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Super Metroid (SNES) artwork

Super Metroid (SNES) review

"Metroids. Most terrifying of alien life-forms, they float about effortlessly while seeking their prey. Upon spotting a target, they swoop down, clamp down with their mighty jaws, and feast on the energy of their hapless victim. When their hunger is finally satisfied, they float away just as easily, leaving nothing but a hollow shell of their dinner that crumbles with the slightest touch. "

Metroids. Most terrifying of alien life-forms, they float about effortlessly while seeking their prey. Upon spotting a target, they swoop down, clamp down with their mighty jaws, and feast on the energy of their hapless victim. When their hunger is finally satisfied, they float away just as easily, leaving nothing but a hollow shell of their dinner that crumbles with the slightest touch.

It's quite curious to name your game series after its most loathsome monster, but the Metroid games are not known for doing things the expected way. For one, it stars a woman - Samus Aran, intergalactic bounty hunter. And while most heroes have some sort of outside help - Mario has Luigi, most beat-'em-ups feature multiple heroes, and there is an entire clan of vampire hunters in Castlevania - Samus works alone in saving the galaxy. Don't expect adrenaline-pumping shootouts with her gun, either; outside of boss battles, the primary function of Samus's weapons is to open the color-coded doors that are everywhere. Despite its unorthodox approach to the action adventure genre, though, the Metroid series is as revered and loves as any other. Super Metroid, in particular, is often regarded as one of the pinnacles of 2-D gaming and among the greatest games of all time.

You probably won't think so, however, when you first begin Super Metroid. A partially playable introduction detail the premise: the very last Metroid in the universe, held at the Ceres Space Station for research purposes, falls into the hands of the nefarious Mother Brain, who plans to use the unique energy-draining powers of the Metroids for evil. Her henchmen take the Metroid to their hideout on Planet Zebes, and once again it is up to Samus to reclaim the Metroid and destroy Mother Brain.

When you first land on Planet Zebes, it seems unlikely that it is the center of all evil activities of the Metroid universe. The surface of the barren planet is drenched by a constant downpour, and not a creature is in sight. Underground, Zebes is no more active; Samus's footsteps are the only thing that can be heard as you enter the subterranean world of Brinstar to collect the first power-ups. The only sign of evil is a security camera that lights up and follows you ceaselessly as you traverse the dark, empty caverns. When you collect your first pack of missiles, though, Planet Zebes instantly springs to life. The very same passages that you crossed to enter Brinstar are new swarming with Space Pirates, mantis-like aliens that are the core of Mother Brain's army. Suddenly the threat of death seems very, very real.

But you won't die.

That's right, you won't. It's simple math, really: while most action game heroes have life bars that stretch around ten units wide, if that, Samus starts with 99 units of energy while random drone enemies take away maybe five per hit. This disparity becomes even more sickening when you consider that Samus can collect thirteen more energy tanks over the course of the game, each increasing Samus's maximum energy by 100. Then consider the devastative power and verastility of Samus's weapons: besides her trusty beam shooter, she has a limited supply of more powerful missiles. The beam shooter can be upgraded to increase range and power, a later powerup even giving it the ability to freeze enemies. More frightening, later on Samus won't even need a weapon: you'll acquire the Screw Attack, which turns Samus into a ball of sheer destruction when she jumps in the air, rendering her invincible and destroying all enemies she comes into contact with. She can't stay in the air forever, you say? Think again; you'll also collect the Space Jump, allowing Samus to stay in the air as long as you like with just a little timing.

It doesn't take much to deduce that Samus becomes an utterly indestructible force when you collect all her weapons. If you collect all her weapons.

You see, the planet's deep caverns form an intricate maze, and Samus's various powerups are liberally strewn about. When Samus first lands on the planet, it's easy to find the way to her trusty morphing ball and some missiles. But soon it becomes obvious that Zebes is a fortress well guarded, and Samus must not be reluctant to make use of her new abilities. Narrow passageways can only be traversed by morphing into a round ball. Doors can only open when blasted with the correct weapon. Long shafts can only be ascended by freezing enemies and using them as stepping stones. Some power-ups even save you from death: the intense heat in the world of Norfair can fry Samus when she enters it with her normal suit, but the Varia upgrade allows her to explore the vulcan world unharmed.

Don't expect to just happen upon your gadgets just the moment you first need them, though; Super Metroid is far subtler than that, and it is not above letting the player make mistakes. You can enter the inferno of Norfair before picking up heat protection, and die from the heat faster than you can ask, ''Is it hot in here?'' You can find yourself plunged into water prior to picking up the Gravity Suit, and watch Samus move in ultra-slow-motion, deprived of most of her abilities. You will find a path you take end in a hopeless dead end, as a wall or door that you can't open yet stares at you in a silent, mocking way.

In this lies the difficulty of Super Metroid. Although there are no instant death hazards (Samus can escape even lava or spikes taking only minimal damage, and she can survive a fall from any height unscathed) and enemies rarely pose a threat, navigating Planet Zebes is no easy affair. There's no one to tell you to go back to location X and use item Y; you must remember yourself the locations of unbreachable walls and impossible obstacles. An in-game map does an adaquate job of telling you exactly where you are and where you've been to, but offers no hint of whether you can clear out an obstruction to enter a place never before reached. You must often revisit past locales, looking for a door you can now open, a wall you can now blast apart, a pit you can now cross. Sometimes you'll find a long sought-after item; sometimes you'll find nothing at all.

Such backtracking could get tiresome, but Super Metroid's genius game design makes it almost a pleasure to explore past areas. The game is kind enough to put a missile expansion or health upgrade at almost every dead end, so you still feel like you've accomplished something even if it won't get you out of where you're stuck. Even better, Super Metroid never ceases to give you new and cooler ways to walk down a beaten path. A wall that once required you to place several bombs to completely destroy can now be demolished with one Power Bomb. A corridor is patrolled by a swarm of enemies that take time to kill, but your newfound Speed Booster allows you to stampede across it at superhuman speed, destroying all enemies that come in contact with you.

And when you do discover something, the result never ceases to be satisfying. A passageway, formerly an inconspicious tunnel that you probably never paid attention to, actually blows apart to reveal the enterance to a completely new world. Not all discoveries are such epiphanies, but they are always satisfying. Moves undocumented in the manual can be seen performed in the gameplay demo, and some are demonstrated in the game by friendly critters; the moment you make your way up a tall shaft using nothing but your basic jump and the walls that surround it, the moment you fly thousands of feet in the air with the ultra-cool speed jump, the moment you convert your missiles and bombs into energy for Samus, you will feel like an awesome gamer. Not only did you pull off this difficult move, but you figured it out yourself. Nothing appeals more to a human's pride.

Besides its thrilling gameplay experience, Super Metroid's atmosphere is also magnificent. Planet Zebes is every bit of the alien world it promises to be; from the rainy surface area to deep, hidden Tourian where Mother Brain resides, Zebes is unfamiliar and hostile. Fire dances in the background of Norfair, reminding you of the consequences if you did not find the Varia. The waters of the aquatic Maridia are dark and murky, as if it had never before been disturbed by gunfire. Gigantic bosses reside in these environments, and they are just as fast to strike and quick to dodge as they are colossal. Despite their immense size and quick animations, the game never slows down during fights with them.

The music has been criticized as being ''ambient low-volume noise'', but that generalization does not even begin to describe the mood-setting quality of Super Metroid's soundtrack. While it's true that many areas have one tune lasting maybe thirty seconds long looping over and over again, it never becomes tedious to listen to. The designers also know when to stop the music altogether, and allow the player to realize that silence can sometimes be even more atmospheric than music. And the music is fully capable of being adrenaline-pumping when it wants to, as evidenced by the exciting songs that play during boss fights.

In the end, my only complaint with Super Metroid is that it is too short - the game will certainly become drawn-out and repetitive if it went on too much over the five to ten hours it gives us, but a corner of my heart will always wish that Planet Zebes stretched on infinitely. Luckily, though, I often give in to the urge to play through it again, and find the magic barely faded. The low-key trip to Brinstar is still haunting, the planet's sudden awakening still shocking, and the encounters with the bosses still terrifying. Not everything is old; there are still hidden crannies of Zebes that I have never been to, and probably will never be to - a comforting notion, and testament to the timelessness of this incredible game.

lurkeratlarge's avatar
Community review by lurkeratlarge (January 11, 2004)

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