So I Finally Played: SUPER METROID (1994)

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It’s been a while since my last update and the whole world has gone crazy since then, but I’m still here and today I’ve got a So I Finally Played update for you. I did a Late to the Party update on Resident Evil 2 a couple of years ago, and this is pretty much the exact same thing except these aren’t just my first impressions. Today’s retro game I’ve shamefully only now gotten around to playing is, well, Super Metroid.

Metroid may not be Nintendo’s biggest-selling IP, but this series of atmospheric action-adventures starring galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran has built up an ardent following in the decades since its inception on the NES — or, to be precise, the Famicom Disk System in 1986, with the American NES release following in 1987 and the PAL conversion in 1988. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the series’ relative lack of success in its home country, it has been ten years since we last saw a new Metroid title on a home console (and even longer since we got one that Metroid fans actually enjoyed). While the fourth Metroid Prime title is in production, we haven’t heard much about it since Nintendo revealed Prime 4‘s development had been restarted and handed back over to the original Prime developers at Retro Studios in 2019.

The appeal of Metroid isn’t just in the moody atmosphere and feeling of isolation in a hostile world. As wonderful as those aspects of the game are, the core gameplay design is the real draw and the reason Metroid is so beloved by fans to this day… not to mention the reason there is an entire video game genre named after Metroid and certain Castlevania titles. While this article is not about the finer points of the Metroidvania genre, it is worth mentioning that Metroidvanias are action platforming games that share a similarly open-ended structure with an interconnected game world and a variety of items you must find in order to progress to new areas. You can usually explore in several directions right from the get-go, but most of the paths are dead ends until you obtain the items required to progress. If you’re skilled enough, you can ignore some of these items (or even all of them, if you’re extremely skilled and dedicated) and break sequence completely. It’s no surprise Metroidvania games are popular in speedrunning communities, and the most talented players are able to pull off seemingly impossible feats.

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One of the basic tricks skilled players use is bomb jumping, which involves dropping bombs with perfect timing to propel Samus upward and reach places you’re not supposed to get to. I should point out I am not good enough to do this, but thankfully Super Metroid‘s demo mode shows it off along with other nifty stuff you may not have figured out yourself. Most screenshots in this article are actually from the demo mode.

Despite the enthusiastic following the Metroid series enjoys to this day, the whole Metroidvania genre has largely passed me by with the exception of the Metroid Prime trilogy. I’ve never completed any of the Prime games, but I enjoyed what little I played of them and plan to revisit them at some point in the near future (as of this writing, I’m waiting for the GameCube copy of Prime 1 that I ordered and hoping it doesn’t get delayed too badly — I own the Prime Trilogy set for the Wii, but never cared for the motion controls in that version). I’ve also tried some of the 2D Metroid games, but only very briefly and couldn’t really get into them.

One of those games I briefly and unsuccessfully flirted with years ago was Super Metroid, the legendary 1994 release on the Super NES that defined the Metroidvania genre along with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the PlayStation. Super Metroid took the formula established by the original Metroid and the 1991 Game Boy sequel Metroid II: Return of Samus and improved upon every single aspect, offering a much bigger, deeper and more accessible experience while keeping everything that worked.

Super Metroid is the third game in the series, with the story (what little there is) picking up after Return of Samus which itself was a direct storyline sequel to the NES original. At the end of the Game Boy game, Samus had removed the Metroid threat from the galaxy by exterminating all remaining Metroids on their home planet.

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Well, all except one, because after Samus defeats the Metroid queen in the final boss fight she comes across a Metroid egg that immediately hatches. The hatchling thinks of Samus as its mother, and she ends up sparing the little guy and handing it over to a group of scientists.

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I’m sure there will be plenty of practical applications for alien monsters that feed on your life force until you crumble into dust. I know she talks about their “energy producing qualities” in the previous line, but this still seems like a really bad idea for everyone involved.

At the start of Super Metroid, Samus goes to visit the scientists on their space station, but everything goes to hell as everyone’s favorite space pirate dragon Ridley shows up and steals the Metroid larva with the intention to use it to breed an army of Metroids under the evil Space Pirates’ control. Obviously, the galaxy being terrorized by a bunch of life-leeching jellyfish monsters that turn into bigger and uglier monsters is something Samus would like to prevent, so she returns to the planet of Zebes from the NES game to retrieve the baby Metroid.

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*Slowbeef Ridley voice* HEY SAMUS HOW’S IT GOING, YOU MIND IF I TAKE THIS? NO? OKAY GOOD, JUST CHECKING. ALSO, DID YOU NOTICE YOU HAVE 69 HEALTH? NICE! OKAY BYE NOW

As I said before, I’ve only briefly played Super Metroid many years ago when it came out for the Wii Virtual Console (I owned a Super NES in the 90s and was aware of Super Metroid, but never ended up playing it for some reason), but never actually got into it and quit very early on. I’ve since bought the Super Famicom cartridge with the intention of playing it “some day”, and a few nights ago I decided “some day” had finally come. I’ve finally played — and finished — Super Metroid.

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That is one super Metroid. The American SNES styling is a lot less super, but this one plays US, PAL and Japanese games so I don’t mind. I wish it was one of the 1CHIP models with sharper video quality, but oh well. On an unrelated note, while you can’t really see it in this photo, the SNES is sandwiched between a Sega Mega Drive and a white Japanese Sega Saturn on the table. It can handle a Sega pincer attack just fine with a game library like this.

So what did I think about Super Metroid after playing through it for the first time in 2020, 26 years after its release? Does it still hold up without the nostalgia value or two and a half decades of experience and adjustment to its quirks? My answer to that question is a resounding “Hell yes!”

I will happily admit I am the world’s worst Super Metroid player. I struggled an embarrassing amount with fairly simple things such as the (admittedly rather floaty) jumping physics, got completely and utterly lost several times (which is not a problem because the game is built on exploration and I found a lot of useful items in my travels) and had to consult a walkthrough a couple of times for the most obtuse stuff later in the game, and got my ass quite thoroughly handed to me by most of the bosses I encountered. Yes, I got extremely frustrated at points and alternated between sounding like the Angry Video Game Nerd and a death metal vocalist. Still, when it’s all said and done, I look back fondly on my experience with Super Metroid.

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Gameplay-wise, there are certain aspects that have been done better in more recent games, but as I accept every retro game I play as a product of its time these slight deficiencies didn’t bother me all that much. As I said, the jumping feels rather floaty and I tended to fall into pits quite often, but that was only really a problem when there was quicksand at the bottom because getting out of quicksand in this game is incredibly awkward. You can jump your way out, but I never quite grasped what determines whether Samus launches herself out of the sand or just ineffectually hops in place for what feels like forever.

One aspect of the platforming mechanics I really did not enjoy was the way the camera would shift up as Samus jumps. This is fine when doing vertical platforming, but in horizontal platforming sections you often can’t even see the platforms you’re trying to land on because the camera is following Samus upward. When said platforms are roughly the width of Samus’ sprite, that can be a bit of an issue. It’s generally not a massive deal because there are no instant death pits, but it does make some areas rather frustrating to get through. Some of the upgrade items, especially the grapple beam which requires carefully aiming at the grapple blocks and holding the button to activate the beam, can also be quite finicky to use.

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Those gripes notwithstanding, Super Metroid holds up quite nicely from a gameplay standpoint and offers you a wide variety of movement and attack options. Samus starts with nothing but her rather dinky arm cannon and has to find all her abilities (even her trademark Morph Ball) all over again along with the missiles, super missiles, bombs, high jump boots, various upgrades to her weapon and armor, all that stuff. You also find energy tanks to boost your maximum health from the sorry 99 HP Samus starts with, as well as reserve tanks that kick in once all your regular energy tanks are fully depleted. If you’re as bad at video games as I am, those can save your hide in tight spots.

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The Screw Attack is the final powerup you find, and completely obliterates most enemies (in the case of these little flies, most weapons obliterate them but hey, no kill like overkill). It doesn’t damage bosses or Metroids, but you can still avoid getting hit by using it at the right moment.

Finding new upgrades and casually waltzing through areas that previously gave you a hard time is immensely satisfying, and learning how to use your items to their maximum potential can be challenging but is definitely worth the time and effort. For example, when you master the Space Jump you can basically fly over entire rooms of enemies as long as you time each jump right. The timing for the Space Jump took me a while to nail down and I’ll admit I still make a complete mess of it under pressure, but it’s still a fun tool and perhaps my favorite item especially when combined with Screw Attack. Samus can also perform wall jumps (the timing of which I never quite got comfortable with) and a super jump known as the Shinespark to get to hard-to-reach areas without items, although the Shinespark does require the speed booster upgrade. The Shinespark can also be used both horizontally and vertically, making it a versatile tool for those who master it.

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I’m burning through the sky, yeah! This is another example of the demo mode giving you useful hints, because otherwise you’d have no clue there is anything behind this nondescript wall near the very top edge of the map. Shinesparking through the wall like this is one way to get to the secret area, but you can also just keep jumping up and smashing the wall with Screw Attack like I did.

Of course, there’s also that underlying core structure that made Super Metroid so special when it first came out. That interconnected world is still an absolute blast to explore, and even though there is plenty of backtracking the design is elegant enough to get away with it. There’s various shortcuts to speed things along, and you can find all kinds of hidden goodies when you revisit old areas with new gear. The original Metroid was a bold first attempt at the formula, but that game had a variety of issues that made it too difficult and obtuse for the average player to figure out. Super Metroid irons out most of these problems.

I highly recommend watching the Game Maker’s Toolkit “Boss Keys” videos on the Metroid games for a proper analysis of their design (playlist of the Boss Keys videos here) and how Super Metroid improves over its predecessor in that respect, but the tl;dr version is that Super Metroid subtly guides the player along during the first half of the game to get them up to speed and then sets them loose in the world in the second half when they understand what the game wants from them. All of the areas also look completely different this time around, which helps make them feel unique. Oh, and Super Metroid has an in-game map, something its predecessors lacked. The map isn’t perfect because it doesn’t highlight doors or remove items you’ve already collected, but at least you don’t have to map the entire thing out yourself or use a guide.

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Along with the usual assortment of Space Pirates and the titular Metroids in the final area, the enemies Samus encounters over the course of the game include weird alien monsters of all shapes and sizes as well as some local wildlife. Despite clearly having been destroyed at the end of the original Metroid, Mother Brain still leads the Space Pirates and serves as the final boss once again, and in order to access her lair you need to defeat the four other main bosses lurking in the depths of Zebes. The concept is the same as in the original, but that game only had two areas instead of the four in Super Metroid‘s rendition of Zebes so you only had to fight Ridley and Kraid to access Mother Brain.

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All boss rooms are clearly designated with these creepy eye doors that fire projectiles at you. This one leads to Kraid, as you might be able to tell from the Kraid-themed decor of the place.

Ridley shows up in the prologue and as the penultimate boss, and has received a serious makeover after the original game. He was a goofy little dragon man in the original, but in Super Metroid he looks very different and much more intimidating as you can see from the screenshot earlier in the article. Kraid also returns, but is now the size of a building (there’s even a fakeout where a miniature version of him shows up as a unique enemy right before the actual boss fight). With two new areas come two new bosses, naturally. Phantoon is a floating alien ghost that haunts the Wrecked Ship (don’t shoot him with super missiles, he won’t like that one bit), and Draygon is some kind of a horrible eldritch crustacean dragon monstrosity that guards the Space Jump in Maridia.

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I’m sure nothing bad will happen if we enter through here. This actually leads to Ridley’s hideout in Norfair, while Kraid’s pad in Brinstar has a similarly metal entrance with what appears to be a giant anglerfish skull serving as the front door.

The boss fights aren’t massively difficult, but I did manage to get a few game overs along the way before I figured out the boss patterns and the best ways to kill them. There are also a few minibosses for you to contend with, and they are quite tough in their own right. Surprisingly, I found Mother Brain to be the easiest boss fight in the game because her patterns are predictable and fairly easy to avoid, and she’s much easier to hit than any other boss so she should go down without too much trouble.

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Aww, the baby Metroid is all grown up and has come to save Samus from Mother Brain!

The much-touted atmosphere of Super Metroid has not diminished in the slightest over the years. Obviously, it looks and sounds like a SNES game from 1994, but that can also be taken as a compliment. After all, 1994 was an incredible year for SNES games as several developers pushed the hardware to the limits of its capabilities, and Super Metroid is a prime example of SNES developers firing on all cylinders. While Donkey Kong Country grabbed the headlines at the time with its pre-rendered CG visuals, Super Metroid has aged far more gracefully thanks to its strong art direction and excellent pixel art. Samus and the various creatures she encounters look excellent, and while a lot of the areas you visit are dark and desolate and there are plenty of samey-looking caves, Zebes has its share of pretty backgrounds. The game also makes nice use of the SNES hardware’s sprite scaling and rotation capabilities when appropriate.

Super Metroid is also considered to feature one of the best soundtracks on the SNES. In the past, I never quite figured out why because the early parts of the game I had played on the Wii Virtual Console never struck me as having particularly memorable music. However, it turns out this first impression was completely wrong because Super Metroid does in fact boast an incredible soundtrack. There’s nothing quite as catchy here as the Metroid Prime menu theme or the Brinstar theme from the original Metroid, both of which I can hum in my sleep and probably have on multiple occasions, but the tracks do an excellent job setting the mood for each area and situation and the SNES sound chip is used to great effect here with high quality samples. I particularly enjoy the dark and eerie yet beautiful and calming Maridia Caverns and Brinstar Underground themes, the former of which has a strong Final Fantasy VI vibe to it and really helps make Maridia a lot more enjoyable to slog through.

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As usual, the game ends with a timed escape sequence and you’ll be in a bit of a rush to get back to your ship before the planet explodes. Unless you’re really tight on time, you should take a small detour near the end of the sequence to free these cute critters who previously taught you the Shinespark and wall jumping if you didn’t already figure those out yourself. They somehow manage to find and operate a ship and escape the planet if you save them. The way I see it, you haven’t truly completed Super Metroid unless you’ve saved these guys, even though the only reward is a blink-and-you-miss-it addition to the ending cutscene.

To sum up the wall of text I just typed, Super Metroid is a fantastic game that deserves its legendary reputation and I am very glad I finally gave it a proper chance. If for some reason you haven’t played Super Metroid and these poorly written ramblings somehow convinced you to give it a shot, it’s available on pretty much anything that plays SNES games so it’s really easy to get your hands on the game. If you want an actual physical copy, the Japanese Super Famicom version is in fact the exact same ROM as the American release and probably cheaper (although shipping from Japan might prove troublesome at the moment) so it might be worth a look if your system can run Super Famicom games like the Analogue Super Nt or a regular old American SNES with the tabs in the cartridge slot pulled out.

Now that I’ve actually managed to complete a Metroid game, I think it might be time to try and beat the other game that influenced the Metroidvania moniker. Who knows, maybe I’ll even write another one of these articles for Symphony of the Night if the inspiration hits me.

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