Some retro games have a reputation for inscrutability, and Nintendo’s sci-fi classic Metroid is one of them. With Metroid’s sprawling map and hidden collectibles, navigating the 1986 NES game carries as much challenge as facing off against the likes of Mother Brain and Ridley and often acts as a barrier keeping new players from trying the game.
However, one artist is trying to change that so people can enjoy Metroid with ease — and even get some new Metroid fiction into the bargain.
Retro game enthusiast Phil Summers is creating hand-drawn guides for classic NES tiles such as The Legend of Zelda as a way to introduce these games to wider audiences. The strong reception — physical versions of all Summers’ previous guides are currently sold out — came as a surprise and encouraged him to create a similar guide for one of his favorite games.
“I absolutely love the original Metroid and the series as a whole,” Summers told Gfinity. “After I finished my guide on Zelda, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people were using it to play through the game for the first time.
"I know that Metroid is considered to be one of those games that hasn't aged well, but I think with the right motivation I can get people to experience this game and hopefully appreciate it for what it did.”
Summers’ process is a painstaking one, and he put even more effort into creating his Metroid guide to recreate the game’s eerie atmosphere. To help capture the “spooky feel,” Summers first brings each section of Zebes to life in detailed, two-page sprawls, which he said is a tough lesson in perspective that helps improve the remaining work and his style in general.
From there, he moves on to the 2D maps themselves. Metroid Prime’s observatory revealed the planet Zebes has a mass of 4.8 million terratons. For the NES game, Yoshio Sakamoto and his team condensed that to a five-part labyrinth full of hazards and deadly wildlife. Summers draws each screen and section in detail, complete with detailed descriptions and enemy art.
You’d be forgiven for thinking his guide was an official release straight out of the 1980s.. Summers counts artists such as Yoshitaka Amano (Final Fantasy), Yoji Shinkawa (Metal Gear), Katsuya Terada, and other artists from the ‘80s and ‘90s with inspiring his style.
However, he goes a step further than just drawing the world and creates his own narrative for these guides, wrapped up in comic book-style storytelling and complete with tips for handling the game’s more difficult challenges.
It’s a tricky act, balancing fan expectations with official lore, but he has a system that’s worked well so far.
"What I did with Zelda and Metroid was pretend that the other games don't exist,” Summers said. “I try to look at them as if they're from the time period they came out and that they're the only ones that exist.
"This allows me to drop all the lore on these games, and when you drop 35 years worth of lore, you're left with a mostly blank canvas. So I draw mainly from the story as they were written in the old manuals, and I add my own flourishes from there.”
For example, Summers’ characters need to reference currency at a specific point, something never brought up in the mainline games despite Samus occupation as a bounty hunter.
Summers said he “took some big liberties with Metroid” that have him concerned about some fan reactions, but in this case, he found a semi-official Metroid currency buried in one volume of the Metroid manga never officially released outside Japan.
The result is a fresh take on Metroid’s story, one Summers hopes will help immerse newcomers in the retro classic and teach them how it was made. That intent for making the guide an educational resource is how Summers is able a run-in with Nintendo’s strict copyright protection laws — so far.
The hand-drawn Metroid guide might use some Metroid terms, but everything contained in it is, as Summers said, “100% original.” He said that, combined with the guide’s historical and educational purpose, makes it a problem-free endeavor under fair use laws, for the time being at least.
“This isn't to say I won't run into trouble with them or any other company down the line,” he said. “You never know what could happen.”
For now, though, Summers is intent on finishing the hand-drawn Metroid guide after working on it since January.
“I'm excited to be putting the finishing touches on Metroid and I can't wait to get it out there,” he said. “Many people missed out on print runs of the previous books, so I'm hoping to get these into as many hands as possible very soon.”