I took this picture at PAX, at the Metroid: Other M booth. These are models of Samus's "Zero Suit" and her military uniform as she wears in the game "Other M."
My initial observation was that they are pretty, but, much too small to be Samus Aran. Samus Aran is a large, tall woman, who generally towers over the men she has to deal with in her day to day life. She would have to be, right? To operate that suit?
There's been a lot of noise on the web lately about Metroid: Other M and its apparent betrayal of the Samus Aran character. Samus, reviewers argue, used to be a silent but deadly no-nonsense protagonist who showed no fear and worry and was near-invincible. The common complaint is that Team Ninja's take on her in Other M instantly turned her in to a whiny rebellious teenager instead of the badass intergalactic bounty hunter we'd all been imagining.
It's true: Nintendo did change Samus Aran. But they didn't change her instantly.
Team Ninja's take on her as a weaker, and frankly, smaller protagonist was not an overnight transformation. Rather, it's the direction the character has slowly but surely been going over the past twenty years, which seems to have struck people all of the sudden when it appeared in a major mainstream game release.
The original Metroid instruction manual referred to Samus as a "he." I can source that from the Metroid Database, where I've also gotten a few of the scans I'm going to use in this retrospective. The fact that she took off the suit at the end of the game and turned out to be a woman was a surprise intended only for the best Metroid players to see, and then spread around among their friends. My take at the time on this, since there wasn't a lot of official lore to back any particular interpretation, was that Samus pretended to be male, since that way she wouldn't lose any "cred" by being revealed as a woman. The shape of her original suit was fairly gender-neutral, with a stiff rather than curved and flexible waistline. Though it'd be damn inconvenient to move around in that (let alone transform in to a ball), it wasn't really feminine and Samus could concievably be either sex.
Enter the Valiant Comic Series. I remember these very fondly, but it's hard to say that they were great. For one, they featured Captain N, Nintendo's cheesy tie-in television show, and its wacky cast. (Okay, "confession time," I like Captain N, but I won't go in to too much more detail there for fear you'll stumble on my Captain N-inspired fan-character in City of Heroes.) For another thing, they had some things in them that are just blatantly non-canon and untrue, like referring to "Metroid" as a place instead of calling it planet Zebes.
What I liked about these comics was their take on Samus. She was a tall, pushy broad who saved the galaxy partially out of a sense of justice and partially out of pure greed. See, she got paid to do this; it was her job, and woe betide people who didn't front up the cash. She might just leave you out to dry. There's a memorable issue of the comic that doesn't feature Captain N, but shows Samus going up against (that version of) Mother Brain in competition with another bounty hunter based on a species from the video game. I even remember that the other guy's name was "Big-Time" Brannigan and I didn't have to look that up or anything. Samus outwits him, and Mother Brain, using her battle skills and wits. Plus she was super smokin' hot. I loved the hell out of this comic series and this is the kind of thing that made me want to be Samus Aran when I grew up.
However, not much floated in to the Metroid canon from this sort of sideways take. These comics picked out Samus Aran as a one-time member of an elite galactic police force who ditched one day because she thought she could do better out there on her own. This story is slightly mirrored by Samus's on-again, off-again relationship with the Galactic Federation in the actual canon, though the stories are far from identical.
Meanwhile, the real canon marches on: Samus appeared in Metroid 2, and then a little game called Super Metroid on the SNES. This at the time was the biggest SNES cartridge ever produced and I also feel it's one of the best 2D action games ever made.
I think it's worth noting at this point that Samus Aran was not a silent protagonist. In Super Metroid, she talks. It's just in text, and calmly explaining the history of her mission thusfar, but it's definitely Samus narrating this sequence. Anyone who tells you Samus is a completely silent character is wrong, as of 1994. She tends to be silent during gameplay, for two primary reasons. The story reason: there's nobody to talk to. She's spending most of her time on alien planets surrounded by barely-intelligent alien species and it's not very likely they're going to bust out in complex conversation. The technology reason: voice-acted games weren't really possible on the Super Nintendo, and a bunch of dialogue boxes for her to talk smack to the few people who could have talked back (Ridley has been established as capable of speech) would've broken the flow of the action.
(That whole flow-of-action thing is something that we seem to have forgotten about in action games. The original Megaman X, a contemporary to Super Metroid, "talked" a little, when a big story event was about to happen. Later Megaman X games talked up a huge blue streak for whatever reason, maybe to make the story more epic. One of the best things about Super Metroid is its ability to convey story points, simple as they are, in a dramatic way without saying a word.)
But that's a digression; I'm not going to talk about why Super Metroid is good because other people have said more and better. Instead I'm talking about the story, and the Samus character, so I'm going to talk about the Nintendo Power Comics Series.
You may or may not remember these. These are the comics that depicted Samus with purple hair, for whatever reason (thankfully, that particular bit didn't make it in to canon, where she's always been a blonde). They also are the first comics to actually tell a fairly-canon version of Samus's story, or at least, the story that would eventually make its way in to canon which appeared here in some parts for the first time. The Nintendo Power comics tell the story of a sole survivor of a colonizing mission that was attacked by Space Pirates. She's brought under the care of the Chozo alien race, given some of their blood in a transfusion, and becomes a surrogate daughter to the bird-like species. The power suit she is given allows her to transform in to a ball the same way the Chozo can, as well as survive on their harsh planet.
Here's a scan from that, again thanks to the Metroid DB. It's possible again most reviewers didn't know about this, but this was a bit of a ret-con for me personally. However, this is the story that is accepted as canon, which is going to be backed up later in Metroid Fusion, a game that also referenced the Adam character for the first time. The man you see in the scan above is not Adam, nor is it Ivan the Space Viking despite the uncanny resemblance - it's a viewpoint character named Armstrong Houston who serves as a useful guy for Chozo to explain stuff to.
I remember completely hating this comic with a fiery passion at the time for how it weakened the Samus Aran character. Now she's not so much independent and self-propelled as a sole-survivor who was given a gift of amazing powers and a power suit (which is fused with her body) from a benefactor alien race. In the old story she was just just doing her job, or in the right place at the right time and saved the galaxy because she was there. But now instead, she's the destined protector of the galaxy. I still love the character and her awesome skills and abilities, but to me it was just a weaker story for someone to give her her powers and position instead of her taking everything all on her own. They also took a lot of the edge off of the character as she was no longer a greedy perfectionist and had different character weaknesses. This was in 1994, more than fifteen years before Other M ruined her for a larger amount of people.
I can't fault the comics for everything though. For one, they had really detailed Metroid creature art. Also, Samus's vital stats are dead-on what I imagined they should be.
You'll have to pardon how bad this scan is. It's my personal scan of the Super Metroid official strategy guide, a book I own which has seen a lot of love and isn't in great condition. I offer it up as an example of the Samus character, personality and vital stats, as presented in 1994. 6'3", 198 pounds? That feels right to me. That matches what I saw in Super Metroid pretty well. You can look at the large-sized image for the text, but I can also reproduce it:
When something threatens the Galactic Federation, they call on Samus Aran. She's the most accomplished bounty hunter anywhere. But even though she weeds out dangerous and evil characters from the galaxy for a living, she also truly cares about the safety of all law-abiding life forms. The Galactic Federation depends on her, and many other life forms throughout the galaxy have counted on her to save their hides. Her second mission to Zebes is bound to be her most difficult mission yet. Having had no preparation time, she's hoping to find some helpful Items on the planet. She'd rather forgo collecting bounty than see harm come to an innocent life form. While she has her kind side, she is ruthless in battle! The power suit hides a strong, muscular woman. Samus is nearly six feet, three inches call and weighs nearly 200 pounds.
Regardless of how badly that paragraph flows, it's not a bad take on the character, if not as edgy as the old take. It's about all we needed as a personality for Samus.
Super Metroid, regardless of its virtues as an action game, sold poorly in Japan. Metroid was developing a reputation as a franchise that appealed to Americans. It has a more American sensibility for whatever reason and didn't really appeal as much in Japan. It's okay: we like Metroid, please give it to us, America said. So the franchise was dormant for many years. When it was time to revive it, the task of creating the next Metroid was given to an American studio. And they wanted to make it an FPS.
Dooooooooom cried the doomaysers. Doom!
So long story short, Metroid Prime was a really good game. It offered an immersive atmosphere that was rare in a first-person shooter. As for story, they were kind of doing something different with Samus there, basically making her silent most of the time (to again, keep the action moving) and offering her viewpoint in little cutscenes that served as an opportunity to showcase how tough she was against the threat of awesome alien mutants. Sometimes she made a little grunt or gasp noise when she was hit, and you could see the reflection of her eyes in your visor. Lots of little touches, like showing Samus's hand position when she switches from beam to beam (which is exactly how I imagined it worked when I was 14 years old) really made you feel like you were that character, in that situation.
Story segments in Prime focused a lot more on the Space Pirates and their backstory than Samus's, but other than it being a little uncertain at the time where the story fit chronologically in the canon (after Super Metroid? Before Return of Samus?), it didn't contradict anything established.
Metroid Fusion also came out around this time and focused a bit more on Samus, confirming the idea (from the Nintendo Power comics and etc) that the suit was part of her body, that she had Chozo blood and a genetic connection to the Metroids, and etc. It also introduced the Adam character we meet officially in Other M, albeit as a disembodied voice belonging to a computer that liked to lock doors.
Released in 2002, Metroid Fusion takes place "last" chronologically, at least to my understanding. Regardless, it doesn't contradict anything presented in any previous Japanese-developed Metroid game nor, as far as I can tell, does it contradict the Nintendo Power Comics Series starring Samus. (It also doesn't seem to make Samus any smaller or shorter.)
These two new Metroid games made Metroid a popular enough franchise to allow for a bunch more sequels. One of these is Zero Mission, a remake of the original Metroid with more modern sensibilities. For a portion of this, Samus is without her power suit, as she can't summon it for whatever reason, and travels through the Space Pirate ship in her "Zero Suit," an outfit that would later make an appearance as an alt mode in Super Smash Brothers Brawl. The real-world interpretation of that outfit is on the first photograph on this entry up on the left. For a bonus, go ahead and Google Image Search "Zero Suit Samus" and enjoy a large variety of creepy porn.
There's nothing wrong with a skin-tight suit at all for a heroic character and it makes sense to wear this - or less - under a huge metallic power suit. In Super Metroid she wears a sort of swimsuit and that's fine too. And it doesn't bug me that there is porn, because there was going to be anyway. But this is where the shrinking started. Though she's still way curvy, especially when fans draw her, she's working her way down in to tiny, skinny, short. Maybe shrinking her is part of how she's become more sexualized, because that also makes her more vulnerable.
The Metroid manga, released in 2004 in Japan, focused a lot on Samus's backstory and childhood. Again, it was largely about portraying her as vulnerable, though not in a sexualized way. I suppose it can be argued that portraying her as a weak young woman is important to create contrast with the strong independent woman that she will later become in the actual games. But now that I've said that, I'll go ahead and disagree, since it was perfectly acceptable to me to have a tough no-nonsense character who had a totally different set of flaws. Going the vulnerable little-girl route is not the only way to develop a female protagonist, but, this is the way they decided to go.
So now Samus is a hysterical woman who freaks out at the sign of Ridley, a character she's blown up several times before. The manga writes this off as "repressed trauma." Ridley killed her parents and all the sudden right now this is starting to bother her, to the point of helpless weakness, because she has PSTD about it.
I feel bad about it, almost as if I were personally responsible, or like I'm breaking bad news to the rest of the blogosphere or something, but this was in 2004. She'll do this same sort of thing in a cut-scene in Other M but it's not the first time they hinted at it. This really was the direction the creative team with Nintendo was deciding to go here, and have been going this way in the background for fifteen years while Samus was a largely silent protagonist in the Prime series games developed by Retro.
The fully translated manga is available on the internet, like many things.
When I first saw this scan from it, I kind of wanted to flip a table or something.
After I had my moment, other fans pointed out that, first of all, she's a kid in this shot, so she would be expected to be shorter (and have an itty bitty power suit, since it's part of her body now and grows with her, footnotes about it requiring a strong woman no longer hold). Second of all, with the shot in context, a previous panel establishes her as being on her knees:
Those comments all hold, but even in context, what is the point of framing it like this? Probably to showcase the character's vulnerability in the face of Adam Malkovich, who, as we all know from Other M, is the most important person to Samus past or future.
I love Samus, and the Metroid series games in general. I'm not shocked by the story turns in the Other M. Disheartened, maybe, but it's a little easier to accept for me what has been a long, slow slide than what has been a sudden betrayal for a lot of other fans.
Has Samus actually physically shrunk? Hm, hard to say; the portrayal of her height could just be chalked up as inconsistent. She looks pretty short in Other M, but then again she's also standing next to other space marine types in big power suits.
Has she metaphorically shrunk? Yes, definitely.