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Me and Super Metroid

Josh on Nintendo’s classic SNES action-adventure game, Super Metroid

This isn’t going to be a review, at least not really. Super Metroid has already etched its mark on video game history. It’s a classic, a golden cow, a game used to measure the quality of others in its genre. But it’s a classic that I’ve not played until now. I was four years old when Super Metroid came out, and it would be another ten years before I started to appreciate video games, and then a few more years on top of that before I started to really take them seriously. I missed an awful lot of classics because of this, and in the last few years I’ve been trying to catch up. Super Metroid was always on the list of games I should play.

...And so it begins
And so it begins…

I love the Metroid Prime games. So you’d think Super Metroid would be one of the first games on the list I’d play. For whatever reason, that wasn’t the case. This year however, I suddenly felt the urge to play something Metroid related. I considered just replaying Metroid Prime, but I felt it was time to try something new. I sure as hell wasn’t going to attempt Metroid: Other M again, that was for sure. So it was time to stop putting it off, and play Super Metroid from start to finish.

Then and Now
Then and now

With my Classic Controller pro in hand, I started it up. The thing that immediately started to seep into my subconscious and suck me into Super Metroid’s world is the music. This opening theme sets the tone straight away. I didn’t quite know what I was in for, but whatever it was going to be, that theme was telling me it was going to be interesting. The score for the rest of the game is far less bombastic and much more atmospheric, and this is to the game’s benefit. Composer Kenji Yamamoto knows when to lay the melodies on thick, and when to hold back. The more subtle music is just as memorable, this piece in particular kept looping in my mind.

This music playing over the game’s dark, moody visual aesthetic creates a dense atmosphere that felt reassuringly familiar. One of the key aspects of Metroid Prime that made it such a memorable experience for me was the feeling of complete isolation. Having now played its predecessor, I appreciate how much Metroid Prime owes to Super Metroid. Both games ‘feel’ very similar, despite being so mechanically different.

The early sections do a great job of establishing mood
The early sections do a great job of establishing mood

The art direction in general is quite stellar. The designs for all the bosses were really weird and wonderful. Crocomire stood out as a particular favourite of mine. He manages to be completely grotesque and yet kind of cute at the same time. That might say more about my general mental health, than it does about Crocomire. I don’t care – I love the guy, alright? The environments are the highlight though, from the cold darkness of Crateria, to the lush vegetation of Brinstar. Every area feels unique while still maintaining the game’s signature atmosphere.

Isn't he cute?...right?
Isn’t he cute… right?

Now, I think I should mention that despite having never played this game (or Symphony of the Night), I was pretty familiar with the 2D Metroidvania structure already. I’ve played many games, such as Shadow Complex and Outland, which draw direct inspiration from Super Metroid. So going into Super Metroid, I was expecting to at least like it, but maybe end up feeling that it had aged somewhat. That wasn’t the case at all.

Super Metroid controls fantastically. Every move Samus makes feels fast and precise. It really doesn’t control that dis-similarly to Cave Story, and that was released almost 10 years after Super Metroid. In fact it seems that out of the two protagonists, Samus is a much better marksman. She can shoot diagonally, which is something they obviously didn’t teach Quote in Terminator Academy. However, I have to say that trying to perform the wall jump proved very frustrating. I could never manage to pull it off consistently, as the game is extremely fussy about the exact timing of the maneuver. Thankfully this technique isn’t needed to progress, and is only there for those who want all the collectibles. If it was necessary, my opinion on Super Metroid wouldn’t be quite so glowing.

Speed Booster! My favourite power up!
Speed Booster! My favourite power up.

More than anything else, it’s the pacing I was most impressed by in Super Metroid. So many modern games feel the need to throw tense, high octane action at the player non-stop. Super Metroid certainly has very tense moments, but there are periods of quiet that allowed me to reflect and think about where I was going, and what I needed to do. It constantly ratchets up and ratchets down the difficulty of the experience, which aided the feeling of momentum. At one point I was stuck on a particularly hard boss, but instead of turning the game off and returning to it at a later date, I felt compelled to push through. It was because I knew once I got past this wall, I would then be able to make a huge amount of progress before hitting the next one. This, combined with the steady stream of upgrades and power ups you find along your journey makes Super Metroid a very hard game to stop playing.

Always a welcome sight
Always a welcome sight

Metroid has never been a series focused on narrative, except that one game that we don’t talk about. Nevertheless I’ve always respected how subtly Metroid Prime presents its narrative. Samus is completely alone, with no allies or even enemies she is capable of communicating with. Because of this, the developers wisely choose not to include any dialogue or narration that explicitly tells the player anything. There is a mission briefing at the beginning of the game to give you some loose context, but that’s about it. Metroid Prime uses environmental and visual storytelling to convey information, and it’s up to the player to piece it together. This is yet another case where Metroid Prime owes a lot to Super Metroid, as all of that is present here as well. I don’t think the actual story presented in Super Metroid is particularly great or anything, but tackling it in this way made it more engaging than it would be otherwise. I can think of a few modern games that could have benefited from this style.

Dead scientists, broken container, Ridley. That's all the player needs.
Dead scientists, broken container, Ridley. That’s all the player needs.

This restrained approach to storytelling, the strong artistic vision and of course the great game design, helped place Super Metroid above more modern examples of the 2D Metroidvania formula. Shadow Complex is a really well put together game. But the story and dialogue are complete garbage, and the art direction isn’t very inspired. Outland has the opposite problem. Its visuals are more than a match for Super Metroid’s, but there were quite a few frustrating gameplay moments sprinkled throughout. Super Metroid had tough sections to push through, but they were almost always fair. It didn’t always feel fair in Outland.

I think it’s important to go back and experience the classics if you really love a medium. Playing Super Metroid has really made think about what I enjoy about videogames, and how that reflects on modern titles. Visual fidelity constantly improves and new technology means that video games are doing things they’ve never done before. If a video game is going to be remembered years from now, it’s certainly not going to be for having the latest and greatest tech. Technical breakthroughs are only exciting once: when they first happen. Great design, pure and simple, is what will be remembered decades from now. This is what separates flavour of the month from true greatness. Super Metroid is a masterclass on design, and thus it was built to last.


  1. I’ve only had a very limited experience with the Metroid series, in both Metroid Prime 2 and Metroid Fusion. I’m told both share a lot of DNA with Super Metroid, and the thing that struck me most about those two games is their very intense tone. They both feel incredibly lonely, and often quite oppressive and sometime overwhelming. But I think that’s part of their appeal. You’re alone on this strange and unwelcoming planet, and your task is to explore and conquer it all and overcome the hostile environment with no help but your own.

  2. I can’t wait to play Super Metroid when it comes to Wii U Virtual Console in May. The merits of Super Metroid should have been patently apparent to me long before now, but it’s only just occurred to me that I really ought to play it.
    Thanks, Josh, for stoking my anticipation.

  3. Well as someone who is trying to revisit old classics that I missed I think that this was just the kick I needed to try super Metroid,never really played any metroid game so this should be interesting.If any “old” game inspired a feeling similar in me would probably be Megaman X Im always amazed of how well made and fresh that game feels even after 20 years,when some modern games feel very old just a few years after release

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