroyer persona allows her to ascend as top predator, wherein her home (or any civilized destination she visits; re: the B.S.L. station, SR388, Zebes) is totally destroyed, along with everything inside it.
Does Samus' victory always feel semi-hollow or bittersweet in your eyes? Will there ever be "true space in space"?
Behemoth: It's another running theme (read: meme) that a planet or space station must explode in Metroid games. It's nothing more than closing out the show with a bang cinematically (though it has happened far too much at this point, haha). Metroid II stands out somewhat because SR388 was curiously spared this fate.
Nick: Regarding the various emotions we've talked about in this section, do you think casual audience members can still experience them while watching a pro like yourself speedrun the game?
Behemoth: I think that depends on the game and the speedrun being performed. I mentioned above how Super Metroid goes by so fast, room-wise. I would think that any intended emotions can get a bit lost in the mix watching that game, but I can't say for sure. Metroid II on the other hand is snail-paced by comparison and follows the intended path almost all the way. The action and environment can be soaked up better.
Note: For this section, I'm largely referring to that runs that are recorded and uploaded online as historical documents. I'm also focusing on NMG (no major glitches).
In your opinion, can the on-screen historical markers (re: the corpses, gargoyles and icons) in Metroid intimate the player's off-screen emotions—their private joys, terrors, and inside jokes? Quick example: That dead guy in front of Kraid in Super Metroid as reminding some people of a particular runner's repeated bad luck in those particular games.
Behemoth: I would say perhaps not; speedrunning to me is very detached from any on screen markers like that. Although the dead guy in front of Kraid's door does a good job of conveying past failures, linking him to a speedrun setting is a large stretch for me personally.
Nick: Well past their prime, a lot of history is still being made in Metroid II and Super Metroid. Repeatedly recording your own footage of these games, do ever you feel like you're adding to the chronotope—i.e., the total history of the space?
Behemoth: I feel like there is history being made to these games, where one day there has to be an inevitable dead end to what's being produced. As far as adding to the gameworld in some way myself, not really.
Nick: Not strictly the gameworld itself, exactly. Let me phrase it differently. The gameworld, including its icons, is performative; players step onto and off of the screen like stage, which tends to look and perform the same for most players over time.
Because of this fact, do you think an audience member who grew up on the games naturally but also watches speedrunners as an adult might see it as both a casual and speedrunner setting?
Behemoth: Well, I believe past exposure from the casual experience actually enables you to differentiate the two experiences, whereas somebody more new to the game who only witnesses speedruns and some fast playthroughs might see the game through a performance lens entirely. You see this with newcomers who believe the game is a lot more difficult than it actually is; they feel this way after only witnessing players pull off difficult things, and they seem more enamoured by the game from a performance standpoint as a result.
For example, as a speedrunner you exploit your avatar's basic mechanisms to move as fast as possible. In Metroid II, for example, the player can damage-boost Samus over and over, flying up tower sections without using platforms (re: "Skyscraper"); even before she has space jump her feet never touch the ground. There's also mock ball.
When recorded by you, these movements become a part of the gameworld's history. Do these movement exploits "ruin" the story for casual viewers by making Samus look funny in motion (similar to the bipedal metroids simply hovering in the air)?
Behemoth: Potentially. Again, I think context of casual vs speedrun is necessary (whenever possible) with whatever you're viewing. However, I sometimes like the idea of tying in some advanced tricks into the actual game world. For example, the mock ball or damage boost has some vague realism from a physics standpoint. These two tricks in Super Metroid, along with the damage boost in Metroid II, may have been known to the developers even if they were an accident.
Nick: I've seen you jump along the ground in a kind of prolonged hopping motion to traverse areas while flying through the air in ball form. Is this basically Metroid II's form of mock ball?
Behemoth: It could be compared to Super Metroid's mock ball yeah, in the sense that it's one of the few "meat 'n potato" tricks of the game (though it has an entirely different usage, of course).
Nick: For audience members who are largely performance-inclined, does a runner's performance anxiety conflict with the story's intended sense of death (re: dead Samus)? Or can the intended story—one of disempowering motion through a historically weighty location—still occur when all of the drama is centered on an off-screen speedrunner, pulling their hair out because Samus died ignominiously?
Behemoth: I personally don't believe they're linked in any way whatsoever. So yes, there's a conflict, but again, context remains necessary for any viewing experience.
The Quest for Mastery
Nick: The speedrunner's challenge is a kind of metaplay informed by the gameworld's coded instructions. The more runners move, the more they record; the more they record, the more history the space accrues.
Despite instructing the player to map them, there's an ostensibly "unmappable" quality to Metroid gameworlds. Do you feel like there always one more map to fill in? For example, you've played Super Metroid for hundreds of hours does the game still manage to surprise you spatially? Does this sense of elusive mastery ever make you feel disempowered because always one more map to fill in? Or do you enjoy it for precisely that reason?
Behemoth: Super Metroid, and probably a vast amount of other games, always leave you feeling like you can do a better job next time. Even after seemingly achieving all the goals you set out for yourself, you'll probably at some point say, "This segment went well, but I messed up this boss," etc.
Perhaps this is a simple case of addiction—the drug of getting a great time or stringing a "hot" [sequence of rooms] together. I wouldn't say I feel disempowered by the game as such, but maybe it can happen from my own insecurities about my performance on a day-to-day basis. There's only one way a speedrunner should feel disempowered and that's by watching a tool-assisted speedrun!
Nick: For Metroid II, does much of its challenge stem from the game's combat or the space? For example, your gamma dance is pretty impressive, employing a variety of tricks to help keep the run on pace. To this, is so-called "metroid wrangling" one of the biggest challenges in Metroid II?
Behemoth: Yes, a big part of Metroid II is the combat with the metroids. Success in a speedrun comes from mastering each fight inside their unique room layouts. Finding ways to trap them or in the example given above, using a metroid to leave the room faster. I somehow found that trick very late into my time with low% when it should've been obvious, haha!
Behemoth: I would say the overall "rigid" design for Samus' motion makes that game much less difficult to navigate than Super Metroid. Even going as far to say that her rigidity makes her more reliable to control; as for the damage boosts, as long as you use visual cues these are never too difficult to do. Samus' fluid movement in Super Metroid contains a few holes in it that an experienced runner must be aware of; the mastery ceiling is also orders of magnitude higher!
Nick: There's currently no low% category on Speedrun.com for Metroid II, even though I really enjoyed your low% WR run recently. How does it feel to hammer this category into existence on your own, or did you have help?
Behemoth: I believe there had been talks about what a low% run for Metroid II would entail before I joined the discord, but yes, I routed it. I ran into problems, at first not knowing how to do infinite bomb jumps. So I actually first routed the game to include grabbing the spider ball. It was very satisfying to churn out four completed runs and end up with a time that seems pretty respectable. The queen fight is very problematic in low% but not impossible if you practice it extensively ahead of time.
Nick: Is there anywhere to view that run, online?
Behemoth: Yes, you can find that run here on my YouTube page.
Nick: Does performing glitches still feel like following the rules of the game space, even if they still feel something that you shouldn't be doing? Also, do you ever feel feel "taught" by the game, even though it contains no active instructor?
Behemoth: As long as the glitches aren't severe; you often need to still abide by the rules when performing them, but I don't feel like the game itself is teaching me, really. There's never an end to embarrassing moments in a speedrunners journey where you get caught forgetting by the most mundane things that you've begun to overlook [on account of deeper mastery].
Nick: Is the past you're struggling to defeat is essentially yourself, mainly your personal best? If so, do you ever visualize this former, past record as being represented by Mother Brain or the Metroid Queen? Effectively a historical marker to run against that only grows more and more powerful over time?
Behemoth: Definitely not, no.
Nick: In terms of running Metroid, do you feel like Super Metroid and Metroid II still have a lot of room for improvement, and do you plan to keep on running them more in the future?
Behemoth: I've made the mistake several times over the years of assuming we've reached our peak as performers, only to see new tricks get discovered, and talented runners only getting better each year. So for a little while at least these games will only have better and better times being done. As far as I managed to push Metroid II this year, I would have to yield to the fact that it's being mostly an overlooked game with very little runner interest; I can't say this game is anywhere close to what's in store for the future.
Nick: This concludes the interview. Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with me and answer my questions, Behemoth!
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