Super Metroid

Super Metroid is mostly known for its emotionally charged, cut-scene-less ending -- and for good reason. Even today, that final scene of tragedy and vengeance is a powerful moment and sticks in the mind long after one has moved back into the grimy, HD-world of contemporary games. But Super Metroid is not an experience that can be reduced to one, gripping moment.

Rather, it is awash with texture, and the beginning moments of the game, through an eerily silent space colony and then an equally silent alien planet that slowly comes to life around you, are just as subtly unraveled. The game is, in its own way, horrifying, not because of a lurking undead threat but because Zebes, the primary setting for the game, is a terribly lonely place, and when somebody finally does crawl out of the shadows, they are not there to be your friend.

It is an underappreciated fact that the Metroid games, as a series and with the forgettable exception of Metroid Prime Hunters, have always presented truly alien adversaries, beginning with the Metroid itself. Far from being a bipedal, distinctly human-shaped creature, the Metroid's groping, life-sucking claws and transparent, bulbous “head” are more nightmare than anthropomorphic fantasy, more Giger than Roddenberry. There are recognizable aliens on Zebes, of course, particularly the dragon-like Ridley and the aptly named Mother Brain, which is shaped rather like a human brain, albeit irregularly housed in a glass jar rather than a skull. But on the whole, Zebes is home to life as we have never seen it.

This tradition extended from the NES version, but to be fair, it was rather difficult to construct recognizable forms of anything on the 8-bit system even if one wanted to. But the move to 16-bit only proved Nintendo R&D1's aptitude for bold creativity. What began as a rickety romp through indistinguishable shafts became, with the power of the Super Nintendo, a tour de force of science fiction, a grand masterpiece swimming effortlessly through the peak of 16-bit art and sound.

Super Metroid, like so many NES-hits-turned-SNES-classics, is eminently playable today. If one were to make a list of seminal must-plays -- games like BioShockShadow of the Colossus, and Braid -- Super Metroid would not only make the list, it would top it.

The secret sauce to this genius is simple, if underrated: coherency. As the famous ending is another stage in a series of understated story-telling moments, so does the rest of the game fit neatly into the whole without distraction. In crafting a seamless, non-linear world that expanded both outwards and inwards, R&D1 either understood what they were doing or were doomed to create a broken, disparate experience.

Super Metroid plays out similarly to Metroid -- so similarly, in fact, that intrepid players will instantly recognize certain iconic hallways. A Metroid veteran will know exactly where to find that morph ball power-up. But it is homage rather than retread, and it maintains continuity long enough for the veterans to realize that the Zebes they knew only scratched the surface. Here we find Norfair and Brinstar, better known as the red and green areas from Metroid, but we also explore a haunted ship, an underwater maze, and the stormy surface of the planet itself. Each are filled with their own flora and fauna, and each are slowly excavated with the missile, super missile, speed boot, grappling hook, and super bomb. Zebes is peeled back like an onion, and each layer hides a new ability to find, a new creature to best, and a new theme song to hum along to.

The game's classic soundtrack is as responsible for the character of the different zones as the creatures that inhabit them. It begins with the title theme, a piece that sends chills up the spine and sets the mood for the sinister machinations the player will experience when she presses Start. Then it proceeds onward from ominously understated space station noise to the famous escape theme, then back to disquietude for the opening scenes on Zebes. The soundtrack's recognizable themes are replayed and remixed to this day.

Which brings us back to coherency. The game critic struggles to find a chink in Super Metroid's armor. Backtracking can be a chore in any game, but Super Metroid never lets go of the joy of discovery. Implausibly mastered boss patterns can be frustrating for any shooter, but there are always more upgrades to find and more rooms to explore in the meantime, until victory can be attained by attrition. Mixing genres can be fatal, but Super Metroid's quiet marriage of action to adventure knows its place and trusts that bond to stand on its own without needing to mess with the NES formula.

Perhaps it is that last fact, that Super Metroid expanded upon the Metroid idea only laterally, with more enemies, more weapons, and larger maps, that makes Metroid worth remembering. Super Metroid is without a doubt a better game, but its innovations were primarily seven years old at the time. There is a second lesson here, then, about innovation versus renovation. The best games are rarely new concepts. More often, they are simply good concepts expanded but trimmed, experiences distilled to their basic theses and far removed from the conflicting nonsense that is all too tempting to leave in.

Next time, Metroid: Zero Mission illustrates just how that conflicting nonsense can ruin the simplest of tasks: remaking an aged classic in the tropes of its perfected prodigy.

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