When it comes to the Metroid series, I am not what you would call an unbiased observer. One of the first games I remember playing was the original Metroid, many a childhood car trip was made easier by Metroid II: Return of Samus, and after getting Metroid Prime for Christmas, I pretty much locked myself in my room until New Year’s playing it. I am a big enough mark for this franchise that I continue to believe a pet Metroid would be the greatest shit ever and that Master Chief is a mark-ass bitch compared to Samus Aran.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it’s basically the ultimate evolution of the platforming action-adventure. You play as intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran, dropped onto an alien planet with bare-bones equipment, and you explore the depths of the planet, collecting new gear to spelunk deeper and deeper, fighting bosses guarding upgrades, and eventually thwarting the plans of the nefarious Space Pirates. The series’s style caught on, and can be seen in games like the modern Castlevania series, and even more obscure titles like Shadow Man. Of course, detractors would argue that it’s basically Backtracking: The Game, but the first two games sold umpty billion copies, so in 1994, Nintendo released a Super Nintendo iteration of the franchise, conveniently titled Super Metroid.
The story picks up where Metroid II left off; Samus had defeated the Metroids on Planet SR388 and took an infant Metroid to a research station. Lo and behold, the Space Pirates love an easy score, so they hit the station, Samus’s nemesis Ridley heists the baby Metroid and runs to Planet Zebes with you in pursuit, and thus begins the adventure in earnest.
You’ll start your quest searching for basic supplies; your morphing ball, missiles, bombs, and the first energy tank. In a great piece of atmosphere-building, the first cave you enter is dead quiet, with only scattering insects inhabiting it, as you meander your way down, past the site of the final showdown with Mother Brain from the NES Metroid, until you collect the morphing ball. When you do, an electric eye spots you and raises an alarm, and those same quiet passages are now guarded by enemies and the various wildlife that all seems to hate you springs to life.
One thing that really stands out is the different motifs for each area. Brinstar feels like navigating through the inside of a plant, Maridia is a strange cross between an underwater cave and Atlantis, and Norfair is quite obviously an Egyptian version of Hell. These are more than cosmetic differences, also, they present different obstacles. For example, there are parts of Norfair that are so hot that your life will drain without the Varia Suit, and Maridia’s underwater setting completely cripples your movement without the Gravity Suit.
Another aspect that makes Zebes feel like an actual planet as opposed to a loose grouping of areas is how interconnected the different places are. Maridia can be accessed either by blowing the glass tunnel between Brinstar and Norfair or by an elevator from the east side of the Wrecked Ship. There are multiple ways to go from Upper Norfair to the area where you obtain the Grappling Beam. There’s also a handful of secret passages that you can use as shortcuts, and oftentimes, there’s some swag to be found along the way. To assist you, you have a map that shows up when you pause that updates as you explore the area, and each region has a terminal you can plug into that gives you most of the layout of the zone, with unexplored areas in blue, complete with white dots signifying items you can collect.
Now, despite the rather linear nature of the game, you’ll have to do a bit of exploration off the beaten path if you want to find everything, although not everything is necessary to complete the game. There is a grand total of 255 Missiles to be found, but you can realistically get by with about half of that. Certain items, like the X-Ray Scope, are entirely optional. Why would this matter, you ask? Your ending is determined by the amount of time taken to complete the game, with the best ending being given for beating the game in under three hours, so if you’re gunning for the best ending, there are times where you’ll have to decide between pressing on and searching for extra items, some of which are extremely well-hidden. Even the aforementioned map terminals hide some data from you, so everything’s not quite spoonfed to you.
Samus also has a fairly extensive repertoire of maneuvers to bust out. Some require certain upgrades, like the Speed Booster jump, which channels the power into a super jump that can be triggered in any direction and launches you at ridiculous speed (although at the cost of energy) until you hit something solid. Others, like the wall hop, require no prerequisites but demand timing and proper execution, and if deployed at the right time, can help you shave just a few more seconds off your time. Thankfully, all these moves are tied to very fluid controls; all the buttons are mappable, there are buttons to aim at a 45-degree angle that will frequently pay dividends, and there’s even on option that allows you to back away while pointing your gun in front of you, as opposed to having to turn around entirely. There is a hefty chunk of platform jumping and Bionic Commando-esque swing jumping once you have the grappling beam, but you have the ability to control yourself in mid-air and make adjustments, so even precise jumps are doable without the usual frustration.
Everything here looks great without looking over-engineered. It looks like a traditional 2D platformer, but everything is extremely well-detailed, from Samus’s breathing when she stands still, to the bright blue motion blur mirage left in your wake when you trigger the speed booster. Enemy sprites range from tiny mites that flutter around to the monstrous Kraid, who rises out of the ground during the battle until he becomes roughly the size of a small building. There’s a number of very cool visual effects going on as well, like the pipe that serves as the entrance to Maridia cracking and deforming before finally blowing out altogether, or the Wrecked Ship coming to life after the spirit that haunts it is defeated. Another bit of razzle-dazzle comes in the form of the various beams you pick up. Each beam has its own signature, and instead of making you choose between using each one separately, they all blend together, meaning that by the time you collect the final one, you’ll have yourself a blue, wavy bolt of plasma that can freeze enemies as well as shoot through walls and enemies.
Sounds are high-caliber here as well, as to be expected from a Nintendo flagship franchise. Even routine sounds like doors opening or enemies exploding never gets tiring, the quiet ambient hum of the elevators adds to the sense of mystery of what you’re about to happen upon, and bosses Ridley and the Crocomire roar menacingly in battle. Your arsenal all features distinct sonic signatures, like the always-satisfying scorched-earth whoosh of a power bomb and the electric sizzle of the grappling beam. The music is also quite good, although not as memorable as say, Mario’s music, but it’s still possible to have an area’s theme giving you an earworm after you’ve turned the game off.
Despite the fact I would give this five stars, easy, there are a couple negatives here. Chief amongst which is that, while it’s cool to watch Samus build up into a human tank, it does take a bit of the challenge out of the game. Quite literally, once you’ve picked up the first two Energy Tanks (which is about 10% into the game), regular enemies basically serve no threat whatsoever, and only a few of the bosses actually seem capable of killing you. To be fair, though, in this game, having enemies serve as very minor obstacles is probably preferable to a system like Mega Man where every single enemy is a real threat and you have to grind your way through the whole game. And, yes, haters, there is some backtracking to be done here, but if you’re fool enough to pass on this game because of it, I hope you’re consistent enough to never play Link to the Past because you backtrack between the Light and Dark Worlds or Grand Theft Auto because you drive on the same streets more than once.
The other big complaint I personally have is that, for a game that was the third installment of a successful series, there’s basically no plot here. There is a cool swerve finish that I’m not going to entirely spoil for you, but aside from that and the intro, there’s no exposition to be found here, and newcomers to the series are going to have no idea why the game’s even called Super Metroid when you can count the number of actual Metroids you’ll see on one hand. Of course, this might not be as big of a problem for you as it is to me, but I’m a stickler for a good story, and it might’ve pulled some newcomers into the series to expound a little deeper.
Those niggles aside, Super Metroid is a first-ballot Hall of Fame game, and deserves its place in the Super Nintendo pantheon with games like Link to the Past and Donkey Kong Country. It carried the franchise all the way until Metroid Prime’s release almost a decade later, and even today, it stands as a shining example of the fusion of action and adventure.
A damned fine action-adventure with the range to keep you exploring for days or whipping through it in under ninety minutes. Excellent aesthetics, play control, and just the right balance of challenge and accessibility.
No real explanation of the plot, backtracking can wear thin for some people, and I’m still bitter Nintendo never made an N64 Metroid game.