Now that Metroid: Samus Returns has been announced, I took the opportunity to correct one of my long standing mistakes. I’m ashamed to admit it, but until recently, I’d never finished a single classic Metroid game in my life. I was scared of Metroid as a child, the original Metroid II was impossible to find in my town by the time I had a Game Boy, and Super Metroid was too expensive to buy, but too open ended to complete as a rental (pre-internet). It wasn’t until Metroid Prime that I had maturity and money at the same time, and could indulge in a fresh Metroid experience.
That’s not to say I haven’t played much classic Metroid, or Metroidvania style games, because I now own every Virtual Console release of Super Metroid, and Guacamelee is one of my favorite games of the last generation. I went back a few times to complete Super Metroid, but something always came up before I got to Mother Brain. Not this time though: 10 hours and 59 minutes later, I had beaten Super Metroid with a 77%, and I only had to use the internet for that damn tube in Maridia. In light of my recent triumph, I thought I’d do a retrospective on why Super Metroid is still amazing two decades later.
[Note: I played Super Metroid on n3DS in pixel perfect mode. Also, I started a second play-through while writing this and finished in under three hours.]
Pretty, pretty presentation
The most immediate factor in Super Metroid’s long standing success is its immaculate presentation. Good pixel art will never go out of style, and when done exquisitely, it is absolutely timeless. That’s the case with Super Metroid, it stands to this very day as a great looking game, and the best looking game the SNES has to offer. It’s not just pretty backgrounds and environments either, there are a ton of different animations for Samus: Running, jumping, spin jumping, wall jumping, and falling all have their own unique animations. Wall jumping even has two different “ready”animations, one with Samus facing the camera, and the other with her back turned to it. There’s so much more too, but let’s continue.
Visuals are just one part of presentation, the sound is an often underappreciated, equally important piece of the equation. Here, Kenji Yamamoto’s work stands alone. Yamamoto handled the music and sound effects, resulting in a unique cohesiveness that’s unlike any other game from the era. It’s not Mario, it’s not Zelda, and it’s certainly not Final Fantasy. It’s impossible to listen to Super Metroid and think it’s anything but Super Metroid.
The opening scenes of Super Metroid were mind-blowing for their time, and highlighted the difference in power between the old and new Nintendo platforms. It starts with a digitized voice that sounds good, something that we almost never had with the NES. A close up of Samus shows here face through the visor, as she types up a log of her adventures, and we get key scenes of the first two games redone in Super Metroid’s graphics. The next thing we see is Samus’s Ship zipping into the shot and off to the distant space station. It’s a wow moment for older players and all the exposition that’s needed to put the upcoming adventure into context.
Players see Samus ride an elevator into the darkened space station. All that can be heard is the hum of machinery and the siren of the distress signal. Upon descending the entry shaft and going through a few doors, players are treated to a grisly sight: The murdered scientists, lying in pools of their own blood. Now this obviously wasn’t the first time blood and gore had been seen in video games, but it was different from most earlier examples. Before, with Wolfenstein, Doom, Mortal Kombat, and others it was over the top to the point of silliness, and the people being murdered were villains or competitors in blood sports. Here, it was a solemn depiction of innocents that had been brutally murdered.
In the next room things get real. It’s dark upon entering, with only the baby metroid being visible. Then there’s a glowing light…It’s Ridley’s eye! A substantially more bad ass looking Ridley was the first encounter of Super Metroid. After bringing Samus to critical health in battle, Ridley flies off with the baby metroid. There’s no time to rest, however, as the space station begins a one minute countdown to self-destruction.
Now look, one minute is more than enough time for the short jaunt back to the entrance, but the timer and the changes to the environment create a sense of urgency. The lighting has turned red, the new alarm is louder, and steam sporadically bursts from the ground, pushing Samus back. If that weren’t enough, the space station lists from side to side during the final climb to safety. The escape feels more tense than it actually is.
Teaching through gameplay
After that exciting introduction, Samus lands on planet Zebes, in the Crateria region. It is here that the game really begins, and teaches players the basics of exploration and power-ups in one of the best non-tutorial-tutorials I’ve ever seen in gaming. Let’s cover the chain of events up to the first save point, and see exactly how Super Metroid teaches players almost everything they need to know about the game, in this one little segment.
The first lesson is simple, and always overlooked. Every single player familiar with 2D gaming at the time of Super Metroid’s release had been programmed to do one thing: Go right. Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, Ghouls ‘n Goblins, etc. all had defined levels that were mostly laid out from left to right. However, going right at the start of Super Metroid results in a progression blocking wall.
While it is possible to scale the wall with some skillful wall jumping, first time players are unlikely to know about the wall jump, as it hasn’t been explained yet, so they’ll naturally head to the left. This shows players that progress isn’t always to the right. That’s a critical piece of information to understand about Super Metroid, and it’s taught in the first seconds on planet Zebes.
Continuing left, players encounter their first blue door. Unlike the doors encountered in the space station, they do not open on approach, so players are taught to interact with it via the only way they can: Shooting. Moments into Super Metroid and the player has been taught that progression isn’t always to the right and that doors are opened with shots. If that doesn’t strike you as cool, then you might not like the rest of this section, and really should skip to the next heading.
As the player continues on the only path available to them, they will likely notice the small tunnels they can’t access. There’s nothing they can do about those (yet), so they continue on to another dead end. The only option is to fall into a hole, which is usually instant death in other games of the time. Another lesson is learned as the camera pans down with the falling Samus: Falling down holes does not mean instant death.
As the player continues downward, they’ll see another door, except it’s behind one of the tunnels that could be seen earlier. This implies there’s a way to traverse the tunnel, but the player currently lacks the ability to do so. Further down, there’s a pair of doors, one blue, the other red. Firing on the red door does nothing, and going into the blue door leads to yet another tunnel that cannot be traversed, meaning the downward trek is still the only way forward.
At the bottom of this cave is a blue door, but unlike the others, it’s on the floor. It’s another lesson: Players already know they can shoot doors to open them, so now they know they must shoot downwards to open the door, and will experiment with the controls until they do so. Their reward? Another downward trek, this time with more complex platform arrangements. Those who played the original game will recognize this area as the ruined escape route from the end of the original Metroid.
At the bottom on this shaft, and through the only available door, players are locked into a forward path: As the door closes behind them, it becomes gray and impassable. After proceeding with some inconvenient platforming, and entering the next room, players encounter a lone glowing platform. Keen-eyed players will notice it’s an elevator, like the one Samus used to enter the space station in the introductory segment. With no other course of action but to find out how to continue, players will eventually try pressing down while standing on the elevator, discovering its nature and purpose.
Once down the elevator, players are again presented the option of left or right. If they go right, they’ll be greeted by another red door in the next room, further hammering home the fact that right is no longer synonymous to progress. To the left though, things get interesting. Players will climb over an obstacle, then be greeted with a strange glowing object on a pedestal. Upon grabbing it, the Metroid fanfare and name of the power-up appears: Morphing Ball.
It’s here that the developers play a cruel joke on players in an effort to teach them: Immediately after the fanfare of Samus’s new power-up, a glowing red eye on the wall begins to shine a bright flashing light on her and emits a high pitched whine. At the same time, the skull-like blocks on the pedestal light up and turn to look at her as well. Nothing on Zebes has reacted to Samus in this manner before, so it’s a bit of a scare: What is it doing? As players try to lose the eye’s gaze, they realize they’re trapped, as the entrance is too high to jump through, and the wall jump is still an unknown.
In their desperation, players may try to duck behind an object, and accidentally activate the morph ball, or run towards the blocked tunnel. Both cases result in the light turning off. From here the player cannot advance until discovering they can kneel and shoot the odd block obstructing the tunnel, then use the morph ball to pass through. At this point, if players try backtracking to use the morph ball in the tunnels they saw before, they will find the door is still grayed out, meaning the right of the elevator is the only way forward.
Going right from the elevator and coming to a red door, players may notice that the blocks in this room are similar to the one blocking their path out of the morph ball area, meaning they can be broken by a shot of Samus’s arm cannon. Combining the knowledge that the block is destructible with the knowledge Samus can shoot downward, allows the player to drop to a tunnel, roll to the door behind it, and enter a room with a Chozo Statue that’s holding an object. Shooting this object reveals the player’s shiny new upgrade: Missiles.
This leads to one of only three little complaints that I have with the entirety of Super Metroid. Most players will make a basic assumption here: “Doors are opened by shooting them. Red doors don’t open when shot by a normal shot. Samus now has missiles. I should shoot the red door with a missile.“ The red door does indeed react to the missile, flashing blue for a second, but ultimately remaining red and locked. Firing another missile yields the same result. If the player unloads all five of the provided missiles directly into the door, it will turn blue and permanently unlock.
Unfortunately, many players will be hesitant to unload all five of their limited missiles into a door that didn’t react after four shots. It isn’t urgent to get this red door unlocked, it’s currently optional, only offering a second encounter with an alarm eye and a missile capacity expansion. Players can continue on to the next step, but real progress will be halted until they figure out they must shoot a red door with five missiles. When I was a child, this little snag ruined my first rental of Super Metroid by the way, but let’s continue on with the assumption the player figured out the red door.
After acquiring the missiles and (hopefully) figuring out how to open the red door, progression is blocked by another dead end, albeit a dead end that has a missile expansion. At this point, the only thing to do is go back, hoping something in the world has changed, or that missiles can open more opportunities.
Upon going back up the elevator and leaving its room, the door locks behind Samus as the Space Pirates launch an ambush, undoubtedly alerted to her presence by the alarm that frightened the player earlier. Fortunately, aside from the shock possibly enabling an informative cheap shot to hit the player, these guys are incredibly weak. One shot will do them in, and they’ll drop missiles if the player has used any previously, revealing the primary method of replenishing ammunition.
Once all of the Space Pirates are dead, the previously locked doors begin to flash blue, signaling they can be opened once more. From this point onward, enemies have populated the map, and players can return to the previous areas. Climbing back up the long shaft, players encounter another batch of Space Pirates, made more dangerous by their wall to wall leaps and treacherous footing. Players are far more likely to take a hit in this portion, and see that defeated enemies can drop health when Samus is injured.
Exiting through the roof and reemerging at the bottom of the first cave, players encounter new enemies as they climb back up to the red and blue doors they saw on the way down. The morph ball allows players to use the tunnel behind the blue door, but it’s currently obstructed, halting progress again. Players can now open the red door, which contains a path that boasts even more new enemies, and a room with a map of Crateria.
Examining the map reveals that the closest unopened door, the one that the player couldn’t reach previously without Samus’s morph ball, is marked with an S. After the player makes their way back to it, there’s nothing but an empty pod inside. With nothing else to do, players can try to interact with the tube, and by stepping into it, discover how to save the game.
From here there’s only one path forward, which leads to the bombs, but I don’t want to spoil that experience so we’ll stop with the save point.
Exploration is emphasized
An atmosphere of isolation and deep exploration are two aspects that are required to have a Metroid game, without both aspects, it’s just a hollow facsimile, like the Metroid games that we don’t acknowledge (you know the two). The sense of isolation is easy, but compelling exploration, not so much. Fortunately, Nintendo had a lot of experience in this regard after creating two previous Metroid games and several Zelda titles, and it shows.
To start with, the areas have to be intrinsically interesting. This starts with the aforementioned presentation. Areas have to be visually appealing, as players don’t want to explore boring surroundings. Areas also need to be recognizable. Super Metroid is a sprawling map for its time, and if all of the areas in the game looked the same it would be confusing. Even in sections of the map that are thematically the same, the arrangements have to be unique enough that players familiar with an area can recognize it at a glance, and don’t become lost or disoriented. This holds especially true if the player will have to do backtracking of any kind, which they will in a good Metroid game.
Proper backtracking is important in games about exploration, especially early games like Super Metroid, as it not only adds padding to the game’s length, but it creates an interesting world, when done right. Players need to have valid reasons for wanting to go back to areas they’ve already been through. Different colored doors that can’t be opened yet are nice surface-level reasons to backtrack, but there has to be variety. The tunnels, from the first save point run, are a great example. Seeing a wide variety of these interactable objects and obstacles makes players want to go back and check their previous surroundings more thoroughly as their abilities expand.
Of course, while some may get a rewarding sense of accomplishment from checking every nook and cranny of a world for exploration’s sake alone, there also needs to be tangible rewards for exploration. In Super Metroid, these rewards are plentiful: There are 100 upgrades hidden throughout Zebes, ranging from new ability upgrades that improve movement options, such as the Speed Booster and Space Jump, to fire power upgrades, such as the Plasma and Spazer beams, suits that increase defenses and enable traversal of new areas, and various other upgrades. Some are easy to find over the course of regular gameplay, but others require a bit of scouring, and its a good mix of the two that leads to every new room being exciting.
Another aspect that helps the exploration stay fresh is the nonlinear nature of the game. Players can sequence break without having to use cheats to do so. The wall jump mechanic is the source of most glitchless sequence breaking, The wall jump didn’t have to be included from the beginning, it could have easily been hidden somewhere in the game as a power-up. Instead, its an early method of circumventing the need for the Grapple Beam and Hi-Jump Boots, especially in conjunction with the Ice Beam. The wall jump grants early access to the Power Bombs, Wave Beam, Spazer Beam, X-Ray Scope, Gravity Suit, and the Kraid boss fight.
Considering the care put into the game’s design, I’m fairly convinced the wall jump was included from the beginning to reward players that develop the skill necessary to perform it with consistency, and have the sense to put it to good use. Especially on subsequent play-throughs, where it offers a great advantage in terms of completion speed, something the game keeps track of, along with the number of upgrades found.
The controls are virtually perfect
No matter how much fun exploration is in itself, players will never enjoy it if the controls don’t feel good. The control layout in Super Metroid isn’t the greatest, owing to it’s relatively complex control scheme on a very limited SNES controller. Putting weapon select on the Select button makes sense in name, but it’s awkward as hell in practice. Still, it’s better than any alternative placement, and arguably the best layout available at the time.
People praise Mario games for their perfect controls, but Super Metroid should be paid that same level of respect, because while the layout leaves something to be desired, Samus herself controls perfectly. She can shoot in eight directions, run or sprint, and has several different jumps from the start, with the Space Jump and Grapple Beam coming later. At the start of the game, her skill set is wider than any side-scrolling protagonist of the era, and it only expands with time.
Samus has two basic jumps, a standard vertical leap, performed by jumping when stationary, or a flipping spin jump, which is done by jumping while Samus is moving left or right. Both jumps have their height controlled by how long the player holds the button, and considering the great heights Samus can jump, even before the Hi-Jump Boots, there’s a lot of variability. Like Mario and Mega Man, players can also fully control the direction of Samus’s jumps in midair.
The spin jump is more than a different animation as well, it carries Samus’s momentum in the direction she’s currently facing, with the ability to change her facing in midair, and is great for making long jumps, or curving around overhead obstacles. Learning how to control the spin jump is a vital part of enjoying Super Metroid’s platforming, as the continuing momentum of the jump often leads to beginners overshooting the mark. To that end, the spinning, and thus the forward momentum of the jump, can be stopped at will by aiming Samus’s arm cannon. Being able to stop Samus’s spin jump on a dime is critical to long bouts of vertical platforming later in the game, prior to the Space Jump upgrade.
The last of the three jumps that Samus has from the start is the infamous wall jump, a secret technique that is performed by spin jumping at a wall or the side of an object, then pressing the direction opposite the surface, and hitting jump when Samus gives a short visual indicator. Wall jumps can be done continuously, allowing proficient players to avoid the need for certain power-ups and perform sequence breaks. It’s infamous for is exacting execution requirements, which many players will never master to the point of consistency.
As an aside, the difficulty of consistent wall jumps is something I considered to be one of three flaws in the game, the others being the five missile requirement to open a red door and the Power Bomb needed to shatter the glass tube in Maridia, but I’m conflicted over it. I’m all for rewarding players for mastering skills, but at the same time it can hamper the enjoyment of players that lack the proper reflexes, coordination, and patience needed to perform what is the most difficult wall jump I’ve ever experienced in a good game. It also doesn’t help that the in game teaching mechanic, the little animals that wall jump to show Samus how to perform the move, offer no explanation of the specific conditions needed to properly perform said move, which are more precise that the game lets on. I’ll asterisk this “flaw,” because I enjoy skill mastery being part of games, I just don’t think it was properly elaborated on here.
As Samus acquires power-ups, she gains huge movement advantages, and secret techniques. The morph ball obviously lets her go through tunnels and the bombs open more tunnels, but together they allow for bomb jumping, an ability crucial to proceeding in the game. However, there is a secret technique hidden in the bomb jump that’s even harder to master than wall jumping: Consecutive bomb jumps. With proper timing, Samus can bomb jump indefinitely, reaching areas that even the wall jump cannot. At no point is this technique ever required, so its lack of explanation and extremely exact requirements are not viewed with the same apprehension as the wall jump.
The Speed Booster allows Samus to increase her run speed to the point that she can dash through enemies and certain objects. Additionally, it enables the use of the legendary Shinespark, which is taught to Samus by…a creepy space ostrich…?
By reaching max Speed Boost and pressing down on the D-pad, Samus stores her kinetic energy for a few seconds, and the player can choose when and in what direction to send Samus flying. This move destroys any enemies in her path, as well as any Speed Booster destructible object. It’s required to get a few (optional) capacity upgrades, but other than that it’s just freakin’ awesome.
Finally, as a late game upgrade, Samus gets the Space Jump. This upgrade allows her to spin jump infinitely in midair when the jump button is pushed in rhythm. When paired with the iconic Screw Attack, which turns spin jumps into a high energy buzz-saw, Samus can traverse areas with near impunity, cutting down any non-boss foe in her way, and cutting through most attacks. It essentially marks the beginning of the end of the game.
All of these abilities handle perfectly, to the point that any error made is exclusively player error. Even Mario, king of the platforming genre, lacks the precision control that players have over Samus: Once all of her abilities and secret techniques are mastered, Samus becomes the most finely tuned, versatile 2D platforming character ever created. Considering the ubiquitous nature of 2D platforming games over the past 30 years, that’s saying a lot.
Super Metroid and the future
When I heard that Mercury Steam was told they could remake a Metroid game, and they went with a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus, I began to pull extra hard for their success, because I wanted an updated Super Metroid to be on the books. However, in my excitement for Metroid: Samus Returns, I bought Super Metroid on 3DS, because it’s widely considered the best 2D Metroid, and as a huge Metroid Prime fan, I wanted to get hyped for more Samus.
After very recently beating Super Metroid, I hope it never gets a remake. Not because Super Metroid isn’t a deserving game, but because it stands as beautifully polished today as it did in 1994. Perfection should just be left alone, and there’s really nothing a remake can possibly do better than the original. That sprite art will look good until the heat death of the universe, the sounds and music are classically enduring, the controls are spot-on, and the less-than-linear level design is heralded as the best the series has ever seen.
When it comes to Super Metroid: Play it. Admire it. Reference it. Draw inspiration from it. Don’t f**k with it.