This episode comes with a content warning for game footage involving hypersexualized female characters and is not recommended for children. As always, remember that it is both possible and even necessary to be critical of the media we enjoy. That’s going to be especially important to keep in mind given the video game franchise we are about to discuss… In 1987 Nintendo released a 2D action adventure game for their Nintendo Entertainment System which departed from traditional video game conventions. Metroid starred a bounty hunter named Samus Aran who is covered head to toe in the now iconic cybernetic “power suit”. The game’s manual referred to the protagonist with male pronouns and described his identity as “shrouded in mystery”. Metroid was notable as an early example of a game that employed multiple alternative endings which could be unlocked based on the player’s gaming skill and performance.
If the player is able to complete the game in under five hours a short cutscene will play featuring the protagonist without their armored helmet, revealing that Samus Aran is, in fact, a woman. This was a significant moment in gaming history, especially for many female gaming fans, because, at the time, nearly all protagonists were just assumed to be male by default. Remember this was back before the internet, when you couldn’t just hop online to find out about all the secrets and spoilers, so for many players, the ending of Metroid came as a genuine surprise. Still, the subversion only worked provided players were skilled enough to achieve the surprise ending. In retrospect, Samus’ gender reveal perhaps should not have been as shocking as it was, considering that Metroid is heavily influenced by the Alien films. Sadly the alternate endings did not stop there the two “best” endings make Metroid one of the first games to exploit the Women as Reward trope, as both reveal Samus in various states of undress. The better a player does, the more clothing is removed. If the player completes the game in under 3 hours Samus is shown without her armor and in a leotard. If the player finishes in under 1 hour they are treated to Samus in a bikini.
So yes, Samus wasn’t a damsel’ed woman waiting at the end of the game as a trophy rather, her body itself became the prize awarded to players for a job well done. Later games in the Metroid series continued the convention of rewarding players with endings featuring Samus in various states of undress. In one sense Samus Aran definitely did subvert traditional gender tropes of the 1980s by taking on the role of intrepid hero. However she and her body were still presented to players as prizes to be won. The convention, of earning access to cutscenes or ending vignettes with eroticized female bodies can be found in many titles over the past 30 years. “Apollo” “Whoa! Whoa!” (Audience laughter) “Oh!” We can trace the roots of the Women as Reward trope all the way back to the beginnings of the medium itself.