Andy O’Flaherty reviews Super Metroid…
Super Metroid. Anybody who owned a SNES back in 1994 is probably nodding their head right now while thinking “yep…. there’s one of the greatest games ever made right there…” Following on from the Game Boy’s Metroid II (1991) and continuing the series established by Metroid (Famicom – 1986), the third outing took everything that made these first two games great and refined it all to perfection, cementing the genre known today as ‘Metroidvania’ and in the process becoming widely recognised one of the greatest games of all time. Today I shall be looking at the history of this iconic title, and taking a look at what makes it so special. Obviously there will be spoilers, but I would hope that most people reading this will have well and truly played these games to death by now. If not, well…. go play them!
Now admittedly, I did not own a SNES back in 1994, being a Sega kid growing up. In fact I have actually only completed this game fairly recently after owning it for many years, so unlike a lot of retro reviews you may read about this game, I don’t have any rose-tinted nostalgia glasses on while talking about it. Yet I still think it’s certainly one of the best 16-bit titles I have played, and is easily the most atmospheric game that Nintendo have ever made.
The year was 1987. Nintendo had rejuvenated the video game industry in the west from the brink of destruction a couple of years earlier with their NES console, and most kids who were into video games where probably playing either Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda. Then along came Metroid. Released the previous year in Japan for the Famicom disk system, Metroid combined traditional action platforming with an exploration angle (not unlike some of the classic Spectrum and Commodore 64 games from back in the day…) and stood out from the other family friendly games on the system by being dark and foreboding, with a protagonist that you weren’t quite sure was even human as you blasted your way through the dark claustrophobic tunnels of Zebes. Upgrades could be found that would gradually increase your heath or give you new abilities, and the massive gameworld gradually opened up and looped back on itself in a way that was unheard of at the time. Players gradually made their way through the game, beating it quicker and quicker until…. what’s this? Samus is a girl? Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but back in the 80’s where pop culture was drowning in chiselled jaws and impossibly large biceps this was absolutely mind blowing!
Metroid II: The Return of Samus
Perhaps rather odd following up on the NES original with a portable sequel – not the best fit for a massive open world exploration title I don’t think, but nevertheless Metroid II expanded on the ideas established in the original game and brought a few of its own to the table. The game once again follows bounty hunter Samus Aran as she travels to SR388 – the homeworld of the Metroids, with the task of erasing the deadly species from existence. In addition to the powers from the first game, the sequel introduced new special moves such as the spider-ball and the space jump, included the ability to shoot while crouching (a surprisingly big deal!) and more detailed graphics that would give an idea of what was to follow. After destroying all but one of the Metroids, the final Metroid hatches from an egg….. and instead of attacking Samus it shows her affection. Samus cannot bring herself to kill it, and instead decides to take it back to the federation for research. This leads on nicely to the genre-defining sequel….
Super Metroid – The Review
So onto Super Metroid then. Arriving in mid-1994 and boasting the largest SNES cartridge ever made (at a whopping 24 Megs), Nintendo R&D 1 and Intelligent Systems treated us to one of the largest action adventure games made to date. The game continues on directly from the second game, and follows Samus Aran as she takes the Metroid hatchling to Ceres – a federation space station for research, where it is hoped that the Metroid’s unique energy manipulation traits can be researched for the good of mankind. After bidding farewell and going on her way, she soon receives a distress call from the base, and upon returning finds all the researchers dead. Searching the station for the baby Metroid, Samus encounters the Space Pirate leader, Ridley. After a short battle, Ridley flees with the Metroid and an injured Samus gives chase, barely escaping Ceres before it explodes, and follows Ridley back to the Space Pirates’ homeword of Zebes.
The beautiful thing about how Super Metroid starts is how quiet and serene everything is. The music is subtle, indigenous life scurries away from you, and everything is… well, too quiet. Veteran Metroid fans will recognise the opening area as being the final area from the first game, complete with Mother Brain’s abandoned chamber in a state of ruined decay. Delving deeper into the subterranean maze reveals the morph ball, which is acquired in pretty much exactly the same way as in the first game. Collecting it activates the security systems, springing the planet to life and it becomes apparent that the base has been secretly re-built by the Space Pirates. Time to rescue that Metroid…
Graphically the game was phenomenal for the time, with a creepy aesthetic that borrows heavily from Ridley Scott’s Alien, whilst simultaneously giving a nod to the look of the first Metroid title. Samus herself is beautifully animated, with direction specific sprites (back in the 90’s if you changed direction in most games the sprite would usually just be flipped – not so here…) and a nice selection of upgrades and different coloured suits which subtly change her look as you progress. The gameworld is also beautifully realised, with many locations to visit that all have their own unique look and feel. The bosses are a vast improvement on the previous games in the series, some of which are several screens in size, and even the standard enemies are colourful and vibrant.
Sonically the game is a masterpiece. Each area has its unique theme song that is instantly recognisable and utterly iconic. As the massive world loops and twists back on itself, you immediately know what each new area is just based off the music cues alone. The quality of the music is also excellent (I usually find SNES soundtracks a bit on the muffled side, as if listening to music through a pillow), the designers obviously making use of the massive cartridge to provide some genuinely high quality soundscapes and effects. The audio gives the whole game a sense of mystery and isolation, and listening to it today some 22 years later highlights just how important to the overall experience a soundtrack can be.
In terms of gameplay, Super Metroid is sublime. Samus controls like a dream, and the way the whole thing is designed, the games’ very structure is balanced perfectly to guide the player in a way where it subtly teaches its ways without you even realising it. Power ups are earned and then immediately required to progress, forcing the player to use them without the need for any tutorials, and some abilities are even revealed to the player that have been available right from the beginning! What?? I have ALWAYS been able to wall-jump?? This makes replaying the game and sequence breaking a joy, as these abilities can be used early on to get to places earlier than intended. There are also secret power ups, shortcuts and hidden passageways galore, providing a seemingly endless selection of secrets to discover for returning players. Acquiring full 100% completion will certainly be no easy task! Oh, and of course there is THAT ending….
Are there any problems? Well some of Samus’ abilities can seem a little hit and miss at times – the wall jump in particular seemingly works only when it feels like it, and using it consistently feels a little more frustrating than perhaps it should. The grapple beam also teeters on the awkward side, and unsurprisingly this is to date the only 2D Metroid game to feature it. Progression through the game is also a source of frustration for many players, with the main route through the game often requiring shooting or bombing hidden blocks. On a personal level, playing Metroid: Zero Mission before this game has perhaps unfairly highlighted how much better the flow is in that game, with too much random bombing every wall and floor just to move forward in this title for my liking.
However, despite a few niggles Super Metroid still stands tall as one of the best games on the SNES, and if you like action/adventure games then this comes highly recommended if you have never played it before. And if you have played it, then maybe it’s time for a re-visit! It is no wonder that countless indie games available today are trying to replicate the genius shown by this masterpiece.
+ Beautiful presentation
+ Sublime soundtrack
+ Many secrets to uncover
– Easy to get lost
– Some abilities frustrating to use
Super Metroid was originally released for the Super Nintendo in 1994. It is available to download today on the Wii, Wii-U and New 3DS Virtual Consoles.
Andy O’Flaherty – Follow me on Twitter