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Super Metroid (SNES) artwork

Super Metroid (SNES) review

"Death is presented at ground floor, and immediately my curiosity was peaked."

I remember the day I learned Samus was female. It was pretty cool. “Just” pretty cool? Do you even know Flessa? Dragonriders of Pern? What we call “strong female leads” were just another protagonist to us jaded, hardened science fiction and fantasy readers. At the tender age of twelve I had a clear view of gender equality, and you’re darn straight that’s an issue.

If there’s something Japan has done right over the years, it’s to give female characters central stage in their popular (and not so popular) media. Granted there are numerous questions of exploitation, but Nintendo doesn’t play up Samus’ sexuality. At least, not on the Super Nintendo. What’s so Super about a Metroid anyway?

In 1995 I really didn’t understand what made the game so wonderful, but hindsight tells me that it was the story that made it stand tall above its competitors. The Genesis was faster, the Turbo Graphix had more... well, whatever it had we didn’t get much of it in North America. While NEC was busy churning out piecemeal first party titles, Nintendo put their collective energy toward a memorable experience.

There’s that phrase again...

The lesson that Nintendo learned from Super Mario was that personality sells, something Sega would learn a decade later. Initially, Samus was envisioned as a space faring Bounty Hunter in an epic setting. Unfortunately, Metroid on the NES didn’t quite reach me; all of those corridors were the same, I died much too easily, and had no idea there were upgrades of any description. Filled with Determination(tm), Nintendo gave Samus another mission, this time with the sensibilities of a thoroughly modern console.

Undoubtedly we can thank Alien (and others) for the cinematic touches that sold Samus’ story. When I fired Super Metroid up, I was greeted with a screen of carnage. Death is presented at ground floor, and immediately my curiosity was peaked. What is that little thing squeaking at me in a jar? Who are those scientists? What happened here? Then I hit start and was reminded this is a game. “Have no fear,” I’m told, “you’re in control. You decide what happens next. Just start with those button mappings, and we’ll take it from there.”

Now that’s empowering. When I pressed start again after muddling through what the controls meant, the little helmeted head turned and looked at me. It’s details like this that drew me into Samus’ reality. Fortunately, Nintendo had more tricks up their sleeve. Voice acting. Just two sentences basically blew my young mind. But, yeah, the galaxy is at peace. So what?

Then a partially lit red armoured woman opens her eyes behind a visor. There’s no voice acting this time, but I was captivated by the pretty art (and pretty eyes) as she recounts her encounters with the space pirates on planet SR388. It’s here she tells me that she’s adopted this vampiric alien tyke, which she leaves in the trusting hands of scientists... who promise to use it for the good of the entire galaxy.

All’s well? Okay... now what? Things get tense: Samus tells us she’s gotten a distress call and she’s going to the station. Yes! It’s my time to play. I only think now that Samus isn’t introduced with fanfare as she was in Metroid. I’m too involved in exploring this inert, vacant space station whining with the sounds of electrical and hydraulic equipment. I press the buttons and figure out what she can do, then I eagerly explore the station. Every door is welcoming, but tension increases as I reach the lab and find the corpses of the scientists entrusted with the Metroid.

But where’s the Metroid?

There’s only one door left, so I send her unwittingly through a door to find the Metroid and another... Ridley. He’s got the Metroid, so we fight. I’m not winning, but before Ridley can land a critical blow, the station’s alarms go off. Ridley escapes with the Metroid, and I desperately run back to the station entrance. Once I’ve made my escape, Samus gives Ridley chase to Zebes. She lands her ship and the rest is left to me. Me, alone, on a planet to explore. Can I defeat the Space Pirates and save the Metroid?

Sure I can, if I have enough patience to listen to that dang theme every time I collect a missile tank, armour upgrade or anything else. Gah. There’s no wondering why it was reduced to a quick “swoosh” in Metroid Fusion. The franchise has had numerous improvements (and setbacks) over its thirty year run. But while I was immersed in Samus’ reality, her long stride and power suit gave me powers and abilities that still feel awesome.

There’s another thing Metroid helped me cultivate: Patience. Yes. If you remember the tall, horizontal shaft with all those small blue platforms, you’ll also remember just how difficult they were to traverse with Samus’ unusual jumping mechanic. A standing jump works as expected, but a jump with any forward momentum at all sends her into a rapid somersault that can send you spinning right to the bottom of the shaft. The trick is to master the standing jump and gain control of Samus’ jumping physics.

Now how’s that for a tutorial?

When you’ve a planet to explore with no guide – and I recommend playing it without one – every enemy encounter is a threat, and some are genuinely harrowing. Death is pure recklessness and can come quickly if you’re not cautious. Nintendo was playing the revenge tactic card well before Valve began slinging helicopters at us. Obtaining the plasma beam was practically revelatory, and something to revel in. They succeeded in making those hard won suit upgrades matter.

That the morph ball jump is now an automatic upgrade is because the thing was so easy to miss in Super Metroid.

Nintendo’s done all the hard work of selling you a mission with its own questions, and not filling in too many of the details. Your own imagination gets to do some of the work, and that is far deadlier than a cutscene at any resolution. Moreover, you’re doing all the heavy lifting. This is your and Samus’ fight at the same time. By collecting suit parts and upgrades that unlock large sections of map to explore, you’re investing the questions you formed during the movie-style introduction. You aren’t told what to do, you arrive at those conclusions and thereby the mission is your own.

The Japanese publisher’s ability to make a game so intensely personal is what continues to sell systems as unlikely as the tablet-become-console, the Switch. When all bets are on frame rate and high definition this and that, Nintendo backs the right horse: Storytelling. Also, creativity, and fun. A story that resonates with its players elevates it above any platform shortcomings, creating something you want to share with others. Even if you risk copyright takedown notices to do it.

Super Metroid is a timeless classic, and with its pixel art aesthetic, looks and plays every bit as good now as it did then. Modern conventions would necessitate some changes, but apart from a shorter item acquisition theme, this masterpiece is a testament to excellence in all categories of game design. It is a reference guide, a study in talent and skill.

If you haven’t played it by now and you love platformers, where have you been? Super Metroid can be purchased on Nintendo Wii U (at time of writing) for play on its Virtual Console. Or, if you can find a cartridge, you can easily emulate it on almost any platform. As a gamer, this is one you’ve got to at least give it a try. So really, what are you waiting for?

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (September 07, 2017)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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