I've lately been spending an embarrassing amount of free time with my 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. I'm trying to find the answer to a silly question: What happens when you go up or down when you're not supposed to be able to?
Nintendo released the game Metroid in 1986, and it's since grown into one of the company's top franchises, with sequels on just about every console. Along with Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, the original Metroid occupies a lofty spot in Nintendo nerd circles as a landmark title, a revelation. And I don't disagree. There's a certain elegance to the way your character, Samus Aran, flips from platform to platform in the endless horizontal and vertical shafts of the planet Zebes.
Metroid was among the first platform games to present players with one giant world to explore. There were no levels; linear progression was tossed aside. To reach new areas, you had to find whatever upgrades (bombs, missiles, the ice beam...) were necessary to pass certain obstacles. And the gameplay was more fluid than anything '80s gamers had experienced before.
While I can appreciate all that, it's not the reason why I'm revisiting a game most people my age (30) haven't played seriously since junior high. I'm on a quest to find the Secret Worlds.
I'd remembered reading about them in a Nintendo Fun Club newsletter ages ago (yeah, I subscribed), but my limited attention span probably kept me from seeking them out. There was talk about mastering something called the "door jump," and if your timing was dead-on, you'd be able to walk through walls.
It would be one thing if Samus simply walked off screen; if you could hear her running about but couldn't see her. That would imply a game world much larger than the one actually visible on screen. But in the case of Metroid, perfect "door jumping" actually leads to untouched game architecture that you can see and explore like any other area.
Not that it leads anywhere important. The Secret Worlds don't contain any hidden items. Just more platforms to hop around on, enemies to kill, and spaces to explore. Still, that didn't stop retro gamers from taking this quest to new levels of geekiness in the late '90s, in an endless online discussion still known as "The Great Secret World Hunt."
The questions seemed to rock most of these hardcore gamers to their core: Were the Secret Worlds intentional? Was Metroid originally meant to be even larger? Was it released in an unfinished state? Or were the areas nothing more than graphical glitches?
The debate raged. Metroid fans used door jumps, emulators, and Game Genies to access more Secret Worlds than ever. Programmers with too much free time started poking around the Metroid code in search of a definitive answer. And the discussion got ridiculously deep, taking in the tile grid of the graphics and the structural patterns of the game.
One programmer, Kent Hansen (known in online Metroid circles simply as SnowBro), developed a piece of software gamers could run on emulated versions of Metroid. It's called MetEdit, and it finally revealed how Metroid's maps were assembled. Sadly, it also proved that the Secret Worlds were never intentional. They were merely extraneous map data left outside the game's normal playing area.
But MetEdit did more than pop the Secret World balloon. It pointed to ways programmers could hack into the architecture of their favorite NES games and shuffle it to create a whole new gaming experience based on the original. Rage Games was founded, offering emulations like Metroid X, where the original structure of Metroid is completely revised. The Adventures of Ice Mario takes the original Super Mario Bros. and replaces Fire Flowers with Ice Flowers, allowing Mario to toss ice crystals. Gannon's Revenge is a reshuffled Legend of Zelda. The Moblin's Tale allows you to play Zelda as one of your enemies.
So all was not lost. And the promise of the Secret Worlds is still out there, glitch or not. The close connections many folks make between these games and their upbringing makes the quest all the more inviting. What if you suddenly became aware of an aspect of your youth you didn't realize existed? What if you found a way to explore the undiscovered corners of your childhood? You'd probably take it.
Some links: www.classicgaming.com/mdb/m1/secretworlds.htm has everything you need to know about the Secret Worlds of "Metroid," including a link for downloading MetEdit. www.classicgaming.com/ragegames/main.html offers a nice selection of hacked NES emulations.
--- Chad Oliveiri