a review of Super Metroid
a videogame developed by nintendo r&d1
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo wii virtual console and the super nintendo entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
There’s a perception permeating the video games industry and consumer base that Super Metroid is archetypically great by virtue of the fact that it’s Super Metroid, and that any game which borrows its formula – deemed a Metrovania – is, via a primal magic, granted the good grace of being better than most anything else being released at the given time. The obvious problem with this model of thought is that it is, in a sense, a form of worship without debate. And worship without debate, without challenge or intense scrutiny, leads to a claustrophobic distillation of the material. It, in effect, puts an end to the dialogue and leaves the point at “unquestionable truth” or a lacking kind of literalism. When Koji Igarashi (of modern Castlevania), has been interviewed, those on the side of questioning have ceaselessly asked, “When will you release a two-dimensional game on a home console?” Igarashi’s branch of Konami, since their 2002 return (following a dissolution of the Kobe branch), has been exclusively releasing 3D titles on home consoles, and 2D games on handhelds. That this question would be incessantly repeated is telling: Symphony of the Night is “great” because it had the “benefits” of being on the Playstation, and the only way of achieving that greatness, again, is a duplicity of superficial conditions. This adherence to stagnant, basic essence, rather than specification of essence, is, in fact, what’s been bringing down the Castlevania series, though when it comes time to actually describe what’s being missed, people reference unidentifiable, vague concepts like “magic” or “charm,” or that Alucard, Dracula’s half-human son, is not the protagonist. Yet, inexplicably, if Igarashi keeps on doing what he does, on the Playstation 3, it will be a two-dimensional renaissance. And, through all this, there’s a sense in which, really, these people don’t want Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid to be surpassed, that a maintenance of romantic ignorance is happening: the games, to them, are indicative of a lost art, and nothing can go beyond – or, the games may be matched, but they won’t be overthrown.
Super Metroid is game that can be experienced in a state of euphoric wonder or hyper-technical analysis. Scientific communities the world over posit that such euphoric wonder can, indeed, be a direct result of hyper-technical analysis. I like the analogy of a game’s environments, and the capabilities of its avatar, working as a reciprocal language (of course, video games themselves are created by a language). Each environment has its nouns, adjectives; the player, then, applies verbs and adverbs to give those structures particular weight. The success of Super Metroid as a language is, simply, why one always feels connected to its environments. To stay in the realm of like-but-unlike games, Portrait of Ruin has a stunted, easily-anticipated language – most every room will be a box with several superfluous ledges to trot or mindlessly double jump through, and the enemies will be placed in a way to accommodate easy grinding (or to fill up the space of an otherwise vacant room); the game, however, believes that, as a consequence of distributing so many verbs, its participants will be won over by virtue of the verbs alone and their number, and will disregard their absent aesthetic meaning. Super Metroid’s landscape, if we’re to continue and end this analogy, has a vocabulary that constantly shifts itself on the metaphorical page in textured, curious ways for our benefit, and whose mechanics are a contained set of words, thrilling to the tongue for experimenting with (!) and applying in the landscape.
Historically and presently speaking, the level design in Metroid and Metroid 2 is something that needed, and needs, to be “appreciated,” which is a round-about, apologetic way of saying that it isn’t all that great. Metroid’s level design is “appreciated” because, there being no map, one must rely upon their memory to link the maze of caverns together, whose density of repetition is punctuated by illusory anomalies (passing through lava that is lava only insofar as it looks like lava): to be more succinct, the homogeneity of level design and visuals – and that secrets do, indeed, exist – gives rise to a perception that everything, potentially, is special – that anything could be anywhere. The level design is appreciated for the overall feeling it produces, rather than the nuances of individual rooms. Metroid 2’s level design is “appreciated” for how it brings the anomalies of the first game to the forefront, not as a mostly secondary element, but as one that’s vital for finishing the primary quest: every inch of a given room must be questioned and picked at. Obscure methodology wasn’t anything new for video games when Metroid 2 came out; Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, several years earlier, had players throwing containers of holy water in its mansions to make sure that the next tile was not, in fact, a pit disguised as a brick. Games like Simon’s Quest are nifty relics to play for their illogical contrivances, but no one can say that they hold well-considered design. The same can sort of be said of Metroid 2, except that its eccentricities are, relatively speaking, more focused and reasonable (you are not asked to equip an item and crouch next to wall for a certain period of time, so that a whirlwind whisks you off). Metroid 2 seems to be, more than the first game, an attempt of its developers to create a genre unto itself, where the level design, on its own, isn’t as interesting as the secrets it harbors, and where the process of discovery is internalized, individualized, rather than encouraged as a communal phenomenon (Tower of Druaga). Super Metroid doesn’t require “appreciation”: the level design continues the series’ cryptic structure and couples it with quality that doesn’t need to be forgivingly idealized. What results is distinct, but elegantly curious and iceberged.
The thing about this sort of design is that no one’s really doing it anymore; as a person who longs for the industrial climate where a game can be released whose secret is hidden from everyone – the secret being that what is shown is only a fraction of the whole – and where, a year later, someone discovers the access point to this secret, and a mini-pop-cultural movement begins, snowballing as people try to see just how deep the thing goes, I totally get the ideas churning within Super Metroid Eris, a recent hack which yearns for intricate, sub-textual level design, — icebergs underneath icebergs underneath icebergs — and I get the desires of its creator, who asked for a “grace period” before any detailed maps were released in this age of instant informational distribution. Recently, Nintendo unveiled a trailer for the series’ newest iteration, Other M (no comment), headed by Team Ninja, wherein Samus german-suplexes monsters in vacant, arena-like rooms and looks on with the lifelessness of a real-doll in fan-fictiony, bloomin’ cutscenes; all I could do was groan in shame while the shockingly large number of supporters went on with “breath of fresh air” comments, not ever bothering to really even explain why it was a good idea to further disrupt what Metroid alone has had to offer. Playing Super Metroid as a child, I interpreted its craft as misanthropic; today, I can see it as respect. What a wonderful thing to say about a video game: that one can return as an adult to find it waiting, ready and confident, standing solid as we appraise it from various angles. How many times has the opposite has been true — where we treasured a thing so much, and came back after we had grown up to find that it hadn’t? We came back, only to have all of the clumsy easiness, all of those contrivances, burps and hiccups atomically highlighted. Most of my video game library has become objects gathering dust from fear of playing them again after how disappointing it was the last time. From start to finish, Super Metroid never stops being a virtuosic, flowing form of entertainment.
If you’re talking about the game’s architecture as far as real-life layouts go, it’s implausible. As a complaint, though, this is irrelevant: Super Metroid, a game set in a universe which could be our own (rather than, say, Super Mario Bros., which exists in . . . Super Mario Universe), never introduces anything to contradict itself, and it never requests you make a greater mental leap than “these are places below an alien planet’s surface.” If what a successful video game comes down to being is a well-told lie, it should also go without saying that the more complicated the lie gets, the more contextual explanations it needs to have prepared to stay convincing. The first place you visit in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is a space ship, and it’s where everything starts to go wrong. For one: players can walk off the platform on which Samus has docked her craft. If they walk off, the screen flashes, and Samus’ body is returned to the platform with four points of health missing. Up ahead, a couple of outfitted guards stand sentry. Players can shoot at these guards and watch their bodies react in irritated jerks. Both the guard-shooting and falling off the platform break one rule: a video game should not let its player do something which their avatar absolutely would never do. Metroid Prime 3 is even worse off for this transgression, because, unlike most previous Metroids, it’s in the business of trying to turn Samus into a “legitimate” figure. Guards that are approached in the ship’s halls stop and say, “Aren’t you Samus Aran? It’s an honor to meet you.” Why would this Samus, whose appearance on the ship is greeted with respect, land her ship and then walk off — and, if she did walk off . . . wouldn’t she just float away? Really, why not just have an invisible barrier there? Why not, after Samus calibrates her weapon following her landing, have the guards say, “We’re going to ask that you refrain from using weapons, of course,” nullify the fire button, and have all the doors open automatically, or via scanning nearby panels?
One way to get around said rule is by amending it: a video game should not let its player do something which their avatar absolutely would never do – unless some sort of consequence exists for being “out of character” (Grand Theft Auto games alerting the police when you’ve committed a crime, for example). But Samus is returned to the abandoned platform by the hand of god, and can stand in place and shoot these invincible, and eternally patient, guards until the end of time. While no explanation exists for Samus being allowed to fall off the platform (and returned), there’s a weird pseudo-explanation from the developers as to why Samus can shoot in the game’s beginning: it’s so she can open doors. To the right of where the guards stand, up an incline, there’s a circular door which, when scanned, reads, “Weapon fire can disrupt the energy shield and open the door.” Suddenly, questions pop which have never popped up in the series before — one starts to wonder why there would be energy shields on these doors. Furthermore, why would these doors, on a space station built by humans, be designed to only open once their shields have been disrupted by weapon fire? In the space ship, the game decides to amend the above rule, but it does so with embarrassing loose-endedness: if you fire at also-invincible technicians hunched over computers, sentry guns descend from the ceiling and start to shoot at you. Only a few minutes into the game, situations have escalated into unanticipated levels of absurdity, where you’re waging an all-out war against increasingly powerful sentry guns, sirens blaring and rooms flashing red, while everyone on the ship acts like nothing is happening. Alternately, Super Metroid has you begin in the quiet of a humming space station. The only humans are a few collapsed bodies in a room. The doors are automatic: you stand in front of them, and they open for you. The level design is super-basic, and there’s enough background content to give flowing through the five or so rooms a visual legitimacy, as if Samus is coming in through a back way, and, in one shaft, “skipping” stairs to go in favor of speed. Beyond the space station, Samus is on her own in an alien world whose goal is just to be interesting. Disbelieving questions of who built what, and how, and why, never need to be brought up. It’s fine that Corruption tries to build up “rational” explanations for itself ; it’s the awkwardness of the explanations which are the problem, how they fail to fit in line with the things surrounding them.
Why is Super Metroid’s level design so interesting? It’s a question that can, in part, be answered by the game’s greatest legacy besides itself, which is cultivating the practice of speed-running and sequence-breaking, two activities that lead straight into the mechanics. It’s not impossible to believe that people were speed-running before Super Metroid for their own amusement; the original Metroid and its sequel, themselves, had rewards waiting for players who were fast enough. Super Metroid, though, came along and gave the means towards various ends while never showing such ends. The importance of this last point can’t be stressed enough: Super Metroid’s architecture was built to accommodate significant disruption of its normal sequence of events, but no one really sees the total concrete split where the hand of designer ends and our own intervention begins. The subtlety of structure has an unusual breadth. We know that an objectively idealized route is built into the level design of Zero Mission — speed-running, “sequence-breaking,” there, is equivalent to following a prescribed path set by the designers. But the only evidence we have that one can do either in Super Metroid is the aforementioned methods, that several techniques are shown in the demo video, and that people have done so. Any paths that currently exist are a result of a decade-and-a-half of scrutinizing and experimentation of players. It’s fascinating that one can play the game and never even know how many latent variables are in a room; one could say that the level design is in a constant state of apparent normalcy and submerged potential. Take, for example, a cavernous room in the aquatic sector of Maridia; there are several entrances/exists to the room, but a door in the upper right corner must eventually be taken.
– Using the grappling beam (if in one’s possession at the time), an electric line Samus shoots out to latch onto particular objects, connect to the furthest-right balloon-like creature floating above, swing with increasing speed, and release yourself at a desired moment, landing on the cliff below the door.
– Clear a path at the bottom of the room of crabs, and begin running from the far left. Under a space leading up to a hill, crouch to maintain the shinespark power for a few seconds. Leap up to the hill, precisely position yourself, shinespark upwards, and, after hitting the ceiling, fall to the right to land on the cliff.
– Do the same as above – except, instead of getting on top of the hill, do a diagonal shinespark from the ground. You’ll hit an artificial protrusion on the ceiling, and settle on the platform leading to the door.
– On one of the upper hills, start running; jump at the right moment, keeping right, and allow yourself to graze the edge of the cliff below the door. Wall-jump at that second of contact, and swirl in the air upwards and to the right to end up on the cliff.
This room, delightfully multi-layered, is one example among many others; the modes of travel, the gamut of which isn’t listed, always return to an issue of expressible, subtly demanding control in the context of a varied flow of knobby set-pieces. Every physical point of contact and its opposing reaction comes down to a joyous, minute point of personal input. You pulled off that wall-jump because you pulled it off; you pulled off that series of well-placed morphball bombs because you pulled it off. It’s vastly different from – and far more exciting than – executing something simply because it’s optional, because it’s there, a mistake made by many games that advertise mechanical-structural “freedom.” Why does it matter that we can climb walls in infamous, when all that’s involved is putting our guy’s body against the side of a building and constantly jamming the jump and grab buttons? Why does it matter that we control these luxuriant demigods in an Igavania when there’s a complete disconnect from the obvious, cubicle-like rooms of the built-in-a-vacuum castle? Mechanics are only as good as the degree to which they’re tied to a game, a statement which should lead to the conclusion that Super Metroid’s level design is intimately bound to the dynamics of Samus’ capabilities. To this day, people continue to bend this level design through such capabilities in triumphantly acrobatic playthroughs; to this day, people continue to just play and feel that steadfast fizzle of reflexive and spatial responsibility. It’s hard to think of anything else that’s offered such a brand of malleability in environmental layouts and avatar.
Consider, too, the sequence break that allows you to enter the lair of the Crocomire (a boss) from the “wrong” side of the map, before you’ve picked up the power bombs from Brinstar. If you pick up the Wave Beam early (a sequence break in itself), you can shoot through a metal door near Norfair’s main vertical shaft to open it much earlier than usual. Exploring the opened path will put you roughly to the left of Crocomire’s lair, whereas you would normally approach it from the right. You’ll discover a save point down here, and, when you’ve dispatched the Crocomire, you’ll notice that the power bomb upgrade that you pick up a few rooms later is presented as the “first” power bomb upgrade, even though the one in Brinstar is generally thought of as such. The convenience of the save room and the additional power bomb just goes to show how considered the layout of the entire map is. Anything you can think of doing has been invisibly pre-empted, accommodated by the designers in one way or another; in that sense, there isn’t a single genuine “exploit.”
So many video games boil down to reminding the player of what they can do, and then necessitating that the player do just that. It’s the design philosophy of “Because one can, one must.” Modern Nintendo subscribes — quite violently — to this model, and the games only seem to get away with it because of their high levels of audio-visual polish and often excellent pacing (you know what else has good pacing? a Reader’s Digest article — it’d better, if you’re expected to finish reading it before you’re done taking that magnificent stuff). Super Mario Galaxy has spots where Mario must enter zero gravity and sequentially latch onto star-shaped hubs to cross a designated distance — a tarted-up “connect the dots,” where the dots are cute stars and the pencil is a tubby, squeaky-voiced plumber. The stars are there, Mario is there, the Wii-mote is in your hand, the hubs glow, text fades onto the screen to prompt the process, and it happens: the player remembers what they can do, and because they remember what they can do, they must do it (like everyone else has done it). Looking closer, the problem, here, is not only that one “must do it because they can do it” – the dirtier culprit, instead, might be that what we must do just isn’t interesting. Everyone must jump to get over an impediment or abscess in Super Mario Bros.; even within that jump, though, things of friction are happening which create a “rub”: the jump’s relation to obstructions, its trajectory, the swift rise of Mario, the distance created between him and the ground (or lack of ground), the reaching of the jump’s desired height, the call-back of gravity, how pleasing the jump itself feels, et-cetera. Another example: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess has players receive the hookshot in one of its dungeons, a tool that shoots out a latch attached to a string of chains (the game, in fact, gives another hookshot in its Sky Temple (nothing valuable comes of the addition)). Once players receive it, though, the greatest ambiguity to accompanying situations is waiting for a nearby rotating platform with a hookshot target to get near enough so one can attach, drop down, and continue on. It’s a strange, automatic lameness. Using the grappling beam in Super Metroid, if one is going to use it, works because there are taut, sensitive, manipulative physics to it complimented by that ever-present level design – lava-housed worms waiting to shoot up and grab you with their mandibles, shelled critters that aerially weave around, grapple-able blocks that crumble apart; and because there are those taut, sensitive, manipulative physics to it, there is an intimate sense of accountability realized through micro-strings of player-expression and bounds of improvisation.
What this is all leading up to is that Super Metroid, however taken, always feels like your game. Moving inside the “intended” progression or out is, at its best, a private, evolving dialogue with permutation after permutation of the level design. How generous and seamless it is, too, that players are taught the two primary sequence-breaking/speed-running techniques – wall-jumping and shinesparking – in the natural setting of the game’s universe and atmosphere. Sprightly green imps at the bottom of a shaft alternately rebound off its walls, higher and higher; an ostrich-like bird, living far below a corridor you pass through early on, zooms down a path, crouches, and shoots into the air with a stellar leap (there is a “thump,” and it eventually returns to the ground). In each encounter, there’s a tiny, wordless humor that sprouts into a strange realization: this planet’s denizens perhaps know more about yourself than you do. Day-dreaming about a Super Metroid made in 2009 summons a special sort of depression that comes from recognizing that its imps and bird would be replaced by glowing, fade-onto-screen text, or words written onto a wall with blood from a decomposed corpse nearby (“God-speed (get it?!) to anyone else who’s fallen into this accursed pit!” (then, when you’d try to do it yourself, the controls would appear on the screen and take up a quarter of the space (do I need to mention that you’d also get an achievement called “My First Shinespark”?))). Developers have become deathly scared of any misunderstanding, even if it lasts fifteen seconds, and they don’t quite know what to do about that terror; it’s why we’re led into the back room to view a training video during the proverbial first day of work in all these titles, again and again, and it’s why Nintendo has a patent for a Win Button – the same Nintendo that released one of the best-selling video games of all time, Super Mario Bros., in 1986, whose “cheating” was built into the level design in the form of the Warp Zone.
Everyone likes to trumpet the atmosphere of Super Metroid, so let’s trumpet it, once more (toot toot) — though, let’s also trumpet all the more loudly the distinction that, like the environments and mechanics, the game’s atmosphere and level design are vitally bound. Or: the atmosphere is the level design. Scanning all the articles, reviews, retrospectives, and Top 100 lists, it’s queer to note that anyone will eagerly talk about the game’s blanket-thick ambiance but gloss over the structure which lends so much of the support. It could just be that many people simply aren’t acquainted with the words “level design” and have to leave things at “it’s hard to explain,” and then reference the graphics for being “good, even though you’re in a lot of caves.” Beside the visual make-up, beside the soundtrack, there is a geography, an identifiable geometry to each place that returns to the original point of “distinct, but elegantly curious and iceberged.” You can take these rooms, map them and the accompanying fauna out on a piece of paper — with an awareness of Samus’ abilities, you can arrive at a sort of understanding for how it would feel to occupy and engage one — and move onto another. Taken as rough, silhouette-like frameworks alone, pretty much all of Super Metroid’s rooms — barring a few hallways which serve as atmospheric pacing devices — can be identified. One of my theories for Why Modern Castlevania’s Level Design Sucks So Much, and why the atmosphere is directly affected, is that the developers have interpreted the box-like formatting of the accompanying map as an aesthetic stricture for the level design; but it seems impossible to reduce the majority of Super Metroid’s rooms as vacuous boxes of varied width and/or height. Look at each, and you’ll discover a quiet sort of “theme” or internal motion. There are rooms that play off a locomotive concept, where there are carnivorous plants above and below, and enemies that rise up from the vegetation as soon as you clear a gap between rocks; there are rooms where you’ll be running at lightning speeds, leaping off slants at the edge of lava and careening through the air to land on platforms high above; there are rooms lit only by the luminescence of insects, underlined by toothy pits and spotted with artificial and natural fragments to leap on; there are rooms intersected above by protrusions that can be swung from, and scooped out below for the chug-tug of water, the bumpy variation of the earth, and aquatic platforms. The game really is the developers understanding what they had on their hands, mechanically, taking a few base elements off the shelf, and then cleverly splitting up those atoms again and again in — using the word once more — permutations. Rather than having a bunch of plain rooms with a few exhibiting centralized, showy set-pieces that drown out the rest in favor of being The Point, or having every spot be suffocatingly feature-crammed, everything just flows into the next without reserved “preciousness.” This is what becomes the game-world’s sense of cohesion: topography, interaction that is alike yet unlike (yes: this is a huge part of why we love games like Gears of War and God Hand).
(long-ish side note: I’d encourage anyone to download, or watch videos of, Super Metroid Redesign, a hack among the many which reveals a couple things: that a) by golly, people do manage to finish these projects (things to not ask me about: the number of YouTube videos for a “Soon-to-be-released” fan project I’ve seen whose uploaders haven’t provided updated gameplay videos for two or three years) and b) how recognizably Super Metroid works on an individual and collective scale. Put another way, ninety-percent of the time, there just doesn’t appear to be a memorable trait or form to a room or progression of events in Super Metroid Redesign aside from “bigger than that kind-of-similar location in Super Metroid.” It seems the typical result of the “I’m A Big Fan / We’re Big Fans” syndrome gone wrong)
There’s such a crisp presence to the enemies, too, explicit aggressions though they may not often be holding towards you. One could say that, instead of being separate challenges, Super Metroid’s enemies are like things along the way to sort of reinforce parts of the level design, give it an extra edge, further define it. A needle-emitting cactoid inching around at the apex of an elevation; aerial bugs shuttling themselves to and fro, between the sides of a shaft; speedy hermit crabs dangling off the sides of tubes (and retreating into their shells when shot at). It’s a great fit for Super Metroid’s type of abandoned world, where not all the opposition is exactly waiting for you — more like the animals have always been there, and will continue to always be there, emerging from beds of sand and resting in pools of water. Samus is the intruder. Extending from the silent lessons taught by the imps and the ostrich-bird, a few animals will go so far as to reveal secrets around you. As a fire-headed turtle on the roof of a cave may fall down upon a bulb of rock over lava, and you, reacting, shoot at it to form an easier passage, only to have the rock the turtle was on dissolve into a missile capsule, another room in an opposite section of Zebes has a crab scuttling down the side of a cliff’s wall, suddenly switching direction and continuing into the side of the wall. It’s mystifying — small, wonderful, so oddly genuine. In their own mundane, cyclical habits, the planet’s creatures reveal glittering little things; they share the secrets, but they aren’t conscious of it. If only there were more of this.
The general absence of dialogue about the level design only accentuates the times when discussion does appear, and when it does, it usually is an acknowledgement of the backtracking/exploration, which, like the inconclusively defined “genre” it’s been placed in, is near-automatically regarded as a positive bullet-point (note, for example, the lamentations of reviewers when Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia failed to have as much back-tracking as titles before it (even sillier: note how almost anything outside of the Metrovania “genre” is criticized when it does have backtracking)). One could say that since the level design is good, the backtracking, in turn, is also good, but that’d be too easy. Beyond that syllogism, and beyond the improvisation that allows creation of new patterns in players’ routes, Super Metroid’s success in its backtracking/exploration has to do with naturalness. “Natural” is thrown out a bit too regularly without explanation, so let’s define its opposite — “artificial” — within the context of the series: “artificial” is a Metroid game that contains Agon keys, Torvus keys, Sanctuary keys, Temple Grounds keys, Dark Agon keys, Dark Torvus keys, Ing Hive keys, Sky Temple keys, invisible keys, blue doors, gray doors, red doors, green doors, purple doors, yellow doors, Light Beam doors, Dark Beam doors, doors opened by scanning screens, “lore” doors, and everything else blocked from my memory. In other words, “artificial” is Metroid Prime 2, where the means for progress are so obsessively sectioned up, “obviously important,” and solitarily useful that they, besides drawing unnecessary attention to themselves and the banality of their demands, translate into that aforementioned absurdity of the overall world you’re inhabiting (“why do all these barriers exist?”) — even though the player is never on a space cruiser with humans. Metroid Prime 2 is that fetish for “progression” — for, as it were, purchasing that jewel to bypass a glowing door, according to the idea that obstructions work simply because they are obstructions, and the idea that overcoming something, no matter how dumb it is, is good because it simply allows us to “correct” a problem (adjusting everything on the friend’s coffee table to be at a ninety-degree angle) — manifesting itself in terrible ways. Super Metroid, instead, has progress tied to upgrades that, once gotten, are continually stuck to Samus and, by extension, her environment. Their constant presence as an applicable element has them absorbed into the game’s flow, rather than being the “echolocation to get through the one dark room” or the “toad-transformation to reach the magic scroll wedged in the tunnel.” Missiles don’t feel like “keys,” in spite of their being required for opening up two door types, because they are always there as a combative element; neither do power bombs, since they can attack any enemies (and destructible tiles) within the blast-radius; nor do regular bombs, as they can be used to bomb-jump. Et-cetera. The relevance of these basic abilities never seems to die out, be singularly glorified, or be singularly pertinent, the Triangle Shard which fits into the Triangle Hole and then breaks apart.
And, whereas Metroid Prime 2’s world is split into mutually-exclusive “hubs,” only accessible at set points in the game, with the acquisition of a set number of “keys,” every major area of Super Metroid is interconnected via not just elevators, but by a series of cleverly-placed tunnels and bomb-able walls — secret, but entirely functional, ones that serve to open up the planet in a gradual way. In Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, you can diverge and take a clear upper path of the caves to a backdoor leading to the castle’s middle garden area; all this serves to do is fatten the percentage rate: a.k.a. you are expanding the map for the sake of expansion, returning to that one room to prove to the map’s statistical abbreviation that you can, indeed, slide through that slim aquatic pass and emerge on the other side. This design problem is only augmented by the obviousness of “exploration” and the presence of warp rooms. You can fill-out the entirety of, say, Portrait of Ruin’s map, perhaps finding different sub-lanes, but the process of moving around the castle inexorably returns to using those warp rooms and treading an elementary path; you can lower a couple of barriers in the Forest of Doom, but you’d be hard-pressed to give a reason for doing so. By comparison, the exploration in Super Metroid raises your awareness of the planet’s structural interdependence and surreptitiousness; and, with no warp rooms, uncovering the world doubles as a means to actively idealize the maze. Exploration requires a conscious desire to assay what’s shown, rather than an apathetic, “might-as-well” reasoning to go through that doorway on the right instead of the one on the left in the box-room (only to find an identical hallway) — a hidden tunnel in an upper-room of base Maridia leading you to a red-soiled cavern of Brinstar, or a walled path to the high-left of Samus’ landing site curling around with rising lava, fidgeting spikes, and bomb-able bricks, finally dropping you through the ceiling of an early shaft. There’s a revelatory pause where you sit back, absorbing the linking that’s happened as a result of your prodding discretion. And you can tie these points into dismantling the cliché of Super Metroid’s items being Shiny Prizes set atop the unreachable ledge, avatar below, knowing that it’s only a “matter of time.” The joy of Super Metroid’s discovery is that the process is so often about pushing the supposed boundaries of an area, either on a micro or macro level — about suspicions that there’s more to the picture (often indicated by a visual twist), followed through with actions, rewarded with intimate affirmations. In the spot of items whose placements would demonstrate contrivances are the items of Super Metroid which reinforce the arcane atmosphere: they are a species of impossible things in impossible places. Bomb one branch of a network of tunnel for missiles; or, bomb the metalwork below a statue, continue down a hill, and dash through a long, watery tunnel and bunches of turf to find an energy tank. Fall past a seemingly harmful carnivorous plant to a chamber underneath; or, bomb the side of a block of rocks, wall-jump/space-jump up a tight duct, and cross a bridge while dodging falling boulders to enter an annex. The game thrives on rewarding inquisitive, discerning minds.
It’s for the reasons that the narrative wouldn’t work within a literary or cinematic suit that Super Metroid’s succeeds. The lesson learned should not necessarily be “silence,” or “minimalism,” or “character isolation” (all of which, however, do work for Super Metroid, as they’re relevant to the content), but the game’s understanding of what it essentially is — which is, well, a game. Turn Super Metroid into a movie and there are not enough rebounding character dynamics to support the passive audience’s interest. Turn it into a book and it becomes the same as a hyper-detailed walkthrough (“Samus shot at the blue door, opening it,” et-cetera (memories of seven-year-old Super Mario World fan-fiction . . . returning)) — without the imperative form. Outside of the opening, which primarily serves to recap the events of previous games (and is a nice, unintentional acknowledgment of the player’s eventual victory; the beginning is Samus’ written reflections post-Super Metroid), there is no separation of “narrative” and “game”: the terms are synonymous. Unlike other formats, in a video game, it’s completely possible to have a simple, stimulating event and, after, rely on structure and mechanics to support the rest of the weight, and maintain the idea of our progress towards the goal implied by said stimulating event. This doesn’t always remove a need to subject the story — different from the narrative — to some scrutiny, but in the case of Super Metroid’s merely sufficient story, the pleasure and depth of interaction should override the desire for more than what the story is. If it doesn’t, this is because we’ve somehow bought into the recent belief that every video game needs a story at the forefront in order to validate its existence as a video game.
One well-remembered segment of Super Metroid’s narrative — happening close to, and during, Samus’ final battle — should be mentioned in detail, though. In a sandy-floored corridor of Tourian, you confront an impenetrable variant of an enemy-type. Seconds later, the stolen metroid that you have been searching for — now mutated to an enormous size — zooms onscreen, latching to the enemy and draining its life-source until it disintegrates. Once this is done, the metroid swoops over to wherever you are standing and begins the same process. Terror sets in; death seems to be the only outcome. You can see Samus’ life-bar lower at a blistering pace — you have done something wrong. Right before the point of death, however, the metroid halts its course of action, retracting from Samus’ body. It has recognized Samus as the “mother” figure from its birth in Metroid 2. Following a moment of suggested reflection, the metroid flies away. You are left to forge ahead and recharge your energy at a nearby hub. Minutes after, the last fight is taking place: Samus has shattered the container housing the Mother Brain, only to have the organ generate a hulking body and begin an assault in a cramped room. Time passes in the battle, and the head of the Mother Brain starts to slowly retract, glowing and humming. You prepare to dodge another energy attack, but the resulting beam hits you anyway, slamming Samus against the wall and taking off a huge chunk of health. If you’ve gathered enough energy tanks, the assault will stop at a certain point, allowing a shaken Samus to regain her footing and continue the fight (but it will happen again); if the player has a lesser amount of health, the attack will be singular. Once again, however, when you are experiencing this fatalistic confusion, and you “know” that you are about to die, a twist occurs: the metroid returns and latches onto the Mother Brain’s head. As its energy is drained, the Mother Brain hunches down and petrifies. This time, instead of harming Samus, the Metroid attaches itself to its “mother” and redistributes health. While this goes on, the Mother Brain regains its vitality. It stands up, firing blast after blast at the metroid covering Samus. When all the health has been returned to you that can be returned, the metroid detaches, swings away out of sight, and returns for another attack on the Mother Brain. It’s met with a fatal blast, and the background goes black. The metroid shrieks, shudders, and burns apart. Quietly, the heroic overworld music sets in, and, all of a sudden, Samus is burning with the energy of the fallen metroid. The fight resumes, and Samus has become an unstoppable force. Your shots are swift, searing lasers that send the Mother Brain reeling. Nothing can harm you. Justice and revenge is served — and it feels amazing.
Both events are important for two main reasons:
– Each takes place within the context of the game and the player’s ability to control Samus — not a disconnected cutscene or a rope of quick-time events. Developers would almost certainly be mortified to have players seamlessly experience near-death without making absolutely sure that You Are Okay With This and that You Understand.
– Each disturbs the idea that a game’s climax is where the player will uncompromisingly be strongest — because it is “logical” — by having that peak be sliced into by the two most mortal moments of the game. Your helplessness during the metroid’s initial attack is set against that last-second, unexpected grace and subsequent sigh of relief: and in the face of what seemed like an unstoppable force is your recovery of life-force, and the rise to temporary, god-like power. In one situation, you are terrified to see the metroid; in the other, you are grateful to have it present and are, perhaps, bothered to see it killed (even if it is a huge, vampiric amoeba). This is interesting. These are worthwhile contrasts. We should not be talking about the “brave sacrifice of the metroid,” but about inhalation, exhalation, and integration (ha-ha!).
Because a video game can always, somehow, be improved in a million little or large ways, Super Metroid is (duh) not perfect. So let’s take these last moments to list a few problems, whose number will have to be limited to less than a million to save space.
– The game does not trust itself as much as it should. The x-ray vision and the spring jump (high-jumping in morphball form) abilities could be, and should have been, omitted. I don’t buy into the argument that just because something is peripheral, optional — because it’s a “bonus” — it should be free of critique. By the time a player gets the x-ray vision, a lately-introduced apologetic (“exploration might be ‘too hard’”), or the spring ball that doesn’t even apologize for, or add to, anything, there is no relevance.
– On a related note: I do not need to be reminded how to use missiles every time I get missiles. I do not need to be reminded how to use super missiles every time I get super missiles. I do not need to be reminded how to use power bombs every time I get power bombs. I do not need to be told that I have gotten an energy tank when I get an energy tank. Please show the explanatory text with the garnering of each respective item — and then have it be gone forever. The jingle can stay. Sure.
– Why doesn’t the map show the entrances or exits of rooms? Because of this, it must be taken on unnecessarily loose terms (I’ve rarely consulted it, myself). I’d suggest its complete removal, but I know people do need it.
– Every boss is enjoyable to fight, really — except for the Spore Spawn. Curl Samus up in a corner as a clam-like pod bobs about in the center of the room. When it exposes its meaty center, this is your cue to uncurl and fire a load of missiles into the flesh. Retreat. Repeat.
That anyone would read the Bottom Line of this article and think that the point has been to say that people have not enjoyed Super Metroid “correctly” isn’t my intent. On the contrary, my intent (or one of them, should I say) has been to argue that people do enjoy Super Metroid for the reasons given, but that — in addition — barely anyone has given voice to, and is overtly aware of, these reasons; the tired, bullet-point mantras of every Best Video Games of All Time lists, and the supposedly self-explanatory mentioning of the game’s name, take their place. If we are to go by the general discussion, Super Metroid is great because of the “huge world,” the “cool power ups,” the “lonely atmosphere,” or the “secret ending, where Samus removes her space suit” (please, let’s not forget that every one of these can be applied to Metroid); if we are to go by the general discussion, Super Metroid is a success because, yes, it is Super hecking Metroid. Super Metroid was released in 1994 by a staff of fifteen; at the time of this writing, it is close to the end of 2009, and it seems ridiculous that the game has endured so long as a piece of entertainment, but that practically no developers who claim to “get it” have actually “gotten it.” What should have been a sequence of admiration, understanding, and application has barely advanced past the first phase. Baseless praise is just as bad as baseless scorn. I want to get as specific as possible, and I don’t think that I have, even here. There is always something else to talk about, something else to consider and put under the microscope instead of the magnifying glass. Let’s discuss more of the good and more of the bad. And I’m not asking for Super Metroid 2, or for a Really Good “Metrovania.” I want to see another video game outside of the Metroid series understand what Super Metroid does, and how it does it — and blow it away, destroy it in every regard. This might sound disgusting, but I can only see it as representing respect of the highest order. Developing in competition with Super Metroid should not be an exercise tempered by a sort of self-restrained reverence (“how could we dare to overshadow it?”), nor should it be bound to, as it were, the inclusion of an item that lets you jump higher. It should, I think, result in something else entirely.
Anyway: as usual, here’s to the future.