By Isaac Smith
Platforms: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
Release Date: April 18th, 1994
Mode: Single Player
Genre: Metroidvania (no s%*#, Sherlock)
I know that Super Metroid came out in 1994, not because I looked it up on Wikipedia, but because that’s the first thing that pops up when you load the game. To me, seeing that number with the eerie, ethereal soundtrack behind it, makes me think that the developers knew that this was a turning point in gaming. They knew that the year 1994 would go down as one of the most significant in video game history (and in no small part due to the release of the game I’m reviewing today).
It’s tough for me to accurately describe how awesome this game is, because I’ve had a lifelong love affair with it. I play it again and again, and just think to myself, “This is brilliant. This is the most brilliant game I’ve ever played.” I never really asked myself why I felt that way, but I knew I just did. It’s a game that turns people into gamers. It certainly did for me.
Enough with the serious stuff! I feel like I’m giving a eulogy here. Super Metroid is the grandmama of the whole Metroidvania genre, and it kicks the rear of pretty much every action platformer before or since. Now, it is of course the 3rd game in the Metroid series (now ubiquitous among Nintendo fans), so why am I not reviewing, say, METROID? The answer is simple: Super Metroid followed through with everything that the first two Metroid games promised. It was bigger, badder, more beautiful, more engaging and immersive, had a significant plot with lots of drama, and was incredibly elegant and masterful in every aspect of its craft. Whew.
First, let’s delve into the premise: the last Metroid is in captivity; the galaxy is at peace. Hardly the beginning of a great novel, but Metroids are valuable (and rare, due to our heroine, Samus) because of their ability to generate and manipulate energy. ‘Nuff said. The last Metroid baby gets captured, space station gets blown up, Samus follows to whoop some space-pirate ass and get back her baby. It’s like motherhood, only with infinitely more missiles’n’stuff. You, playing the taciturn, fearlessly determined Samus Aran, galactic bounty hunter, go through 6 expansive areas of puzzles and rooms to acquire your weapons and abilities, solve puzzles, take down bosses and save the world (sort of).
Super Metroid‘s world just feels big. I can’t compare it to action platformers like Megaman, because Megaman (and Megaman X) both feel so linear compared to Metroid‘s massive, labyrinthine levels. That’s the first big thing about it. You don’t have a level select; you get to explore until you find a part of the world you haven’t seen yet. The second big thing is how the game guides you through that world: you gain firepower and abilities mainly to expand your mobility. For example, there are doors that can only be opened by missiles. There are blocks that can only be broken by bombs and speed boosts, and gaps that can only be jumped over with upgraded jump boots. It sounds like a monstrosity of complex puzzles, but the game spoon-feeds you what you need to progress. Even in the first area, you pass a pink door that your normal shot doesn’t affect. You ask yourself, “How do I get through it?” Then, as you go down the only path available, you acquire missiles. To get out of said upgrade room, you need to fire your missiles at…well, a pink door. All of a sudden, your brain clicks and says, “Hey, wasn’t there a pink door back there that is now open-able?” Chances are, it leads to either an upgrade or further progression through the level. This strategy’s used countless times to usher the player in one direction or another, and make the world feel a lot more expansive as you have to backtrack to fully explore it. And it does so without printing a single word on the screen. The game silently tells the player, time and time again: “This will be important later.” It invites the solving of puzzles and the finding of secrets.
And boy, are there tons of secrets to find. There are probably a hundred or more different upgrades for your character that increase life, missile capacity, or beam strength. They’re hidden over these massive levels, and range in difficulty between “just walk up to it” and “time 17 precise jumps, switching gear in-between, only to speed-boost across a gigantic pit of lava between walls of spikes and grapple onto the ceiling.” (I’m only slightly exaggerating, some of them are maddening.) The great thing about this is how it accommodates playstyles. You can get EVERY upgrade, and just massacre the bosses that come your way because of your careful preparation. Or, you can be single-minded in your progression, only taking what you need and fending off the enemies that threaten you with skill and precision. It’s STILL rare in video games to have that kind of flexibility, and Super Metroid is made greater because of it.
Okay, so you’ve heard the nonsense about game design. Let’s be frank, though: the game is also SHINY. Compared to two-tone Samus of Metroid 1 and 2, Super Metroid Samus is sleek, shaded, powerful-looking and yet still slightly feminine. The environments and enemies are rich and organic-looking, and the bosses are terrifyingly malevolent. They maxed out the color palette of the SNES, and it richly shows.
And it handles like a dream! Samus’ movement, from a game design perspective, is just gorgeous. She handles a lot more fluidly than, say, Megaman or Mario. There’s a happy medium between their jumps and acceleration, and her name is Samus Aran. The controls are intuitive, and they respond better than pretty much any other platformer I’ve ever played.
The soundtrack’s also great. It’s revamped 16-bit versions of tunes from the older games, plus some new material that really lends itself to the atmosphere created by Super Metroid. It provides a feeling of ominous silence, as if you’re the only presence on the planet that isn’t evil (or long dead). Coupled with the rich environments, you can’t help but wonder what went wrong with whatever was living here, and there’s a definite aspect of the terrifying unknown with your explorations. (That terror was capitalized upon in Metroid Fusion, if you ever buy it. Or download an emulator and ROM, not that I’m condoning that.)
It’s a fantastic game. It’s deep, engrossing and it has one of the best replay values of any game I’ve ever played. It was a forerunner for games even being made today, from Thomas Was Alone to Portal. It’s shiny and it sounds great. It’ll take you a long time to get through it if you’ve never been, and when you come out the other side, you’ll be left wanting more. Fortunately for you, this isn’t 1994, and there are a lot more Metroid games for you to wrap your brain around. None of them, however, will ever be as good as Super Metroid.