“He touched my breast!”
“I touched her breast? She doesn’t have breasts! “
Originally, nothing much was known about Samus Aran, the protagonist of Gunpei Yokoi’s Metroid. The instruction booklet only states that Samus is a bounty hunter, shrouded in mystery. At the end of the game, having blasted through a horde of hostile aliens, that mysterious shroud is pulled away, with Samus’ armor flickering and disappearing, revealing a long-haired woman.
Metroid’s twist ending, which outed the calm and collected space marine as female, has long been touted as the emergence of the first empowered female character in gaming. But what is often ignored is the context in which Samus emerges: One of glorified, 8-bit peepshow.
With Metroid being a non-linear game, the time it took to complete could vary greatly as players became more accustomed to the layout. Depending on the time taken, the ‘reveal’ of the ending changed slightly. Take longer than five hours, and Samus merely raises her first in triumph. Take between three and five, and Samus’ helmet disappears, revealing her long hair. Less than three hours nets you a shot of Samus in a leotard… and less than one hour rewards you with a shot of Samus in a bikini.
In space, no one can see your tan.
Samus, then, manages to be both hero and damsel, half space pirate and half space booty. In her bulky armor, devoid of female signs, Samus is functionally male – the instruction book even goes so far as to refer to her as a man. It is only when the game is finished, the threat is overcome, and control is passed over to the credits that Samus may safely emerge as female. This movement from Samus-player to Samus-object is explicitly one of orientation: As controlled during the game, the Samus is inhabited. During the credits, stripped to her skivvies, Samus is merely regarded.
The idea of Samus naked under her macho spacesuit is one that has remained with the Metroid series through its many incarnations, to the point in which it moved beyond tongue-in-cheek end gag to gameplay feature. In Metroid: Zero Mission, Samus is ambushed by space pirates and makes a crash landing… which, of course, damages her suit. Here we are re-introduced to Samus in her undergarments, a form-fitting bit of blue spandex aptly titled a “Zero Suit”.. though perhaps “birthday suit” would be more appropriate given the circumstances.
I had that nightmare again where I went to school wearing my Zero Suit.
The difficulty in representing Samus as big, bad Space Marine is a problem of competing signification: As a figure “shrouded in mystery”, Samus is free to operate outside the influence of explicitly female signs. But once revealed as female, she has endured a gradual aesthetisization and re-signification of gender: her armor has become more slender in the waist and wider in the bust and hips, her visor has gone from opaque to translucent to constantly display her face.
Where once Samus’ gender was locked away within an androgynous suit, her femaleness has been tortured into a cloying, all-encompassing presence. Like many strip-games, it may have been exciting at first, but in the end everyone is left feeling silly, uncomfortable… and more than a little cold.