Because Metroid starts at 3!
The 90s were something of a turbulent time in the game industry. With so many systems, hardware innovations, and a general drive for technical achievement, it was easy for smaller franchises to be left in the dust without routine iterations or landmark titles that allowed the series to coast through a generation. Failing to meet this obligation would put a series on the creative backburner for a developer as they pursued new ideas, and this was certainly the case for Metroid. While it did have an NES and GameBoy game to its name, the series was never a truly massive success due to their subject matter, game flow, and arguably aesthetic, being a more grungy sci-fi flavored series as opposed to the lighter and more fantastical tone common to Nintendo’s more successful titles of the time.
But unlike many of its contemporaries, such as its sister series Kid Icarus, Metroid was indeed realized as a then-modern title, one that sought to improve and iterate upon what the original titles established, paying tribute to what came before, and mingling assorted design concepts together into a title that would serve as the true basis for an increasingly popular genre that, based on my history of game reviews, I am evidently quite fond of. So, impromptu of… honestly nothing, I decided to give Super Metroid yet another spin.
Super Metroid Review
Platforms: SNES(Emulated), Wii, Wii U, New Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems
From the onset, Super Metroid simultaneously reinforces the idea that it is a sequel and the idea that it is Super Metroid. It very clearly was designed around the original NES title, the traversal from Brinstar to Norfair, the battles against Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain, the obtainment of familiar items in familiar ways or locales. Yet never does this ever cause the game to feel like an echo of what came before it, as the developers simply use these familiar elements to allow the game to achieve new heights.
In the original game, Kraid and RIdley were just some space dinosaurs the same size as Samus and just jumped around while shooting projectiles. Here they are imposing alien monsters who occupy entire rooms and are unlike any other threat encountered in the game. Including the new additions to the enemy roster who, while not as memorable as the series mainstays, are nevertheless imposing creatures that demand unique strategies to overcome, and evoke this otherworldly feel… except for the Crocomire, who is basically just a less imposing Kraid.
Samus herself is similarly improved and iterated on, with a far more diverse arsenal that contains some clear improvements over her existing abilities. From power bombs, super missiles, the gravity suit, to new beams, it takes just about every ability from the original game and makes a direct iteration upon it. But rather than simply make Samus more powerful and call it a day, these upgrades extend to Samus’s traversal capabilities in a way that proved to be dramatically influential to how many of the finer metroidvanias were designed, allowing Samus to truly become a master of the world around her.
Between the space jump and speed booster, Samus is already a force to be reckoned with when it comes to long shafts, perilous terrain, or even basic backtracking through flat environments. But much of the depth with the movement in Super Metroid can be seen in the ability to traverse up flat walls with carefully timed wall jumps or hold Samus’s accumulated speed before boosting her off in a direction using a technique known as shinespark. These things give so much to high-level play of this game, and while I do openly suck at managing and manipulating both of these things, I must admit that the sense of power and skill one feels when they manage to successfully pull either of these moves off and break the intended sequence of the game’s progression, even if it is just for a missile upgrade, is simply elating.
It is all an indication of how deliberate the design of this game truly is, this same sense of thoughtfulness can be seen across nearly every facet Super Metroid has to offer. The introduction itself is brilliant by the standards of the time, steadily introducing the player into the world and saga of Metroid. Exploring the research base, returning to Zebes, traversing the derelict ruins that depict the iconic beginnings and ends of the original Metroid, and emerging from all of that, acclimated with some degree of mechanical confidence, and ready to take on the alien world. Between the musical cues, the lack of enemies early on, and the introduction to the core idea of exploring, upgrading, and re-exploring familiar locales, there is so much good design to admire and appreciate in Super Metroid even from its very inception. But while it starts very strong and maintains a number of exceptional highs along the way, the title does not retain this same immaculately thoughtful design through and through.
While Metroid is indeed all about exploration, doing things at your own pace, and only generally following a loosely defined goal based on one’s current abilities, Super Metroid shines brightest in my mind when it discards the notion of being a non-linear game and instead forces the player down a more deliberate path. Scripted encounters, the big setpieces, the climactic moments where the game takes away the player’s autonomy and freedom, forcing them into a battle against a giant imposing alien being or to traverse an environment in their lonesome. Looking back on my playthrough a few weeks ago, those are the moments that shine brightest to me, and as for the rest between them… it’s a bit more mixed.
The game simply lacks a lot of refinement and polish that was later introduced in the series from a minor mechanical level, and while I would not say that there is anyone thing that makes the game bad, there are myriad annoyances that I encountered when revisiting this title. Such as a limited map display that does not show if the player obtained an item in a given room. Red doors that arbitrarily require five missiles to be unlocked, when one would suffice. A poorly explained run feature that is largely unnecessary and cumbersome to use due to its assignment as a face button. And a few progression-related oddities, such as how the wave beam is placed in such an awkward place that it feels like you are expected to sequence break using wall jumps to get it, instead of getting within a screen of it, prattling off, then making a trip specifically for the wave beam after getting the grapple beam.
On that note, the grapple beam can be a very finicky traversal tool, relying on momentum to propel the player forward, and necessitating that they have a good aim when flinging from block to block, or worse, rotate Samus around a grappling block and let go at the most opportune time. Though I think the most questionable thing about it is how, right after getting the grapple beam, there is a missile upgrade that the player can obtain by grappling from moving enemy to moving enemy over a pit of lava. This simply is not a good way to introduce the player to the intricacies of a new ability, as it is one of the harder grapple beam challenges in the game, and there is a notable penalty for failure.
Though these are far from the only design-related oddities, and certainly not the most frustrating. During the intended game loop, Samus returns to the starting area of Zebes shortly after getting power bombs, and knowledgeable or experimental players can uncover a secret area to the left of her ship. This area is an acid-filled gauntlet that requires repeated use of power bombs to get through, and can easily drain Samus’s health. Through determination, care, and a health-restoring energy tank halfway through, players can make it through this environment.
But rather than having things end then and there, the player is rewarded for their intuition and dedication with a breakable floor that restricts the player’s access to two missile upgrades, which the player will likely be unable to obtain without running through the acid-filled gauntlet multiple times. It, and every other time the game restricted upgrades from the player through the use of breakable floors, does not feel like a deserved challenge as much as it feels like the developer setting up traps specifically for impulsive players to fall for, because they assumed that an innocuous-looking floor was safe to walk on.
Shifting away from the level design for a moment, Super Metroid’s controls also have some unique quirks to them, featuring such an expansive arsenal for its protagonist that the player must switch between the beam, missiles, power bombs, grapple beam, or the fairly useless X-Ray Scope using the select button, going through each of them in sequential order. This is far less intuitive than the solution used by later games and could have been made far more user-friendly through the introduction of a secondary fire button for Samus’s more situational tools. X could be used for beam-fire and bombs, while Y could be used for missiles, the grapple beam, and everything else, selectable via the select button. Instead, X is used for everything, and Y is used to quickly switch back to the beam. A move that made the Y button so useless that I genuinely did not know what it did until after I finished my playthrough.
Admittedly, these irritations were more sporadic than anything, and part of the reason they stuck out to me as much is either because, A, these problems were fixed in later games, and I’m just accustomed to them, and B, these problems only stand out as much because of how seamless and intuitive so much of the game is. When Super Metroid works, it is a game about immersing oneself in these sprawling labyrinths of mystery and monsters, striving to survive and uncover everything of value. When it doesn’t work as well, it becomes a battle against the underlying mechanics, trying something again and again until getting it just right, like that one missile tank in western Miridia that requires pixel-perfect precision using shinespark.
If I was playing this game on original SNES hardware, I’m sure that I would have been thrown into a tizzy after spending upwards of 15 minutes on select grapple beam puzzles, but I am thankfully blessed with the modern luxuries of emulation. So instead of doing something over and over again until I get it just right, I can streamline the process via rewind features or save states. And instead of dealing with filters, annoying borders that bleed into the dark background, or subpar scaling, I can instead run the game in a window, on my PC, with filterless 400% scaling. It makes the game far more digestible to my privileged modern tastes and allows the aesthetic and technical visual merits of this game to shine vibrantly.
The subtleties of Samus’s idle animation, the distinctly alien design of most enemies, and the detail put in the tiled construction of this world, allowing each environment to channel its own visual atmosphere and tone through both the color scheme and filtered backgrounds. It is a truly gorgeous game and one whose presentation is only heightened by a soundtrack that eases from melodically rich ambiance to imposing battle themes, all while retaining a sort of muffled quality to it, as if the soundtrack is being played somewhere distant in the environment. All of this combined with iconic and piercing sound effects from the whooshing of the speed booster to the electronic garbled cries of enemies, mingle to create a wonderfully eerie alien environment that was a joy to explore due to the mere presence of it all
In conclusion, Super Metroid is brilliant and a paramount achievement of game design, atmosphere, and all that good stuff… but it can be archaic at times, and, when it comes to certain elusive secrets, it can be kind of an asshole. Its shortcomings and faults are common amongst games of its era: low tolerance for player error in spots, a high quantity of cryptic information meant to be shared, and a core gameplay loop that, while thoroughly enjoyable, lacks the same type of mechanical polish and refinement that is expected of more modern games.
It’s the sort of thing that probably could be remedied through a remastering, which certain dedicated fans have attempted to varying degrees of success. However, with classics like this, people will inevitably fall back on officially released renditions, so I guess the most I can hope for is an official remake that remedies these antiquated quirks while retaining the positive qualities that make Super Metroid what it is.
Also, in case anybody is wondering why I did not play this game on Nintendo Switch, it’s because the dark colors of Super Metroid blend in with the overlay, and made it difficult for me to gauge where the in-game borders were.