Shedding the Orange Skin – Reflections on Zero Suit Samus

Written by Ian Yuan, September 12, 2010, 3 Comments

To commemorate the release of Metroid: Other M, I thought I’d weigh in on one of the largest controversies in videogame history: did the Zero Suit ruin Samus? Okay, perhaps this isn’t the most prominent issue surrounding games today but it is worth discussing.

For those of you who don’t know, Samus Aran is the lead player in the Metroid series of games. She has a large cadre of fans and is one of the most beloved classic videogame characters in the Nintendo canon. Her relationship with gender is an interesting one. She is almost always shown clad in a bulky orange battle suit that obscures just about every detail of her possible appearance. In fact, in the original Metroid game, her true sex remained hidden until the end of the game when she finally takes her armour off.

She remained firmly sealed in that orange façade for 18 years and during that time was quietly heralded as a non-stereotypical female hero: tough, independent and never portrayed as a sex object. But a shift occurred in 2004 with the release of Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA. In it, an attractive blond-haired, blue-eyed Samus appears briefly sans armour wearing a skin tight blue outfit. This blond bombshell version fades into the background only to suddenly reappear 4 years in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Dubbed Zero Suit Samus she makes an appearance in Metroid: Other M as well.

Like any change to an established classic Zero Suit Samus caused a bit of backlash. Amongst those up in arms were those that felt it clashed with her traditional depiction as a mysterious and stoic bounty hunter, while others saw it as pandering to the lowest common denominator. There were also those that felt it undermined Samus’ position as a strong, positive female protagonist.

After giving it considerable thought, I believe that it’s a refreshing change with generally positive results. As I see it, it goes a long way in making her a well rounded character. Before, the Zero Suit I liked Samus, but she was flat and soulless 1-dimentional avatar devoid of any emotional draw, something along the lines of a Master Chief. By revealing her true appearance it gives players something to become attached to besides a shiny orange slab.

This is especially important for the face. As the guys at Epic Games know, real main characters don’t hide their face under helmets (there may be snipers about). But in all seriousness, the face is very important to how humans recognize one another, form attachments and register emotion. This holds true not just for real people but videogame characters as well especially now that 3-D rendering is advanced enough to create fairly realistic looking images of human faces. By giving her a face it makes it that much easier to identify with her and become more immersed in the game.

In so far as it being pandering or cheapening her profile, I think things have been over-blown. I’ll admit the Zero Suit presents her as attractive in a way that is far less subtle than the other Metroid games (To this day, one of my favourite videogame moments is when you’re able to see the ghostly reflection of her strikingly beautiful eyes from the inside of her helmet in Metroid Prime.) but she’s hardly depicted as some kind of lusty sexpot femme fatale. And it’s important to consider that the good old Varia suit has hardly been abandoned, in fact she still spends the overwhelming majority of her time still fully clad in metal. It’s just a supplement to allow the developers to show her in a context outside of blasting Space Pirates.

Lastly, the argument that it has tarnished her status as a non-stereotypical female protagonist is a little inaccurate. Firstly, I wouldn’t have considered a pre-2004 Samus as strong female character as her gender was a non-issue in the older games. She spent all her time wrapped in metal that obscured just about any distinguishing features. She was essentially a-sexual and only female in some abstract sense. You can’t be a positive female character if you’re not female or no-one knows you are. Secondly, in all aspects aside from the superficial, she is the same character. Being attractive in and of itself does not make one a negative gender stereotype.

So I’m a Zero Suit fan, it’s livened up the franchise without committing rampant sacrilege, given her some dimension and personality but most importantly, there’s now a reason to use Samus in Smash Bros. aside from blasting people in the back with the charge shot.

About Ian Yuan

Ian has been playing games for as long as he can remember and pretending to write about them for some significantly shorter amount of time. Words often mistakenly used to describe him include: sophisticated, gentlemanly, scholarly and Korean. His favourite time-wasters beside videogames include reading pulp detective novels, making hand sewn sock animals and adding to his skinny tie collection. He does not talk about his day job and neither should you.

  1. MattattackSeptember 13, 2010, 11:27 pm

    You have a lot of good and thought provoking thoughts. BUT YOU are wrong in claiming “that the good old Varia suit has hardly been abandoned” because as EVERYONE knows the Varia suit was an UPGRADE to the Chozo Power Suit that allowed Samus to traverse the extreme heat of Norfair. :P

  2. Ian YuanSeptember 14, 2010, 7:36 pm

    Ooops. Looks like I’ve committed Metroid sacrilege…again…

    I’d rather be playing Earthbound.

    *listens to Earthbound ring-tunes on his phone*

    • MattattackSeptember 16, 2010, 6:59 am

      I think after Metroid sacrilege you are supposed to preform Metroid Seppuku… Sorry Ian.