Never has Nintendo crafted a game that boasts such an uncanny level of immersion, loneliness, and looming threat
Some games spend the whole length of their running time searching for a defining watermark; a moment of remarkable weight that will be imprinted in the minds of gamers for decades to come. For Super Metroid, though, that quest comes to an end right as it is turned on. The words “Metroid 3” come in as if relayed from a mysterious outer space source, indicating the game’s placement on the franchise’s timeline, and, soon thereafter, players are met with a vision of utter calamity: as an ominous tune plays on the background, a dimly lit room filled with dead scientists is shown, and while the machinery remains operational, a lonely caged Metroid screeches as if calling out to someone.
From that moment on, Super Metroid is nothing but a large sequence of iconic moments that come together to form what is Nintendo’s finest moment on their very best console: the unforgeable Super Nintendo.
After supposedly ridding the universe of every single Metroid by raiding the creatures’ home planet, Samus Aran discovers that a lone larva has survived the massacre. Given she meets it at the moment of its hatching, the young Metroid sees the hunter as its mother. Unable to kill the organism, she chooses to take it to a Galactic Federation space station where it will be studied by scientists. When a distress signal calls her back to the orbital laboratory, she encounters numerous corpses and witnesses the powerful life form being stolen by Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates, and taken to Zebes: the hostile headquarters of the intergalactic outlaws. Naturally, she promptly gives chase.
That, right there, is the full extent of Super Metroid’s plot development. And, like almost everything else about the game, it is done in a concise and effective way. Through a mixture of cutscenes and short gameplay segments, the adventure’s introduction is driven home within a few minutes filled with dread and excitement. With the passing of a short time, Samus will have landed her ship on Zebes and – after giving players an invisible pat on the back and silently whispering “Good Luck” – the game will abandon them to their own luck.
Starting from the hero’s landing pointing, players will be tasked with exploring a gargantuan maze composed by six distinct locations that are connected to each other in various ways and extend all the way from Zebes’ outermost layer to its darkest depths. There is the rocky and superficial Crateria, the organic Brinstar, the watery Maridia, the fiery Norfair, the sinister Wrecked Ship, and the technological fortress of Tourian.
The beauty of this interminable web of rooms, shafts, corridors and caves comes in the fact that under no circumstance whatsoever will the game give as much as a minuscule nod that might tell players the direction on which they must head. Super Metroid marks the first time a game of the series presented a highly useful map that is slowly revealed as Samus explores the vicinity, but other than a few markers indicating possible points of interest like save rooms, missile recharge stations, and the hiding venue of eventual power-ups, it offers absolutely nothing in terms of clues.
Starting the game with nothing but the most basic version of her suit, which is practically only capable of shooting weak beams, Samus must scour the planet for places that can be reached with her current equipment so that she can find upgrades that will allow her to access new locations. It is a grand circle of constant investigation and discovery, and it often demands that players remember where previously unreachable doors are so they can backtrack there once they find the power that will serve as the key to unlocking those secrets.
The upgrades she will come across are numerous – there are more than twenty of them – and extremely varied, including the famous Morph Ball, the powerful Super Missiles, and the handy Grappling Beam. True to the game’s hands-off approach in relation to helping players, the acquiring of any of those abilities will only come with a simple one-line set of instructions on how to use them, leaving it up to gamers to figure out how the skills can be used effectively and where they will be useful.
Furthermore, as a great statement on Super Metroid’s loosely structured exploration patterns, some of those upgrades are entirely optional, like the X-Ray Scope and a few of the items that make the beams that shoot out of Samus’ canon arm more powerful.
Hence, although Zebes has its fair share of enemies and environmental hazards, Super Metroid’s challenge does not lie in keeping Samus alive, but on figuring out where to go next inside this planetary labyrinth. It is true the monstrosities that are the game’s bosses do pose quite a threat, and the accumulated damage from minor creatures and other traps can leave the hunter in a very precarious state, but those work as a nicely done complementary element rather than the game’s actual meat.
As a perfect turn that fully depicts Zebes’ overall nature as a hostile and wild planet, its organisms behave in distinct ways. While some beings will show an unchanged behavior despite Samus’ presence, others will actively try to kill her as soon as she is seen.
All those elements, the natural demeanor of the enemies, the solitude of the quest, the scarcity of information as to where to go next, the slightly sinister vibe that emanates from Zebes’ visuals and – especially – the music that accompanies them, and the lingering feeling that bad things are always about to materialize, raise Super Metroid to a level of its own within the Nintendo lore in terms of conveying the feeling of complete isolation.
The game’s greatest victory is, by far, its ability to make players feel totally immersed in the events happening on the screen. Samus’ lonesome quest, one that pits the hunter and her swiss army knife of a suit against a highly organized and intelligent army, is fully broadcasted in all its daunting and secluded glory.
To go along with the intricate exploration needed to clear it, Super Metroid has many collectibles that expand Samus’ arsenal, upping the number of missiles, super missiles, power bombs, and energy tanks she can carry. Locating them frequently demands a great level of attention not to mention a solid memory as some of those items are spotted when the hunter still does not have the equipment needed to reach them, hence forcing completionists to backtrack when her suit is properly upgraded.
The problem is that, although most collectibles can be encountered in places that are reasonably seen by anyone that is looking attentively, some are impossibly hidden. Super Metroid, sometimes, becomes way too enamored with secret tunnels covered by normal-looking blocks that require bombing and items that are only revealed by shooting random rocks. On certain occasions, it is possible to deduce, via visual cues, that a specific mass can be broken apart; but, usually, it just comes off as a cheap way of hiding secrets. Yet, such a flaw is only a small smudge on the game’s otherwise flawless armor.
The game’s value is also considerably boosted by its legendary speed running opportunities. As it is made clear due to the fact Super Metroid holds tiny surprises in its ending depending on how quickly the game is beat, it is possible to find alternate paths through Zebes and skip parts of the adventure entirely. That built-in bag of tricks is an alluring doorway to anyone who enjoys challenging themselves by blasting through a game as fast as possible.
Through the decades that have come to pass since its release, Super Metroid has remained as the franchise’s primary source of inspiration, the grail it is constantly trying to recreate, due to a very clear reason: never has Nintendo crafted a game that boasts such an uncanny level of immersion, loneliness, and looming threat. It is a planet-wide adventure on which players, guided by nothing but their own noses, must slowly navigate the arc between being poorly equipped to achieving the status of a one-woman army set to blow the whole place to smithereens. It is a brilliantly paced and extremely demanding journey, but it is one packed with powerful feelings of isolation and exquisite rewards.