One of the greatest games to grace the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Metroid, turns 20 today in North America. It has survived for this long in the depths of our hearts because it provided a true sense of adventure, a dark and foreboding tone, colorful and creatively-designed creatures, enigmatic settings, a deeply memorable soundtrack and perfect action-platforming game mechanics. What brought it all together was the fact that the game set you down on planet Zebes and let you, as Samus Aran, figure it out on your own. It was a game like no other.
Super Metroid sells its narrative in a very particular way. Outside of the series’ backstory told through narration at the beginning of the game, there is little story to be told that isn’t crafted outside of discovery and advancement. All you know is that you have destroyed all but one of the Metroids, one that hatched from a larva and became attached to Samus. She brought it to the Ceres Space Station for observation and study by scientists, who discovered a use that could help civilization. Unfortunately, Ridley has killed everyone onboard and takes the Metroid to Zebes. You land on Zebes in search of the Metroid and bringing peace to the galaxy.
There is no further stated objective, no other NPC’s to interact with, nobody to tell you where to go. Director Yoshio Sakamoto trusted the player to explore all options, utilize problem-solving skills and learn combat skills over time to overcome the challenges in Super Metroid. It sounds simple, but due to the complex world design it can be quite the enjoyable challenge. Players must use everything in their arsenal as they become available, including projectile missiles, charge shots, power suits, high jump boots, power bombs, speed booster and, of course, the morph ball. Even with the available upgrades, the player must be knowledgeable enough to remember where they were stumped hours ago in order to double back and advance through to the next level.
Pure and simple, the game was an adventure in the truest sense. Exploration was as non-linear as could be and included the option to skip sections if one was clever enough. Although some will argue it as a failure of the game designer not to think up all possible roadblocks (not “Game Over” screens), I find it to be truly fascinating to be able to comprehend these exploits as a player. Super Metroid is already challenging enough, so pulling off great feats like shinespark skips should feel like a reward for a job well done.
Zebes, as a setting, proved to be quite engrossing. From the early beginnings, you feel like Samus is visiting a land undisturbed by time. Mossy grass, cold caverns and broken down machinery jumps alive when Samus retrieves the Morph Ball. From there on out Zebes becomes a living, breathing organism of a setting.
As with other entries in the series, the beauty of Super Metroid lives and dies with the artistry. It flows throughout, from the lustrous greenery and jungle of Brinstar down to the fiery depths of Norfair. The enemies and bosses as decoration to the setting; as part of the scenery. Creatures like Spore Spawn are born out of the landscape, immersing the player in an understandable challenge to come out of a forest-laden Brinstar.
Finally, one of my favorite aspects of that made Super Metroid special was its soundtrack. You can set a player out to explore a world unknown, but without the game’s musical accompaniment the mood doesn’t seem as dire or mysterious. The soundtrack provides vibrance and energy at its most exciting, instills dread at its darkest moments and brings reverence at its most momentous occasions. Composing team Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano brought perfection to the console, despite limitations in cartridge technology.
Today is a day of celebration for Super Metroid. While the future of the series is in question, the past endeavours of this 20 year-old game will be remembered for quite some time. The game is available on both the Wii and Wii U’s virtual consoles, so try to pick it up if you can. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t play it through at least once in your lifetime.
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