My darling wife: “Is this game based on Aliens?”
That one statement was pretty pensive when I recently decided to revisit this Super Nintendo action-adventure, platforming classic. Right from the opening scene with its dark, blue industrial setting, shadows and machines, bodies lying on the floor, and a lone parasitic alien weeping in its glass test tube, the player is struck by Super Metroid’s atmosphere, the same thing that first strikes someone upon viewing the films of the Alien franchise (especially the first). This game is unmistakably cinematic, utilizing the best of the graphics the SNES could support, with an eerie, ghostly audio track, to tell you at the very beginning that this is not Super Mario Bros. and this is not Pokemon. This is something different: pessimistic, moody, ancient, grim. In fact, I’d say the cover art is misleadingly cartoony.
Super Metroid creates an atmosphere that is frightening and full of isolation, hopelessness, loneliness, and a feeling of smallness, and themes like the abuse of natural resources and motherhood. Its introductory stage is a thrashed laboratory with corpses on the floor. There is nothing you can really communicate with in the entire game, setting bounty hunter Samus Aran apart as the alien in a world that is hostile at every turn, where either Space Pirates will seek you out and hunt you down or strange creatures kill you indiscriminately and indifferently. It may just be the darkest franchise in the Nintendo roster.
As the third installment in the franchise, Super Metroid (aka Metroid 3) follows the events of the previous game, Metroid II: Return of Samus for the Game Boy. In the first NES game, Metroid, Samus foiled the plan of the Space Pirates to abuse new “energy-vampire” lifeforms, the titular Metroids, and in the second game, Samus was contracted by the Galactic Federation to travel to SR388, home planet of the Metroids, and exterminate all of them so their power can never be used for nefarious nefarity. But before she leaves the planet, mission complete, a single Metroid egg hatches in front of her and the larvae thinks that she is its “mother”. Samus spares its life. Why? Why would a battle-hardened bounty hunter spare the life of her target? This is one of the most confusing moments in the Metroid saga. Nearly as perplexing as the shock of that first moment when you discovered that Samus was a lady on the NES game.
Female action heroes are uncommon, but back then they were rare. It is this moment when Samus spares the Metroid that we see a bit of her humanity, dare I say, femininity to nurture rather than destroy.
Samus leaves SR388 with the Metroid. In no position to parent a parasitic alien, we’re led to the events of Super Metroid which begins with Samus turning the creature over for study under the scientists at Ceres Space Colony. The Metroid still represents immense power and perhaps there would be a way to harness it. But as soon as she leaves the colony, Samus receives a distress call: Ceres is under attack. She returns to find the place ravaged, the scientists slaughtered and Ridley, leader of the Space Pirates, stealing the last Metroid.
Samus pursues the Metroid-napped alien parasite and trails Ridley to the planet Zebes, a network of caverns and tunnels, the planet where Samus last encountered the Space Pirates, only to find that they have regrouped and made Zebes their base of operations once more. Zebes is also of personal interest to Samus as it was the planet where she was raised by the ancient Chozo after her Earth colony was annihilated by the Pirates. Back on Zebes, Samus’ goal is now twofold: find and recover the last Metroid and defeat her old enemies and their Mother Brain.
The planet of Zebes represents an open-world environment that has been tightly organized into a series of secret passageways, halls, rooms, tunnels and chambers connected by doors and gates of various kinds.
Zebes hosts an assortment of different alien environments. Crateria is the outer crust of the planet, rocky, hostile, barren, drenched with curtains of acid rain. The Wrecked Ship is an ancient and flooded spacecraft which crashed on the planet’s surface long ago and has now become a residence of ghosts. Brinstar is a subterranean jungle where the air is filled with drifting spores reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Norfair is volcanic and filled with fire and magma, forcing Samus to procure a suit capable of withstanding extreme temperatures before entering. Maridia is a watery domain, a subterranean ocean where the laboratories of the Pirates are located, where another Space Pirate leader named Draygon lurks. Finally, there’s Tourain, the headquarters of the Pirates and the central hub of their mechanized bio-computer, Mother Brain.
Now I spent so many words in describing Super Metroid environs because they really do take center stage in this game.
Zebes’ labyrinthine corridors are generally what everyone remembers from this SNES classic and navigating these mazes provides the greatest challenge, not the army of bloodthirsty enemies and aliens that hide within them.
Getting lost in Super Metroid is inevitable, even with a new and detailed map feature. Forgetting where you passed that room you couldn’t enter before and not knowing where you’re supposed to be going adds to the sensation of being lost on a vast planet and the atmosphere of being alone. It’s a genius stroke to utilize what is essentially a single, giant, open-world dungeon not as a residence for hunting down all kinds of sidequests to take away from the main storyline but as a stage for an amorphous and directionless exploration which eventually leads to the conclusion of the adventure. The exploration takes the place of the action yet highlights it by giving the action a rich backdrop. Solitary exploration also simultaneously provides the kind of gravity that keeps the game from ever feeling like a weightless, hokey space opera.
Also center-stage in Super Metroid are the upgrades to Samus’ suit and arsenal. At first thought, it seems a little ridiculous that Samus would be able to appropriate compatible weaponry and armor on some random planet, until we remember that Samus was raised her by the Chozo people. Evidently her suit and armaments are Chozo in origin and she can still interface with several of their relics.
Many of these weapons you will simply stumble across, several are purely secrets, and many of them will take you by surprise. They are numerous. Samus will first gain the Morphing Ball ability, which means she’s the best contortionist in the universe.
In spherical form she can wind her way down passages too small for an adult human to crawl through, and once her bomb upgrades are discovered, she can really begin to hunt down some secret areas. Other power ups include the Charge Beam, Spazer, Ice Beam and Wave Beam which allow specific modifications to her arm cannon; Hi-Jump Boots and Speed Booster to compliment her agility; the Grapple Beam allows access to new areas; the Varia and Gravity suits to increase her durability; Samus’ patented Screw Attack that transforms simple jumping into a deadly electric somersaulting attack. Beyond these there are still a collection of different missiles, bombs and energy tanks to embellish her capabilities. Finding most of these will prove to be necessary to complete the game. Others are simply there to transform Samus into the ultimate exterminator.
Super Metroid was way ahead of its time. Now, open-world games are a $50 bill a dozen. But the SNES largely featured games with stages and levels or RPGs with definitive regions, towns and dungeons. What Super Metroid offers is nearly unprecedented, and its massive environment is still enough to baffle today.
The 8-Bit Review
Super Metroid is one of the games which came to define the look of the Super Nintendo. Dark black and mottled with bright, vivid colors in a massive alien world, Super Metroid was released on a 24-megabit cartridge, the largest SNES game there was at the time. It used all of the Super Nintendo’s graphics-crunching abilities to showcase three-dimensional elements in a 2D game: spaceships and monsters flying through the depth of the screen, foreground to background or vice versa, rather than just moving horizontally across a two-dimensional plane. It seems they really poured their designing energies into the opening sequence. It still looks marvelous over two decades later and stands up as one of the best cinematic examples of what the SNES could do and what the 16-bit era was capable of. This doesn’t mean that in-game graphics are necessarily poor. It’s aged much better than a few other SNES titles have.
The soundtrack is just as creepy and unsettling as any science-fiction feature film. A couple tracks (like Brinstar’s) seem to fall into the category of SNES-action-music, somewhat, but there are several others which take their time, something unlike average video game music. Alien, industrial, moody, and careful to build up tension rather than simply being bombastic and explosive, the Super Metroid OST is an unusual hallmark in the history of sci-fi gaming.
The gameplay is some of the best to be found in any platformer with tons of upgrades and mods to alter the way Samus handles, varying up the action. Being able to swap out combinations of weaponry allows for welcome customization, and this is also the first Metroid title to let Samus fire in all directions rather than just straight forward. I mean, I love Mega Man, but they never got that innovative in all of the SNES Mega Man titles. There’s a slight sense of “moon-gravity”, weightlessness, that seems to make Samus sluggish and jump abnormally. It’s more realistic for her to begin running and take a few moments to reach top speed but it feels like it drags at moments. That and a few other tiny details keep the gameplay score from a perfect ten. Still, good luck finding another action-platformer as solid as Super Metroid.
What’s great about the thematic narrative is the unique backdrop that it represents. The opening scenes represent a huge percentage of all the dialogue and exposition to be found in the entire game. They set up the situation and then the situation itself becomes more important than verbal narrative. It’s almost a kind of cooperative symbiotic situation where Samus’ actions on the planet Zebes tell the story rather than the story demanding the course of Samus’ actions. I’m not sure that makes sense. The game is somewhat non-linear and such games have generally suffered in the narrative sector for it. Open-world gameplay is swell and all, but when loading times, trips from base back to the field, and side-missions, side-missions, side-missions takeover from a centralized purposefulness, then you’re left with something that can feel disjointed.
I mentioned elsewhere that I enjoyed Arkham Asylum over Arkham City and Arkham Origins. Why? The linearity of Asylum over the open-world of its successors. Nothing wrong with open-world games, obviously, since we’re giving a stellar review to one right now, but open-world environments can simply be too much, too big to sustain a focused and compelling story. The claustrophobia of Asylum was nowhere to be found in City, where Batman could lose track of his goals hunting down the random super-criminal here and there. Oddly, Super Metroid avoids all of that. It succeeds at non-linear, open-world storytelling before that kind of game really came into fashion. In this respect, it’s more successful in its narrative format than comparable games made more than twenty years later. The search and the exploration are at the heart of driving Super Metroid forward. Rather than taking away from a unified experience, these elements enhance the game’s unity. It’s an interesting concept, one which you can delightedly read more about as I did at: http://www.mroliver.org/2016/04/04/is-gaming-wasting-our-time/
There are no long-winded, textual tutorials. The level design teaches you what to do and how to do it. The rest is discovery. For example, after grabbing the Morphing Ball upgrade, the only way to get back to the previous area is to use the upgrade to slink through a tiny passage. If you can’t figure that out then you don’t get to carry on with the game. Simple as that. But figuring out that you can use your Morphing Ball bombs to “bounce” in ball form, well before you get your Ball Jump ability, let’s you play around with slightly better maneuverability. It’s an oddly efficacious dichotomy: barely any tutorial material and yet the game remains very accessible, making sure you know how to use your new toys before the situation becomes truly dire.
It’s not that you’ll never die in Super Metroid. A whole biosphere of enemies, several deadly traps and hostile atmospheres can easily deplete all of Samus’ energy reserves. But the real challenge lies in not getting lost and figuring out what the heck you’re supposed to do and where you’re supposed to go next. Without a real attention to detail and a good memory, you’ll probably forget where you’re headed, even if you’ve completed the game before. Further, blank walls that must be blown up by bombs don’t generally reveal themselves to you, so there’s a lot of room for trial and error in attempting to find hidden passageways, some of which represent the direction you need to pursue. Save often because there are many rooms where you can get stuck without the proper upgrade. Maybe you just don’t need to be there yet. You don’t know. Resetting the game and having to re-explore through a chunk of caverns because you hit a dead end on a one-way street can be particularly disheartening, and probably contributes to why most gamers never finished Super Metroid.
Well ahead of its time. That ought to have been Super Metroid’s tagline. Sure it’s the third installment in Nintendo’s franchise, which prevents it from achieving a perfect score, but it combines so many pioneering elements of gameplay, storytelling and presentation that it represents something that was totally new, something that’s now unconsciously emulated to fluctuating success. In fact, we might say that a lot of modern open-world games and action-platformers can have their own success measured by how well they stand up next to Super Metroid.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Super Metroid’s development team simply wanted to make a good action game. They succeeded. Their product is remembered as one of the most coveted titles on the Super Nintendo and one of the best platformers of all time. Personally, I’m shocked nearly every time I return to it every few years. There isn’t one element of Super Metroid that isn’t near perfect and the level of cinematic quality it possesses with its scenes and atmosphere make it seem like somebody went back in time and planted a game that couldn’t be made until many decades later. Classic.
Aggregated Score: 9.0