It is regarded by many as one of the greatest games of all time on any system. It has inspired countless sequels, spin-offs, and imitators. It helped create and define an entire sub-genre of video games…
…and it has sat on my shelf of shame for roughly 20 years.
For most Nintendo fans, this game requires no introduction. Released on the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1994, it is the third entry in Gunpei Yokoi’s acclaimed Metroid series, following Metroid on the Famicom/NES and Metroid II: The Return of Samus on the Game Boy. In many ways, it is a reimagining of the first game, taking place on the same planet with the same enemies, bosses, and areas, and even a few of the same secrets. But Super Metroid is bigger and better in almost every way.
Starting with basic fundamentals, the controls are almost perfect. Though figuring out the differences between the straight jump and the spin jump take some practice, and I never got the hang of the wall jump, everything else is intuitive and responsive. The shoulder buttons are put to good use, allowing you to shoot diagonally either up or down, even while moving. The default button layout is a little wonky at first, with Ⓐ to jump and Ⓧ to shoot, but fortunately that’s all customizable. I highly recommend the standard Mario controls: Ⓑ to jump, Ⓨ to shoot, and dash designated to Ⓐ, but you may find your own preference.
If you don’t know the story of Metroid, the opening cutscenes will introduce you, and bring you up to speed on the events of the first two games. After that, you’re pretty much on your own. Storytelling is light, with the only major plot events happening in the last few minutes of the game. Everything else is simply exploration and combat. “Levels”, for lack of a better term, are open ended. You can go anywhere your abilities will take you. If there is a place you can see but not reach, rest assured you will find an item in your journeys that will make it available to you later. Most enemies are simply obstacles, quickly dispatched or easily bypassed. Some are specifically placed to let you restock necessary items, or allow passage to an otherwise unattainable area. Most are just there to distract you and give you something to shoot as you navigate.
And that’s how you explore the Space Pirates’ hideout on the planet Zebes. Bosses and mini-bosses are scattered throughout the facility, which must be found and destroyed in order to unlock the final area. Items to aid you in your quest are found in key areas, or as rewards for beating certain bosses/mini-bosses, or are sometimes completely hidden. It’s up to you to explore every grid of the map for secrets.
This is where the game does not age well. Every Metroid game since this one has vaguely guided you on your way, showing you where you have to go next, but not how to get there. Still, they give you some idea as to whether you’re even headed in the right direction. Super Metroid does not do that. If you want to know where you’re supposed to be at any point in the game, you’d better either consult an online walkthrough (which wouldn’t have existed back then), or hope to make a lucky guess and arrive at your destination with sufficient supplies. During the last half or so of my play through, I regularly visited SNESmaps.com. Without them, I never would have found the boss of Maridia.
What I found most amazing was the attention to detail. For a game that runs at 256×224 (the standard resolution of a Super Nintendo game), every color and movement is totally engaging. Environments begin as warm and familiar, then turn to dark and mysterious, then fiery and intimidating, then finally strange and scary. Everything from the enemies, to the backgrounds, to Samus herself has a lifelike range of motion. Let Samus stand for a while and you will see her breathing. The flora and fauna of Brinstar pulsates with natural activity. The surface of Zebes is under a constant rainstorm. (Remember when rain in a video game was impressive, kids?) Combine all of these elements with the equally immersive music and sound effects, and you have a side-scrolling platform game that is as cinematic as any modern first-person shooter today.
Although many of the trappings of old-school games can make the experience frustrating at times, modern conveniences like online maps and save states make this game exponentially more playable for casual gamers discovering this classic for the first time on a Wii U or New 3DS. All things considered, this is a must-play game from a bygone era, and its influence on modern games is undeniable.