Super Metroid doesn’t quite live up to the conventions of modern game design — but the industry wouldn’t be where it is without it

So I finally played and completed Super Metroid thanks to the SNES Nintendo Switch Online emulator. My initial thoughts were that it was a decent if massively over rated experience. Very much a product of its time. As the days wear on however, like a virus, or the overgrown vines of upper Brinstar, Super Metroid has silently — unconsciously even — crept its way on to my mental list of favorite video games of all time. And I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t have much of a previous history with the Metroid franchise, so you can say that I went into this game relatively bias-free…

…Okay okay, who am I kidding; everyone knows that first and third-party lineup on the SNES is cleanly one of the most iconic lineup of games of all time. The sheer variety of titles available on the SNES is matched only by their quality and agelessness. So yeah, I guess I did go into Super Metroid with like, some lofty expectations.

“The heck is a ‘Met-royd’?”

For the uninitiated, Metroid is a series of games where you play as intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran. You know her from Smash Bros. All the mainline Metroid games see you dropped into a huge maze-like world. Your goal is usually to gain your bearings through a combination of exploration and combat, finding new weapons and items that allow the player to explore deeper into whatever environment the game takes place in. So groundbreaking was this formula, that Metroid has been combined with Castlevania to describe an entire genre of video games. Can you guess what that genre is?

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Honestly, there isn’t much to be said about Super Metroid that hasn’t already been said; after all, the game is almost 30 years old. Apparently, Super Metroid set so many of the standards that many of the best games of this era employ to this day. The non-linear player-controlled progression of Jedi: Fallen Order, the engrossing atmosphere found in Bioshock, and the environmental storytelling of Hollow Knight are all trends that made their premier debut in this game here. But hearing about these elements and playing them are two different things entirely, so I’m coming at this piece not in the mindset of someone who would have played this in the 90’s when it was released, but from the critical perspective of exactly what I am: a modern millennial gamer, with modern millennial problems.

The Hook

Let me just say that the prologue and opening mission for Super Metroid are awesome by any standards, and surprisingly cinematic for a game from the SNES era. The ominous, yet triumphant theme of Super Metroid rumbling in the background as Samus stoically  recounts the events of the previous two games from her own perspective, does a fantastic job at establishing the atmosphere and providing the player with context surrounding major events that have taken place in the timeline. This narrative context and subdued tone segue neatly into the gameplay, and persist throughout the entirety of the adventure.

From the moment you step into Ceres Station, ransacked and abandoned by Ridley’s band of Space Pirates, the game seeks to draw the player in, not through contextual dialogue or ubiquitous objective markers, but through its surprisingly dark and foreboding atmosphere. Unlike in Metroid and Metroid 2: The Return of Samus, this opening area features no bombastically triumphant chiptunes. In fact, in stark contrast to Super Metroid’s prequels, this area has no soundtrack at all, and this silence instantly commanded my attention. As you comb through the lab with the militaristic efficiency afforded by Samus’ power suit, eventually coming across the dead bodies (in an early Nintendo game!) of the scientists Samus just handed the baby Metroid off to moments ago, the game is content to allow the droning mechanical hum and distantly blaring alarms of Ceres Station act as the ambience through which the player is immersed.

Atmosphere is indeed the keyword here; in Super Metroid it is tailor-made to pique the curiosity of the player from the moment you’re given control of Samus. The developers rely on this factor to act as a driving force for many of the decisions the player makes throughout the adventure. It’s that curiosity that drove me to explore and get lost in the fiery depths of Norfair, even though I knew that I had not yet finished my sweep of the overgrown and vine-ridden upper Brinstar. Stumbling upon a new locale that is as distinct in its appearance as the one before it is incredibly satisfying. I couldn’t wait to hear the music kick in for each new area, discover what new enemies I would have to contend with, and most importantly, find whatever cool new weapon or tool I would need to niggle further into the map.

Like many games during this era, Super Metroid is very much a gamer’s game. It doesn’t rely on lengthy dialogue boxes between characters or dramatically climactic cut scenes thrown in to re-grab the player’s attention. Super Metroid is ninety-nine percent gameplay, and one percent story. In fact, aside from the opening prologue, there is no dialogue. No tablets of juicy lore, or hints of direction. Not a word said between any of the characters. Your job as the player is to get on to Zebes, kick some Space Pirate ass, then bounce. In that way, I felt as isolated as Samus would in that situation. The only clear objective ever given is in the game over screen, and even then, acts as more of an overall end game goal: Find the Metroid larva! How 90’s.

Very Much a Product of its Time

While I found that making the atmosphere, environment and the spirit of discovery be the main driving force behind the player to be a brilliant choice by the developers, players who are less patient may find this design dated. And I would only be able to agree with them. The game sucks you into its world with such an effective  opening….then tells you nothing about where you should currently be, or how to get to and from certain places.

In fact, Super Metroid tells you very little of anything at all. Super Metroid will silently mock you with its sometimes obtuse level design and rudimentary map system. Super Metroid will have you groveling on your knees, pleading with it to tell you what it means when it shows you three space alien creatures leaping from wall to wall in a display of acrobatics that I previously had no idea Samus was capable of, at the bottom of a ravine that I slipped into while trying out my shiny new running sneakers. When you realize that that is Super Metroid‘s way of teaching you the wall jump, you will bask in your own ingenuity and resourcefulness as a gamer. While it is satisfying to conquer the complexities that the game throws at you, that style of game design has been refined a thousand times over since its release.

Heck, I even got stuck in a certain room because I didn’t even know that there was a dedicated run button. Most modern games tug the player in many directions with a sometimes overly-helpful amount of map markers, tutorials, waypoints and objective lists. Super Metroid instead relies on the curiosity of player to discover its myriad power ups, short cuts and hidden rooms. That curiosity is stoked by the many distinct environments you find yourself in. Super Metroid is a puzzle that expects the player to pick it apart, and a dang good one. However, the lack of signposting and narrative engagement could be a turnoff for those looking for a more linear experience.

Another issue where Super Metroid kind of struggles are in its controls. The controls in Super Metroid have aged. Samus is floaty as all heck, but also shoots into the air like a rocket when you tap the jump button. At the same time, her forward momentum is really stingy, so you have to commit to getting forward momentum in the air. Platforming sections that required precise timing often saw me overshooting my jumps, resulting in me plummeting to the bottom of a room or into a vat of boiling acid (thank goodness there are no pitfall deaths). The controls affect combat too. It’s hard lining a shot up with enemies that have unpredictable movement patterns. Thankfully, the numerous beam upgrades found throughout the game make aiming a non-issue. In fact, I would even be tempted to call the controls straight up bad. But every time I come close to that line, a voice in my head reminds me that the original Resident Evil 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and I would fight anyone who would even dare to insinuate that the tank controls aren’t sheer perfection.

Worth Playing Today?

In retrospect, Super Metroid does have its flaws. But it isn’t hard to see why it is so beloved to this day. First and foremost, the atmosphere is awesome. Traveling around the inner depths of planet Zebes is exhilarating, engaging and in the best moments, even unsettling. Slowly peeling back the veil that covers the map of the planet is one of the most satisfying endeavors in video game history. So satisfying is it, that it was copied again and again in games like Hollow Knight and Guacamelee. Slowly watching your character become a more versatile explorer and fighter with the discovery of different tools and weapons are trends that we see to this day in games like the latest Tomb Raider trilogy and the most recent God of War. To put it plainly, there is a reason why the term Metroidvania is so prevalent in gaming pop culture. If you’re interested in that reason whatsoever, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to check out this piece of video game history. Even though many titles pick from its DNA, there are, quite frankly, few titles like it.

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Darc

I love video games and everything about them. This medium has so much untapped potential. I'm here to bring that potential out. Playing Indie games on Nintendo Switch reinvigorated my joy of gaming in a big way. Currently on a Wargroove binge. Part-Time competitive Smash Bros. player

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