Ignite the fireworks, hurl the confetti into the air, sound the trumpets and sacrifice in my honour whatever animal you have to hand, because it’s time for the final article (for the foreseeable future, at least) in my My First feature series, in which I’ve already covered Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda and Mega Man. For this final feature I decided to look at another long-running and beloved videogame series: Metroid. Specifically, Super Metroid, which I had easy access to via the magic of the Wii U Virtual Console.
Released on the SNES in 1994, Super Metroid is the third game in the Metroid series, the original game having been released on the NES (and Family Computer Disk System) while the sequel was a Game Boy title. A 2-D action-platformer – and metroidvania, naturally – utilising a dark sci-fi aesthetic partially influenced by the classic sci-fi / horror movie Alien, Super Metroid expands on the previous games in the series, taking advantage of the more advanced hardware of the SNES while once again starring intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran as she becomes embroiled in another adventure revolving around the ruthless aliens known as the Space Pirates (They’re pirates! In space!) and the parasitic organisms named the metroids.
Super Metroid is considered by some to be not only the best game in the Metroid series but also one of the greatest videogames ever made. High praise indeed, so I was looking forward to finally seeing for myself if it lived up to the hype. Would my first Metroid be disappointingly unremarkable or would it be a truly memorable experience, like the first time you fire a hobo out of a trebuchet?
To its credit, Super Metroid grabbed me right out of the gate, beginning as it does with a title screen that is dark and foreboding in terms of both visuals and sound. It’s an extremely effective opening statement that really sets the mood and which I found surprisingly subtle and sinister for a game of its time.
The events of Super Metroid take place immediately after its predecessor, Metroid II: Return of Samus, with Samus recapping the previous two games in a piece of opening narration. Gameplay begins on the space station Ceres, where the last surviving metroid is now in captivity. As with the title screen, when I was initially given control of Samus on Ceres, I was immediately impressed by the mood and atmosphere, the space station being dark and eerily quiet.
This quiet beginning allowed me to get to grips with the controls and HUD. Samus’ health is termed “energy” and is represented by a number, while a grid-based map is filled in as you traverse the various rooms that make up an area. Samus has a varied and useful move-set at her disposal, being able to jump, crouch and sprint, as well as fire her beam weapon in eight directions. Your selection of weapons and abilities are increased as you progress through the game – unlike a certain other helmeted bounty hunter, Samus becomes increasingly capable and dangerous rather than dying a stupid death by being accidentally knocked into a sarlacc’s mouth.
The relative silence of the opening scene was shattered when I was suddenly attacked by Ridley, the monstrous leader of the Space Pirates, Samus’ old enemies, who then stole the last metroid from Ceres while also causing the station’s self-destruct sequence to activate. With a one-minute timer counting down, I ran back to the entrance while the station collapsed around me. I escaped in time and a cut-scene then showed Ceres exploding and Samus pursuing Ridley and the metroid down to the surface of the nearby planet Zebes. Having the slow-paced, subtle opening be punctuated by this exciting action sequence was a brilliant choice that worked really well.
With Samus’ ship landing on Zebes we were back to “subtle and sinister” again, the planet’s surface being grey and desolate, with rain pouring and occasional flashes of lightning, the dark mood underscored by suitably foreboding music. I headed into a nearby cave network and then deeper into an underground facility. I soon collected the Morphing Ball upgrade, which allowed me to roll along the ground and through narrow gaps. And all the while, not a single enemy appeared, prolonging the tense, eerie atmosphere – another confident and brave design decision for a game of its time.
Eventually, after picking up a sub-weapon in the form of missiles from a statue of a Chozo, an alien race within the Metroid universe, and using my five missiles to open a red hatch – colour-coded hatches separate some areas in the game, different colours being opened in different ways – some alien enemies finally made an appearance. While dealing with them, I realised that the jumping controls were taking some getting used to, Samus’ jump movements feeling different to a number of other 2D platformers I’d played over the years, although on the whole the platforming felt weighty and precise, like Barry White with a sniper rifle.
Some further exploration led me to a save room in which my game progress could be recorded, and a map room, which contained a device that revealed on my map nearby rooms and areas I’d yet to visit. I’d go on to find these types of rooms scattered throughout the game, save rooms being common enough – but not too common – that I felt like the game was encouraging me to explore, which I gladly did.
After a boss fight against a Chozo statue that came to life, I received a new sub-weapon in the form of bombs which not only damaged enemies but could also be used to access new (and sometimes hidden) areas, and this was something I’d end up doing a lot of throughout Super Metroid’s sprawling, interconnected game-world. I also picked up an energy tank, a consumable item which refills your health when used.
The environments I explored were all subterranean, with no real need for me to return to the surface, these areas consisting of natural caves, handmade stone tunnels and metallic facilities. I also discovered a small, watery cave containing a mysterious statue, one I couldn’t interact with but to which I would return much later in the game.
I learned that the game-world was split into large sections and that there was some visual diversity between them. For example, Brinstar, the second area I visited, had a more organic aesthetic than the initial area, Crateria, as evidenced not only by its scenery but also the giant Venus flytrap-like boss I battled there. To quote Chris Redfield (pre-steroid abuse) from the endlessly quotable original Resident Evil: “We got to the root of the problem.”
The standard enemies I fought consisted of various types of alien creature, usually insect- or reptile-themed, some walking, some wall-mounted, some flying, some crawling along surfaces. Most early enemies took just one standard shot to kill, although I also faced some which I could only kill with bombs. I encountered a cool and imaginative touch at one point in a large room containing a number of light-producing aliens – the more of them I killed, the darker and harder to navigate the room became.
Enemies often dropped health or missiles, and speaking of the latter, I not only found a number of maximum-capacity upgrades – the maximum capacity of other sub-weapons can also be increased with the right upgrades – but I also received my next sub-weapon when I collected the super missile, a more powerful version of the standard missile. I also discovered that like the save rooms and map rooms, there were rooms that restocked my missile supply and rooms that restored my health.
As I continued to explore, the level design and the sheer size and labyrinthine nature of the game-world continued to impress me. I passed through a number of places I reminded myself to revisit later, as there were some obvious rooms and passages which I couldn’t access yet as I didn’t possess the necessary upgrade. At the same time, there always seemed to be somewhere new to go, and this open-ended design and the freedom granted to the player made the exploration a lot of fun for the most part.
I was also amazed at the huge amount of secrets and hidden routes contained within the game, some of which were hinted at while others were well-hidden to the point of “How the hell was I supposed to know that?” For example, at one point I happened to fire my weapon up into the air only for the blast to hit the ceiling and reveal an energy tank in a spot that was identical to the rest of the ceiling. This made me wonder just how many secrets I was missing as I made my way through Super Metroid. Like Han Solo when it’s Chewbacca’s grooming time, I’d need to be thorough.
My alien-blasting, Zebes-traversing shenanigans were assisted by the numerous upgrades I came across in my travels: the Charge Beam allowed me to charge up my blasts; Hi-Jump Boots allowed me to jump higher; the Spazer modification allowed me to fire three shots simultaneously; the Speed Booster allowed me to run faster and smash through certain obstacles; and the Ice Beam modification transformed my shots into icy blasts that temporarily froze most enemies and projectiles.
I noticed and appreciated more small details, such as how Samus’ footfalls kicked up splashes of water in wet areas, and how small bugs would scatter whenever I approached them.
New, more treacherous areas awaited me as I headed deeper and deeper underground, including a cave system in which the temperature was so high, it gradually sapped my health, forcing me to find a different route instead. This led me to my first map-marked, major boss battle: a giant, reptilian alien who I had to fight above a floor of spikes. The fight was tricky but not too tough, and victory granted me a reward in the form of the Varia Suit, upgraded armour that halved the damage I received while also being able to withstand high-temperature areas like the one I had to flee from earlier. Now being able to take this route led to me having to cross harmful pools of lava, although in another nice piece of design, I was able to cross some of these by using my Ice Beam to freeze enemies in place and then use them as temporary platforms.
It wasn’t long before I encountered another major boss fight with another giant alien, although this particular fight played out in a different and interesting way: rather than simply blasting the boss to death, my shots only pushed it back while it simultaneously tried to push me back into the spiked wall behind me, the key point being that I could only win by pushing the boss back far enough that it fell into the pool of acid behind it, the flesh melting off its bones. I really liked the fact that this fight played out in a more imaginative and unconventional manner.
Moving on, I had to navigate pools of acid myself, although the acid was damaging rather than being an instant kill, and even more upgrades helped me with this and my progress in general: the Power Bomb was an upgraded version of the standard bomb; the Grappling Beam allowed me to swing from specific platforms and sections of ceiling; the Wave Beam modification fired an undulating blast that could pass through certain obstacles; and the X-Ray Scope revealed destructible blocks and hidden paths, Samus apparently deciding that her curiosity is more important than the severe health risk that comes with strapping a radiation-exuding device to your body.
I’d been enjoying my time so far with Super Metroid but it was around now that I hit a (figurative) wall when I had to repeatedly wall-jump up the (literal) walls of a vertical shaft in order to progress. I hadn’t used this technique before as it wasn’t mentioned in any in-game instructions or in the digital manual that came with this Virtual Console release of the game, but I assumed it was possible due to the clue I was presented with – a group of harmless aliens repeatedly wall-jumping up the shaft. However, despite numerous attempts, I couldn’t figure out how to perform the wall-jump move and it reached the point where I had to look online for the answer, which turned out to be that the move had to be performed in a very specific way.
This wasn’t the only instance of fiddly and frustrating controls. Later in the game, after defeating another major boss, I received the Space Jump ability, which allowed me to jump repeatedly while remaining in the air. I found this to be an extremely frustrating and unintuitive move to pull off, however. Here is one of the notes I wrote while playing the game for this feature: “That Space Jump move is bullshit.” I think that about sums it up. I also had to look online to discover how to perform Samus’ “Shinespark”, another annoying move for which there was no instruction but a visual clue that told me nothing about the actual controls involved.
I can’t stand unnecessary hand-holding in videogames but having these essential moves be so frustrating to perform while also not giving any hints as to how to actually do this just came across as poor design to me, the Space Jump move in particular pissing me off on several occasions later in the game, my Wii U GamePad creaking beneath the force of my tightening, rage-fuelled grip.
Although this certainly hampered my enjoyment of the game, I continued with my adventure, which took me back to the planet’s surface and to an interesting location: a lake with a large spaceship crashed in it. Exploring the ship’s dark, damp interior and destroying its hostile inhabitants led me to another armour upgrade: the Gravity Suit, which further decreased the damage I received, allowed me to move more freely in water and negated the harmful effect of lava.
The issue of crappy controls reared its ugly, malformed head again in a sandy and partly flooded area named Maridia when I fell into quicksand and discovered that it was a nightmare to escape from, with me having to fight controls that felt awkward and broken every time I was knocked into it by an enemy. Although I was tempted to let Samus sink to the bottom and rot there – “Let that armour be your coffin!” I could have perhaps cried dramatically – I gritted my teeth and pressed on.
There was certainly no frustration offered by standard enemies anymore given that I was a walking arsenal by now, a fact emphasised when I collected the Plasma Beam, the most powerful of all the beams and one I could combine with my Ice Beam, allowing me to both freeze and vaporise enemies with a single weapon. I could have thrown out some Arnold Schwarzenegger-as-Mr. Freeze ice-based puns but that would have reminded me of the fact that I once watched Batman & Robin, and then I would have had to carve out my own eyeballs and fire them into the sun. So I didn’t.
A tough rematch against Ridley in a small arena surrounded by acid saw me dying several times before I eventually emerged victorious, albeit with only a single missile remaining, the rest having been fired at the boss. Ridley’s death led to me returning to the mysterious statue I had discovered early in the game, and now that the necessary bosses were dead, the statue sank, giving me access to the lift below it, which took me down to the final area of the game, Tourian.
Although Tourian began with fairly generic high-tech scenery, my surroundings soon changed to something much more interesting: a desiccated area with the husks of dead creatures scattered around it, husks that crumbled to dust when I touched or shot them.
Now, I’m not going to go too spoiler-heavy here, but I will say that this final act of the game involved the metroid from the title screen, main antagonist and series staple Mother Brain, and a thrilling and fast-paced final action sequence. While the boss fight and overall action contained within the final act of Super Metroid are certainly fun and enjoyable, what really impressed me about it was how the game presented the narrative of this sequence within the actual gameplay. No voice acting, no text, no overblown cut-scenes – just the story playing out within the gameplay itself, the two being masterfully combined. This was a fantastic way to propel the game towards its climax and it ended my experience with Super Metroid on a high note.
There followed a brief ending cut-scene, the credits and some stats regarding my playthrough: I’d completed the game in just under ten hours and my item collection rate was 72%. Given just how many secrets the game seemed to have tucked away throughout its labyrinthine game-world, frankly I didn’t think this percentage was too bad.
So that was my time with Super Metroid, my first Metroid. To be honest, I don’t think the game is the flawless masterpiece that many people consider it to be, mainly due to the frustrating control problems I discussed earlier, although there was also at least one occasion where the method to progress was extremely obscure and which felt to me like the developers being wilfully obnoxious, offering frustration rather than any kind of actual challenge.
But although it has its negative elements, Super Metroid is still a polished, ambitious, confident and very well-designed game – I should throw in a brief mention of the absolutely brilliant soundtrack, which suits the game-world and atmosphere perfectly – and although I don’t love it like some do, I can see why it has been able to maintain such a positive reputation over the past two decades.
But seriously, fuck the Space Jump.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work covers videogames, comic books and prose. His upcoming comic book work includes two graphic novels from Markosia Enterprises. In terms of videogames, he has worked as a writer on iOS action / strategy title Crystal Arena while his upcoming videogame projects include a shoot-‘em-up, an action-RPG, an interactive novel, and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. Marvel at more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy