Nintendo is mainly associated with it’s Mario and Zelda franchises, solid games but often targeted at kids. This has given the company the label of game makers for children. This is of course true for some of their products, but this does not apply to Metroid. Dark, brooding and not holding any hands. You are isolated on an alien planet with creatures around every corner trying their best to eat you. Metroid is one of my favorite Nintendo-franchises and one that doesn’t get enough praise. Today we are looking at the classic Super Metroid, the text-book example on how to do a side-scrolling action/platforming game. At release this game probably was perfection, as almost every aspect of the game is flawlessly crafted and executed. Looking back on it today, it has aged in a few parts, lowering it a bit in quality, but Super Metroid is still a must-play for any self-respective gamer.
Developed by Nintendo R&D1
Genre: Action, platforming (2D Metroidvania)
Released: 28 July 1994
Platforms: SNES, Virtual Console (Wii & WiiU)
No spoilers to be found here!
Super Metroid is a 2D game in style of the Metroidvania genre and was partly responsible for coining the term. What it means is that you play as a character in a 2D semi-open world. The entire planet you visit is one single level and you can go anywhere you want if you have the right equipment. This means that you will go back and forth collecting upgrades for your suit in order to progress further into the planet to reach your goal.
You are Samus Aran, feared intergalactic bounty hunter. Following the events of Metroid II, Samus cleared the planet SR388 of the metroids the series evolves around. Metroids are parasitic creatures that latches onto you and starts to suck the life-energy from you. Samus brings with her the last metroid in the universe, a newly hatched one, to a research station. As soon as you leave you hear the emergency signal and quickly head back. You are met with Ridley, Samus’s old rival, just as killed of the scientists on the station. He then escapes the facility with the baby metroid and travels to the planet Zebes. Samus follows Ridley to the planet, now having to scour the land after the last metroid.
Even as the pretty long synopsis might make you believe, the Metroid series is neither about story or characters. The story is only really there to get Samus to a new planet with a motive that makes sense, that’s it. After you land on Zebes there is no more story in this game, nor should there be. Samus as a character rarely speaks, she is a hardboiled, lone wolf, space bounty hunter with only her latest mission in mind. While there isn’t a lot to go on, Samus is still a fascinating character and one of my favorites from the Nintendo-lineup. Both story and character in Super Metroid is very minimal, only there to set up the scenario and get you pumped for this adventure. It does it very elegantly and leaves nothing to be desired.
What Metroid is all about is atmosphere and presentation. From the moment you see that start screen and here the intro music you now that you are in for a special ride. As you first set your foot on planet Zebes you are struck by how calm everything is. You walk around on the rainy plains around your landing site. You head into a nearby cave and scare some bugs away. You see a chasm and jump down. After a bit of platforming you are spotted by a security device. As you make your way back to your ship you see the whole planet come to life. The once empty caves and plains of the landing site are now filled to the brim with a bunch of creatures. The whole planet has come alive and is now attacking you at every cost. That example is what the Metroid series is all about. Not story, not character, simply alone exploring an alien world were danger is around every corner. I sit down in my couch, grab the controller and immerse myself in another world. No other game series has this effect on me and myself being interested in both alien worlds and being a lone wolf takes my love of Metroid games to another level. Super Metroid is now more than 20 years old and it’s atmosphere is still some of the best in the medium. You are on Zebes the entire time, exploring everything from the jungles of Brinstar to the depths of Norfair and at no point was I in my couch.
As mentioned earlier, Super Metroid was one of the games that coined the phrase “Metroidvania”, a sort of sub-video game genre that I guess this game is part of. Zebes is an open map, you can go anywhere you want if you have the right tools. Maybe you want to go to Norfair directly? Oh sorry, you need super missiles for that! That means that while the game is laid out as an open map, you still follow a linear path carefully thought out by the creators. But the thing is that you are never guided, so going all over the place finding upgrades feels completely natural. If the map of Zebes was poorly designed and not making it clear on where you should be going, it would be a major issue. You would get stuck and when you can’t take it anymore you look up were you should go. Then you see that the actual path makes no sense and that makes you very irritated. Super Metroid barely has any of these moments, the design of the world always make it somewhat clear on where you should be headed. It never says were to go, but if you a get a weapon that opens yellow doors you could guess that you should head to places were there are yellow doors. There were a couple of times during my playthrough were I did get stuck and couldn’t figure out were to go. After looking it up, I realized that it was very obvious and that I was simply missing it. That is proof of a genius world map and Super Metroid certainly has on of the best ones. It laid the foundation for the Metroidvania genre and to my experience nothing has beaten it since.
Super Metroid was released back in 1994 and of course can’t be compared to the graphics of today. I will look at it’s visuals and see how much they have aged. Super Metroid uses highly detailed sprites and 2D backgrounds to show of its world. Whilst not being of the highest of quality and the animation not the most fluent, the game still looks wonderful. The sprites and backgrounds used have barely aged and still look comparable to some indie games released today. All the backgrounds are highly detailed and distinct from each other, you could almost tell every single room from each other, a marvelous feat for such big game world. The graphics and aesthetics of Super Metroid still hold up fairly well and lays the groundwork for it’s incredible atmosphere.
The music of Super Metroid is a solid hour of 16-bit beats adding to all the different areas’ sense of immersion. Most of the tunes are dark and brooding, with some being more up-beat and energetic. They all fit their respective area really well and does wonder for the atmosphere. Not something I would buy to get on my phone, but combined with the game it’s incredible.
The bosses of Super Metroid are great fun. They are huge, powerful and all play differently. They have interesting designs and really push you to the limit when it comes to combat skills and platforming. They are very rewarding to play and defeat, combine this with the excellent boss tracks makes these encounters some of the most memorable moments in the game. The entire last area, including the final boss, is one of the best climaxes that I have ever seen in a video game, utter perfection.
The controls in Super Metroid is somewhat of a mixed bag. I haven’t played any earlier titles in the series and therefor can’t appreciate the supposed improvements of the controls in Super Metroid. Instead, I get to go the other route and see how much better the controls were in the later 2D installments in the franchise. The core move set of Samus is solid. You can walk, run, jump and shoot. The game lets you decide which key does what, something I haven’t seen any other SNES game do. The way Samus jumps is a bit floaty compared to later Metroid games, but you quickly get the grip of it and can bounty hunt as a pro. As you progress through the game, you get more and more versatile. Most of the new power ups work well and are easy to use.
Then you get the space jump, the upgrade that let’s Samus jump an infinite amount of times. I like the concept of this item, especially combined with the later screw attack, but it’s execution is to my experience somewhat broken. Maybe I simply don’t know how to handle it properly, but after 2-3 jumps, the space jump stops working and Samus falls down. This happened randomly for me, sometimes working, other times not at all. It was extremely frustrating to try to complete a platforming section and only to fail it due to the space jump not working. Then on the second try it mysteriously works. The amount of irritation I felt when using this power up lowered my enjoyment for the game quite a bit. I really wanted to use the power, but due to it’s unreliability I ended up taking detours instead of the platforming the game wanted me to perform. That is a horrific thing in a Metroidvania.
Continuing on the track of faults due to age, the map-screen of Super Metroid is not great. In all Metroidvania games, a good map-screen is incredibly important, it helps to keep track of the world and were there could be hidden goodies. The map-screen in Super Metroid is the first one in the series and you can tell. It shows an overview of the area you are currently in, with blue squares being rooms you haven’t visited and pink for the ones you have. Then there are a small number of legends that help with the overall navigation. That is all you get and for what it is it works. Never did I feel the need to use additional help when playing the game. But there are a lot of features lacking from this map that hindered further enjoyment. Firstly, it shows no doors at all. The Metroid series is heavily built upon colored doors that require different weapons in order to pass. By not showing doors at all on the map, you can’t see how you are supposed to go between the different rooms. When you get a new power up and want to go back and open some doors that couldn’t be opened before, you have to go to an actual room to check out the color of the door. The fact that you can only view the current area you are in and not the numerous other ones does not help either.
All these issues boils down to a lot of unnecessary backtracking, time that could have been spent doing more fun things. Another small issue is the item collection. When you discover rooms with items, it is indicated by a small dot on the map. However, it doesn’t say if you actually got the item or not, which can severely ruin the enjoyment of trying to get a 100% completion. Super Metroid’s map was the first in the series and is totally functional. But looking back at the game now, there are so many small issues with the map that together build up to a sizable problem. I have never made a 100% completion on Super Metroid, even though I love doing that on Metroidvania games, since I can’t stand the map-screen when looking for missed items. However, the game doesn’t reward a 100% completion (for what I can tell, I could be wrong) and therefore I don’t mind it anyway. This is my biggest issue with the game and is at the same time something that could be easily fixed, perfect for a remake.
Super Metroid laid the groundwork for one of my favorite genres in video games, Metroidvania. The feeling I get when starting out a new game in this genre and just exploring room to room, hitting a dead end and then trying to continue to navigate this place, while at the same time building up a great atmosphere and character for the different locals is some of my favorites highs of the medium. Super Metroid nails everything when it comes to delivering this feeling to me. It’s world map is fantastic, consisting of varied and interesting locations, interconnected in beautiful ways. Combined with the excellent music, walking around Zebes feels like discovering a real alien planet.The map is laid out in such a way that makes it extremely non-linear, but is at no point cheap on were you should go next. You may get stuck, but that is always your own fault and never the game’s. The sense of accomplishment you get when you on your own discover the correct path to the next area is a great feeling. All the different power ups and bosses are icing on the cake, with the final boss being some of the finest type of icing I have ever tasted.
There are issues with the game however and they are mostly due to the game’s age. For one, the controls feel somewhat floaty compared to newer titles and it is extremely irritating when the space jump decides to give up in the middle of a jump. The map screen is functional but missing a lot of features that could greatly improve the enjoyment of the game. Would I have played Super Metroid when it first came out, especially if I had played the two previous titles, I would have given this game the highest of praises and called it a masterpiece. I still think that Super Metroid is a fantastic game that every gamer should try out, retro or not. It might be old and suffers a bit for it, but Super Metroid is still the best 2D Metroidvania experience that I have ever taken part in.
Cover image source: http://wallpapercave.com/