Then And Now – Super Metroid

20 Jan

Then:

I have a confession to make. A deep dark secret to reveal that taints my retro gaming credentials. I didn’t like Super Metroid when it originally appeared in 1994. I suppose I just didn’t get it, my young mind wasn’t ready for the long, dark corridors and solitary wandering. It seemed to have no structure, no purpose pushing me forward. Mario was so clearly defined; get to the castle without dying. Zelda had its temples, its new items, its semi-tutorial in the castle. Super Metroid though, confused me. I was on a strange planet, gun in hand, searching for a ‘metroid’ which apparently was very important. I hadn’t played the NES original, so all plot was lost on me. Venturing forth to discover branching paths which seemingly all led nowhere, I quickly tired of shooting the same enemies as I failed to find what I was looking for. I got about as far as the discovery of the morph ball ability, before the game was discarded. Little did I know that that transformation opened up more of the game to me. I was used to linear progression, and assumed that all the rooms I’d explored were fully exploited for any progress they might yield. Super Metroid offered little explanation, and I had never encountered anything like it before in a game. In fact I’ve encountered little since.

Now:

I returned to Super Metroid fully aware of its reputation. It is held in high regard by most discerning gamers for the very reasons I was so quick to ignore it in the past. Games which follow a non-linear path, which value exploration and discovery are rare, but they do exist. The Castlevania series offered me a glimpse of how compelling the freedom offered can be. Could Super Metroid do the same, now that I understand how to approach it, or would I be as unenthused as I was before, blindly fumbling in its dank caverns?

Simply put, Super Metroid blew me away. The art style never left an impression on me originally, but now I wonder how I could have ignored its subtle beauty? Maybe it stems from a plethora of modern games which rely too heavily on the same shades of brown or grey to create a sense of gloom in their interiors, but this game is special. Somehow the perfect shade of pink or orange can evoke terror, as rock walls suddenly appear organic, and herald the appearance of ever more powerful enemies. The planet Zebes is alive with colour and variety, yet never garish or vulgar. Its depths never fail to surprise, and what should be a series of caves quickly give way to a planet alive internally in ways its rainy surface could never reveal. Bio-mechanical flora and fauna all vie to cease your path through the labyrinthine world. Strange statues and technology hint at what must once have been a habitable place, now deserted, lonely and foreboding. This is surely one of the finest examples of 2d gaming in terms of the use of the technology to create a palpable atmosphere of isolation, confusion and adventure.

Adventure, you see, is the core of Super Metroid. Few games afford the player that feeling of discovery every time a new weapon or ability is accessed. A higher jump suddenly causes flashbacks to places unreachable, which now might be explored. It all feels impressively personal, as you forge your own path, and find these power-ups in an order dictated by your own choices. Go left and you may find a more powerful missile, right and an upgraded spacesuit is your reward, each giving you a new way to open the depths of Zebes and confront the multitude of aggressive creatures which lie in wait.

The gameplay is also influenced by your choice of routes. Rush through and you may miss something which can help defeat one of the enormous bosses, or open a later path. Your weapons and abilities are integral to combat, and using the right one at the right time can give you an enormous advantage. Waste all your missiles on the way to a boss encounter and you could struggle, but without the missiles your health may be too low to have a chance when you get there. It creates an interesting trade off. While missiles are plentiful, dropped by slain foes, some of the more impressive power-ups are rare, and conserving them to open doors or for use exclusively on bosses can save backtracking, but in pinch they may keep you from restarting at the last save point. It all comes down to choice.

The level of choice in Super Metroid, without the plot device of measurable morality or other such gimmick, is wonderful. No play through is the same, players will feel their way through Zebes in their own personal style, some slowly, savouring the exploration and excitement of discovering something new, others blasting their way to the next boss, stopping only when they need something to gain passage further into the game. Even players who play the same way will discover things in a different order. The game gives the player such power over their progress that it is almost overwhelming. At times it is easy to get lost, vainly struggling to discover the right way to get to the next area. Yet Super Metroid never frustrates, in other games such blind fumbling would lead to empty rooms or dead ends, but here backtracking is rewarded with new paths opened by abilities gained later. Getting stuck simply encourages players to find another route, desperately scanning the map for a path, which invariably leads to a completely unexpected detour.

Super Metroid is an astonishing achievement, offering a totally personal experience which leaves the player feeling isolated yet emboldened, ploughing onward through a series of beautifully designed areas, in a totally non-linear way. There are no levels, no constraints which can’t be overcome with a little ingenuity and most importantly of all, no boredom. The game is compulsive, teasing the player with new areas just out of reach, which are always worth the effort. The number of power ups make the exploration rewarding and the combat deep and satisfying. Even taking on the games standard enemy types is consistently fun, let alone the huge bosses, thanks to the addition of a new attack at regular intervals. Like Zelda, with its hookshot and boomerang, there is a certain thrill to finding morph ball transformation, the grappling hook, the ice beam, knowing full well that they open the game up that little bit more, and that is enough to keep coming back for more.

Utterly compelling and totally enthralling, Super Metroid now stands as one of the highlights of the Super Nintendo’s stellar catalogue. It combines tight, fluid gameplay with a level of depth seldom seen in games of any era. Truly a classic of gaming, I now consider it one of my favourite SNES games, and that’s without any rose tinted glasses.

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