Friday, August 14, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Seven: Name Origins for Metroid and Kid Icarus

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather long “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


One of the more curious names in video games, in my opinion, is that of the protagonist of the Metroid games, Samus Aran. In the first Metroid, the fact that Samus is a woman is kept secret until the end — and only then if the player meets certain conditions. Thus, I’d assumed that Nintendo purposely gave her a manly-sounding name to throw players off. How else would the surprise be preserved until the end? While Samus may not sound feminine, it is, I was surprised to learn: It’s the female form of the name male Celtic Séamus, which itself is a form of the name James.

samus, armored and not: retro on the left, the current look on the right

There’s not much written on Samus’s name, but I did find one site that puts forth a nice theory. In short, some sources claims James — and, by extension, Séamus and Samus — means “one who supplants.” If Aran is taken to be a reference to the Aran Islands, which lie of the coast of Ireland, then Samus Aran could be interpreted to mean “one who supplants an island” or “one who overthrows an isolated area by force.” A stretch, yes, but a nonetheless fitting interpretation given that Samus has become famous for venturing off into deep reaches of space and blowing bad guys to smithereens. The originator of this theory even admits that it’s just as plausible that Samus’s creator, Makoto Kano, could have just selected whatever name sounded good. Still, it’s as much sense as anyone’s made of the name, so I’m willing to mark it down as the best guess so far.

There’s a second name associated with Samus, if only in the first Metroid game: Justin Bailey. Entering this name at the password screen allows the player to control an armor-free version of Samus — essentially the cat-suited heroine that in Metroid: Zero Mission and Super Smash Bros. Brawl was dubbed Zero Suit Samus. (Taken literally, shouldn’t that mean “naked Samus”?) Many players wondered who the hell Justin Bailey was. No such person helped create Metroid and, contrary to popular folk etymology, Justin Bailey was not a play on “just in bailey,” with bailey purported to be a British term for a bathing suit. (See, because Samus “just in bailey” was down to her skivvies, even if that undersuit looked more like a leotard than something she’d wear to the beach.) However, bailey doesn’t mean “bathing suit” anywhere, except possibly in Metroid fanatic circles. The name, however, has in recent years been purported to be a coincidental combination of letters that someone, somewhere plugged in to find that it yielded a good result. (I’m willing to bet this person’s name might have been Justin Bailey.) Apparently other names that include the proper number of spaces can have equally impressive effects.

In trying to research where Samus came from, I saw article after article that explained how her creators looked to that other badass, planet-trotting space heroine, Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies, as an inspiration. I’d guess then that the recurring Metroid villain Ridley derives his name from Ridley Scott, director of the first Alien movie and the only one that had been released when Metroid would have been in development. But that’s just my guess.

Kid Icarus — once considered a sort of sister series to Metroid, now having fallen by the wayside — stars a protagonist who like Samus suffers from a seemingly inexplicable name: Pit. If it weren’t for Pit’s recent appearance in Smash Bros. Brawl, most casual Nintendo players would probably still think his name is actually Kid Icarus, as it was in the cartoon Captain N: The Game Master. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a fine name, certainly good enough to appear in my blog’s URL. I’ve never heard anything conclusive about Pit’s name, though the best guesses so far suggest it and its representation in Japanese, Pitto, could have some relation to the worth Pythian — perhaps most often attached to the Pythian Games, forerunner to the Olympics — or the pythia, the priestess who presides over the oracle at Delphi. Either one seems appropriately classical for the sandals-and-togas world of Kid Icarus, though apparent connections seem to end there. (Commenter Laird pionts out the similarity between Pit and the last syllable of the named Cupid, whom Pit resembles. I felt it was enough of a good point to merit an inclusion in the article.)

wingman and green-hair, then and now

More interesting is Palutena, the character who gets to be both the game’s damsel-in-distress as well as its presiding deity. As I’ve written about in a previous post, Palutena’s name seems to be a corruption of Parthenos, or something thereabouts, which was an appellation of the goddess Athena that emphasized her virginity.

The first comment I got on the original post was from someone calling himself Professor Hazard, who noted that Palutena could just as easily have come from Pallas Athena, a more common form of the goddess’s name. He could well be right. Either Parthenos or Pallas Athena necessitate the elimination of an “S,” either in the middle or at the end of the name, in order to turn into Palutena, and I’m not sure which one would be more likely to be the source.

Incidentally, reinforcing the bonds that the Kid Icarus and Metroid series once shared, the first Kid Icarus game includes a minor enemy called Komayto, which looks a lot like the jellyfish-like generic Metroids who give their name to the series.

komayto on the left, the real deal metroid on the right

The ko in Komayto would seem to be the Japanese word part meaning “small,” will the mayto is probably the first two syllables of the Japanese pronunciation of Metroid: me-to-ro-i-do. (Not may-to-roi-du, as I originally said, which was corrected by this commenter.) The Kid Icarus instruction manual seems to tease their origin outside the series, noting “Nobody knows where it came from. One theory is that it came from a planet other than Earth.”

The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

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