*Spoiler warning: This post discusses the general plot and specifics from the endings of both Iconoclasts and Metroid Fusion.
Released earlier this year for the PC, PS4, Vita, and most recently on the Nintendo Switch, Iconoclasts is a puzzle-platformer developed by Joakim Sandberg over the course of the last decade. Constructed using a bright and colourful sprite aesthetic reminiscent of the Genesis and SNES era, Iconoclasts quite intentionally references such visually striking series as Metroid, Wonder Boy, and Metal Slug. In fact, within interviews and when promoting his game on social media, Sandberg has repeatedly pointed to the GBA title Metroid Fusion as being one of his strongest sources of inspiration when designing Iconoclasts. Although, Sandberg mostly explains this as being a formal influence, when comparing the games’ shared narrative of an apocalyptic infection it quickly becomes apparent that there may more uniting the the two games than jumping or shooting mechanics.
For those unfamiliar, Metroid Fusion continues the ongoing saga of Nintendo’s iconic science fiction bounty hunter Samus Aran. Within the prologue of this specific title, while on a mission Samus is infected by a previously unknown organism ambiguously referred to within the game as Parasite X. This infection gradually spreads through Samus’s body, slowly debilitating her central nervous system. After collapsing from the parasite’s effects Samus figures out that the parasite is a natural food source for the series’ titular metroid species (which Samus exterminated by the end of the previous Super Metroid) and that to cure herself, Samus must be injected with a batch of predatory metroid cells. As a result of this injection, aspects of both the parasite and metroid physiologies merge with her space suit and graft themselves directly into her body transforming Samus from human being into pseudo-extraterrestrial cyborg with an entirely new set of inhuman strengths and weaknesses. Following this exposition heavy introduction, Samus sets out to try and contain the spread of Parasite X and prevent them from infecting the rest of the galaxy. These efforts reach an explosive climax in of the conclusion game where Samus decides the only way to control Parasite X is to destroy their home planet before the can spread to others.
At first glance there may not be any immediately discernible parallels between Fusion’s parasitic body horror and the cartoony aesthetics of Iconoclasts, though as Robin—the latter game’s spunky mechanic protagonist—learns more and more about the world she inhabits this difference between the two games becomes less distinct. Over the course of Iconoclasts’ narrative, through dealings with a tyrannical theocracy called the One Concern and Ivory, a precious energy source they form their religion around, Robin stumbles across a strange blue goo that has many similar qualities to Fusion’s Parasite X. As Robin works to topple the One Concern she encounters more and more of this infectious blue slime and it is revealed that the substance is actually connected to a leviathan-scaled alien called the Starworm that floats around the planet and whom the One Concern revere as a god. Through dialogue and environmental storytelling, it is heavily implied that the One Concern mines Ivory from the planet to feed to the Starworm and that the blue goo is a tool it uses to exert control from its orbital perch. What’s more, when Robin fights back against the One Concern she disrupts their Ivory mining which causes the Starworm to angrily descend from space threatening all life on her planet.
Both of Fusion and Iconoclasts feature narratives of planetary destruction that resonate with many real world ecological and environmental crises. In Fusion, the rapid proliferation of the Parasite X is the direct result of Samus destroying all the metroids, the parasite’s natural predators within the previous game Super Metroid. Then in Iconoclasts, the unchecked mining of a non-renewable fuel source leads to an event that has the potential to cause mass extinction. Together Fusion and Iconoclasts’ combination of unbalanced ecosystems and natural resource depletion speak strongly to our current epoch, which in more academic circles has begun to be referred to as the Anthropocene. This term uses the naming conventions of geological time to try and emphasize that the effect that humanity has had on the planet is as destructive and permanent as an ice age of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Donna Haraway, a philosopher famous for starting the cyborg feminist movement, has made it clear that she is critical of this name and the apocalyptically self-defeating way in which it places the human at the centre of existence. Most recently she has expressed this criticism through her own playful subversion of the term, one which forms interestingly sticky connections with the cosmic invertebrae of Metroid Fusion and Iconoclasts. Instead of using the human-centric Anthropocene, Haraway cheekily refers to our current period as the ‘Chthulucene’ and encourages her readers to think about our relationship with our environments as being inextricably tangled and tentacular rather than binary or clear cut. Although the name has obvious ties to Lovecraftian horror fiction, Haraway claims that she was more directly inspired by the word ‘chthonic’, an adjective used to describe the multi-limbed spiders and snake-headed Gorgons of the ancient Greek underworld.
Turning back to the tentacled forms of the Starworm and Parasite X, the messiness of Haraway’s Chthulucene seems to be a very apt idea to use when considering Fusion and Iconoclasts’ shared thematic of environmental apocalypse. Within the final battles of each game, rather than presenting a simple binary of good and evil between the player and boss characters, both Fusion and Iconoclasts complicate their stories by allowing a partial and—as Haraway would describe—tentacular alliance to form between player and parasite. In Fusion this tentacular alliance is first seen in how Samus is able to use her newfound metroid physiology to consume and absorb any Parasite X creatures she encounters throughout the game after beating them. Additionally during this early process of synthesis, not only does Samus take on aspects of the Parasite X form, but the Parasite was also able to mold itself in relation to Samus and form a shadowy copy of her that the player repeatedly encounters throughout the game. Though consistently shown as a rival or adversary, in the game’s final boss battle against a hulking Omega Metroid (the company Samus is working for had secretly been using the same cells they had to used to save her to clone and study new Metroids), the Parasite X doppelgänger offers itself to Samus so that she can consume it and become powerful enough to defeat the Omega Metroid—the ultimate form of the Parasite X’s thought to be extinct natural predator.
In a similar scene at the end of Iconoclasts, when Robin is battling the Starworm, it is revealed that the extraterrestrial leviathan is actually a biomechanical organism being unwillingly piloted by a smaller blue bird-like creature. With this knowledge also comes the understanding that the parasitic blue goo is not a product of the Starworm, but something the pilot creature has used to take control of it in order to turn the planet into an Ivory fuel depot for itself. At the end of the battle once Robin has injured the pilot enough, the Starworm is able to briefly regain control of itself and slam its titanic fist down on the bird-like creature, killing it before also collapsing in death itself.
Although Sandberg has repeatedly cited Fusion as being a mechanical influence for how he constructed Iconoclasts’, these two examples of how players form contradictory, tentacular relationships with each games’ antagonists reveals that their similarities are not so simply defined. When most people think of the Metroid series it is usually the sparse, exploratory levels of Super Metroid or Metroid Prime that are brought to mind rather than Fusion with its signposted world design and dialogue heavy storytelling. It is for this reasons that Fusion is often seen as an outlier among many of the series most ardent fans; however, Sandberg has utilized these same qualities to produce a surprisingly complex, character-driven narrative that acts as fantastic reflection of both its source material and many real world environmental tensions. In her proposed roadmap for how we might move out of the stagnance of the Anthropocene and into the messily revitalized Chthulucene, Haraway states that is exactly these kinds of colorful, environmentally conscious narratives that are now most needed, pointing to the novels of Ursula K. Le Guin, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and the Iñupiat game Never Alone as prime examples of productively tentacular storytelling. Both Metroid Fusion and Iconoclasts also fall nicely into this category, with their symbiotic relationships between human and non-humans, as well their various environments, cultures, and technologies. With all of this in mind it will be interesting to observe what other similarly tentacular narratives will arise within the independent game design space. Where a designer forms their own symbiotic or transformative connection with a game from their past and recycles it into something useful and relevant to our current tensions and needs. What other odd multi-limbed chimeric narratives will we see evolve within Haraway’s emerging Chthulucene?