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Samus Aran is wearing heels in the new Super Smash Bros screenshots.
Tall, six-inch, platform heels. This is wrong and awful, and we’re going to explain why, at considerable length.
No, this is not some ‘real’ catastrophe, and yes, there are bigger, more consequential problems to tackle in modern culture. But if we’re ever going to discuss video games as meaningful, worthy creations, we first need to talk about those heels. Because those heels are bullshit.
And don’t give me that ‘jet boots’ excuse—they’re impractical, unwieldy, and unbecoming of the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Samus deserves much better, but instead, she’s gotten so little from her developers, who either don’t know how to design her correctly or simply don’t care. Samus’ character is on a downward trajectory - now her gender, rather than her attitude, has become her selling point.
It wasn’t always like this—in fact, when Yoshio Sakamoto and his team of developers first created Metroid, they didn’t conceive of Samus as female. It was only near the end of Metroid’s development that a programmer mentioned, almost casually, how unexpected it would be if a woman was underneath all that armor.
The developers ran with it, but they kept it a secret, even referring to Samus as a ‘he’ throughout the instruction manual. The game withheld its truth until the very end, when Samus congratulated the winning player on a successful mission. There was a progressiveness to it—rather than telling us that a woman could do anything a man could do, the game showed us. You couldn’t tell whether Samus was a woman or a man, because that was the point.
Depending on how quickly you beat the game, you were ‘rewarded’ with a different outfit. Beat the game in three to five hours, and Samus would take off her helmet. Beat the game in under three hours, and Samus would appear in a one-piece swimsuit.
Beat the game in under an hour, and you got the sexy, two-piece bikini. Well, as sexy as pixels can get.
Sexist? Perhaps, but it was confined to the end of the game, and it wasn’t inherent to the gameplay or characterization.
The sequel, Metroid II: The Return of Samus, was released for the Game Boy. It followed a similar ‘hide and reveal’ formula, only showing you Samus’ gender when you beat the game—and even then, only when you beat it in under three hours.
By the time Super Metroid was released for the SNES, Nintendo knew they had a franchise character on their hands. They started fleshing out Samus’ backstory, and it was just as epic as we hoped it would be. A critically acclaimed manga series was released in Japan, but I remember the five-part serial comic in Nintendo Power more.
Orphaned as a small child by Ridley and his Space Pirates, Samus was raised by the Chozos to be a defender of their peaceful way of life. The Chozos injected Samus with their blood, to give her their heightened, physical attributes. They also trained her in the art of battle, even building her Power Suit as a protective, ‘second skin.’
The comic was an early establisher of Samus’ personality—tough and witty, with a hidden, vulnerable side. Able to grieve over the death of the last Metroid, but also blast the hell out of Mother Brain in the next moment. The official Nintendo Power Strategy Guide gave us an idea of her physicality. They listed her as six-foot-three, and 198 pounds - a muscular, athletic woman in her prime.
Again, Super Metroid retained the ‘hide and reveal’ mantra of the previous two games. Beat the game in under three hours, and you got an armorless, toned Samus—this time, in a black leather getup, with boots to match.
The proceeding games continued this trend.
Metroid Fusion for the GameBoy Advance had different sexy shots, depending on how well you played. If you beat Fusion in under two hours, but missed several items, you got one picture, but if you completed the game in over two hours, but with 100% collection, you got a different picture. And of course, there was a third picture for perfectionists, who managed to finish the game with 100% completion in under two hours.
Metroid: Zero Mission, a GameBoy Advance remake of the original NES game, followed similar suit —again providing different shots of Samus, depending on how well you conquered Zebes. Zero was also the debut of Samus’ Zero Suit, a slinky, form-fitting number that would continue to make appearances in subsequent games.
At the same time that these GameBoy Advance sidescrollers were hitting the shelves, the Metroid Prime series was in full swing on the GameCube. Samus dominated the FPS genre, and she silenced many cynics, who couldn’t imagine a proper Metroid game in 3-D.
More than ever before, the Prime series sidelined Samus’ gender, allowing her actions to speak for themselves. And as always, Samus was silent, communicating only through typed font and the occasional grunt or yell.
Up until four years ago, no one knew what Samus’ speaking voice sounded like. Her silence was a part of her character—a person who, rather than babbling or fussing, acted decisively. One might argue that her silence was the absence of character, rather than the presence of one, but that’s not true.
Developers had given voices to most of Nintendo’s icons by this time—Mario got a speaking voice in Mario 64—even Fox McCloud was given a speaking voice in Star Fox 64. Link and Samus were the only two holdouts.
But maybe that was for a good reason. Years ago—back in 1989—writers tried to give Link a voice on the Super Mario Bros. Super Show! The results made us wish that they hadn’t. Link—savior of Hyrule, uniter of the Triforce—was reduced to a whiny, petulant brat. “Well, excuuuuse me Princess!”
When they finally gave Samus a voice in Metroid: Other M for the Wii, the results were not much better. Monotone would be the best way to describe it. Also, Samus was prone to spouting ridiculous, self-pitying monologues. Take, for example, this gem, where Samus explains why she gave the thumbs down to her superior. How long can you watch this without cringing?
Before this, Samus never worried about being a woman; she simply was. Screenwriting 101—if the audience has to be told why things are, rather than being shown why things are, the script needs work.
Other M also robbed Samus of her agency—rather than collecting items and generally being a badass, Samus already had all of the weapons she needed-she just didn’t use them, because Adam hadn’t given her permission. Even when she was about to die, she held too much respect for Adam to activate her Varia Suit. It turned out that the most powerful bounty hunter, who saved the galaxy multiple times, took orders from a man after all.
This was not only a stupid plot device. It took everything we knew about Samus, up until that point, and threw it in the garbage. Sakomoto, Samus’ original designer, claims he doesn’t regret a thing.
This about as comforting as George Lucas’ claim that Greedo shot first, or his claim that a ‘midichlorian count’ increases a Jedi’s use of the Force. Creators can be wrong about their creations. Other M is another case in a point.
Which brings us back to those goddamn heels.
Other M made the decision to put Samus in platform heels, and Super Smash Bros. made the decision to continue that design choice. It’s small, but it validates a new characterization that is weak and lazy— vanity over humility, impracticality over efficiency.
The heels are a signifier of Samus’ femininity, when the series has told us, over and over again, that her gender is unimportant, and incidental to her actions. If there was ever a series in need of a Tomb Raider-esque reboot, Metroid would be a prime candidate. A hardened, battle-scarred Samus on the struggling Wii U? That’s something we can all get behind.
Perhaps I have it wrong.
Perhaps this is what Samus’ creators wanted all along. And If so, they have succeeded. Samus is now slender, non-muscular (too ‘manly’ before?), idealized, hot, and utterly boring—a pixelated sex symbol for Nintendo, indistinguishable from any damsel in distress.
She will no doubt inspire lots of fan porn which, perhaps, was the goal to begin with.
Enjoy the eye candy.
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