Super Metroid: A Critical Second Look

Super Metroid sits on a golden pedestal, inside a sacred chamber, deep within the revered temple of Retro Video Game Classics. To approach, one must meditate for seven days, chanting the ancient mantra: atmosphere, exploration, powerups, backtracking… atmosphere, exploration, powerups, backtracking… once you’ve cleansed yourself from the impure, hand-holding world of Modern Gaming, you may gaze upon its beauty for yourself.

Upon exiting, you may only speak of Super Metroid in hushed, reverent tones. If you discuss its soundtrack, you must mention Lower Brinstar. If you discuss its level design, you must mention wall jumping to sequence break right to Kraid, or speedrunners. If you discuss its graphics, you must mention the falling rain when first arriving into Crateria. You might even feel inspired to make an indie game. It is normal to feel this way. Remember, though, that Hollow Knight is the #1 Metroidvania, the only game to have ever gotten close to Super Metroid‘s glory, and any attempt you make will only fall short.

Super Metroid certainly has its glorious moments. It earned its Gold Standard status among older gamers. Samus Returns, as much as I’ve praised that game, doesn’t quite match the same heights that Super Metroid reaches. And yet upon my 4th playthrough of this game, I want to point out that not even Super Metroid is flawless. While saying this may be blasphemous, I want to give a more accurate picture of the game for someone who may have never played a Metroid game before, and this may be their only exposure before trying Metroid Dread. Some parts of it remain brilliant and shiny, and other parts haven’t aged well. I sure hope that MercurySteam took extensive notes from this game when developing Metroid Dread.

The first glaring blemish on the game is its aging control scheme. Compared to later games, this iteration of Samus is not as easy to control. She’s certainly more capable than on the NES and Game Boy, but it still takes a bit to adjust to her movement. Her walk begins slow, and her jump is really floaty. Strangest of all, you need to use the Select button to cycle between your different weapons. It felt rather clunky, particularly since the Y button is sitting there unused — a button much easier to find than the Select button (and doesn’t require me to move my thumb off the D-pad to stop moving). During boss fights where you may need to switch back and forth between beams and missiles, the clunky Select button is the last thing you need. It may take some adjusting, but eventually you’ll get used to it.

What I’ll never get used to, though, is this landscape (and consequently its soundscape). Planet Zebes makes a lot out of so little. I’m immediately drawn in with the fog drifting through Tourian’s hallways, the petals floating gently down Brinstar’s forest, and the heat waves simmering in Norfair’s magma chambers. And the level of detail goes down to Samus herself. Her visor glows in dark corridors; she pants harder when at lower health; her suit gives off air bubbles when underwater. And of course, the soundtrack and sound design makes every moment feel important, whether that’s a quiet moment or a bombastic one.

The reason I think players pay attention to these details is because Super Metroid knows when to tone things down and be quiet. It knows exactly how to ease a player into a new area with its atmosphere, then build tension, and finally culminate into a tense boss battle. And then it dials it back and starts all over again with a new part of the world. It works when you land in Crateria, it works when you dive into Brinstar, and it especially works when you venture into the Wrecked Ship. As much as I like Samus Returns, it lacks in this elegant crescendo and decrescendo of action.

Furthermore, the Metroidvania feedback loop of finding an item, exploring with your newfound toy, and pushing further into the planet, is in full force. I think the other reason some players say that SR388 from Samus Returns feels forgettable is that they were never required to remember it. You rarely need to think about what roadblock you need to backtrack to.

That being said, Super Metroid also has these… moments. They’re not good moments. They’re moments where you’re just stuck, and you’re completely stumped on how to move forward. Most of the time, Super Metroid is very good at giving the player hints by its map, or by placing enemies in strategic spots — like the crabs crawling through the pipes when you’re trying to find the Ice Beam. However, there are other places where it feels like they forgot to add in those key hints. There was one point where I got turned around in Brinstar, of all places, and I said to myself, “No way… surely I remember what I’m supposed to do.” And yet I floundered for a solid half-hour. I thought I’d accidentally softlocked myself.

It can be fun to wander around for a while, but eventually these moments become frustrating. It can be unclear why you can’t progress — is it because you forgot to bomb this one specific block, or is it because you need to come back later with a new item? Even when you open up a guide, you can’t help but think, “How was I supposed to figure that out?” There are plenty of moments where you feel like a genius, but also several where you feel like a dunce. Again, for those players who are more used to those frustrating moments characteristic of older games, they may have more patience for this kind of thing. For players not used to finding dead-end after dead-end, I’d recommend playing with a guide. Heck, even I needed a guide sometimes just to help jog my memory.

It’s a testament to Super Metroid‘s quality that it can overcome these tiring moments and bring you right back into the game. When the sequences work, they really work. And the game only gets better the more you play it and understand its mechanics. There’s a reason why it’s a popular choice for speedrunners. Eventually you can learn to get the items out of order, acquire cool tricks to defeat bosses quicker, and even skip areas entirely. If you can get into it, Super Metroid is a gift that keeps on giving. In fact, almost all Metroid games are that way. If you like Super Metroid, then I’m very happy to tell you there’s a whole series and a whole genre just like it, and I can’t wait to see how Metroid Dread will measure up to it.

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