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Super Metroid is the Ideal Video Game Adventure

Super Metroid smash cuts to credits with no time to mourn the Metroid or even process Zebes’ annihilation. But it works and undeniably ends the story on a climactic high…

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Super Metroid - image courtesy of Metroid Wiki

Few video games trust their audience quite like Super Metroid. Despite releasing nearly a full decade after the original Metroid, Super’s mere premise is predicated on a firm understanding of the series’ lore. Exploration is non-linear and in the spirit of M1, but Planet Zebes is so much bigger this time around that inattentive players will eventually trick themselves into believing they got stuck somewhere. None of Samus’ mechanics are directly explained in-game, so anyone who fails to take the time to experiment with the mechanics will actually get stuck. 

Super Metroid demands your focus, patience, and skill on a more pressing level than either of its predecessors. There is a trust that you will be engaged in the story after a single opening cutscene. Trust that you can follow a plot that has no dialogue and is told exclusively through visual storytelling. Trust you will be smart enough to make progress without anyone or anything guiding you. But as demanding as it all can be, this trust does not take away from the experience. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, why it’s happening, or where to go, Super Metroid is still fun

Super Metroid SNES - image courtesy of Metroid Wiki

Playing the first two games offers greater narrative weight, but the little recap at the start of Super is enough to contextualize the story. Even if you struggle to piece together the actual plot, the environmental storytelling is so rich that the emotions will come across even if the finer details never do. Needing to backtrack halfway across Zebes because you missed an upgrade is frustrating, but actually tracking down something you overlooked is so rewarding that the frustration is worth it. Just as importantly, it’s an opportunity to recognize where you made a mistake and refine your navigational skills for the future. Super Metroid lets you fail and succeed on your own terms, making the adventure just as much yours as it does Samus’. 

Interconnectivity is one of gaming’s greatest strengths as an art form and something unique to the medium. Video games are not passive; they require our effort, input, and presence for progress to be made. This naturally creates a deeper sense of immersion, especially for story-driven games that ease audiences into the role of the protagonist and convey major character beats through player control (think Final Fantasy VII). A series like Metroid puts gameplay above story, suggesting that the narrative and immersion are less important, but they actually shine brighter in Super Metroid than they do in most titles. 

Super Metroid

This is largely due to how Super’s freeform design keeps the pace entirely player-driven. Beyond a fixed prologue on Space Station Ceres, Samus’ journey is deceptively non-linear. The newly introduced Super Missiles and Power Bombs are the main gate checks on Zebes, but there are several different locations where Samus can find her first set, affording you a few potential starting points when it comes to tackling the four main bosses. Samus also has innate techniques that let her bypass otherwise mid-game obstacles early on. You need to get the Hi-Jump and Grapple Beam eventually, but Samus’ ability to Wall Jump can net you valuable upgrades at the start of the game.

Super Metroid rewards players who master the mechanics and study the level design’s intricacies. So many dead ends are either shortcuts or hidden pathways waiting to be uncovered. A single room can house two or three small upgrades hidden in plain sight — you just need to know how to spot them. Enemies sneaking out of walls and the slight glimpse of something out of view are signs to keep searching. You are actively rewarded for spotting oddities in the scenery and investigating. Getting lost is easy, but there is always something to find, and backtracking builds familiarity with Zebes’ layout. Most of the time, “getting lost” is just stumbling into a new area a bit too soon and coming out the other end with a few early upgrades. Super Metroid is the ideal video game adventure. It does not waste your time. It rarely tells you to come back later. Super Metroid respects the idea of players beating the game at its own game. 

You are the one on the adventure. Why shouldn’t it bend to your will? There is an intended sequence that the level design will naturally lead you through, but Super Metroid is so well designed that you can do everything in virtually any order. Doing so is obscenely difficult, but you can fight the four main bosses in reverse — having your rematch with Ridley immediately. You can upgrade to the Gravity Suit before ever finding the Varia Suit if you can pull off the nail-bitingly precise platforming needed to get into the Wrecked Ship early. You can even outright skip upgrades like the High Jump, Space Jump, and Spring Ball if you have the skills to Wall or Bomb Jump through the whole game.

Zebes in the first Metroid didn’t have much in the way of visual variety, but Super Metroid course corrects with a diverse and defined ecosystem split across six major areas. Brinstar, Norfair, and Tourian all make reappearances but with major aesthetic overhauls. Brinstar goes from a cavernous labyrinth to a lush testament to Zebes’ natural life. Upper Brinstar is a genuine jungle bathed in greenery, while Lower Brinstar is a red soiled swamp covered in alien plant life. Norfair is still flooded in lava but sports a burning bright background that lends the area a Hellish atmosphere. Ancient ruins start popping up as you head deeper into Ridley’s lair — lava spilling into magma — alluding to a civilization long gone. 

Tourian is a husk of its former glory, as you can visibly see the damage from the first game’s ending explosion on the terrain and scenery. While you pass through the original Tourian early on, a rebuilt version functions as the final level. Unlike other parts of Zebes, Tourian is mostly artificial and trades the organic alien aesthetic for more traditional sci-fi flair. Tourian shares this artistic detail with one of SM’s new areas, the Wrecked Ship. A vessel that crash-landed on Zebes some time ago, the Wrecked Ship is filled with ghosts, murky water, and technology clearly not native to the planet. The Wrecked Ship and Tourian offer a change of pace to Zebes’ natural set pieces. 

Instead of starting in Brinstar, Samus lands on Zebes’ surface: Crateria. Visually, Crateria slightly resembles Brinstar as it was in the NES original – especially the deeper you go. The environment’s main color palette is blue, backgrounds are appropriately dark, and most natural life is out of sight. While the safest overall area in the game, Samus lands during an acid thunderstorm that gives Crateria a foreboding edge. Zebes already had a “you should not be here” quality in the first Metroid, but Crateria shows that the very elements are against you. 

Zebes Weather - image courtesy of 90 Second Manifesto

The last new area Super Metroid introduces is Maridia, and it is one of the most dangerous parts of Zebes in spite of its tranquil aesthetic. Maridia is an ocean out of time and place, where the planet’s isolation hits hardest. Water physics adds a considerable amount of weight to Samus’ movement without the Gravity Suit equipped, to the point where simply jumping and keeping momentum becomes extremely difficult. Traversing Maridia can feel like a puzzle in and of itself. The layout is confusingly maze-like. You need to figure out that Samus can use a Power Bomb to detonate an underwater glass tunnel connecting Brinstar to Norfair just to explore the rest of Maridia.

Maridia actually has the most eclectic and varied geography in Zebes. Most of the region is submerged in water but spills into a sandy area filled with traps and sandfalls that weigh down Samus. A Space Pirate lab can be found hidden amongst Maridia’s many pipes where Mochtroids (failed Metroid clones created by Mother Brain’s pirates according to the manual) roam free. There’s even a stretch of Maridia where Samus is dealing with water and sand at once. Your only saving grace is that you basically need the Gravity Suit to get this far as it lets Samus move unburdened underwater. Maridia being so punishing just speaks to Super Metroid’s trust in your ability to conquer seemingly overwhelming challenges. 

Samus Gravity Suit

As trusting as the game is, Super Metroid offers audiences an olive branch by sporting the series’ first in-game map. Gone are the days of mapping out Zebes and referencing a physical map when lost. Not only is a mini-map displayed in the top right of the screen at all times — offering direction at a glance — a more detailed map can be referenced in the pause menu. The more you explore, the more the map fills in. Mapping Stations also pop up throughout the level design to help fill in your local surroundings without identifying secrets or pinpointing where to head next. 

While Samus’ map is undeniably a handy tool, it is worth keeping in mind that it lacks modern sensibilities. Doors are not noted whatsoever, and the pause screen can only display a single area’s map at a time. Charting a route by looking at the map is impossible without familiarizing yourself with the level design. You need to remember where dead ends are and how areas are actually connected. This prevents overreliance on the map, keeping your focus on the actual gameplay and navigating intuitively. Super Metroid’s map is better than good; it’s good enough. 

Zebes’ overall level design is divided into six maps that intelligently loop back into each other, which is the main reason why Super Metroid is so open-ended, to begin with. Crateria directly connects to every area except Norfair. Norfair is accessed through a hallway that connects to Brinstar and Maridia. Brinstar and Maridia make up the middle chunk of the map together, overlapping with one another. The Wrecked Ship and Tourian are the only truly isolated areas, but this makes sense as they are not natural to Zebes. Every area has its own detailed map and unique layout, but the world design’s genius is that everything is more connected than it seems. 

Super Metroid Screw Attack - image courtesy of NeoGAF

This is doubly important since backtracking is a regular occurrence on Zebes. There are no teleporters to quickly warp Samus around, requiring you to make the full walk whenever you need to turn back. One-way doorways and dynamic changes in the environment based on your progress also influence how you backtrack, at times preventing you from returning through the path you came in. The level design does a good job at helping you backtrack organically, but you can also find optional shortcuts or just brute force your way out of somewhere by mastering Samus’ movement.  Navigation can feel like a puzzle, but one where there are multiple solutions to every problem. Some secrets are real brain teasers that test your observational skills and just how well you understand Samus’ toolkit, but the late-game X-Ray Scope lets anyone find everything with a little patience. 

Presentation-wise, Super Metroid is on a completely different level compared to M1 and Return of Samus. The game takes full advantage of the Super Nintendo to produce one of the most cinematic experiences on the console. Although not particularly impressive today, the fact the story opens with a voice line of dialogue, 

“The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace…” 

Sets the stage for a grander adventure than contemporaries like A Link to the Past or Mega Man X. Samus has an internal monologue that establishes some semblance of character in an age where Mario and Link were completely silent. She mainly just recaps the first two games, but it’s enough to characterize her as a seasoned bounty hunter who knows her way around the galaxy. The fact Metroid I and II are recapped at all lends Super’s narrative an almost epic scope, especially since the plot picks up mere moments after Return of Samus’ ending. 

Maridia Secret Passage - image courtesy of Wikitroid

The first two games utilized an excellent “less is more” approach to their aesthetics to overcome the NES and Game Boy’s respective hardware limitations. The SNES allows Zebes to burst with a visual variety that creates a deeply palpable atmosphere. Effects like Crateria’s acid rain and falling petals in Lower Brinstar set distinct moods for each biome. Water ripples and flows through Maridia, muting the lighting the deeper you go in. Samus’ helmet actually bubbles, and the camera almost looks soaked behind the water’s transparency. Norfair’s heat waves are so intense that the backgrounds shake and blur as if it’s too hot to look at. The Wrecked Ship even has malfunctioning electrical circuits zapping out of broken outlets, creating a harsh juxtaposition with Zebes’ natural effects. 

As strong as the art direction is, Super Metroid’s atmosphere is enhanced by truly inspired music. Kenji Yamamoto returns after an absence on Return of Samus, but this time accompanied by Minako Hamano. Yamamoto and Hamano’s joint work on the score comes together into an iconic soundtrack that masterfully juggles the thrill of adventuring, a creepy tone, and the trademark Metroid loneliness that defined the first two games. Yamamoto & Hamano’s score is as epic as it is ambient, with each song perfectly suited for their environment. Upper Brinstar has an upbeat yet tribal energy that leans into the jungle aesthetic. The Wrecked Ship’s music builds a haunting ambiance bordering on hostility. The SNES is no stranger to good music, but Super Metroid is in a league of its own. 

Shinespark - image courtesy of Metroid Wiki

Samus’ control scheme sees a massive improvement courtesy of the Super Nintendo, as well. Property controlling Samus still takes time to learn, but the skill ceiling is so much higher than it ever was. Momentum plays a big role in gameplay, and Samus now has a dedicated dash button. Several rooms require you to run across crumbling floors, something Samus cannot accomplish while walking. The Speed Booster is introduced as an upgrade that lets her break the sound barrier so long as she keeps her dash’s pace. A Speed Boosted dash can break through certain walls or even get charged into a Shine Spark — a technique that rockets Samus in whatever direction you aim her in at the expense of health. 

Well executed Shine Sparks can help you sequence break on a game-breaking level while leaning into Super Metroid’s freeform platforming. Samus’ Wall Jump is inherent to her kit but goes untelegraphed until later in the game. Figuring out the technique early is a great benefit that opens up the world considerably since you can jump off any wall. Wall Jumping is a difficult skill to master but becomes almost effortless with some practice. The secret is to press the jump button only after Samus touches the wall you want to push from, already holding the direction you want to go in on the D-Pad. Skills like the Wall Jump, Space Jump, and Grapple Beam lead to more advanced platforming set pieces. 

You can Wall Jump uptight vertical shafts that normally require you to freeze enemies into platforms with the Ice Beam or simply extra height from the Hi-Jump. Space Jumping lets you continuously jump so long as you can keep a tight rhythm, circumventing the hardest platforming challenges at the expense of reasonably hard platforming in itself. The Grapple Beam is a brand new upgrade that allows Samus to lock onto certain tiles with a plasma whip. Grapple Hooking lets you jump from ceiling to ceiling with quick reflexes and precise aim, along with latching Samus onto floating tiles. With enough velocity, you can even whip Samus around these tiles to launch her into the air or land on top of them. 

Bomb Jumping - image courtesy of Pholder

The Morph Ball is a useful tool in the first two Metroids, but its mobility has been revamped for smoother gameplay. The Morph Ball can be triggered mid-air to slide Samus into cracks in the wall. Bomb Jumping requires careful timing but can help Samus reach narrow heights for those who struggle with Wall Jumping. This can get you into Kraid’s Hideout early, an area otherwise locked behind the Hi-Jump. Alternatively, the Spring Ball returns from Metroid II as a late-game upgrade to ease up Morph Ball platforming. Super Metroid features many highly technical skills to learn and master, but it never neglects those players who will inevitably struggle. Upgrades like the Spring Ball make everyone’s lives easier without taking away the fun of high-level gameplay. 

In a May 1994 interview with Game Players, director Yoshio Sakamoto told the magazine that the development team wanted to “wait until a true action game was needed,” a sentiment that shines through in Super Metroid’s combat. The level design now incorporates battle rooms that lock you in until every enemy has been killed. Metroid II added the ability to shoot directly below you, which SM expands to directional shooting. The L and R buttons are set by default to direct Samus’ aim diagonally down and up, respectively, but the D-Pad also gets the job done in this regard. The inclusion of diagonal aiming means enemy patterns can be more sophisticated, leading to hectic action set pieces the first two games could only dream of.

The addition of Super Missiles and Power Bombs alongside regular Missiles gives you more variety during battle, along with each sub-weapon having its own combat use. Power Bombs are normally used to clear large areas of breakable blocks, but they can also kill Metroids in Tourian. Crucially, Super Metroid finally introduces the ability to equip multiple Beams at a time. The Spazer and Plasma Beam still contradict each other, but the rest all stack. Samus no longer needs to trek between different upgrades, and you can even disable Beams in the pause menu if you dislike their effects. Disabling all but one Beam with the Charge Beam still equipped even lets you trigger special secret attacks.

Samus Diagonal Shot - image courtesy of Metroid Wiki

If you equip the Power Bomb and then charge your Beam, you can activate a unique effect for each. The Spazer normally fires three beams at once, but its special attack launches mortar-like sparks into the air. The Ice Beam freezes enemies after reaching a damage threshold but can actually finish them off this time while creating an ice shield around Samus when Power Bomb charged. Wave Beam shots go through platforms and walls or generate four beams that pulse around Samus’ body. The Plasma Beam increases your damage output, pierces enemies, and creates an AoE attack that targets the whole screen as its special attack. The only downside to this system is that Super Metroid fails to telegraph it outside of a single title screen demo reel most players will never see. 

But that “downside” also embodies Super Metroid’s philosophies as a video game. You are encouraged to experiment because experimentation actually leads to the discovery of mechanical novelties and new techniques, something very few games meaningfully take advantage of. This encourages not only replayability — already one of the franchise’s established strengths — but makes every playthrough novel. That alone increases replay value by virtue of you now knowing where to go and what to do. You can blitz right to the best upgrades, properly prepare for boss fights, and really appreciate the level design or combat nuances you may have missed the first time around. 

Super Metroid Ridley - image courtesy of Metroid Wiki

Bosses, in particular, get better the more familiar you are with their patterns and set gimmicks. Unlike Metroid II, which mainly threw the same boss at the player multiple times, Super goes for variety. Kraid is a showcase of the SNES’ scaling effects and twists the expectations of anyone who played the first game. Phantoon’s intangible body means you need to time your strikes precisely, or else the battle will drag out. Draygon’s entire fight can be skipped by electrocuting him — just let him grab you and then fire your Grapple Beam into any of the arena’s electrical generators to fry him. Ridley is a war of attrition that rips through health, tanks ammo, and stands out as a highlight of any playthrough after an already dangerous hike through Lower Norfair. 

Super Metroid is a masterpiece of pure game design, and that extends to its narrative. The plot emphasizes environmental storytelling like Return of Samus, but where Metroid II was akin to a slow burn horror movie, Super Metroid is a fast-paced Sci-Fi action epic. Samus touches down on Zebes and immediately starts fighting her way through Mother Brain’s Space Pirates. There is no dialogue, or traditional story beats outside the opening and ending, but this is a strength. The game’s focus stays staunchly on the gameplay while letting the story play out in the background through subtext. 

Reading the manual offers important context, but all the clues are present to piece together the minutiae. Mother Brain’s Space Pirates rebuilt Tourian and are desperately trying to clone Metroids. The Metroid you saved at the end of Return of Samus only spares you before the final battle because they recognize Samus’ critical health noise from her fight with Ridley at the start of Super. Environmental details speak to the planet’s dead civilizations and the cultures that once inhabited what is now a hellscape. Zebes conveys a storied history and lore through imagery alone. That the main plot hinges on key details from M1 and RoS help turn the first three games into a cohesive, overarching trilogy where each entry builds off the last. 

Mother Brain Fight - image courtesy of rvgfanatic

Thankfully, Super still retains the horror that surged through Metroid II’s veins, albeit less all-encompassing. Ridley’s sudden appearance from total darkness on Ceres is shocking, but it carries even more weight for veterans since he was the hardest boss in the first game. Crocomire’s death is jarringly gory, and you have to watch as the flesh melts off his bones. The Wrecked Ship is Metroid’s interpretation of a ghost ship, but decayed and alien enough to be genuinely unsettling. The titular Super Metroid encounter at the end of the game especially channels the series’ penchant for horror. 

Samus makes her way through a corridor of corpses that the Metroid drained dry. A Chozo statue that sets itself up as a boss fight is already dead by the time you meet them, and the Super Metroid ends up absorbing Samus’ health all the way down to 1 HP before sparing her. It sets the tone for an intense finale you may not survive, something that gets echoed when Mother Brain starts pounding Samus with her strongest attacks during the final battle. The ending sequence speaks to Super Metroid’s as a whole: focused but deceptively non-linear. 

Once the Super Metroid sacrifices its life to drain Mother Brain and channel her energy back into Samus to deliver the finishing blow, you need to escape Zebes on a timer and return to your ship on Crateria. This is not just escaping Tourian like in the first game, but actual planetary destruction. The path back is fairly straightforward, but there is a secret room near the surface where you can free the animals that taught Samus about Wall Jumping and the Shinespark, respectively. This is an entirely optional encounter that does nothing but eat away at your time, but it’s an opportunity to be a hero on your own terms — which is the best kind of heroism a video game can offer. Super Metroid respects your curiosity to the very end.

Super Metroid Ending - image courtesy of Metroid Wiki

Super Metroid smash cuts to credits with no time to mourn the Metroid or even process Zebes’ annihilation. But it works and undeniably ends the story on a climactic high. There is no need for an epilogue when you fulfill your mission so thoroughly. Just as importantly, this marks the eradication of all Metroids in the galaxy, wrapping up the series’ main arc with a twist: Samus goes from wiping Metroids out to avenging the last one. This is a game with no fluff, filler, or padding. Everything matters. No game is perfect, but everything about Super Metroid helps craft an ideal adventure: an experience so compelling you might just start another playthrough as soon as you finish your first. 

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Daniel

    July 17, 2021 at 4:18 am

    A very good review! My only question is it too old for spoilers 😂 I’ve played through myself about a dozen times so I’m aware of all the tricks yet to some virgin players some of the techniques are supposed to be found not told 🤷🏽‍♂️ Maybe I’m getting old!

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