Ever since Smash Bros. 4 revealed the new design for Zero Suit Samus, the internet has been ablaze with comments and criticisms. Some of the criticism for the new "combat heels/tactical pumps" design is well deserved, but for every (perfectly valid) complaint, there seems to be someone arguing that Nintendo is actively trying to destroy the character. This isn't something new, criticisms about Nintendo's portrayal of Samus have been pouring in since Other M.
The main problem I find is that no one can quite agree on who Samus is. Check the comments in this article. Thoughts on Samus range from "tough killing machine who isn't afraid of anything" to "blank slate with no personality." Regardless of the new design, I think there is a lot of confusion about who exactly Samus is. I hope to clear up the confusion for an in-depth look at Samus as a character through the lens of the various Metroid games.¹
Let's just skip to the point that most everyone can agree on: Samus is pretty dang awesome. She's a bounty hunter who takes on monumental challenges all on her own. The scanned data in the Metroid Prime games show the Space Pirates fear her destructive abilities the same way a child fears the boogyman. In Metroid Fusion she outright states that she doesn't like taking direct orders from a high-command, and she shows that she isn't afraid to disobey orders if it is the right or practical thing to do. Pretty much every Metroid game has her fighting huge monsters like it's no big deal. It's safe to say she is one of -if not the- most powerful warriors in the galaxy.
The problem is this is not Samus's only characteristic. The problem with the idea that Samus is just a badass kicking interstellar butt is that it ignores other aspects of her character. In a way, this version of Samus is just a suit without a person inside. Yes, Samus is a hunter with unparalleled prowess, but that is not her only defining characteristic.
The term "blank-slate character" is a bit misleading. Blank-slate characters aren't actually devoid of any personality, sometimes it's just pretty well hidden.² Blank-slate characters are not only defined by backstory written in manuals, but also through the gameplay. The player is brought in as part of the character, their actions and feelings add to the character. For instance, in Half-Life we're explicitly told Gordon Freeman is a smart theoretical physicist, but through gameplay we learn he's also pretty handy with gun. In the original Dead Space, we are given that Isaac Clarke is an engineer looking for his girlfriend, but by playing the game we feel the same fear he feels when roaming the Necromorph-filled halls of the Ishimura.
The same goes for Samus. The Metroid games are known for giving the player, as Samus, a feeling of isolating and loneliness. It it such a stretch to say Samus feels the same thing as well when exploring a planet all on her own? Similarly, there are many instances where the Metroid games can become unsettling, even frightening. The best example I can give is the confrontations with the SA-X in Metroid Fusion. The player is taught to fear this indestructible and merciless version of Samus,³ meaning Samus also finds the encounters frightening and tense.
The thing about Samus is that she doesn't let that fear or loneliness get in her way. Despite facing frightening enemies and impossible odds, Samus always stays calm and moves forward. Fear is ok, loneliness is natural. These are all parts that make us, and Samus, human. But that fear doesn't make her weak; she doesn't let fear stop her from doing what needs to be done.
This was one reason fans didn't like her portrayal in Other M. At one point in the game she encounters Ridley and is immobilized by a PTSD flashback. The problem wasn't that she felt fear, it was the fact that this was the first time a confrontation with Ridley caused a total meltdown.⁴ What fans didn't like was her uncharacteristic reaction to fear, not her ability to feel fear.
Most Metroid games are spent in isolation. It's only rarely that we get a glimpse of Samus interacting with others, and even then it's when she's on the job. We know very little about Samus's personal life, or her day-to-day life when she isn't saving the galaxy. But with some of the few interactions we have seen throughout the games we can still piece together a small idea of how she relates to others.
Samus has occasionally run into some other bounty hunters while on her various missions. Metroid Prime 3 and Hunters hold the best examples of this. For the most part, these encounters seem very professional and impersonal. There are two standouts among the Hunters: Sylux and Gandrayda. Sylux's interactions with Samus mostly come from the provided backstory in Metroid Prime: Hunters. Sylux hates the Galactic Federation, and by extension Samus, though this vendetta has not been fully explained. Sylux's ship is seen following Samus during Metroid Prime 3's 100% completion ending, suggesting his feud may be a bit more personal. Gandrayda has a bit more of an interesting case. Throughout Prime 3 she acts playfully towards Samus as though they were sports rivals instead of bounty hunters. She is also the only Hunter in the game who's death Samus seems to take hard. This could mean some kind of connection Samus felt when working with her, or some kind of friendship outside of their hunting jobs.
Secondly, we have the Space Pirates, chief among them Ridley. Samus harbors a vendetta against Ridley since Ridley killed Samus's parents (and her entire colony) when she was young. Whenever Ridley present in the Prime games Samus takes notice, whereas other enemies don't register to Samus unless they are an immediate threat. Samus's loss at the hands of Ridley could also be why she constantly allies herself with the Galactic Federation and their mission to rid the galaxy of the Pirates, despite the Federation breaking her trust on more than a few occasions. However, her vengeance is not one that seems to be completely fueled by rage. During the fight with the Pirates and Ridley in any of the games, she doesn't seem to become uncontrollably angry. It seems to be Batman-like; justly obsessive, but not controlled by anger.
Finally, we have Adam Malkovich, who is one of the more controversial characters due to Other M. Adam is the only CO that Samus doesn't mind taking orders from. Some found this as Nintendo attempting to make the character subservient to a male figure. Based on the brief monologues in Metroid Fusion, I feel it's more a sign of respect instead of one of servitude. Other M also mentions that he is kind of a father figure for young Samus, which isn't a bad characteristic in itself.
The problem most fans had with Malkovich in Other M was the restriction of weapons and suit functionality. For example, there is a part in Other M where Samus must run through a lava area, constantly taking damage from the heat. It's only after taking considerable damage that Adam authorizes use of the Varia Suit, an upgrade that protects against extreme temperatures. The problem fans had with this is that while Samus may respect Adam, she isn't stupid. This unlock system contradicted Samus's previously established intelligence and character. The problem wasn't that a male figure made her look weaker -he still did- but that it was a pointless and illogical weakness for the character.
Players who beat the first Metroid were greeted with a wonderful surprise. That super awesome bounty hunter dude they had been playing as wasn't a dude, but a woman. It was a brilliant twist on expectations. While it was a great push forward for female representation in games, it's also one of the the things fans can't seem to get past.
Like I said, the first Metroid was brilliant because it was a play on gender-role expectations. Nobody suspected that the masculine-looking bounty-hunter who destroyed an entire Space Pirate outfit could have been a woman. But now everybody knows that Samus is a woman, so are we just going to ignore that part of her? For instance, the Power Suit's design in Other M was criticized for having wider hips that accentuated her femininity. Why? Is there something truly wrong with this design in regards to Samus's character, or is it because Samus must look like a man when in her armor? If the later, what kind of message does that send about her character? That she is only powerful when disguised as a man?
There are others who would argue that Samus's sex doesn't matter; all the matters in the game is that she is a bounty hunter who shoots things. They argue that Samus's femininity shouldn't be explored since it doesn't matter to the character at all. This just isn't true. If that was true, Samus could be retconned as a man and nothing about the character would change. I think we can agree that is not the case, but why? Not only is Samus's femininity important to the character, but it is also important to our perception of the character. Sex and gender affect how we perceive people and interactions. Imagine if, say, Batman was a woman. Imagine if James Bond was a woman. Imagine if Wario was a woman! (Please don't.) Even if nothing about these characters' personalities and actions changed, how we perceive the character would be different to how we look at the original male versions.
Samus's sex isn't her defining characteristic any more than the other items I've talked about, but it is still a part of her character. A theme of motherhood has existed since Metroid 2 and Super Metroid.⁵ And while Other M's performances ranged from flat to overly melodramatic, there isn't anything wrong with portraying Samus in a mothering role. Gamers need to realize that femininity and motherhood does not equal weakness. We've seen plenty of strong fathers in games of late, Samus seems like a shoe-in for a strong motherly figure for gaming.
So it's fine to critique the new high-heel design as impractical or just plain silly. You can argue back and forth as to whether the Zero-Suit objectifies her more than her classic wardrobe. But it's ridiculous to call her out for looking or acting feminine when that is a part of her character. So next time you feel like complaining about Samus's design having high-heels or larger breasts, think before saying something. Are you upset because the changes and representations contradict the character, or is it for some other reason?
I think that Samus is a more complicated character than most people think. While it is true that Other M and other recent depictions don't do justice to Samus as a character, fans must also be willing to allow the character to grow. She has a strong potential for great stories and greater games. Fans, and Nintendo, just need to give her a proper chance.
¹The Metroid manga has been given Director Yoshio Sakamoto and Nintendo's blessing and is considered cannon by many fans. But I'm going to use the games as the basis of my observations since it's the primary medium of the series.
²"Blank Slate" seems to be more of a blanket term for playable characters without much blatant characterization. There are varying degrees to how blank a slate is. But even games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, games with main characters that are almost completely formed by the player, still set guidelines for the characters. EG: the Vault Dweller, Dragonborn, the Courier.
³SA-X is all of Samus's badassitude without emotions or humanity to keep it in check. The SA-X could be seen as an argument against a Samus completely devoid of personality. SA-X literally transforms into a monster towards the end.
⁴Just to explain, Samus had canonically encountered Ridley in four other games without problems: Metroid, Super Metroid, Metroid Prime, and multiple times in Metroid Prime 3.
⁵The Baby Metroid mistake Samus as it's mother. More importantly, Samus spares the Metroid, which can be seen as her accepting the role as it's mother figure. She reprises this role when tracking down the kidnapped Metroid in Super Metroid. Samus is the "good mother" who wants to protect the child from harm, whereas Mother Brain is the "bad mother" who wishes to control and abuse the child.
Zachary Long AKA InvadingDuck is a cartoonist and graphic designer who like writing about stuff like this. He drew the pictures here too! If you want, you can follow his inane thoughts on Twitter @invadingduck . Also, the best Metroid game is Metroid Fusion. It's basically everything good about Super Metroid but with a better story, better, living atmosphere, and just a better overall flow to the game.