Critical Rewind #2 – Of Space Pirates and Exploration

Note: This article is actually going to be posted as part of “GFF Annual Gamer’s Month”, over at the GF Forums. It’s not going up THERE until Friday, but I couldn’t wait to post it, so here it is!

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Release Date: April, 1994
Ports: Wii Virtual Console – 2007

It’s raining. Not like a little sprinkle or a fine drizzle, but an all-out torrent. The water is running steadily down the sides of Samus Aran’s spaceship, sending mini-waterfalls cascading to the muddy ground below. No one is going to mind, though. The natives of Zebes have long since cleared out of here. The only welcoming committee Samus could have expected included a bunch of laser gun-toting Space Pirates and a host of intergalactic monstrosities. But right now, there’s only this vast expanse of dark, rocky outcroppings… and the sense of being completely and utterly isolated. It’s not the kind of thing you know, but feel, like an emptiness in your stomach and a maddening silence that fills your ears. It’s something that Samus understands all too well. But it’s not quiet. The air is wracked with howling winds, the drumming raindrops, and the faint but oh-so haunting overworld theme music. She is not alone, either; she tracked Ridley and his Space Pirates here. They’re somewhere on this planet, waiting to kill her.

But where?

Ignoring the scuffling sounds coming from outside of her peripheral vision, Samus strides down another moss-ridden hallway and stares. There’s the Morph Ball upgrade, the item that lets her morph into a pseudo-basketball and squeeze into tight spaces. After acquiring her signature power-up, she continues down the tunnel… and hits a dead end. She switches directions and winds up back at the Pirate Ruins… and another dead end. Great. This is the last thing she needs. It’s not that Samus is lost; she’s just missed something both important and unobvious. The Metroid adventures have always been about exploration, and this is the granddaddy of them all. Any of the walls might have a weak point that needs to be uncovered. Some of the floors and ceilings can be shot out as well. What looks like a completely empty room may hold the access to hidden passageways, false walls, and countless power-ups. In truth, there are enough secrets in this place to keep a person occupied for days. Sighing, Samus heads back toward her ship. She’s going to have to retrace her steps and look for anything that might lead her deeper into Zebes…

There it is.

It’s small and unimpressive. It’s just a hole, really. But that hole is the key to the vast labyrinth that makes up the world Zebes. The thing is, you never know what’s on the other side of these passages. What will she find down in the darkness? How far down can she go? Will she drop into a lava pit and melt into a metallic puddle? Will she slay the Pirates once and for all, or are they waiting to snipe her once she lands on solid ground? What grotesque monsters and lethal traps await her? It’d be so much easier if she could just turn around, get in her spaceship, and fly off into the cosmos until the end of time. But she can’t; she could never live with such shameful cowardice. Beneath that green visor and orange hunk of metal, she is still as vulnerable as anyone else. But she’s also Samus Aran, and she has a job to do to. Hounded by her inner demons, she morphs into a ball and rolls into the tunnel and to the adventure of her life. So begins Super Metroid.

Picture this: You’ve just seen an amazing TV movie. It was sci-fi, and as you turn off the television, the excitement is still with you. Imagine your enthusiasm when, soon after, you bear witness to this same work, but on the big screen with all of the plusses that come with making such a transition (ie: bigger and bolder), but none of the usual faults (ie: loss of integrity). Such is the progression from Metroid to the Super Metroid. They are both excellent 2-D run-jump-and-shoot games, but the latter is one of Nintendo’s true triumphs, a sequel that respectfully supercedes its ingenious, dusty forerunner in all aspects.

Samus is a female lead character. This was (and still is to a certain degree) a big deal in video games. The point is all but made moot when you consider that there is no way to tell, as she is always equipped in her body armour (save for her unveiling in the ‘special ending’), but the concept is a nice touch nonetheless. I remember seeing (upon her death) the person that hides beneath the Power Suit, and thinking “Wait, what?”… Samus has pretty much become an icon since then.

So what’s a girl to do? Her mission is simple: destroy all the Metroids, Pirates, and other Nasties–and finally–the Mother Brain. She did it in her early 8-bit adventures, and the plot doesn’t change here. Samus lands her bright yellow spacecraft to the tune of melancholy solitude. The music is as ambient as candles in a darkened room: subtle, yet potently mood-setting. The scene is akin to that depicting the first man on the moon; the rocky, alien expanse is hers to cover, hers to conquer.

Even better–once you’ve played through the game a few times, new challenges present themselves. Can you beat the game with 100% collection in under three hours for the ‘Special Ending’? Can you destroy the Mother Brain with minimal equipment, only picking up the bare essentials? How about escaping Zebes in under an hour with all of Samus’ power-ups–a feat that many people still find quite a challenge. The non-linearity of the game really shines while trying to accomplish these trials. ‘Sequence Breaking’ is something that can entirely change the course of the game–with a little skill, of course. For example, collecting the Super Missiles long before fighting the mid-boss that protects them, or obtaining the Ice Beam even before picking up the Varia Suit.

The programmers were clever; they included an abundance of such powers and items for you to stumble across, and thus, the likelihood of you being completely stuck and utterly frustrated at any given time is slim. You’ve reached a dead end, but you just learned that new jumping skill. Think back! Remember that vertical passageway with the little green monsters? They didn’t hurt you, did they? Wasn’t that odd? Unless… they were trying to help you… of course! They were demonstrating!

These kinds of revelations occur often and are always thoroughly satisfying, because just as if we were watching a good movie, we, the audience, pride ourselves on figuring things out. The more dead ends–accompanied by the right amount of clue dropping–the better. Super Metroid exemplifies this entertainment truth expertly, and that is the key to its success.

It features the best mood-setting music of any SNES game that I’ve played, and yes, the graphics are crisp, colourful and slowdown/glitch-free. And I cannot argue when the assertion is made that the bosses are sublime in their alien, gargantuan glory–always imaginative, and some filling more than one screen.

But racing down a corridor teeming with bizarre life forms using your Flash-like, eye-blurring speed attribute to smash through solid rock; making that perfect somersault/grappling hook combination to gain entrance to some hidden room; discovering the familiar statue Chozos there holding yet another attribute or item to add to your repertoire; hearing the strings play that short thrilling tune that highlights your every discovery; and finally, saying to yourself, ‘perfect, I know where to use this’–this is the Super Metroid experience.

Run as fast as Sonic, somersault with agility to put Joe Musashi to shame, fire rockets like keys into shining dome doors, and lay bombs like eggs on the ground or in midair. Blaze enemies with fire, immobilize them with ice, and rend flying aliens with a tuck and roll Screw Attack to make Ninja Ryu Hayabusa jealous. From Brinstar to Maridia to Tourian, traverse the expansive environment, using the excellent, functional map to aid you in uncovering secret rooms and passageways. The layout and your role throughout is what served as inspiration for such games as the superlative Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Shadow Complex. But that’s another review altogether.

This game is immediately engaging, taking you from a powerful cinema to starting you off with a boss encounter and a thrilling timed escape sequence that shrewdly doubles as a training ground for your basic skills. Super Metroid concludes with even greater fanfare, showcasing a wildly chaotic final boss confrontation that is followed by a stunning, controller-dropping, emotional twist that is simply unforgettable.

Don’t take my word for it though–if you haven’t played this game yet (heretic!) go out and find a copy right now. Dust off your SNES (actually, if it’s covered in dust, then shame on you) and play it! A suitable alternative is to pick it up on the Wii’s Virtual Console, but it’s not quite the same experience as playing it with the original SNES controller and all.

Go on then! Put on your Power Suit and track down Ridley. Explore the depths of Zebes, and get the young Metroid back!

I don’t do this often, but this game truly deserves it.

10 out of 10!


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