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The Promethean Quest and James Cameron's Military Optimism in Metroid

This longread analyzes the role of the Promethean Quest and military optimism in the Metroid franchise. This includes Metroid Dread, which Nintendo just announced. Apart from an introduction and conclusion, there are three main sections:
  • Metroid Dread: Thoughts and Impressions
  • Gothic Analysis, part 1: The Promethean Quest
  • Gothic Analysis, part 2: Military Optimism
Update, 7/13/2021: I've been constantly revising and expanding on the Military Optimism section. As a result, it's considerably more lengthy than the other two sections. I may release it separately at a future date, but have held off doing so for now due to formatting issues.

Introduction

Metroid is the Promethean Quest told through military conquest, specifically those of one-woman-army Samus Aran. Her victories are hard-fought, but triumphant. Channeling the military optimism of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), any sinister omens that come to light are subsequently blown up and forgotten.

We'll get to that. For now, let's examine Metroid Dread.

Metroid Dread: Thoughts and Impressions

After 19 year years, we're finally getting a brand-new side-scrolling Metroid adventure. I say "brand new" because the game isn't a remake like Zero Mission (2004) or Samus Returns (2017); it's a direct sequel to Metroid 4, aka Fusion (2002). It includes a unique gameworld for Samus to explore, enemies to hunt, and items to collect.

Pinch Me

To be completely honest, I never thought Nintendo would make Metroid 5. The feeling is not dissimilar to Van Halen; I never expected Dave and Eddie to make another record. When they released Another Kind of Truth (2012) and it turned out to be pretty good, I felt pleasantly surprised more than anything. My feelings for Dread are the same: "A new Metroid game? Oh, neat!"

To be clear, I love Metroid. I grew up on Super Metroid (1994), a game that continues to shape my life moving forward. I stood in line to buy Fusion and Metroid Prime (2002); I played hooky to beat Zero Mission and watch Zack Snyder's Dead of the Dead (2004). These days, though, I dissect media much more than I consume it (a consequence of my academic pursuits). I haven't bought a new console since the PlayStation Vita (2013), and I don't see myself getting a Switch just to play Dread. But even if I don't, I'll still be keeping tabs.

So while I may not be as excited for Dread as Vince McMahon is, my initial impressions are still positive. What follows are my first impressions for the E3 gameplay demo.

Appearance

Samus' power suit has a pale body and red helmet. Compared to her default armor from Fusion, only the shoulders and boots are blue; the body is primarily bone-white, bridged by wiry blue strands. While there isn't always an explanation for why Samus' suit looks different, her transformation in Fusion was one of the best parts of that game. It sounds like we'll be getting something like that here, too.


As usual, the levels are a cross between sci-fi ruins and primordial caves, with a good amount of activity in the backgrounds themselves. Made by the same team that developed Samus Returns, Mercury Stream, Dread appears to have opted for a darker makeover. Gone are the brown, rocky caverns and strong, colorful accents—replaced with desaturated pastels and perpetual greys (with slightly varying tints of red or blue). Everything looks to be made of steel, with plenty of room for shadows, steam, and smoke.

I love the game's use of color (when it appears). Intelligent use of primary colors makes it easy to tell what's what: icy blues for the magnet walls and glass windows; bloody reds for lasers and alarm lights; and various softer yellows for many doors, enemy attacks, and signposts. Samus stands out from the backgrounds (which are primarily greyscale values). Visually it feels gentle and cohesive, while flashes of brilliance control the flow.

Save for Samus' suit, there's a distinct lack of the color green—no starter area overgrown with vegetation. Instead, the game starts deep underground, inside the mechanical stronghold. Honestly, I like this change of pace and can't help but wonder if the final areas of the game will be more natural-looking as you make for the surface—kind of like The Descent (2009), when the heroine finally sees daylight again.

Gameplay Concepts

The morph ball is conspicuously absent*, meaning you can't curl up into a ball and hide. By that same token, the enemies you face hunt you, not the other way around. Defeating them is a question of patience as you wait to turn the odds in your favor. I only hope some challenge remains once you begin to grow stronger (unlike Fusion's endgame, which turned the SA-X into a total joke).

*Apparently, the morph ball is actually in the game, but its usage will be quite limited.

I like this combination of stealth and survival horror. It reminds me of Mark of the Ninja (2012) and Alien: Isolation (2014). The Hunter-type E.M.M.I. are persistent, but relegated to specific areas. And being captured by one isn't instant death, as skilled players can counter the E.M.M.I. with pixel-perfect timing. The idea is, if Samus can survive long enough, eventually she can discover the E.M.M.I.'s weakness and exploit it (again, this channels Cameron's "military optimism,” which we'll explore in a moment).


The game's director says Dread is about confronting fear, and the footage seems to support that. The one thing I'm not sure about is level design, and how historically essential components like mid-game sequence breaks, non-linearity, and backtracking will fare without morph ball. Instead, Samus plays more like Mega Man, sliding under giant rocks. For this to work, the tunnels must be straight. Can we expect a lack of narrow, winding tunnels for her to worm through? A part of me will miss that, if so.

Overall, the demo seems more interested in showcasing the platforming and combat than any sense of level interconnectivity. That said, Samus effectively starts inside a prison. How she got there isn't clear—something I expect the player to be told, or has to discover along the way as they try to escape. I only hope the individual levels can be accessed through different, hidden routes once the player learns how, and not simply through the elevator system.

In other words, I don't want the game to have a set, singular route they complete through a "time attack-style" sprint; I want exploration to allow for different routes that players can make for themselves.

Back to her Roots

2D once more, Samus is exploring the wreckage of the past. What does she uncover this time?

  • A derelict colony. Samus makes her predictable return, exploring the bowels of a giant Chozo colony (note their giant statues). Lost to cataclysm, this abandoned civilization retains its Promethean components.
  • Promethean (re: self-destructive) technology. Militarized security droids called E.M.M.I. have presumably killed their makers but continue to guard the graves. The emphasis appears to be on single, dramatic encounters from near-invincible enemies instead of rush attacks from swarms of disposable fodder.
  • A prison-in-disguise. Threatened by its perfidious, immortal stewards, Samus is imprisoned inside the ruins. There, she presumably must confront other imposters—animals obscured by shadows, statues that animate, and pirates drawn to power.
  • Survival, a woman in danger. "Fight or flight" is a common urge in Gothic stories, including the endangered woman. Metroid trades the classic female explorer—armed only with her wits and poor vision—with a scrappy, capable detective. In Dread, Samus is bolder than ever, eschewing the smaller, compact morph ball (which, in older games, would help her hide from enemies) in favor of running on two legs. She's an acrobatic sprinter who slides along the ground and punches enemies in the face.

Metroid Dread presents Samus as a Promethean hero who steals the fire of the gods. We'll explore these concepts next.

Gothic Analysis, part 1: The Promethean Quest

This section explores the Promethean Quest—from Frankenstein (1818) to Lovecraft, from Forbidden Planet (1956) to Alien (1979), and finally to Metroid 1 and beyond.

(artist: Bernie Wrightson)

Prometheus; Frankenstein

In Gothic circles, "Promethean" means "self-destructive," generally in pursuing power, wisdom, or technology.

The idea stems from Frankenstein, also called The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. In her story, the "natural philosopher" Victor Frankenstein discovers ancient forbidden wisdom and uses it to create unnatural life, which leads to issues; Victor is a shit parent who views his creation, the Creature, as a demon. The novel ends with him discouraging education for fear of uncovering forbidden, self-destructive knowledge. According to him, this knowledge outwardly reflects our innermost demons, which destroy us through mutual dislike (re: Skynet, Metal Sonic, the xenomorph, etc). 

The novel is one of human failing on multiple levels. In particular, Victor is insufferably self-righteous. This includes:
  • Withholding vital testimony at a murder trial, letting a common woman die on his behalf.
  • Constantly framing himself as a complete and utter victim.
  • Being so self-absorbed as to completely ignore threats being made against those close to him, including his brother, best friend, and wife. 
Although written as a unflattering parody of the Byronic hero, Victor was nevertheless a man of privilege (so was Byron); and having access to tremendous opportunities and wealth, he misused these resources to stupefying effect. As we'll see in a moment, this kind of pampered, short-sighted hubris is on full display in neoliberal critiques: The evil companies of the 20th century's sci-fi future (re: Alien) are just as blind and prone to blaming others as Victor was. However, they've become an institution whose capacity for harm far exceeds Victor's parental failings. They lie, cheat and steal, all under the guise of scientific virtue.

Though Shelley wrote what is widely considered the first horror-themed science fiction novel, she drew inspiration from the Ancient Greek myth. In it, the titan Prometheus steals the fire of the gods (a symbol of forbidden knowledge) and gives it to mankind. In the myth, the gods exact revenge on Prometheus, cursing him with eternal torment; stories like Frankenstein place this suffering on humanity for their impudent curiosity, idiocy and hubris: the Promethean Quest.

The Promethean Quest

Although the Promethean Quest has evolved over the centuries, the basic blueprint remains fairly unchanged:
  • exploration into the unknown, or seemingly unknown
  • discovery of a lost civilization
  • confrontation with a rogue technology
  • survival and escape
  • repeat
As new civilizations grow more and more advanced, they push outward and encounter fallen "gods." Not actual gods posed by the Greeks, but those whose technology is so advanced as to be virtually indistinguishable from magic (see: Clarke's third law).

The makers of this technology are not gods; they are sapient mortals who destroyed themselves with powerful knowledge they failed to control. Their creations survive them, attracting future explorers. Those who arrive want more power, the whole ordeal reliably ending in disaster. This cycle repeats, leaving a field of ancient wreckage in its wake.


The scope of this wreckage has only increased in future stories, from the forsaken chill of Antarctica to the depths of outer space. The Promethean Quest is thus recursive, the continuous pursuit of forbidden knowledge across multiple races over time. As the next race advances, it invariably encounters the wreckage of those who came before. Like a moth to a flame, to behold them is to look upon humanity's extinction by similar embarrassing means.

An Evolving Quest

Swap "race" with "story." Further along in human development, newer Promethean stories confront older Promethean stories, handling the quest uniquely.

The folly of the Promethean Quest is a Metroid staple—one its parent text, Alien, raided from earlier works (re: Forbidden Planet; At the Mountains of Madness, 1937). In those older works, the heroes were explorers—generally men with military roots (or science backgrounds, which tend to lead back to the military). Their bosses weren't presented in a strictly negative light; they were motivated by curiosity, even altruism. The places they explored retained their Promethean components, but these components stayed put; they didn't chase the explorers back into their ships.

In Alien, the explorers are male and female. Their bosses repeatedly lie to them, presenting them as breaking new ground while sending them blindly into danger. The Nostromo touches down on LV-426 and discovers a crashed ship. Seemingly derelict, the occupancy of this fatal home is anyone's guess, making our would-be explorers unwitting trespassers. They trigger a sleeping threat that traps the explorers inside their own ship before releasing the monster upon them.

Less of a critique of mad science, Alien is more a cautionary tale about corporate overreach in the blind pursuit of power. The company is great, but the power it secretly reaches for is greater. Failed attempts to acquire this power are continually kept hidden by the higher ups, dooming future expeditions in the process. This is not an accident; the nature of the technology (and the company's relationship to it) is inherently deceitful.

This subterfuge is organic and gestates inside a living host. The host includes the crew as well as their ship and social exchanges. Attacked in the derelict, the Nostromo crew emerges seemingly unscathed. They soon become prisoners in their infected ship—an outcome the company anticipates; it patiently waits for them to die before collecting the monster. The heroine's goal is not simply to survive but to deny the company what's theirs.


Metroid focuses on a lone female explorer. Though originally a civilian, Samus' employers are patently military (re: the Federation police). Rather than lie to her at all, they send her on missions with an express target or objective. This objective is Promethean, but Samus' bosses are repeatedly framed as neutral. This is true despite their eventual conclusion—one that mirrors the extinct Chozo—being tacitly foregone. Samus does her job, and brings them what they want.

Not always. Fusion portrays the Federation as bent on capturing the X, which they tragically underestimate. It's less of a planned disaster on the B.S.L. Research Station, and more of an opportunistic reaction to the station's unforeseen infection. Nevertheless, Samus is unimpressed, and promptly chastises her bosses by scuttling the craft.

Personally, I thought Samus sounded pretty naïve at the end of Fusion:

But how will the beings of the universe view our resolve? I doubt they will understand what we did...the danger we barely averted. They will hold tribunals and investigations. They will hold us responsible. Adam understood this, and he spoke to me in my anger...

"Do not worry. One of them will understand. One of them must."

I've reflected upon his words, and I see the wisdom in them. We are all bound by our experiences. They are the limits of our consciousness.

The phrase "We are all bound by our experiences. They are the limits of our consciousness" doesn't even make sense here; "the beings of the universe" can't hope to understand her point of view because her experience was unprecedented. Worse, Samus' gaff overlooks humanity's tendency to self-destruct by pointedly refusing to understand what's in front of them.

Built to Self-Destruct?

Shelley's indestructible creature, Lovecraft's shoggoth, the Krell's Monster from the Id—these are Promethean technologies realized through military-grade potential. Likewise, the evil company from Alien sends an unwitting crew of miners, then an entire colony, to rob a derelict "bomber." They don't care, so long as they have its contents for their weapons division. This is basically the ending to Metroid Fusion.

In either case, the hubris from those in power lies in how they fail to realize just how destructive this military technology is, sacrificing countless lives in the process. The civilization that preceded them fell victim to the same vices. The company ignores the warning; they only see the prize of the technology itself, not the universe as a giant, recursive graveyard. This all but guarantees the addition of future plots.


Alien was critical of this kind of short-sighted overreach; Aliens turned the message into a spectacle—a shooting gallery that dominated future outings.

It's worth noting that while Metroid 1 came out the same year as Aliens, it somewhat retained the isolated feel of the original Alien. Nevertheless, Samus has always explored the Promethean past through military means—less something to fear and more something to shoot, defeat, and assimilate. Over the years, though, she's become closer to her employers, thus closer to humanity's military presence in outer space.

Samus has always been a lone wolf, but the tableau feels increasingly crowded by Federation soldiers. And the Promethean message—about true peace as futile—is overpowered by the firing of guns to try and solve the problem. Though loud and impressive, these are temporary solutions and miss the point of the modern myth—that technology, especially military technology, is unavoidable and leads to self-destruction.

In Alien, Ripley was resourceful and lucky. Trapped with the monster inside an expendable ship, she triggers the self-destruct mechanism just to survive. Stories like Aliens and Metroid focus more on the dismantling of technological misuse through military strength. Rather than present it strictly as an insurmountable issue—that civilization is built to self-destruct—they present it as a monster to kill, or building to demolish. If that happens, simply try again.

Often, the structure is primed to explode (re: the Krell's Great Machine in Forbidden Planet; the company's Nostromo or atmospheric processor from Alien and Aliens). This instability is a feature of Promethean technology, not a bug. Unsolvable through violence, it can only be postponed in a constant struggle to survive. As younger, more violent civilizations confront the past, they fight it tooth and nail. This militarized response isn't going anywhere, but nor are the problems it tries to solve.


Pacifism doesn't guarantee survival, either. Because technology is always required, there will always be a threat; whether through monsters or societal collapse, one cannot escape the past. The Krell and the Chozo certainly tried. They evolved beyond their violent beginnings, only to destroy themselves later. Like them, the Federation will also self-destruct, all while thinking their military victories amount to anything in the larger scheme.

Ashes in One's Mouth

When faced with a drooling monster, a desire to survive is natural. Default weapons invariably fail before a mad scramble happens for something better. Luckily the ruin is littered with future weaponry. This does the trick, dispatching the space bug or killer robot with ease. While this looks impressive and seems to empower the survivors, it only prolongs the inevitable: The ruins, guarded for so long, can now be assimilated; or, if destroyed by the hero, there's always a souvenir (re: Robby the Robot) to help the newer civilization advance. Their stolen technology—the fire of the gods—will eventually spiral out of control, resulting in a new graveyard for someone else to find.

Ridley Scott isolated Ripley against a futile struggle; James Cameron's Ripley was more social and triumphant; and Metroid opted for the second approach. Samus' role effectively argues the war as hopeless lest it be waged by the right soldier—an invincible heroine to not only rally the troops, but win battles all by herself. With a little help from the past, Samus survives, and the Federation profits (from the technology she brings back); her endless victories are theirs, if only because she cleans up their messes, or looks after them one way or another. Survival becomes a means of adapting on the battlefield, and striking down the demons of the universe with whatever arms are in reach.

The problem is, universal supremacy is a myth. The endless graveyards should hopefully convey that much. Equally mythical is Samus' warrior persona, the unstoppable juggernaut that always survives. Ripley had one outing as queen bee; Samus, the ol' workhorse, just keeps at it. Her ongoing trials pit her against primordial cannon fodder and technological fossils. To treat the past as animal presents the doomsday as hypothetical. The technological failures seem to dare: "Go ahead. Pick up that blaster. See how far it gets you."


And leave it to Samus to keep trying. Alas, her constant attempts to survive aren't a matter of personal struggles against a larger problem; they ignore history as Promethean by optimistically framing it as something to defeat, fostering an increasingly neutral military worldview adopted by a larger group.

This military optimism in Metroid stems from James Cameron’s Aliens. I'll explore their relationship more in the next section.

Gothic Analysis, part 2: Military Optimism

Just as Alien evolved into Aliens, the Metroid franchise has become increasingly triumphant over time. Abjuring the Promethean myth, it instead offers military optimism—the idea that seemingly unstoppable enemies can be defeated with patience and, more importantly, military resources; the more victories, the more resources there are to use (even if these are little more than looted plunder in the grand scheme).

Samus repeatedly embarks on the Promethean Quest. Over time, this quest has become less cautionary and more professional. The Promethean past isn't something to fear or avoid; it's something to shoot. This attitude removes the quest's cautionary elements, especially where the military is concerned. This creates a franchise much more fixated on Samus as a neutral figure with military ties. Rather than fight them, she does their bidding and is celebrated for it.

(artist: Adam Hughes)

This celebration of the one-woman-army stems from Aliens. A widely successful and canonical work, Aliens' influence on the videogame industry is profound, inspiring the entire shooter genre. This includes
:
Most shooters are sci-fi, but even fantasy outliers like Heretic (1995) were inspired by Doom. Shooters generally give the player guns to use against "alien" enemies—either from outer space, hell, or underground (aliens, demons, zombies). Strategy games are a bit more niche, and don't focus on tactical reflexes, but the sentiment—of shooting bugs with guns—remains the same: "Die, monster! You don't belong in this world!"

The idea—that anyone can shoot their problems—is a soldier's fantasy. Although videogames shrink them into human-sized demons, we can't kill our problems in reality. But a great many people seem happy with the fantasy because it feels empowering. Alas, this attitude doesn't stay inside videogames. Fans of the shooter genre are often fans of real-world guns, and of war.


All of this stems from Aliens, including Metroid. And in many ways, Metroid the franchise continues to embody much of what Aliens introduced, in 1986. We'll explore exactly how in the following nine sub-sections:
  • A Sequel Enterprise
  • Displaced and Forced Neutralization
  • The Starting Point
  • Competent Women, Power Suits (and Bug Soldiers)
  • Cross Purposes
  • Recruiting Fandoms
  • Romancing Imperialism and Fascism
  • Poster Girl
  • Selling War

A Sequel Enterprise

Gothic stories fear the return of a monstrous past. Equal parts history and myth, it is a sequel enterprise informed by previous works. When Cameron made Aliens, he reinvented the past on two fronts, combining Alien with the Vietnam war. His boastful colonial marines are soundly defeated, then redeemed by Ripley's spectacular revenge as the ultimate show of force. 

In turn, Aliens inspired Metroid. Its alien queen partially inspired Mother Brain (combined with M.U.T.H.U.R. from Alien). Something to progress towards and ultimately defeat, Mother Brain is the nightmarish target of a military goal: the Archaic Mother (an outmoded concept from Freudian psychology). But Samus' connection to her hideous, dated target cannot be ignored—a warrior woman who prowess and humanity illustrate modern, non-traditional views on female strength. Though formidable, Samus defeats Mother Brain for the Galactic Federation, thus proving her worth. 


Samus' quest is Promethean, thus technophobic—a fear that came from older works. The E.M.M.I., for instance, rip off A.M.E.E. from Red Planet (2000), a movie that employed Alien's neoliberal lens: a giant corporation with under-the-hood military functions provides the tech and funds for a science expedition. Both are robots, but highlight a complex, organic relationship with their makers and victims—one comparable to the xenomorph's bio-mechanical body and web of dangerous, messy intrigue: the cold, machine-like exploitation of a nation or company's subjects through brutal population control (see: Foucault, biopower).

Together, these separate plights form a common thread, one shared by older catastrophes intimated by Metroid's fifth installment, Metroid Dread.

Displacement and Forced Neutralization

While Promethean technology and corporate overreach are popular Gothic tropes, their emphasis—on being more than entertainment—is complicated by popular trends, namely the selling of war as a neutralizing factor. This is where things get tricky. Gothic media is historically entertainment; entertainment is historically a business, backed by those with money for the express purpose of profit. This means that Gothic media (and the messages they contain) are packaged by the wealthy to recuperate antithetical elements.

In the Gothic mode, two popular methods for this recuperation are displacement and forced neutralization.
  • By throwing criticism onto a faraway place or villainous other, the author neutralizes their own work. This displacement acts as a disclaimer—to shield the author from the consequences of their actions.
  • Forced neutralization generally occurs through a target/ideal audience that will reliably endorse the product as "neutral." This frames it as having no political value regardless of its content—a colonizing tool employed by those who want a particular piece of media to be viewed as normal post hoc.

Aliens, and by extension Metroid, are guilty on both accounts. However, for the rest of this section we'll primarily be examining Metroid. We'll return to Aliens in the next section, "Starting Point."

Let's start with displacement.

Displacement is also a way of shifting blame. One such way is locational. Despite being metaphors for their author's homeland, Gothic stories have historically projected their problems onto faraway places: France, Italy, or other non-English places—imagined by British authors as a site for banditry, mad science, and other unspeakable events. To this, outer space is the perfect candidate. Though operating under the veneer of science fiction, Metroid is firmly rooted in dated depictions of the past (similar to Alien and its retro-future, Gothic space castle). Zebes is a kingdom, Samus is a knight, and the space pirates are the highwaymen of the stars.

(artist: Dave Greco)

Another way to shift blame is by framing one party as good and the other bad despite functionally being the same. Samus is a militarized bounty hunter working for the Galactic Federation. Unlike Boba Fett working for the Empire, Samus’ employers are not framed as the villain; Mother Brain and the space pirates are. Yet their instruments of war, and goals to acquire new and better instruments, overlap. Illustrated by Samus' unrivaled capacity for savagery and theft, the fall of the Chozo (and the pirates) foreshadows the Federation's inevitable decline, spurred by various souvenirs.

The separate aims of these parties matter far less than their destructive potential. However, this connection to violence is intentionally distanced or overlooked by Metroid. We're merely invited to compare them, often with little if any ceremony. Samus arrives on location, arms herself, and lays waste to everything in sight. All the while, Metroid refuses to level criticism at the Federation. Instead, the Chozos' folly serves as a cautionary tale dislocated from Samus and her current employers. They don't steal the Metroid larva and weaponize it; Ridley and the space pirates do.

In following the Federation's orders, Samus becomes the most destructive living force in the universe. She regularly destroys planets, so much so that it's become a recurring joke. Regardless of why a planet explodes, it's still a colossal demonstration of force. Samus is thus functionally identical to the Empire from Star Wars (1977). I would argue that cataclysms are not Samus' explicit intent; they're simply her victims as she finds them (re: the eggshell skull rule). The issue is Samus' lack of introspection. Planets keep exploding whenever she attacks them, and yet she never stops. Nor does the Federation ask her to.

"Haha, planet go boom" might seem funny in the moment. Yet, despite how hyperbolic planetary destruction appears, Metroid was inspired by older works tied to real-world consequences. In short, the destruction of the colonies, planets, or space stations in Aliens, Stars Wars, and Starship Troopers (1959) were metaphors for real-world events that had already occurred, or could happen again.


My issue isn't violence in entertainment, but rather how its allegories (re: real-world atrocities) are routinely ignored by forced neutralization.

Forced neutralization is an attempt to whitewash media and celebrate the result. This process is gradual. Depictions of war and violence are slowly neutralized as "pure entertainment," with no connection to the real world. For fun to occur, violence must be included, but never criticized. Good luck watching Aliens, otherwise.

Aliens inspired many violent videogames, including Metroid. Such violence is generally pitted against an imagined foe, often a demon or political caricature. Attempts at neutrality foster several common arguments:
  • Being unreal unmoors demons from the real world.
  • Demons are foreign and evil; they're the bad guys, thus deserving of righteous violence.
  • Videogames cultivate general attitudes about violence towards demons better than teaching actual history where violence against "demons" was perpetrated.
These factors are problematic for several reasons:
  • The imaginary foe. Presenting demons as strictly "imaginary" ignores the fact that these labels were historically applied through violent abjection.
  • Essentialized conflict. Popular entertainment generally takes conflict for granted, placing the hero squarely on the opposing side. Exploration of this relationship to any greater extent—its various political and social persuasions—is generally discouraged or framed in such a way as to keep things simple. 
  • Ahistorical narratives. Demons generally have no history. But even when framed as historical, a strict political caricature—whether literal or figurative—has little to do with its real-world counterparts. Generally, videogames are not historical, period; rather, they often treat caricatures (or demons) as "punching bags" that condition players to perform basic in-game functions.

These qualities efface actual history in favor of a "neutral" product that cultivates bloodlust as a mere commoditySuperimposed by these commodities, the atrocities of the real world become invisible; and yet, the selling of militarized stories tacitly supports them, and expands their influence on an increasingly buffered fanbase. As time goes on, those fans become shielded from actual history by ahistorical media as being more present, thus more real. This hyperreality (see: Baudrillard) becomes unquestionable, the original lost in the shuffle of proliferating simulacra.

Simulacra are copies without an original. Gothic stories might attempt to highlight this original through a kind of worrisome presence (what Jerrold Hoggle refers to as "the ghost of the counterfeit"). In military pastiche, there is no ghost to speak of, just demons to shoot in a never-ending factory of commodified war. Nevertheless, this factory has a starting point, one initiated—at least as far as videogames "shooters" are concerned—by Metroid's palimpsest, Aliens.

The Starting Point

At first glance, displacement and forced neutralization would seem to describe a game like Doom more than Metroid. After all, Doom was a shameless reskin of Aliens, whose innumerable demons functioned identically to Cameron's xenomorphs: a bug to squash, liable for a doomed colony and subject to a military group's obsession with kill counts. In either case, these factors served as increasingly diminishing allegories for the Vietnam War, with Doom being one generation further removed from the historical event than Aliens was.

(photographer: Eddie Adams)

As to the event itself, the Vietcong existed only to die, their deaths ruthlessly tallied by American forces (who o
ften confused the Vietcong with Vietnam citizens due to a lack of uniforms). These kill counts had one purpose: not accuracy in any meaningful sense, but cold, numerical evidence that aimed to quantify America's imaginary victory. Ripley and Doomguy also generate kill counts, but their righteous violence is treated as fun, or central to the character's development. Cameron argues that Ripley must be violent to overcome her previous trauma; the violence she commits is protective, motherly, and cathartic, cementing her status as queen bee.

And yet, Samus demonstrates a similar capacity for neutral warfare in Metroid. She becomes "queen" through projectile violence, dominating other female monsters with missiles, beams and bombs. Political language ("extreme prejudice") is swapped for sci-fi imagery that serves the same function—to disguise war as Something Else (re: "A Galaxy Far, Far Away....").
 Like Ripley before her, Samus is distanced from military organizations, but continually demonstrates her value towards them by doing their work. She's not a "grunt," bound to service; she's their greatest asset, a peerless exterminator of demons. What these demons are doesn't matter—only that they're enemies of the state and must be destroyed.

Historically the demon is the enemy of a nation. Either they deserve violence because they're a threat ("An enemy deserves no mercy, right?"), or because they're a match. Strength, speed, or cunning are prized qualities in a challenging opponent, and real-world conflicts depend on them to function. Violent videogames have the same requirement, one Cameron's xenomorph (and the circumstances surrounding it) supplied with aplomb. "The enemy is strong and weak," said Umberto Eco. "If it bleeds, we can kill it," Schwarzenegger replied.

(artist: Bob Wakelin)

Aliens militarized the role of the demon, not MetroidMetroid 1 cared less about swarms of demons, and more about single, valuable targets. Six years later, Metroid II: The Return of Samus (1991) would mark the first attempts at a franchise, thus adopting the exterminator's bloodlust that Aliens fostered: "This time, it's war!" Many
 American franchises involve a defeated military seeking revenge, their return to strength proliferating endless war as something to sell. Capitalism drives military expansion (what Second Thought calls "infinite growth"); the demand for war as a product is manipulated by those at the top through the continual generation of propaganda.

Aliens is propaganda. Its fictional, pluralized enemies are Vietcong—not because we're dealing with a loose caricature of the Vietcong as themselves, but a demonized other for the hero to crush en masse. No just one foe, but the rival army of a colonized nation. The purpose of this swarm is two-fold: 
  • to excite the emotions through victory or defeat
  • to trigger a fight or flight response against an innumerable, inhuman foe

A soldier's violence towards the bug is completely neutral—imaginary, essential, and ahistorical, but nevertheless shored up by a military agenda. In the wake of this agenda, so much of the universe is expendable. This makes the demon incredibly useful. Rather than trade historical accuracy for a caricatured form, the demonized approach distances the historical event—including how senselessly destructive it was—through a common military tactic: Make the violence "neutral," a question either of raw survival or fun. Not us-versus-them, even, but us-versus-other.

The other is important, because it disarms those objecting to crimes against humanity. As the neutral argument canonized by Aliens—"a bug is just a bug"—was reinforced by copycats, the desire for authentic military pastiche grew, becoming increasingly blind towards its subject matter (what Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, would call "a statue with blind eyeballs"). Instead of a slur, "bug" became the perfect fodder to exterminate, their numerous and inconsequential deaths recycled inside increasingly neutral military pastiche. 

Over time, these simulacra obliterated into virtually identical copies of themselves. The act—of relating to others through a shared, warlike comraderie—excited the drive to proliferate and sell; this storm bounced around inside the same, oversaturated market, further burying the dark original: the actual history of real-world war.

(artist: LeanFoo)

While exchanging historical accuracy for entertainment might seem obvious, less commented on is how this exchange can form the foundation for increasingly violent worldviews. In other words, Samus' exterminator mindset—and the Metroid franchise's neutral militarizationtook time to evolve. As they swap deeper allegory through the expression of war as a lucrative military image, their clientele tacitly endorse the imperial status quo through so-called "neutral" purchases. 

This might seem harmless, save for the fact that increasingly militant fandoms generally go on to colonize their own franchises. In a culture war* of their own design, they enforce neutrality by demonizing dissident political interpretations—i.e., these are "just games," with no connection to anything sinister. In reality, the likes of Aliens and Metroid advertise this connection through ceaseless emblematic militarism, and the valorization of military power as consolidated through titantic national or corporate bodies. Why think when you can be absorbed into an all-powerful whole that has your best interests at heart... right? 

*In this war, the Right are generally the aggressors—militant thinkers who paint the Left as "intolerant." This paradox sanctions the use of strength from either side as the deciding factor in any argument. Not only are the right better-equipped to exact violence as they see fit; this sense of manufactured victimhood is generally used by them to convey the advantaged (re: white privilege) as "disadvantaged," hijacking discourse through repurposed rhetoric that conveys vulnerability through a false proposition: that one is legitimately besieged. Further assisted by nostalgic feelings as being reliably associated with home, the media that supplies them (and their political undercurrents) become something to protect; this fortress mentality can justify fresh campaigns into any enemy position, wherein one's political opponents are portrayed as threateningly—and as ripe for assaulting—as possible.

The next section shall explore this militarism through the ubiquity of the power suit and Competent Woman trope (originally popularized by Robert Heinlein's male variant).

Competent Women, Power Suits (and Bug Soldiers)

Samus and Ripley would seem to have much in common: competency and power suits, borrowed from older militarized works. 

Despite these common ties, both characters have evolved over time. In Metroid 1Samus was less of a super soldier and more of a working-class hero like Ripley. An isolated civilian in a Promethean scenario, Samus' gradual militarization reflects Ripley's previous evolution into female Rambo. However, while Ripley gave up her power suit, Samus remains the perpetual one-woman-army thanks to hers.


I once called Ripley the Invincible Heroine. A better way to phrase it might be the Competent Woman. The idea stems from Robert Heinlein's Competent Man, which Walter Hill transferred to Dan O'Bannon's unused Alien script. Like Heinlein, Hill was influenced by the Competent Man trope, saying his own father and grandfather were "smart, physical men who worked with their heads and their hands" and had "great mechanical ability" (source).

However, while Alien famously transformed the Competent Man into a woman, this wasn't Hill's idea. Ripley was originally written to be a man, and only became female when the president of Fox suggested a gender swapScott loved the idea, having grown up with a strong, capable mother. Out of this complicated mess of competing ideas, Ripley was born.

Before we continue, it's important to note that Ripley was born into a man's world. Just as Dernhelm threatened the status quo—of war being "the province of man"—so did Ripley challenge the Competent Man is as essentially male. Though not exactly warlike, her burgeoning masculinity was inherently transgressive. To compensate, Ripley was stripped almost naked to demonstrate her feminine vulnerability. It took another seven years for her to evolve into something more militarized, lest she be seen as a threat like the Amazons of yore.

The capable, heroic individual stems from overcompensation. Though not unique to Hill or Heinlein, the Competent Man came from their sickly health. Hill was an asthmatic youth; Heinlein, likewise, was a navyman who fell ill, and later curiously romanticized the infantry through fantastical, arguably fascist stories (see: Brows Held High). Leave it to the infantry to idealize the stupendous feats single human soldiers can accomplish, and that's precisely what Heinlein did (with Hill's Alien draft arguably being the suggestion, if not outright endorsement, of a civilian equivalent).

"Specialization is for insects," Heinlein famously wrote, and his characters weren't always military. But they could do anything asked of them because they were competent. Competency isn't just a mindset, or a character's natural ability. More often than not, Heinlein's heroes had access to better equipment—weapons, to be sure, but also the power suit, which served as an extension of their organic bodies (which, in turn, were a hive-like extension of the state).

(artist: Karl Kopinski)

Heinlein canonized the power suit in 1959 with Starship Troopers, which Cameron required his actors to read when filming Aliens. By doing so, Cameron was emulating the US military, which had already added the book to their reading list. Hardly surprising considering Heinlein's novel preached military values as essentialized, spearheading them through the mind of competent soldier narrator, Juan Rico

In this future, there is no room for messy human politics. Just "insect politics." While so-called "actual" bugs are demonized as something to attack, the desire to openly emulate them is societal. Occasionally this desire rises to the surface. In Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915), Gregor Samsa turns into a "monstrous vermin" only because his family and friends are primed to scapegoat him. Society has already made them insects. Likewise, Heinlein's Mobile Infantry is a giant military machine, operated smoothly by competent men who can't think for themselves. All according to plan.

And yet, while competency is a headspace, the suit makes the soldier. Otherwise, they wouldn't use it. Cameron illustrated both points—competency and weaponry—by having Ripley use her power loader as an improvised weapon to defeat the alien queen. 

The irony of Aliens is that Ripley and the marines are just as bug-like, from a military standpoint, as the xenomorphs. But Cameron's military optimism—injecting Heinlein into Ridley Scott's Promethean universe—is a kind of cognitive dissonance that ignores the comparisonUndeniably attractive, this myth of the realized individual is used by the state to trick the next generation: You can succeed where others have failed. In truth, these recruits are expendable assets serving the will of the state—a state whose eventual collapse is inevitable.


In the meantime, Ripley will do anything to survive. She puts on the suit and evolves, becoming a bug to fight a bug. But she was already a "bug," attacking the xenomorphs with unparalleled hostility. It's worth noting that she wasn't a soldier ("I'm not a soldier"); she's a civilian whose hawkish attitudes mirror the desire for revenge fostered by Americans under Reagan's rule. 

Though her exact motives are never stated, Samus' mission is preceded by the extinction of the Chozo, which she seeks to avenge. In particular, it's Ripley's penchant for survival and hostility that Samus embodies during her bloody quest. In classic Gothic fashion, both women are terrified; in Amazonian fashion, they overcome this terror to ultimately triumph.

Samus isn't specialized. For one, her incredible suit boasts a wide array of tools that grant her superhuman powers in terms of speed, strength, and destructive output. She's faster than a speeding bullet, able to jump to great heights, and armed to the teeth. Even without the suit, she's physically superior to normal women—tall and athletic, but also, depending on the version, incredibly beautiful. 

(artist: Pokkuti)

In this sense, it might seem like Samus is a prettier, acrobatic Ripley with military ties. However, it's also worth noting that Ripley herself, despite being a civilian, was still a warrant officer. This navy language was used by Walter Hill to tighten up Dan O'Bannon's slasher screenplay (originally pitched as "Jaws in space" to Ridley Scott). The shadow of the military lingered over Alien's civilian-corporate backdrop, only to prophetically return in Aliens. So, too, did the militarized elements in Metroid slowly emerge over the following decades—until Fusion's subsequent military revival rewrote the entire franchise.

Cross Purposes

Metroid and Aliens demonstrate technology as something to continuously survive (or survive with) inside a Promethean cycle—one where optimism and doom operate at cross purposes: fight or flight. To do either is a choice constantly informed through exposure to radical technology that inevitably threatens change. While the insect symbolizes rampant evolution and indiscriminate hostility from one civilization to the next, there remains a complex, ever-shifting relationship between the organic and inorganic that foreshadows previous exchanges with technology. These exchanges only become more at odds over time. 

For example, Alien and Aliens showcase radically different interpretations of the same doomed past. The former showed how weaponized technology can branch away from strictly militarized forms, and how great civilizations are ruined, on the domestic level, by their hidden, militarized aspects. The latter ignores much of this, selecting heroic combat as the solution to Promethean technology despite its inherent downsides for everyone involved. Simply put, there is no hero powerful enough to escape the Promethean trap.

Aliens forgets the Promethean moral—that technology is dangerous because its integration turns people into violent monsters. It enables the perfection of violence through an unstoppable hero, and prompts the receiving of violence through an idealized target. Tragically this target is usually the makers themselves, who, whether through naked hubris or self-ascribed benevolence, cannot see their own destructive potential. 

(artist: Nintendo)

Consider the Chozo. Early adventures treat them as mute, silently offering Samus their wares. Similar to the Space Jockey from Alien, they have no past save what the player can imagine. From Zero Mission onward, the Chozo are given a past by Nintendo, who portray them as heavily-armed, but peaceful (not unlike the Krell, or the urSkeks). Whether their intent was that of doves or hawks, the metaphor is a Morton's Fork with a Promethean outcome: The Chozo are extinct. 

Metroid has forgetten the same moral that Aliens did, revising its own past to eulogize the Chozo as heroic. Exploring their abandoned civilizations, the player discovers how the Chozo armed their citizens with incredible missiles and bombs, and installed complex security systems for their homes, including Mother Brain. In doing so, they fused their military and domestic features into a single, cohesive unit—one that survived long after murdering them. 

In light of their demise, we can safely conclude three points: 
  • The Chozo used copious amounts of missiles, beams, and bombs.
  • Their weapons were more powerful than Federation equipment (making Samus the perfect exterminator).
  • The Chozo were destroyed by their own technologies.
For this third conclusion, the missiles and bombs are not explicitly blamed for their demise, nor is the Chozo's curious tendency to colonize multiple worlds 
(not unlike the parasitic Goa'uld from Stargate). Instead, the scapegoat for their swift and sudden destruction is Mother Brain, a female monster they created through the awesome powers of science. This tendency to scapegoat only increases as newer Metroid titles become more and more vocal. Nevertheless, they cannot hide the fact that self-destruction is inherently built into Chozo civilization—something Samus triggers in her constant attempts to survive. 

The point of any heroic quest is self-realization, but this is impossible if the quest is Promethean. Alas, Samus survives by reliably integrating dangerous technology into herself. Thus, she becomes the perfect survivor, hosting deadly technologies while simultaneously destroying everything around her. Scott's biomechanical alien was the same, a fleshy parasitoid whose insect-like properties were revered by the besotted Ash. These weird fusions become something to perversely admire, serving as current mirrors for Shelley's 1818 drama: Victor Frankenstein's abject hostility towards his own technological projection, the all-powerful, but hopelessly doomed Creature.

(artist: torokun)

Samus' suit is a Swiss army knife. It can let her do anything she needs to do, but accepts upgrades supplied by other species—not just the Federation or the Chozo, but also the Luminoth. This grants universal civilization a homogenous quality. Past a certain point, these various species fortify their military potential through common technologies, of which Samus, specifically her suit, is the arming hub.

Samus' suit is a technological marvel. With it, she helps the Federation colonize space by physically clearing the way. This being said, the universe of the older games was far less populated. These were dead, empty worlds. As time went on, Nintendo colonized them through military pastiche—the same pastiche Cameron employed in Aliens to expand his vision of the Alien universe. He did so by recruiting fans through the allure of powerful technology that Samus herself wears.

Recruiting Fandoms

The power suit has always been an extension of state power, making it the perfect colonizing tool. This stems from its mechanical abilities, but also its advertising potential. Fan recruitment centers around technological empowerment as attractive:

(artist: Mark Daniels)

Called “world-building” by adoring fans, the fact remains that Cameron exploited Weyland’s motto, “Building Better Worlds,” for his own gain. He did so by transplanting the “us-versus-other” mantra on a military scale into Ridley Scott's universe—marines-and-bugs, instead of the "us-versus-them" mentality of cops-and-robbers, or cowboys-and-Indians (compared to bugs, robbers and Indians are still partially human* in the eyes of citizens and the law).

*This depends. As times of crisis are manufactured by the elite, fascist groups invent imaginary threats with racist slogans that scare the voting class:
  • "Think of the children!" 
  • "Protect the virtue of women!"
  • "Immigrants are stealing your jobs!"
Whether at home or abroad, these fabricated emergencies push marginalized groups into perilous states of exception that reduce their human rights to zero. They become scapegoats, their humanity shrinking as they become little more than zombies—or worse, bugs—in the eyes of the voting public. As explored in my Gothic analysis for Ion Fury (2019), zombies are domestic "problems," whereas aliens traditionally invade from Somewhere Else.

This proliferation of "us-versus-other" was no accident. Yes, Cameron framed his marines as tragic, "neutral" heroes; their ceaseless imperial imagery still forced moviegoers to see the universe as marines-versus-bugs with an American stamp. Some Americans undoubtedly held this xenophobic worldview already. Others, it turns out, just needed a little nostalgic push. Regardless, the colonial marines became fictional proxies in a very real war, one waged inside the minds of the American public: the domestic citizen versus the foreign invader. 


As time went on, Cameron's growing fame has essentialized the colonial marines, so that no one can remember a time without them. They've surged into comics and videogames, until Vietnam was forgotten and replaced with stupid, heroic replicas that everyone wants to be. At first blush, I never understood why. The marines are hopelessly brash, and die in droves for their legendary stupidity. 

Further inspection eliminates the mystery with a simple but effective fact: The colonial marines get play with guns and shoot bugs. Either they're gladiators for Americans to slake their bloodthirst with, or the lazy promise of military recruiters: "Join up to become Hudson, Hicks or Vasquez!" The gladiator scenario is deplorable; the bugs are essentially a reduction of the Vietcong to terrifying cannon fodder. The second scenario is profoundly ironic, considering the marines are all grievously mauled or slain; it fosters a warrior's mindset, where death is glorious, revered by legions of adoring fans.

A telling clue lies in how Cameron defends the real-world military. Any faults found within his own fictional military were not to be weighed against their real-world counterparts, the United States Marine Corps. He made these statements specifically in the director's commentary for the Alien Quadrilogy—in 2003, during the War on Terror. While George Bush was spearheading US foreign policy by using propaganda to essentialize US soldiers for an endless war, Cameron had already created a sci-fi microcosm of the same event. This model predated the Bush administration, and informed its "fanbase" moving forward. 

(source: Crysis)

Cameron did not invent the idea of sci-fi military propaganda, but his iconography is easily the most famous. The aforementioned "starting point" insofar as videogames are concerned, Cameron established a worrying trend within them:
  • War must exist for the story to exist.
  • There must always be two sides.
  • There must always be demons; i.e., the colonizers' prejudices.
These prejudices, and the frameworks that prop them up, are reinforced by effusive fan attitudes being informed less by popular stories told by movies and videogames, and more by videogames and movies becoming things to imitate by virtue of their popularity. Fans and popular war narratives interact back and forth over time, forming a tangible bond. As the bond strengthens, delighted fans will romance imperialist, often fascist ideas, expressing them in much the same manner as they were acquired: through advertisement inside a neutral sphere. 

Romancing Imperialism and Fascism

The fans of today weren't prescribed fascist dogma over a national radio broadcast; they grew up with Samus and Ripley in the living room—on their TVs, Gameboys, and computer screens. Their subsequent romances defines military power as informed by their position as consumers of multiple franchises. In this market, "imperialism" and "fascism" are generally left out; but words like "soldier," "knight," "champion" and "defender" remain.

Consider this Metroid fan drawing by Matt SmithThe illustration depicts a battle scene, one where multiple Samus clones armed with Warhammer 40k weapons are hopelessly embroiled in a futile conflict against Metroid invaders (or defenders, depending on your point of view):


This eclectic scene seems hopelessly dislocated from either franchise; it's literally a bulletin board made to advertise an album by The Minibosses, a Nintendo cover bandThe excuse "it's just an ad" can be further bolstered by the parent material being equally neutral: Samus and the Imperial Army are simply fictional characters inside "neutral" entertainment. Even so, their violence, good or bad, is always righteous. They're killing demons with extreme prejudice, firing indiscriminately in all directions.

The problem is, demons don't exist in the real world, victims do. Historically the state frames its victims as demonic in continuous attempts to marginalize and exploit them. This framing is invented—assigned to victims of the state by the state, resulting in violence that is nevertheless very real. The state dodges this reality by using parallel media to alter how fans not only perceive them, but also how they see violence in general. 

For this, Matt's drawing needs a second look. Note the Totenkopf-style insignias on their pauldrons and knee guards, effectively making these space knights Totenkopfverbände ["Death's Head Units"]—exterminators on par not only with the Imperial Army from Warhammer 40k, but also the Nazis themselves. 

The Third Reich, or Kingdom, rejected modernity in favor of medieval pageantry* as an expression of state power. It's this incidental expression of fascist imagery which the poster most immediately conveys, and invites the fan to put up on their wall. And sadly most won't recognize it as such; they'll view it as nostalgic, rendering the fascist elements (and their real-world counterparts) invisible. I would argue that Matt did not invent this idea, or intentionally invoke it. Instead, he was responding to a trend that Metroid had borrowed, unsurprisingly, from Cameron's AliensWar is badass

*For more information on the function of the fascist uniform, check out this video by Yogupink.


Glorifying war through the creation of an idealized enemy remains firmly rooted in American culture, and for good reason. Fascism is rooted in racism, with Hitler borrowing his theories of medieval posturing and eugenics from the United States, not the other way around. Prior to WW2, America's connection with fascism, Nazism and racial violence was no secret (the deliberately archaic titles of the KKK; the American Nazi bund; and Woodrow Wilson's screening of Birth of a Nation [1915] at the White House); after the war, Nazis scientists were hired en masse to further US hegemony. 

As the Nazis were secretly assimilated, the fascist Reichsadler ("Imperial Eagle") was absorbed by its "neutral" American variant. Said variant still covered everything in sight; it was just disguised by the flowery language of liberalism. Even so, the outcome of this imperial pageantry remains fascist. It's just more neutral about it. "We're not an empire, we're united," as Anansi's Library puts it

As such, the Reich's infamous blitzkrieg ("lightning war") was eclipsed by something older than it: Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which embodied the spirt of American politics before, during and after Wilson, though especially the pursuit of property. Fast forward to Reagan, the former actor-turned-politician's Christian-tinged, family-friendly patriotism was a sham for mean-spirited revenge (for Vietnam) while simultaneously conveying strength on the world stage; in 1986, Cameron carried this torch into American theaters, spreading Aliens fandom across the world while simultaneously discouraging "weaker" incarnations within the franchise.

I'll discuss the development of 
Cameron's brand in the "Selling War" section. For now, just remember that Metroid employed the same devices Cameron had already made famous (some might say instantly so, for he was responding to pre-existing military trends); Nintendo's execution was simply less aggressive in using them:
  • A delayed struggle. The Federation-versus-pirates conflict took time to develop.
  • A sexpot hero. Samus, the state's executioner, is not only female, but disarmingly attractive. 
The state requires an enemy to justify its own armies. In Metroid, the space pirates fill this role. However, they are curiously absent in Metroid 1 and 2. In Metroid 3 they appear, but without identifying themselves. The first time I saw them, I had no idea they were even pirates or why I was shooting them. I even thought they looked like the Chozo, with their humanoid bodies, beaky faces, and bird-like squawks. Only in the Prime series are they finally brought into focus.


Though mentioned in Samus' emergency order from Metroid 1, the Federation had no in-game presence until Fusion. Introduced during the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, the Federation’s expanded appearance was Nintendo pandering to civilian xenophobia and war-time anxieties—just like Cameron had under Reagan.

Before Fusion, Metroid's central conflict felt somewhat isolated, murky and Promethean. After, it not only became visible; Nintendo’s military language made it easier and easier to grasp: Relative to Samus, the pirates are bad, and the Federation is entirely neutral. Moving forward, Federation soldiers are constantly defeated, their failures increasingly framed as tragic (re: Echoes, 2004). They need a hero who can help advertise the Federation's hollow victories: Samus.

Poster Girl

Under her power suit, Samus' personality and appearance have always been in flux. This flux occurs relative to her role in the larger story that Nintendo wants to sell: Samus' experiences as a killer-for-hire. As Metroid evolved—from an isolated adventure in outer space to episodic war propaganda—so too did Samus: from mysterious protagonist to shameless poster girl. 

(artist: Edwin Huang)

The reasons for this are complicated, suffice to say that sex and propaganda go hand-in-hand. Poster girls, in particular, can hide the state's destructive will from humanitarian critics, while titillating true-believers with bizarre, dated promises of sex and power.  

As mentioned earlier, the attitudes between fans and canon take time to develop. So does canon itself. For example, characters in stories intended as one-off adventures tend to differ vastly from their franchised counterparts. Star Wars is one such example. Luke was just a farmer. Leia was just a princess. They weren’t related to each other. This changed in 1981, when Luke and Leia were rewritten as siblings. Less of a singular fantasy to save the world, their roles also expanded inside a larger conflict. They became generals, with clearly defined military roles.

Just as Star Wars was rebranded as Episode 4, Metroid 1 was originally just Metroid. The instruction booklet famously misdirects the player by describing Samus as cybernetic and male. Though neither claim was true, her description—as a “space hunter” who routinely does impossible things—was beyond rebuke. She was still a space hunter, albeit a female one. Since "female" in the 1980s generally meant “sexy” (re: Cheetara, Roll, Tyris Flare, etc), Metroid and its sequels kept Samus armored until the very end in order to focus on gameplay.

Openly known as a woman, Samus’ first few adventures followed the same formula: Play well, see some skin. Even with Metroid 1, the entire game was structured around this hidden reward system. Her status as a woman didn’t factor into the plot, though, and her military role was non-existent. She was essentially a pirate, but a useful one. Incredibly destructive, she had a voracious tendency for looting that scared her enemies (she could absorb their abilities): She was better at pirating than they were. 

The Federation capitalized on this fear by fighting pirates with pirates, turning Samus into a privateer (a pirate commissioned by the state to attack enemy nations). Samus doesn't typically board ships; she primarily robs graves by killing their previous hoarders. The Chozo ruins are commandeered by the space pirates, which Samus murders for the state's benefit. In the process, she keeps some of the reclaimed property for herself (or doesn't, which might explain why her suit is always stripped bare at the start of every mission).

Samus couldn’t stay a pirate forever, so Fusion and Other M showed the Federation assimilating her. Out was the mysterious space hunter, in was the orphaned military recruit (a colony brat, like Newt from Aliens). Nevertheless, her pirate-like activities continued unimpeded, the Federation looting the galaxy through an increasingly legitimized proxy.

Though it took years for Nintendo to release Fusion and Other M, this deviation—from civilian to soldier—felt sudden and sharp because it departed from the Ripley blueprint in one go. Granted, characters who never seem to die constantly evolve and change. Ripley deviated from her own past when she went from worker to queen. Samus is doing what Ripley did; the difference between them is to what degree and where they wind up.

Take sexualization, for example. Ripley resisted her sexualization through a masculine appearance and motherly persona. She was hard around the edges and full of grit. She had feelings for men, but this was never the focus; her motherhood was. Though Samus' looks have changed wildly over the years—from shapely gymnast, to Amazon, to pin-up girl—she was never a mother (in the sense of a 
chaste caregiver); her sexualization was more overt, and has only continued to oscillate outside of the suit. Super Metroid featured the most Ripley-esque Samus, both in her tall, imposing body and in her broad-shoulder suit. Since then, she's regressed to an infantilized bikini babe, empowered more through enforced sexuality than sheer, impeccable brawn.


Beautified, Samus is the Federation's poster girl, the sexy soldier better at her job than the guys: Think Dizzy from Starship Troopers (1997), or Arlene Sanders from the Doom paperbacks (1995-96). To this, she's a gender-swap for Heinlein's Competent Man—not just in terms of skills, but also an idealized form of what Heinlein (and others like him from that time) viewed as attractive. Instead of a square-jawed man with a broad chin and deep-set eyes of steel, we have a doe-eyed, moon-faced cutie.

This idealized image isn't just a recruitment tactic (re: "Be all you can be."). It often clashes with traditional views on what soldiers are, often to comedic effect: Girls don't fight; they're cute, and like puppies and stuff. And yet granting them the ability to kick ass often butts heads with the idealized woman as inherently sexualized—usually to ridiculous, heterosexual-male-pleasing extremes: "Equivalent" female soldiers must sport bodies that look "powerful." So, just as Superman and Wonder Woman illustrate various traditional gender norms through physical perfection, Samus' sexy body is a dated showcase of what female strength is supposed to look like.

More than this, Samus is the military's promise of sex to men, but sex of a particular kind: white, blonde, and perfect. It's not just strength, but sexuality as idealized to a particular "type." If Samus' power suit does most of the work, shouldn't her body be allowed a bit of leeway? Apparently, there's no room for chubbiness inside a metal corset and bikini.

(artist: hybridmink)

To be fair, male suits of armor have historically demonstrated outward extensions of sexuality as "strength" (re: the codpiece). Nevertheless, Samus' sexualized power suit represents a traditionally male approach to displaying power, especially considering her suit was not designed by her, but by male artists for other men. Her feats of strength are endorsed through a sexual perfection that her audience can demand or emulate. Either way, the warrior princess is a poster child for neutral military action. Normalized.

The normalization of Metroid was part of its becoming a franchise. Metroid 1 felt closer to Alien, its veiled heroine trapped inside a dark, claustrophobic world. Its own past was eclipsed by sequels that were increasingly clean and colorful, streamlined for easy consumption. Nintendo even revised its own past with Zero Mission, remaking Metroid 1 into something more accessible. The base imagery—the derelict spacecraft, ancient castles, and ruinous stewards—remained, but were tidied up, robbed of their somber ambiguity and heavy atmosphere.

This has had an effect on the game’s nostalgia. When I think of Metroid 1, I specifically recall its dark foreboding atmosphere. You could hear this in 2000s cover bands like the NESkimoes and the Minibosses. This dark recollection has been erased by Nintendo’s reimagining of Metroid's past. The threat of war is no longer a shadow that darkens the mood; it’s like riding a bike, only waiting to be picked up. To this, I can’t imagine future generations producing anything as dark as “Norfair Tenement Blues” (2004) or “Kraid” (2000). The caution is gone, replaced with bravado.

(artist: ninjaink)

Reinventing Metroid's past has made Samus’ more visible, her personality being revealed through cutscenes, thought bubbles, even dialogue. And yet, instead of seeing Ellen Ripley come into focus, I saw an increasingly sanitized and righteous warrior maiden, one bolstered by essentialized connections with various "neutral" military groups. She became less Rambo and more Rico, something that Ripley arguably avoided, even in her most warlike moments.

Selling War

Earlier, I described Gothic media as "tricky" for being historically encamped in the business of entertainment. If war is a business, then so are Gothic stories where war is a factor. And war, either through overt concentrations of military power, or their parallel domestic effects, has lurked in Gothic stories since Horace Walpole (re: The Castle of Otranto, 1746). Often the critical elements are generally hidden in plain sight, waiting to trouble the viewer through sheer, complicated presence. In other words, they invite criticism by virtue of what they are, or patently represent.

However, when authors empty this representation to prosecute a "neutral" war, it becomes something else to examine. In America, war has been sold by large corporations who stand to gain a profit, but only if the author presents their product a particular way. To this, the lack of explicit intent is two-fold—often a survival strategy conducted by authors with troubling messages, and a money-making tool for companies capitalizing off that message as transformed. As franchises appear and expand, they adapt to a market that treats war as a product, not a problem. Metroid stems from Aliens, which stemmed from Star Wars, which stemmed from Starship Troopers. And somewhere along the way, allegories have come and gone.

For example, George Lucas objected to authoritarianism, but knew that war sells. To communicate this message through Star Wars, he sanitized the message for the studio by packaging it into a space opera on par with Flash Gordon (1940). This smash-hit spawned an entire franchise, one that vastly exceeded Lucas' original postcolonial message (re: "Imperialism sucks"). The message is still arguably there, but has continually evolved alongside the franchise itself due to its numerous changes in ownership.

For the entirety of its existence, fans have defended Star Wars as "entertainment." Obviously, Star Wars was made to entertain, largely through clunky, operatic means. Star Wars also invited criticism, wherein allegory could be broached and extended. Lucas wasn't making a dumb product to cow the masses with; he was commenting on anti-authoritarianism, in part through his use of Nazi-esque pageantry wasn't a strict allusion to the Nazis themselves; it was an allegory for the United States* acting similar to Nazi Germany

*If this concept sounds ridiculous, please consider the following historical abuses, foreign and domestic, either directly perpetrated or tacitly endorsed by the United States government:
Having been at war for the majority of its existence, the United States has historically destabilized foreign governments to increase its own power and influence through an exclusive capitalist model. Shadow governments and puppet regimes are common, but so is the abuse of mythology and the brute display of force and dropping of bombs alluded to by the evil Empire in Star Wars.

(artist: Tom Chantrell)

George hit pay dirt, but his Nazis allegory flew over most American's heads (many of whom were children). Instead, his catchy parade of splendid militarism increased the demand for militarized media, which the media industry exploited to the fullest. Opps.

Music was pivotal in either respect. Being a space opera, John Williams unsurprisingly borrowed from Wagner (and other Romantic composers). He also quoted Holst's "Bringer of War." As a result, several tracks have a distinctly military feel to them—war and emotions, combined as a kind of spectacle to hear and see. This concept resonated with Cameron, who responded to Star Wars with his own violent spectacle. The score for Aliens, written by James Horner, is awash with military pomp. Like a parade, this drives the action forward with gusto.

Star Wars was an allegory on historical war more so than Aliens, which largely capitalizing on "neutral" war (re: entertainment) as tremendously lucrative. More than Star Wars, Aliens inspired countless videogames with equally exciting music (re: Contra, 1987; Metroid and Doom). In them, conflict was not only normal, but expected; and portrayed by an idealized, but imaginary hero combating idealized, imaginary demons: Contra and Doom featured alien invasions, while Metroid took the fight to a dormant, hidden foe. 

Lucas and Cameron were products of their times. Lucas' success in 1977 directly followed the United State's exit from Vietnam; Cameron emerged in 1986, amid the Reagan Administration. Cameron examined Vietnam, not Reagan, and moving forward, his neutral militarism exploded. Nowadays, it dominates both the Alien franchise and media at large, far outpacing Cameron's skeptical predecessors. His indelible mark spawned Contra, Metroid, and Doom, all of which survive through the same magnetic formula.

The problem is, while the original Star Wars was a fairly productive allegorical critique of imperialism, Cameron had much less to say. The colonized turn into demons with no history or place. The fireworks remain, but without a human critique. In that regard, the best Cameron can do is scapegoat individuals:
  • Cameron blames Burke, not Weyland-Yutani, for the Hadley's Hope disaster. Weyland-Yutani only seem to care about their "Shake-'n-Bake" colonies (on lifeless planets, no less), while Burke wanted to make millions by luring the colonists to the ship.
  • Cameron blames Gorman, not the colonial marines, for the military defeat, and treats this defeat as an isolated event. It doesn't illustrate the marine's position inside a larger conflict that's equally lost, or pointlessly bloodthirsty.
  • Cameron blames the aliens for the marine's violent approach—a singular target, or demonic "other," to be slaughtered wholesale. 

Cameron is very specific (and repetitive) on this last point. His dialog—especially for Ripley—repeatedly stresses the aliens' lack of humanity and their threat to galactic civilization. He calls them "xenomorph" and takes away their human skulls; h
e has them constantly attack human children; and he frames every xenomorph kill as gratuitous, and every human casualty as horrifyingly brutal. 

Cameron's numerous and specific changes are stereotypical propaganda that humanizes the marines, and transforms the aliens into insectoid cannon fodder. As such, his talents generally lie in drafting propaganda to address domestic fears while throwing foreign considerations under the bus, and falling in love with his own ideas. 
  • Onscreen, he mainly appeals to white audiences with abused or targeted women, exploiting their struggles to recuperate dissident attitudes or support hawkish mentalities that favor the status quo. 
  • Offscreen, he married Linda Hamilton, the female co-star of his first big franchise; he also married his producer, Gale Ann Hurd, and rival director, Kathryn Bigelow. 
To be frank, Cameron is a businessman who deals in female action heroes—a profitable enterprise that has skyrocketed his net worth to $700 million (which should only continue to climb as he shamelessly milks the Avatar franchise). This makes him the third wealthiest director alive. Well, bully for him, I guess. Unfortunately Cameron's demonic scapegoating and the violent response towards it—i.e., xenophobia—has all but colonized videogames the world over. His brand of war is thus less of a critique of US foreign policy and more a profitable extension of it through parallel media.

Such material is generally comfort food in trying times, and Metroid is no exception. The series' 2D reign—from 1986 to 1994 to 2004—was no stranger to grand, horrible events (re: Chernobyl, the Rwandan Genocide, the War on Terror). While disasters like these stoke xenophobia in American minds, Metroid capitalized on Cameron's fantasy of survival, wherein the player can safely shoot their problems to bits. If the past returns, kill it.

(artist: Felonius Monk)

This increasingly neutral stance on the military accounts for Metroid's continued appeal in broader circles. "Everyone" can like Metroid because it allows for the military to exist without explicitly moralizing the violence. There are no real-world caricatures, and the allegories of specific historical events are replaced with generalized adventures in outer space between interchangeable planets. This means the demons (the Metroids, dragons, and pirates) are a dislocated "other" whose status feels "not real," thus not a slur. The bug is just a bug. It's all very neutral and safe.

This kind of military pastiche lies at the heart of American culture and cannot be escaped. So I'm not entirely surprised by Metroid's expanded military presence. I am bothered by Samus' growing connection to this presence; starting from mute outsider to outright trainee, she feels assimilated. Excluding Other M, Samus doesn't love them, but she doesn't hate them either. In fact, she would appear to have a regular job thanks to them. She arrives as a one-woman clean-up crew, investigating hazards others can't; the relief, distanced from the larger group; the exterminator.

The cliché is that something always goes terribly wrong for Samus. It forces her to use her particular set of skills just to survive. This bid for survival is always isolated from larger politics, even if those politics put her there. A neutral story can't take sides, limiting its ability to investigate war as a problem, something Metroid isn't terribly good at.


Then again, neither was Aliens. But both could sell war as a consumer good relatively guilt-free. Ignoring Ripley's emotional trauma for a moment, she returned to LV-426 in Aliens to renew a contract with the company. She reluctantly puts in the time, serving them (through her motivations) as the perfect killing machine fighting the perfect target. The closing fantasy is a clean break with the military altogether, with Ripley free to live a new life with Hicks and Newt.

Conversely, Samus has no family. She always returns and goes back to work. Her motivations for this work have changed over the years, but survival is part of the job, one with little room for feelings about bugs. But the real world isn't filled solely with bugs; the military depicts them as such. So does Metroid, whose violence amounts to a continued struggle for survival against beings that need to be crushed.

"It's about survival," Archer says, quoting Deliverance (1972). Though clearly a joke in that case, the point remains: Violent behavior is not only tolerated but expected in Metroid. Under a particular worldview where survival is the point, Samus lacks finesse. Those finer distinctions—about what a bug is and why—are stamped out in favor of promoting the means to survive as vital to the product. 
Here Samus leads by example, the poster girl for a franchise whose streamlined military pastiche sells better than overt politique. She's the Great Destroyer, returning to strength from a position of weakness to eventually conquer everything.

(source: Nintendo)

Conclusion

The tradition of selling war, especially in recent years, has fueled the sale of violent videogames. I enjoy a bit of violence provided I have some room to perform with the floating signifiers. Even so, I feel my interests would be better served by a product that wasn't so clean and neat, so bent on providing adventures where neutral war is everywhere. In Metroid, Samus' suit has become less Promethean and more vital to her survival over time.

These concepts are directly at odds.

There was a point to the Promethean element in stories like Frankenstein or Alien, and its growing lack in Metroid is troubling to me. Early on, the franchise could afford to do more than just give the pragmatic heroine something to blast. As time goes on, blasting has become its sole focus. 
"Kill for the Federation!" is not shouted on loudspeaker, but that's exactly what Samus does. She's a comforting barrier between the alien and ourselves. Meanwhile, the Federation's real-world counterpart is expanding with equal ferocity.

***

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