In the early eighties, Nintendo began to recruit new employees from art programs at universities. Among them was Yoshio Sakamoto, a graduate hailing from Nara Prefecture. His first experience with video games involved contributing sprite artwork for Donkey Kong Jr., the follow-up to their 1981 arcade classic. Shortly thereafter, he worked on the arcade version of Wrecking Crew, a puzzle game starring Nintendo’s mascot, Mario.
Back in 1980, the company revolutionized the industry with their line of portable Game & Watch consoles. In the face of this enormous success, their creator, Gunpei Yokoi, was then put in charge of the company’s first research and development team; among his subordinates was Mr. Sakamoto. One of their first assignments was to create games for their up-and-coming Famicom. This console, called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) overseas, would help revitalize the American gaming scene after its crash in 1983. Contributing to its success were two classic games created by Mr. Yokoi’s team: Kid Icarus and Metroid. Nearing the end of the decade, they elevated portable gaming to a new level with the Game Boy. It was on this platform that he decided to produce a sequel to Metroid. This new entry was also a success, and contributed to the sale of many more Game Boys.
Makoto Kano, who worked as a designer for the two Metroid installments took notice that both games proved popular with their North American audience. Inspired by this unexpected market, Mr. Kano asked his colleague, Mr. Sakamoto, to direct a new Metroid installment utilizing what were then the cutting-edge graphics of the Super Famicom. The man who found himself in the director’s seat sought to push their 16-bit console to the limit by enhancing the game world’s appearance and generating a greater level of expression all while leaving the core concept untouched. He would later state in interviews that the project came dangerously close to being canceled on three separate occasions. Their primary skeptic was, ironically enough, Gunpei Yokoi, one of the most important figures behind the series’ creation. Purportedly during development, he would take note of the team’s attention to detail and sarcastically ask if they were trying to create a masterpiece. Nevertheless, Mr. Sakamoto and his team, supplemented by staff from Intelligent Systems, soldiered on, and the fruit of their labors was released in 1994 under the name, Super Metroid. The game was met with widespread critical acclaim, quickly cementing itself as one of the system’s greatest titles despite competing against Rare’s more visually striking Donkey Kong Country released later that year. Even to this day, it’s considered the crown jewel of the franchise, and one of the best games of the nineties. Mr. Yokoi himself would be won over, describing the final product as a reference to what a good game should be. Was Super Metroid able to improve upon the original and stand as one of the finest in the Super NES’s library?
Analyzing the Experience
Space pirates throughout the galaxy began conducting illegal experiments on Metroids – lifeforms from Planet SR388. Within seconds, these parasitic creatures are capable of completely draining the life force of another organism, leaving them dry husks. Whenever the Galactic Federation learned of these operations, they sent a solitary bounty hunter named Samus Aran to stop these outlaws. Though she emerged victorious against them time and again, the Federation concluded that as long as Metroids continued to exist, the civilized world would never know peace. Upon returning from a particularly perilous mission, they tasked Samus to infiltrate SR388 and eradicate the species.
The bounty hunter proved quick and efficient at this task, eliminating every Metroid she encountered. After disposing of the Queen Metroid, she happened upon one final egg which hatched right in front of her. Rather than attacking Samus, the infant Metroid imprinted on her, believing her to be its mother. Even after all she had gone through, she found herself unable to vanquish the newborn creature, and dutifully handed it to Ceres Space Colony. The scientists’ findings suggested that the Metroid’s power could be harnessed for the benefit of civilization.
Shortly after leaving, Samus receives a distress signal from the station. Upon her return, she discovers the scientists dead and the capsule containing the Metroid broken. She is then confronted by Ridley, an elite space pirate that had clashed many times with the fearless bounty hunter in the past. Though she puts up an admirable fight, she is unable to prevent him from escaping with the infant Metroid. She gives chase in her starship, following him to Planet Zebes where she destroyed the pirates’ leader, Mother Brain. In order to rescue the larva, she must now make her way through their reconstructed base.
Super Metroid abandons the linear level progression of Metroid II and returns to the somewhat open-ended level design popularized in the original. The world is divided into six regions, yet one could argue the entire game is but a single level. There is an intended order in which you must accomplish your goals, yet it differs from The Legend of Zelda and contemporary JRPGs in that it doesn’t actively prevent you from straying from the path.
To defend herself against the hostile forces present on Planet Zebes, Samus has missiles and a power beam, which is generated by her armor. Although the power beam is typically weaker than missiles, it can be fired indefinitely. Meanwhile, Samus can only carry a finite number of missiles at a time. As some enemies can only be harmed by their percussive power, it’s best to conserve them whenever possible. For this mission, Samus can also utilize super missiles and power bombs. Super missiles are exactly what one would expect them to be – they’re more powerful than normal missiles, but in exchange, Samus cannot carry nearly as many of them. By ducking twice, Samus enters Morph Ball mode. In this state, she can navigate narrow passageways and lay bombs. They can be used to damage enemies or open up new areas by destroying brittle barriers. Later on in the game, she gains power bombs, which are capable of hitting every enemy onscreen. In exchange, she can only hold a limited supply of them.
There are several power-ups littered throughout Planet Zebes capable of enhancing Samus’s offensive, defensive, and mobile capabilities. Rather than being unable to progress until you obtain a special artifact that the plot hinges on, you might not be able to reach an area simply because you can’t jump high enough yet. It is not necessary to locate every single upgrade, but doing so can save the player a lot of aggravation in the long run.
Also hidden are tanks capable of increasing Samus’s carrying capacity. They come in five different varieties: energy, missile, super missile, power bomb, and reserve tanks. Samus’s Power Suit starts with 99 units of energy. An energy tank provides an extra 100 units for each one discovered. Intuitively, missile, super missile, and power bomb tanks allow Samus to carry more ammunition of their matching weapon types. Reserve tanks function similarly to energy tanks, only they don’t appear on the HUD. Should Samus deplete her suit’s energy entirely while possessing reserve tanks, she will regain however much energy they have stored. Alternatively, you opt to use them manually wherein they act as a science fiction analogue to healing potions. They are refilled by collecting energy pickups when she is at full health.
At first glance, Super Metroid would appear to be similar to the original, albeit with more collectables to find and an update in visuals. Actually playing it reveals that the gameplay has been improved in every conceivable aspect. To begin with, the controls are far more fluent, making it easier to jump from platform to platform without falling off by accident. Samus is also capable of shooting diagonally now, allowing one to aim at any enemy onscreen regardless of their position.
An annoying aspect about Metroid and its sequel was that you could only hold on to a single beam at a time. By itself, this wasn’t terrible, but you could only use the most recent one you acquired. As the final areas required the ice beam to stand a chance against the titular Metroids, you needed to collect it a second time when you were ready to beat the game. The developers of Metroid II placed an ice beam upgrade just before the corridor containing the Metroids, but it was a method of addressing the problem without fully grasping what made it irritating.
Super Metroid takes care of both of these issues in one fell swoop by introducing a status screen; it lets you activate or deactivate upgrades at will. Among other things, this means you can combine beams. For example, using the ice and wave beams at the same time will produce a weapon capable of both phasing through solid objects and freezing any enemy it hits. Granted, there’s little reason why you would want to stop using an upgrade, as there are no downsides to keeping them activated at all times. However, it’s still a good touch because it makes it easier to keep in track of the upgrades Samus has procured along with subtlety informing the player that more yet await with the number of empty slots in each category.
Another welcome improvement to the series this game offers is its map system. In the upper-right corner of the screen, your immediate surroundings are displayed, and by pausing the game, you can view a more detailed version. Each region has a computer from which you can download a map. Areas you have explored are highlighted in pink while untraversed regions are colored blue. These databases don’t reveal the entire region, for there are still secret passageways to discover, but the system significantly streamlines the exploration process. This is because save points and energy refill stations are also marked on these maps, making it easy for the player to decide whether to keep going or double back to regain supplies as the situation warrants.
To establish the proper context when parsing the level design, Metroid contained innumerable vertical and horizontal corridors with the sole significant difference usually being their color palettes. Meanwhile, Metroid II showed a little more variation, but if anything, it was even worse due to its lack of color and having to rely on a cumbersome power-up to reach certain locations. Both games were about as atmospheric as the machines on which they saw their original release allowed, but admirable efforts though they may have been, they haven’t aged well. Seeing a persistent, featureless, black background made the environments static and forgettable.
As a consequence, they became tiresome to navigate due to having no map screen to rely on, yet the level design of Super Metroid is such a marked step up, it almost doesn’t need one. Although many longtime enthusiasts will be the first to tell newcomers that graphics do not make the game, the attention to detail Mr. Sakamoto and his team went to create elaborate, distinct backgrounds for every single area actively contributed to their work’s quality. It’s to the point where even those who are only passingly familiar with the game can identify where Samus is from a single screenshot.
It’s reasonable to assume that, being a game released in 1994, the presentation of Super Metroid would begin showing its age by now. This couldn’t be further from the truth; the environments are every bit as immersive now as they were then. Part of what makes them work is how they’re analogous to real-life biomes, yet they have a distinct alien look to them. Don’t be surprised when exploring Planet Zebes if you begin to think less of it as a level in a video game and more of an ecosystem you must traverse to accomplish the mission.
It all plays into what I feel is the best display of storytelling offered in the series thus far. There’s not much dialogue and the game lacks any NPCs to interact with. Samus’s opening narrative comprises a vast majority of the text to be found. Instead, Mr. Sakamoto and his team opted for a “show, don’t tell” approach to conveying a plot. With Samus as a blank slate, you can project your own reactions and subjective feelings onto her as you guide her through these hostile environments. In the wake of the approach artists would take in the coming years in which they tried to emulate films, it’s refreshing to watch a subtle, intriguing story unfold purely through gameplay. There is an unofficial list of objectives, yet everyone will go about fulfilling them in their own way.
Another advantage this game has over its predecessors is its boss fights. Comparable encounters in the original Metroid and its sequel were mostly a matter of shooting enough missiles and trying not to take too much damage in return. It wasn’t until nearing the end of those games that you were forced to come up with more elaborate strategies. In Super Metroid, attempting to win these fights through sheer brute force will more often than not result in you wasting resources or getting killed. You now have to study their patterns, wait for an opening, and then attack, judging for yourself when it’s time to pull back to avoid the boss’s counterstrike. Depending on the circumstances, you may even have to think outside of the box in order to succeed.
The only real issue I have with this game is how unintuitive it can be at times. Some items require bombing random spots or otherwise expending resources unnecessarily to find. To be fair, a majority of the mandatory power-ups are easy enough to find, as they tend to be rewarded upon completing a boss fight or elaborate puzzle. However, there’s at least one moment in the game which could be considered a small blunder on the developers’ part. At one point, you need to destroy a glass tube |with a power bomb|. From a realistic standpoint, the solution is serviceable, but the problem is that it doesn’t exactly play by the rules the developers themselves laid out. It’s far from a debilitating flaw, but I can easily imagine that it ended many a player’s run back in 1994 when such information wasn’t easy to find.
Fortunately, it’s easy to overlook this minor slight. Indeed, I feel it speaks volumes for how much of an improvement Super Metroid manages to be that its worst design choice manages to be miles ahead of its predecessors at their best. Should you choose to play this game, know that most of your playthrough will not consist of grinding for energy units or aimless wandering.
Drawing a Conclusion
Super Metroid is exactly what a sequel should be – it’s a work whose creators aimed higher by using their previous canon as a springboard rather than trying to recapture its success. The creators behind the original Metroid deserve credit for being inventive along with creating what is arguably gaming’s quintessential female lead, but at the end of the day, the game was a little too ambitious for 1986. It wasn’t really until the Super Famicom era that the technology caught up with these forward-looking ideas. Indeed, not only were Mr. Sakamoto and his team able to successfully polish the original’s gameplay, they established the gold standard for what would later be dubbed the Metroidvania. Its entomology is a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, as a few years later, Konami would take cues from this game and The Legend of Zelda to create Symphony of the Night, which many believe to be one of the medium’s greatest achievements.
I don’t think Super Metroid is quite the pinnacle of the series, but it absolutely deserves the strong following it has amassed over the years. Despite having been one of the earlier 2D Metroidvanias, I feel it ranks among the best of them. It demonstrates just how incredible video game narratives can be with only the tiniest amount of context to go on. I could write several more paragraphs extolling the qualities of this game, but I believe the only way to truly grasp what I wrote about is to play it for yourself. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Final Score: 8/10