Super Metroid: Grown-Up Nintendo

To my shame, despite having ready access to it — I bought it on the Wii’s Virtual Console storefront, I own a SNES Classic, and now it’s available on the Nintendo Switch’s online service — I had never played, let alone beaten, Super Metroid until this week.

I have now corrected this glaring oversight, mind you, which puts me in an excellent position to contemplate how this genre-defining game from 1994 remains just as relevant and playable an experience today as it once was.

Super Metroid is an absolute masterpiece. You probably don’t need me to tell you that. But I’m going to anyway. Let’s take a closer look at why it’s such a masterpiece.

The original intention behind Super Metroid was to create a “true action game”, whatever that means. Nintendo’s R&D1 team, led by Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, were serious about the concept, however; writer and director Yoshio Sakamoto explained the ten-year gap between the original Metroid on NES — and the three years since Game Boy sequel Metroid II: Return of Samus — as being them waiting for when this “true action game” was “needed” by the medium.

Looking back on it from a modern perspective, the descriptor “action game” doesn’t really do justice to Super Metroid. There are action elements, sure — including some spectacular boss fights with some of the largest sprites you’ll see on the SNES — but the majority of the game is based on non-linear exploration, investigation and the curiosity of the player.

Super Metroid opens with a lengthy introduction sequence that summarises the events of the original Metroid and Metroid II before launching into an interactive prologue. Here, Samus is called back to a space colony where she previously left a baby Metroid for scientists to research, and, inevitably, it seems something has gone very, very wrong.

This interactive prologue is, in itself, something we hadn’t really seen before in previous games. Yes, we’d had introduction sequences and cutscenes in prior games — in fact, these were often used as a means of programmers and designers showing off what they could get out of the various platforms — but rarely did we get to actually participate in the preamble to the game’s main “meat”.

Here, though, you step right into Samus’ shoes and start as you mean to go on: you have a mystery ahead of you, and the only sensible thing to do is to go and investigate it.

Wordlessly, the game builds a sense of isolation and dread as you proceed through the lifeless, seemingly abandoned space station. The hazy mist that lies over everything evokes a feeling of discomfort as nothing seems quite “right”, and your fears are only confirmed when you reach the room in which the baby Metroid had been stored. The glass tube in which it was stored is shattered, the Metroid itself is nowhere to be seen, and the scientists are dead on the floor.

Still no words are uttered; the game doesn’t make a big deal of this moment. It’s left to you to decide how to react: no jump scares, no big orchestral hits or crash zooms on the things you’re supposed to be paying attention to. Just simple, subtle, silent storytelling… and a genuine sense of trepidation as to what you might find beyond that next door.

This feeling continues once you get into the game proper, as Samus pursues her nemesis Ridley, the dragon-like Space Pirate who has stolen the baby Metroid and intends to use it to create an army of living weapons.

Every door you pass through evokes a feeling of both curiosity and dread as you wonder what might be next; will it be a room full of horrifying alien creatures that want you dead, or will it be the safety of a save room?

The game masterfully and continually tickles that part of your brain that makes you curious and determined to find answers. It teases you with helpful objects that you can see, but which are out of reach; it taunts you with seemingly undefeatable enemies; it tantalises with pathways that you know you need to take, but which you don’t know how to get to.

While isolation and dread are a key part of the Super Metroid experience, it’s not quite going for what we now know as the “survival horror” experience, where you are placed in the role of a relatively fragile “everyman” fighting for their life against overwhelming, terrifying odds. Rather, it’s abundantly clear right from the outset that Samus is a capable woman — she’s dealt with this shit twice already, remember — and thus the player is encouraged to draw strength and confidence from the fact that they are in command of such a powerful warrior.

Not only that, but you have a variety of superhuman abilities with which to accomplish your mission, courtesy of a combination of Samus’ powered armour and her own spectacular physical fitness. Samus’ basic jump is pretty impressive by itself, but her mobility only improves as the game progresses, allowing you to jump higher, run at supersonic speeds, launch yourself into the air and even defeat enemies by somersaulting.

The gradual drip-feed of these mobility abilities gives the game a constant feeling of progression as you remember areas you once visited but were unable to fully explore. When combined with the weapon upgrades (which allow you to clear paths to proceed in various ways) and armour upgrades (which allow you to proceed safely through various hostile environments), there’s rarely a time when you’ll feel completely “stuck”; there’s always something new to try, something new to discover.

And not just on the game’s critical path, either; Super Metroid is absolutely crammed with secrets, mostly in the form of upgrades to the maximum amounts of various weapons that she can carry, and her maximum health value. Some of these secrets are hidden in plain sight, requiring you to figure out a suitable pathway to reach them; others are concealed inside wall bricks or beyond illusionary hazards.

While it would have been easy for the hidden items to feel a bit cheap had the game not been better designed, the immaculate way in which Super Metroid has been put together means that you’re pretty much guaranteed to accidentally run into a few of these hidden items along the way — which, in turn, will teach you what you should be looking out for elsewhere in the game. And when you’ve acquired the X-Ray Scope item, you have absolutely everything you need to track down each and every secret in the game if you’re dedicated enough.

The idea of the game wordlessly teaching you things applies to the main critical path, too. Two of Samus’ core abilities are not “unlocked” through the collection of an item; you simply have them demonstrated to you by the only examples of friendly wildlife on Planet Zebes at various points.

First, a group of small goblin-like creatures chirp the game’s item acquisition fanfare at you before demonstrating the fine art of the wall jump, allowing you to ascend vertical shafts that aren’t too wide; then, a little later, an ostrich-like creature shows how if you run at high speed and crouch while you’re still moving, you’ll charge up a “Shinespark” jump that will allow you to defy gravity, shooting yourself in a single direction and continuing until you hit something.

Both of these moves are a little tricky to perform when you first discover them, since their input requirements are quite exact. Once you understand the timing of the various button presses involved, however, there’s a satisfying rhythm to them, and you’ll be able to pull them off reliably any time you need them. And both afford you the opportunity to reach even more places that you might not have explored yet.

Not a single word is uttered throughout Super Metroid after the initial introductory sequence, with the only text in the main game telling you what you’ve picked up when you find an item. There are no tutorial prompts, there is no expository dialogue and certainly no telegraphs as to where you should go next. It’s a game that respects the player, believes in them and provides them with all the tools they need to reach their goal under their own steam.

Even today, it’s refreshing to play a game that trusts you to be an adult and have the confidence to try things for yourself — even things that might initially seem crazy. Super Metroid always, always rewards you for indulging that sense of curiosity — and it’s a philosophy that has been carried forward to many of Nintendo’s modern games, too.

Look at how Super Mario Odyssey hides its Moons in exactly the sort of places you’d reach if you decided to pursue the question “I wonder if I can…” in various places. Look at how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild encourages exploration of its massive world through the use of nothing other than compelling-looking visible landmarksLook at how Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker expects you to take the initiative and try unconventional things like looking at the “back” of a level. Look at how Splatoon’s single player mode deviously hides its special items in unexpected places around its concise, tightly designed levels.

All of these are lessons learned in Super Metroid; all of these are a perfect demonstration of the fact that while Nintendo tends to make games that are suitable for kids to play, they most certainly don’t make “kids’ games”. These are games that everyone can enjoy on one level or another — although given how genuinely unsettling and creepy I found parts of Super Metroid at the ripe old age of 38, I’d perhaps recommend against letting the very young loose on this particular one — and that even veterans can find new ways to enjoy many years later.

Whether you’re coming to it for the first time, you’ve explored everything Zebes has to offer or if you’re a pro-tier speedrunner, Super Metroid is an absolute masterpiece. And I’d like to officially say that I’m really sorry I left it this long to play it!


More about Super Metroid

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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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