Turrican vs. Metroid: A Complexity Issue

Author and Screenshots: Matthew D. Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout and Additional Screenshots: Buck Feris
Notes: All screenshots were taken directly from the referenced emulators.

Title screen of Metroid taken from the FCE Ultra NES Emulator.After reading literally tons of videogame theory and thinking a lot about videogames (and games) in general, I have come to a few realizations about why I enjoy certain games a lot more than others. This realization sprang from hours of thinking about supposedly similar games and wondering, what is that quality about X that makes it better than Y?

It was in thinking about the Turrican series from Rainbow Arts for Commodore Amiga computers and the Metroid series from Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) that I finally happened upon a principle of game making that really excited me. Since many people likely to read this article might also be developers, I thought I would share my findings in hopes that someone may use the principle to design better games.

Turrican and Metroid seem at first to be very similar. Both are platform games featuring robotic-like male/female avatars. Both games feature plenty of enemies to blast and fun "bosses" to battle. The graphics and sound in both series are excellent on their respective platforms . Neither game bores the player with long cut-scenes or irrelevant narratives like so many games today, and both require a sound knowledge of the gameworld's rules and good tactics to win.

Screenshot of Metroid taken from the FCE Ultra NES emulator.The difference – and it is a huge one – concerns the power-ups. In Turrican, power-ups either recharge a player's energy or shields, or increase his firepower. If you collect enough "lasers," for instance, you can wipe out a whole slew of enemies with one shot. If you die, you lose some of this firepower and must re-collect the power-ups. Other power-ups give you a "bouncing ball" like fire; another one is "tri-shot" which splits your shots into three pieces. You can play Turrican without really paying much attention to the power-ups; they're nice, but generally not essential.

This factor is completely different in Metroid. In Metroid, there are two distinct types of power-ups: One works like Turrican's, i.e., you replenish your energy or restock your missile/supermissile/super bomb supply. The other type of power-up (of which I am most concerned with here) changes the way you play the game. For instance, getting the "ball" power-up near the beginning of the game makes a tremendous difference on gameplay; you can now access more areas and have to take into consideration the fact that you can "change into a ball" when contemplating strategies for each screen. Thus, this power-up makes a change at the fundamental game level—it gives you a new tool to navigate the gameworld. The ball power-up makes gameplay more complicated, but also more rewarding—now you have an amendment to the "basic rules" of the game that requires more strategic thinking.

Title screen of Turrican taken from the WinUAE Emulator.The other power-ups in Metroid perform similarly. Only at the end of Super Metroid (SNES) is the player able to fully navigate the gameworld—without, say, the “space jump,” certain areas can't be visited. Also, the weapons, such as the freezing ray, change the way players deal with enemies. Often enough, the player needs to freeze an enemy and use the frozen nemesis as a jumping or grappling platform, rather than just destroying them.

This is my point—in the one game, you already have all of your navigation abilities at the beginning; once you learn how to use them to navigate the game world, you're set. From then on, it's shoot to kill. In Metroid, your character is like an infant in the real world; it takes hours and hours to gradually gain the abilities to fully navigate the world.

Games like Metroid and Turrican (and pretty much all games, actually) work on an "aporia and epiphany" model, to use terminology from Espen Aarseth. An aporia is some "thing" in the game that serves as a stumbling block to progress. For instance, there are plenty of areas in both games that are inaccessible by standard maneuvers. Another example of an aporia might be a particularly difficult boss or monster that consistently defeats the player. When players reach aporias, they either give up (I consider consulting a Website or hint manual to be giving up) or keep trying different strategies until they find the answer. The joyous feeling that comes over a player – who usually quite suddenly and almost randomly discovers a solution to a difficult aporia – is called the "epiphany." It's that, "Oh, so that's it!" moment when the issue is resolved and the game makes sense again.

Now, to again return to the theme. In Turrican, these aporias are almost always related to the sheer number or power of the enemies. True, there are some locations that require other tactics, but most of the time it's more a matter of how fast a player hits the fire button. In Metroid, an aporia might require a very precise maneuver only made possible with a combination of "power-ups;" a player may have to use the grappling hook to swing up on top of a frozen monster, and then use the spring ball to access a small tunnel. Of course, the only way the player may have noticed the tunnel was to use the x-ray power-up, which allowed him or her to see it in the first place.

Screenshot of Turrican taken from the WinUAE Emulator.The idea here is one of increasing orders of complexity. Turrican follows a constant progression. As the game progresses, the monsters get bigger (and there are more of them). Metroid follows an exponential progression. With each power-up, the game gains another order of complexity. In a way, getting power-ups actually makes the game more difficult, because now there is a whole new set of tactics to take into consideration.

Compare Metroid to a game like chess. Someone may argue that chess is more like Turrican, because all of the pieces already have their full powers at the beginning of the game. However, I see it as more like Metroid, since the tactics must change with every move. If a player has a queen in the middle of the board, he or she sees and plays the game differently than if the queen is still locked behind a row of pawns. The Queen piece, much like Samus Aran (Metroid's avatar), potentially always has awesome game-world navigating abilities. However, the key is "unlocking" that potential by getting her into the right place at the right time.

While the "power-up" difference between Metroid and Turrican may seem a trivial thing at first, I hope that this discussion has helped game makers, game theorists, critics, and casual players alike recognize just how profound the difference is. My hopes are that more games like Metroid are forthcoming, for while Turrican is certainly an excellent game in its own right (I lost literally weeks of my childhood to it!), it lacked an essential quality that would have made it even better.

Footnote 1: I don't really think the "appearance" matters much; good graphics are a strictly social convention anyway and are actually more visible if they "suck" than if they are "awesome." Anyway, in a truly excellent game, one doesn't have time to notice them anyway. Good graphics are more pleasing to on-lookers than players. This is why so many games interrupt the player to show off "awesome" graphics. “Blah,” I say.