When it comes to discussion around the Metroidvania genre, two games stand supreme as perhaps the greatest examples of the entire thing. These are its progenitors: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid. While the original Metroid undoubtedly laid the foundations for the franchise and its burgeoning genre to shine, it would take until the SNES and the 3rd entry in the series for everything to blossom into what is, without hyperbole, one of those finest Metroidvania titles ever to see release. I’ll freely admit that I skipped over Metroid II on the Game Boy in my haste and excitement to finally play and review Super Metroid, but getting to play a fantastic game is worth it!
Super Metroid (SNES)
Released Mar 1994 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
Genre: Metroidvania | HLTB: 8 hours
Even more so than the original game, Super Metroid is the genre codifier alongside Symphony of the Night for how this genre should work. Exploration is a huge, vital element of the game. There’s a lot of work put into making it so you don’t feel discouraged when you find you can’t make any progress in any area. Even if it sometimes seems obtuse, there will always be somewhere you can get through. Finding upgrades for Samus’ gear is the only way you can push forward; many are repeated from the first game, such as the morph ball making a reappearance, as do some of Samus’ suits and beam configurations, such as the ice beam and the Varia suit. There are some new ones to find though; upgraded versions of the missiles and bombs are some of the strongest weapons Samus can bring to bear against the space pirates who’ve taken up residence on Zebes once again, and are also powerful tools for navigating around the landscape. You also get power-ups that are simple utility pieces: one of my favourites is the X-Ray Scope, which allows Samus to see hidden routes and passages.
Just as in the first game, rushing into combat isn’t always the best choice available to you. While far more reasonable in terms of difficulty than Metroid, Super Metroid is still tough and committing to fights rashly can easily lead to rapid deaths. A huge change that helps allay the difficulty is the inclusion of save rooms; these were first introduced in Metroid II but Super Metroid expands the idea and includes multiple different kind of hazardless rooms which each offer a different kind of help to Samus. Save rooms are self-explanatory (how on earth we ever managed without them in Metroid is unthinkable) but others give Samus a place to load up a map of the local area or refill her energy and missiles.
The map is another frankly huge addition. Super Metroid is an impressively expansive game. Even though we’re revisiting Zebes and many of the areas are similar to their Metroid counterparts, places that appeared before like Norfair and Brinstar are far more massive than before, and there’s also a lot more of the planet open for us to explore including the semi-aquatic Meridia and a crashed ship on the surface. You can also customise Samus’ equipment to an extent. A loadout screen displays all the upgrades you’ve collected and you can turn upgrades such as the beam you’re using on and off depending on your preference. The end result is substantially more freedom for the player than ever before.
Samus is also more mobile than ever. I love how there are elements to traversing the map that aren’t explicitly told to you but that you can infer from environmental cues; for example, you can find yourself stuck at the base of a vertical shaft but when the local creatures around you start leaping from wall to wall, it shows you that you can do it too. The addition and refinement of upgrades like the high-jump, the space jump, and the grappling beam all open up the exploration of Zebes to unprecedented levels, and in turn the secrets and stories hidden within the environment demand even more attention from you to find. We saw this brand of environmental storytelling first in Metroid and II, but Super Metroid turns it into a fine art in comparison; the move to the SNES has allowed the developers to flex their muscles when designing this new look at Zebes.
The jump to the SNES also allowed for a far more story heavy than either of the franchise’s previous games. In fact, the narrative is one of the things that Super Metroid sees a great deal of praise for and with good reason. It strikes a perfect balance between spending time telling you plot in cutscenes and letting the player off the lead to explore at your own pace; indeed, once you get past the opening dialogue and playable prologue, you return to that same sense of isolation on the surface of Zebes as in Metroid. The game guides you in much the same way as in the first game, which is to say that it’s largely hands-off and relies on you reading into the narrative based on what you can see from the world around you. Despite the space pirates’ defeat at the hands of Samus in the first game, it’s clear that Zebes is more than just some uninhabited planet as your journey will take you through ancient ruins of some pre-pirate civilisation, the harsh cold metal of the space pirate installations, and a huge variety of biomes teeming with life.
The actual plot, then, picks up from the end of Metroid II. Samus arrives at a research station with the last Metroid, a hatchling she rescued at the finale of the previous game which subsequently bonded to her. However, shortly after she leaves the station she receives a distress call from them; she returns to find the station wrecked at the hands of the space pirates, who have reformed since their defeat in the first game. In the midst of the carnage, the monstrous space dragon Ridley swoops in and steals the baby Metroid. Fearing a restart of the space pirates’ attempts to reproduce their work to turn the Metroids into a weapon, Samus tracks them back to Zebes to defeat the pirates once again.
Now, sure the gameplay is good and the story is cool but the way the atmosphere of Zebes is created is, in my mind, what seals Super Metroid together into a nigh-perfect package. The ragged breathing in the Title Theme sets the stage: you are isolated, utterly alone, on an alien planet in the fringes of space. The low bass thrums so you know you’re in imminent danger but there’s no help coming. It all feels very Alien. It’s our first indicator that joint composers Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano knew precisely when to use themes and when to construct some of the most effective ambience you will ever hear on a SNES.
The opening of the game, as you run through the destroyed and ransacked halls of the Ceres Space Colony, you’re accompanied by nothing more than rapid beeping of wrecked consoles. The use of static in Crateria as you make planetfall for the first time is used to convey the thunder and acid rain that drills off Samus’ suit to absolutely wonderful effect. In both cases we’re hearing the landscape around us not competing with a theme but instead becoming the focal point for the player to hammer in just how completely secluded they are. There is still is the capacity for theme music though. Descending into Brinstar gives us this aggressive electro-funk bass-led gem, for example. Of course ambience without payoff can leave you feeling cold, so Super Metroid knows when to break out the big guns and really strike terror into its players with tracks like the boss theme for its biggest and nastiest foes which uses chaotic anti-melody and a syncopated backing to represent Samus’ panic, and the theme that plays as you plunge into the lowest depths of Norfair has probably gone on to be one of the most iconic pieces of Metroid music and with good reason: it’s the epitome of what the soundtrack tries to achieve, capturing the threat and danger of these lethal, lava-filled caverns with a strong, slightly discordant melody that is just catchy enough while still being a touch disconcerting.
If you, like me, are approaching the franchise for the first time, a big question you might find hanging over Super Metroid is the nostalgia many fans have for it. It’s not that surprising that there’s a lot of rose-tinted reminiscence of it; it was, after all, considered at the time as a gargantuan leap forward for the franchise, especially if you’d skipped Metroid II, which was naturally more limited due to being on the Game Boy. Super Metroid carries with it a reputation for being among the best games of all time, but that’s a heavy moniker to live up to, especially when you’re looking at a game that’s nearly 30 years old at time of writing. While the standards of games are very different to modern audiences, some carry the test of time and remain eminently playable. I feel like I have a tendency to over-criticize some older games in terms of looking at the them through the lens of whether a game is playable today and perhaps occasionally reach less-popular conclusions – take a lot of the NES library, for example – but the SNES had such strong quality in its roster that even today many of its titles are just as good as the day they released. It should come as no surprise that Super Metroid is among that number.
When I finished Super Metroid I sat back a little and reflected on the experience, as I am wont to do while the credits rolled, and I came to the conclusion that it was a very fine game but it didn’t quite reach that “best game ever” category for me. I tend to play games a good few weeks before any review of them goes live; it gives me plenty of time to think about it and to muddle through a few revisions of a given review. With Super Metroid though I had a slightly different process because I sat down the day after beating it, wrote some notes, logged off, and then couldn’t stop thinking about Super Metroid. Its locations, its bosses, some of my favourite parts of the game – they were all swirling around in my head. Super Metroid had me in its grip.
I wound up playing it fully another time through before this review went up. I’ve never done that before – never had a game so stuck in my head after beating it for the blog that I had to beat it a second time before I was happy to write the review and post it. Even now I’m still kind of thinking about it, and I suspect with the buffer of reviews I’ve got I’ll probably get around to another playthrough. It’s that good.
And that’s probably why it’s lasted so well, why Super Metroid has been such a resonant force within the Metroid franchise and fandom. It pushed the experience given in Metroid to an absolute peak. I leave Super Metroid excited for where the franchise takes me next, which in the immediate sense is to the Game Boy Advance with Zero Mission and Fusion, but also in terms of being hyped for seeing whether the franchise can either match Super Metroid for quality or use it as a strong springboard to even better things.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.