Samus Aran’s mission on planet SR388 was a success. The Metroid threat has been exterminated, the sole surviving specimen safely in containment at Ceres, where Galactic Federation scientists are busy researching its properties. Samus reflects upon the larva’s curious behavior, how it crooned at her after hatching, thinking her its mother. As she is pondering whether she made the right decision to spare the infant she receives a distress call from Ceres.
Arriving at the research centre Samus finds the place chillingly quiet. Scientists lay dead in the main laboratory, the hatchling missing. As she explores the dark rooms of the ship she comes across the Metroid, safely contained but as she approaches a nightmarish shape looms out of the shadows. Ridley the leader of the Space Pirates is there! After a brief firefight the evil creature snatches the larva and escapes. Samus pursues to planet Zebes, where she defeated Mother Brain, the very place the Metroid saga began.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOLIERS
Super Metroid is one of the greatest video games ever made. Arriving on the SNES in 1994, the game completely overwhelmed players with its thick, oppressive atmosphere, peerless gameplay, absorbing design and endless secrets. It is arguably the best sidescroller of all time, a title that, like so many made by Nintendo for the SNES, took what was great about the series in 8-Bit and elevated it to the next level seamlessly and with extraordinary confidence. As an example of the extremely rare kind of game that gets everything absolutely right Super Metroid stands as one of the all-time greats and it begins its campaign of genius on its iconic title screen.
1994. Nintendo. Presents. Metroid 3. One by one the words appear on screen interspersed with tantalising shots of a dark laboratory, a scene given mood by creepily understated music and the lonely chirps of an infant Metroid. The title screen comes up to reveal the lab in full, bodies strewn over the floor, the gelatinous parasite floating alone in a glass chamber. This was dark territory for Nintendo and boy does it set the scene for an adventure loaded with atmosphere.
As you touch down on Zebes and begin your search for the Metroid larva (again asked to begin by going left) the characteristic sense of loneliness returns stronger than ever. Super Metroid might well feature the most claustrophobic open-world we’ve ever seen in a game. Your exploration takes you inevitably deeper and deeper into the catacombs of Zebes fighting through hordes of dangerous native creatures and uncovering the hidden passages that will lead you further and further down. Few games can claim to have so powerfully conveyed the crushing sense of descent as Super Metroid, a game that feels like a constant delve into the lion’s den, a place of pure hostility. Split into a handful of areas, each defined by a theme (jungle, aquatic, volcanic etc.) the vivid world of Zebes remains one of the most immersive and believable video game environments. It has not aged at all. And given that it is now eighteen years old and presented in two dimensions from a side-on perspective that’s an incredible achievement.
The mood of the visuals is defined by the subtle uses of colour and the relationship between foreground and background. The flooded caves of Maridia hum with soothing blue tones, the flowing shape of the water calmly distorting the image of the world. The vibrant oranges of Norfair assault the senses while shimmering backgrounds convey a tangible sense of extreme heat. Small details build up a picture of a living, dynamic world. Tiny organisms scurry away from Samus’ presence. Wall-mounted robots harmlessly scan Samus as she explores the nostalgia-inducing site of Metroid’s climactic battle.
Of course the colourful graphics go an extremely long way to building this atmospheric world, maintaining vibrancy without losing a sense of darkness but the fantastic soundtrack must receive at least equal praise. Monstrous enemy creatures chirp and squeal with pain when you blast them and shots fizzle and pulsate with audible energy. The music is remarkably melodious given just how much mood it manages to create from the rousing, energetic theme of Brinstar to the oppressive chanting of Norfair’s depths. The soundtrack is a masterpiece, but while it’s good to listen to on its own the power of the music doesn’t become fully apparent until you’re playing the game, preferably at night with the lights off and using earphones. In these conditions the various aspects of the design, from the environments to the visuals to the sound, the game achieves a level of immersion that most 3D games never come close to. There can be no other 2D game that can claim to be as absorbing.
The atmosphere and immersion is so much of what makes Super Metroid so memorable (and makes the excessive backtracking bearable) but the gameplay is even more critical and the game triumphs in this area as well. The gameplay keeps everything that worked about the previous two games, tightens everything up and adds to it. The run-n-gun basics remain true but the advancements offered by the SNES controller make marked improvements, the shoulder buttons allowing the player to shoot in all eight directions. This might in fact be the most important improvement given how much easier and more enjoyable it makes combat. You can plow through shriekbats before they swoop down on you without hesitation and countless other routine encounters are rendered far less tiresome. The trade-off is that the difficulty level of the series’ third game compared to its first is much lower however the stress associated with just trying to stay alive is not missed when you’re having this much fun and unless you’re painstakingly careful you will still die.
The controls themselves are fluid and intuitive, reaching a level of polish that allows the gameplay to slot into the mind as comfortably as the controller fits into its port on the console. As you spend time delving into the game you will be playing in a feverish state of total connection with the character, somersaulting around the environments one second, quickly reverting to morph ball mode to dodge an enemy or fit through a tight gap the next. You will aim and blast enemies with autonomous efficiency, cycle through secondary weapons at speed and sprint through environments always feeling in complete control of all your abilities. The gameplay offers the right amount of depth to feel satisfyingly rounded and is programmed with perfect balance.
Not breaking from solid tradition the structure revolves around exploration and gathering power-ups, which makes up the life-blood of the game’s sense of progress. As always you begin with basic abilities and gradually collect more with the pacing broken up beautifully by new acquisitions that empower you with confidence. In addition to the traditional missiles you now have extra powerful Super Missiles that are best saved for bosses and more troublesome enemies, and Power Bombs, which, unlike the regular variety, come with limited ammo and explode across the whole screen potentially killing everything on screen as well as breaking through combustible blocks. The most valuable new asset, without question, is the Charge Shot which is to Super Metroid what the spin attack was to A Link to the Past, a powerful strike charged with the attack button that is so useful it makes you wonder how you ever beat Metroid without it.
But it’s not all about the offense, some of the more memorable power ups function chiefly as aids to exploration. The most entertaining and tricky is the Grappling Hook which allows you to swing from certain blocks to reach new places and can be used to take down one particular boss in seriously cool style. Then there is the Speed Booster which is fairly self-explanatory. You are able to sprint right from the off by holding Y but the upgrade greatly increases the velocity you can reach which is so fast that Samus’ power suit begins shining as she tears through enemies and destructible scenery, better still your jumping ability is vastly improved at top speed. Perhaps the most interesting is the X-Ray Scope, a forerunner of Metroid Prime’s Scan Visor, which pauses the action while you examine your surroundings to reveal hidden items and disguised blocks. Like a number of upgrades you can easily complete the game without ever obtaining this power-up but it really helps when tracking down the innumerable ammo expansions.
But perhaps the greatest joy among Samus’ many abilities is in the hidden ones that are not obtained from Chozo Statues to a triumphant fanfare. A couple of such techniques are taught to you by friendly creatures you can find in quiet corners of the world. The wall jump is a tricky move that allows you to ascend otherwise insurmountable caverns by jumping off sheer walls while the Shine Spark works with the Speed Booster to give you a massive jump. Then there is the Bomb Spread which drops five regular bombs when going into Morph Ball mode whilst charging a shot and best of all the Energy Crystal Recharge, a technique accompanied by a cool animation that can be used to regenerate health when in dire need. There’s something immensely gratifying in discovering and mastering each one and it is secrets like these that give the game another level of appeal.
Like so many Nintendo games the numerous boss encounters are among the most memorable moments in the game. Whether it is in your first shock encounter with a violent Chozo Statue or that unforgettable meeting with Kraid (who is twice the size of the screen) the fights with the big bads stand out as dramatic, challenging main events in the action and provide some of the most detailed and impressive sprite work. But there can be no question that the greatest highlight comes with the legendary final boss. Here come the spoilers.
You’ve tracked down and killed each of the big four bosses including Ridley but the Metroid larva was nowhere to be found in his hideout in Norfair. Now you’ve busted into Tourian and as you explore you come across a corridor filled with enemies that have been reduced to dusty husks that disintegrate as you touch them. A live one appears but before it can attack you the baby Metroid appears and it’s now huge. After sucking the life force out of the beastie it turns on you for the same treatment but the giant gelatinous parasite eventually recognises Samus and relents, crooning again at the being it mistakes for its mother.
Leaving the oversized Super Metroid you carry on and reach a room that looks unsettlingly familiar. You fight your way through waves of projectiles and force fields until you arrive at the hellish sight of Mother Brain sitting in her glass container. As you did in Metroid you empty your payload of missiles into the horrific thing, but this time once the container is destroyed the pulsating brain is not yet defeated. Instead it rises up from the floor revealing itself to be attached to a body with legs. It is the ugliest thing you have ever seen. The fight continues with the two of you exchanging blows but Mother Brain’s firepower exceeds your own. She charges up and unleashes the Hyper Beam, a rainbow-coloured blast of pure energy from which there is no escape. Exhausted by the blast Samus slumps on the floor unable to move or fight back, prone to the next beam Mother Brain is already charging up. But just as Samus looks doomed the baby Metroid swoops in out of nowhere and attacks Mother Brain draining her life before restoring Samus’ energy. Mother Brain remarkably recovers and retaliates, killing the creature which passes its energy and the power of Mother Brain’s Hyper Beam to Samus. Empowered with this new weapon you unleash it into Mother Brain’s face and finally beat the monstrous thing.
With the brilliant scripted drama of the final battle fresh in the mind the traditional race to escape begins. You have three minutes before the whole planet explodes and boy is it a dramatic escape, the screen filled with explosions as you try to negotiate the maze of corridors that leads back to your ship. As you escape you can go out of your way to rescue the friendly creatures you met earlier and there are few things more gratifying than watching a tiny pixel escaping from the exploding Zebes. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do an ending.
There are few people who would dare to argue that Super Metroid is anything less than a masterpiece but how’s this for an indicator? I’ve long believed that games can only be fairly judged at the time of their release. There are few things that irritate me more than modern gamers who dismiss the old-school for its lack of HD graphics and limited tech. I didn’t play Super Metroid in 1994, mainly because I didn’t have an SNES and I didn’t get a chance to play it until 2007 when it was made available for the Wii’s Virtual Console and despite the game being 13 years old, an eternity in the video game industry, it still completely blew me away and is now one of my ten favourite games ever made. That’s how timeless it is.
Design – 10
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 9
Sound – 10
Longevity – 8
The words ‘Nintendo Classic’ have been attached to a lot of games but few deserve them as much as Super Metroid. This unrelenting masterpiece, a favourite among speedrunners, has lost none of its lustre since 1994 and has matured like a fine wine. The fundamentals of its construction are so strong it will never age and the content package is so rounded and satisfying that it is difficult to imagine how it could ever be improved. Absolutely sublime.