Super Metroid is beyond reproach. Or at least that’s what people have come to believe. Almost a full decade after its release (jeez we’re old), we’ve all but forgotten about GameSpot’s 8.5 and the game’s paltry sales overseas in Japan. We now hold it in the highest regard, often citing it as not only one of the most influential but also the most perfect games to ever be released.
With the sale back in May, it seemed like a whole slew of new players were coming into discovering Super Metroid for the first time or finally giving it a chance after years and years of neglect. Kotaku captured the zeitgeist moment (twice) of players bred into new school game design attempting to play a game where it was normal to draw your own maps and actually use the notes section in the back of the instruction manual. The wide-open navigation and world design seemed to baffle players that were used to clicking in a stick or pressing a button to get a highlighted critical path route.
This was in direct contrast with some choice pieces of writing extolling the virtues of Super Metroid‘s design. A seminal analysis from early last year by Hugo Bille on Gamasutra breaks down what makes the design so brilliant in its ability to guide players around without explicitly taking them by the hand and shoving them into the next room. Ario Bazran over at Action Button Dot Net managed to somewhat succinctly put down into words what made Super Metroid‘s secrets and mechanics so amazing that its influence is still being felt today. Maybe those Wii U players were trolling us?
Such a confluence of events was enough for me to decide to go back and play it all over again. I hadn’t touched it since the weekend I blew through it after picking it up from Blockbuster back in second grade. I don’t really remember what I thought about it back then—I was basically excited to play any game—but as I grew older and began to find more people who were into games like I was, talking about it made me realize that I could look back on it fondly and think it was a fantastic piece of video game history. The question, of course, was if I was right at all.
We’ll get to the answer in a bit even though you probably already know the answer, but we’ll start with a few things that really stuck out to me over the course of my 12 refreshed hours with the game. First, Super Metroid is a very confident game. Do you know when someone describes a writer as confident because certain story elements not only break out into bold conclusions but the way they unfold are also unconventional yet unyielding? It’s kind of like that. Super Metroid is not afraid to just lay itself bare and let you get lost.
In the middle of playing, it got a little frustrating, but never in a way where I wanted to quit. It became frustrating in the way you would watch someone play Rock Band and know you could do better. You see all these little nooks and crannies that require something that you don’t have yet, but you just want to get in there right now. You can do it, but you need the chance to prove it. Whatever that weird block hanging above you is, you know you can use it to get across this chasm. Now let me show you I can!
It’s a little bit less that you’re proving it to the game or anyone else in particular and more proving it to yourself. Super Metroid is fantastic at cultivating a sense of pride in your accomplishments. It’s very hard to get lost early on in the game since almost every single passage is gated off by something. You don’t have the Morph Ball, so you can’t fit into that little tunnel. You don’t have the Morph Ball Bomb, so you can’t blast open the tunnel. And so on and so on. It guides you in a very linear fashion for the first bit.
But then you begin to open up abilities that open up new areas. These Super Missiles can open up these green doors! These blocks can be broken up by a dash! And suddenly all those gated portions of the map you had to previously (and reluctantly) leave unearthed are flooding back into your mind. You recall as you browse your map that all those half-explored rooms were half-explored for a reason, but now you can go further. So you backtrack. Sometimes across a hallway, other times across an entire map section, but you do it because you were taught from the start that goodies await avid explorers. Those Chozo statues don’t just go out and find you, after all.
The sensation feels familiar to those of you who played this year’s Tomb Raider, when you would realize that all those white rock walls were climbable or all those planked up doors can be torn down. It makes the world feel that much more open and alive, responsive to your growth as a character. When you finally get back to that one place you remember for some indeterminable reason and find that it is indeed a Power Bomb door, it spikes that little pride center in your brain and you get a rush. You sit up a little straighter and your eyes gleam with excitement at the prospect of discovering something you weren’t supposed to discover quite yet.
It sets you up to satisfy that urge to be a rebel. You may be playing wholly within the confines of the game and its mechanics and design, but it feels a lot like breaking the rules. Wall jumping up something you should only be coming back to once you have the grappling hook or space jump feels like cheating, but the consideration was most likely made back in the paper design that shortcuts like that would be allowed. But in the moment, when you’re scraping your way up the hill against a challenge that feels like it wasn’t made to be tested, it makes you feel a bit like a badass.
Super Metroid actually trades rather well in making you feel that way. It can make you feel empowered only after you earn it, which somewhat enhances that sensation. While it’s not afraid to let you romp around in unmapped areas and squander a few minutes being a futile piece of trash in the wind, it’s also not afraid to make you powerful. When you get more powerful lasers, it’s not afraid to let you backtrack through enemies that vaporize in a single shot. When you get the Screw Attack, it’s not afraid to let you demolish everything in your path with wanton malice. Those pink pirates really fucked you up the last time you were down here. Don’t you think it’s time for a little revenge?
It all culminates in what is nothing more than a victory lap. The final sequence when you fight the Mother Brain it such an incredible roller coaster of smart design. It forces you through a gauntlet of challenges you’ve never quite faced before and then, when you’re weakened and weary, plops you in front of the hardest boss in the game. And it beats you down and down and down until you’re on the ground, awaiting your demise and a fresh reload, when…you are saved! But not only are you saved, you are powered up. You have the power of the Mother Brain that was just moments before kicking your own ass, and you’re using it to blast that creepy thing to hell.
And during the escape, you still have the Hyper Beam. Those shutter doors you had to navigate around before? Blast them down. Those pirates that make you go “uggghhhh” when you see them? Blast them down, too. You might be running away from a melting, exploding planet, but you are easily the most powerful thing around. You spent the past 12 hours meticulously hunting down upgrades and kiting overpowered enemies over to you one at a time and basically making the game survivable, but now it’s your turn to just let loose. Demolish the Mother Brain and run through explosions and acid and space pirates and just feel like Luke Skywalker flying away from an exploding Death Star. It’s quite the victory lap.
Your satisfaction bleeds over into the audio/visual components of the game, too. As you upgrade, you actually end up looking cooler. Your armor changes, your blaster effects get flashier, and the sounds they all make start to sound super crazy and powerful. Space jumping around looks and sounds like some sort of super power, so just the mere act of doing it reinforces the notion that you are not the same Samus that set down on this planet at the start.
The whole of the music, though, is just fantastic. I’ve had the entirety of the Super Metroid soundtrack on CD or on my phone since just about forever and could listen to it at any time. In fact, at both my wedding and funeral, I plan on having at least one song from it play. And my holographic tombstone will just have it on loop when my body is launched into space. Or something.
Really, I could go on and on about the rest of Super Metroid. Thousands of words wait to be written about the graphics and thousands more for a more in-depth analysis of the sound design. Therapy will be needed for making you care about a little baby Metroid. The boss battles deserve a treatise unto themselves, but in this moment, it will have to suffice for me to say that Super Metroid deserves all the praise. The derision regarding letting a player loose on a world that is nothing more than gates and switches actually serves a purpose and isn’t putting a mouse in a maze just for the sake of putting a mouse in a maze. It is, in fact, quite a stunner of a game.
So I guess I was right. But you already knew that.