Why is it on this list?
As I mentioned in the Mega Man X article, the best video games are the ones that evolve with the player’s skills. You’ve mastered running and jumping? Great, now let’s turn into a ball! Got being a ball down? Welcome to the wonderful world of bombs. Etc. However, a significant difference between Super Metroid and Mega Man X is that MMX is “level based”, and X’s abilities only ever improve in the service of reaching the end of the next stage; by contrast, Samus Aran’s abilities improve not only her combat effectiveness, but her ability to reach and explore new areas. In a way, this is a minor difference between the two games, and in another way, this tiny difference created an entirely new genre from arguably the exact same components. Jump, shoot, and now explore.
So why Super Metroid and not Metroid or the various similar Castlevania games?
Super Metroid is the pinnacle of what began in Metroid and Metroid II. Super Metroid’s predecessors were both excellent games in their own rights, but things like the beam limit (oh, picked up the Wave Beam before Tourian? Too bad!) and the Spider Ball (fun for exactly three seconds before a rolling boredom settles in) scream “first try”. Also, Super Metroid’s minimap and pause maps are such a revelation, it’s nearly impossible to go back to the old “break out the graph paper” prequels. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night liked the map system so much that it stole it wholesale and never looked back. Sure, Igarashi, you had Zelda in mind, not Metroid, we all believe you.
Speaking of Castlevania, the Metroid series has always had one very important leg up on the Castlevania series: power-up acquisition. Consider: in Super Metroid, there is a power-up hiding under Mother Brain’s old brain tank, a location that is visited very early in the game. In Castlevania, this power-up would have to be a weapon or armor of some strength, yes, but, due to it possibly being found in the early minutes, it would have to be fairly weak, so as not to imbalance the early enemy challenges, or completely outclass every single item you’d find afterwards… but if you find this secret later in the game, it’s basically trash. In Super Metroid? The power-up is a missile upgrade, which is useful whether it’s your first upgrade or last. Yes, there may not be a point in the game where you need 200 missiles at your disposal, but it is handy to have a full compliment if you’re diving into the fires of Norfair to confront a certain space dragon.
Additionally, Castlevania’s “leveling” system seems perfunctory on Samus’s “just a tank” gameplay. Samus can take a hit, in fact, she can take many hits and keep on trucking, never having to particularly worry about killing a thing. This is different in Castlevania, as the monsters involved are supposed to be interesting challenges, but… well… you’ll be overleveled for some reason, either due to finding decent gear or looking for decent gear, getting lost, and killing so many enemies Alucard’s level accidentally precludes the idea of a boss being a remote challenge. Obviously, this is its own kind of fun if you enjoy that kind of thing, but it’s a poor lesson for a video game novice. Grinding should not be encouraged, by accident or design.
So Super Metroid is a good choice because it’s easy?
Barring some gray doors that must be soaked in space pirate blood, Samus does not concern herself with the monsters of Zebes. As a result, “health” is less important in the “can I take a hit from that geega” sense and more a signifier of where not to go. Enter a room, and your energy tanks are draining faster than an industrial strength toilet? Way to go, you found a place you’re not supposed to be, maybe go try somewhere else. The challenge in Super Metroid is the navigation, not the minute to minute “monsters”. A Mega Man or Mario game is a race against your own hit points; a goomba or met may end a successful run right at the finish line simply due to suffering too much damage earlier in the level. A comparable situation in Super Metroid is not a zoomer, but a wall. Do you have the skills/items to overcome this obstacle? Do you know the best way to handle this situation? Ridley’s lair is not guarded by some invincible boss, it is guarded by boiling lava and an “impossible” jumping challenge. The challenge is learning what will make Samus “get there”, not memorizing an enemy’s pattern or remembering to save enough energy tanks.
And remember, death in video games is always ephemeral, the true “setback” of death is, in the end, wasted time: you must now restart the level, and expend your own time completing challenges you already once completed. Super Metroid doesn’t have to kill Samus to slow down the player; just ask anyone who spent days running around Zebes looking for the next area when all they ever had to do was super bomb that one stupid tube. Not that I’m still bitter decades later…
So you’re sticking to the bold stance that Super Metroid is a worthwhile game?
Better men than I have outlined exactly why Super Metroid is a great game. See the excellent Anatomy of Metroid book by J. Parish for a complete breakdown of why this might be one of the most well-constructed video games ever. Hell, just play the game, and you’ll likely innately sense the perfection like so many of us did in ’94, back when gaming alternatives included luminaries like Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit. Super Metroid is not only a good game, it is an ideal game for learning about games, and how to play games. Once the local college approves my syllabus, this is the first game I’m assigning for homework in Video Games 101.
The Gaming 5 #2 Super Metroid
- System: Super Nintendo, but also available on the Wii/WiiU virtual console service. Interestingly, this is the only Gaming Five game that does not have a portable version or remake available. This is unacceptable!
- Number of players: One Samus Aran, alone in her powersuit, forever.
- Favorite area: Norfair Depths, home of Ridley, is just so delightfully inhospitable. Every inch of the place is covered in lava and spikes and oppressive heat, and the Space Pirates are all hanging out, ya know, chilling, soaking up some rays. And you ever notice how the whole area has a lot of really small passageways? How did the boss even get into his lair? Ridley is too big.
- Did you know? This game was released stateside on my birthday. This… means something.
- Did you know (Not related to me edition)? As of writing this article, there is an adorable website at supermetroidguide.com. It’s, like, an old Angelfire site dedicated to Super Metroid. I want to be clear here, I am not mocking this site in any way, I genuinely love that we live in a world where this is a site that was apparently made sometime recently (it mentions Other M) but looks like it was made in 1999. Some delightful nostalgia.
- Did you know (Okay, let’s talk about the game edition)? While it was just kind of implied before, later release Metroid Zero Mission confirmed that Samus Aran spent a significant part of her childhood living on Zebes. Setting aside how a human child could survive five minutes on a planet where giant bugs can damage an entire powersuit, this means that Samus should have some emotional attachment to the place. So Samus Aran returns to her old neighborhood as an adult, finds it infested with a criminal gang, expels the mob, leaves, and returns sometime later to find she did practically no good the first time. Her second visit lasts about two hours, and, when she leaves, the entire planet, and everything on it, is blown to pieces. And Metroid Other M decided Samus would have PTSD over the baby.
- Would I play again? I’m told that sometimes when I am involved in boring meetings or other events where I could be spending my time elsewhere, I enter a sort of “trance state” and my eyes glaze over. Some mystics have described this state as a sort of nirvana, but I know that when that happens, I am just playing Super Metroid in my head.
What’s Next? Let’s ignore the power of plasma beams, and move on to the punishing power of music. Please look forward to it!