A fresh case of the ‘roids (part 2)

[[image: ar_042909_metroid_01.jpg:Best title screen music ever? You bet.:left:0]]It turns out Super Metroid isn’t a very long game, even if it’s your first time. I’m actually very pleased about this, since it felt just right and had no padding whatsoever. And, of course, this lends itself to the horrifying world of the speed run, and while I don’t have much interest in that kind of thing, it highlights one of my favorite things about the game: how streamlined it is. This not only apparent in moves like the wall jump that are specifically included – but never required! – to let skilled players tackle the game more quickly (and sequence break the hell out of it), but in the way every item in the game makes Samus more mobile. A great example is the area right before the Space Jump, which takes awhile to traverse until you acquire it and about 10 seconds to travel back afterwards. Once you’ve overcome a challenge, you’ve completely overcome it.

Of course, everyone else in the universe already knows this. I’m probably the last guy on the planet to play the game, after all, so there’s no real point to discussing things everyone got out of their system years ago. I could go on and on about how much fun the boss fights are or how much the music adds to the atmosphere, but that would just be an extreme case of preaching to the choir. The ending, however, was so incredibly impressive to me that you’ll have to excuse my gushing for just a minute.

[[image: ar_042909_metroid_02.jpg:Best boss fight ever? You bet.:right:0]]The best thing about the ending, to me, is that it follows the age-old adage of showing rather than telling. Not a single line of dialogue or explanation appears the entire time. Furthermore, the entire sequence never forgets that this is a game – on the contrary, it uses this fact to its advantage. Finding the enemies turned to dust and then having the giant metroid latch onto you wouldn’t be as intense if it was simply a cutscene; instead, you’re always in control, and Samus’ struggle to survive is your own (as it has been the entire game) while you fire and jump like mad trying to get it off you. When it lets you go just as you’ve resigned yourself to death, it’s instantly clear to both Samus and the player that this was the hatchling, all without the use of a single line of text. Likewise, having Mother Brain activate her powerful beam without ending the boss fight lets the player get caught up in the impact of it, and the spanking you give her – not Samus during a cutscene – as a result of your metroid’s sacrifice is effective because it isn’t divorced from the rest of the game. There are few moments in gaming as satisfying as that, and that the developers used discretion and realized they could heighten the player’s complete immersion without words is still a marvel.

And like any good story, the plot of Super Metroid is comes around full circle. It’s a bittersweet ending, since the hatchling has been lost once again, and for the second time in a row Samus has little time to dwell on it, what with there being another time bomb to escape and all. Few games before or since have had such a good ending, let alone one that really used the strength of the medium to make it something special. I really didn’t want to end this post on a negative note like the last one, but an unfortunate side effect of playing one of the industry’s best games is that you start to wonder why people are still struggling to match it 15 years later.

8 thoughts on “A fresh case of the ‘roids (part 2)

  1. The same happened to me when I could play it. It wasn’t the SNES era, Xbox360 was coming out and never got the change to play Super Metroid by myself, and one day I finally tried it. I had lots of free time so I finished it in one sitting, but it was just amazing, I loved everything, from music, to graphics, atmosphere, gameplay, I was shocked that all this was achieved in just a “16-bit console”, what’s the size of the cartidrage?, 32 Megabits?. Most games these days are 4.5 GigaBytes and can’t even match the satisfaction and emotions with so few resources, it makes you be glad to be a gamer, isn’t it? =)

  2. Amen.

    Though Zero Mission one-upped it in the use of wall jumps and shinesparks as sequence breaks and means to secret items, Super Metroid really is the epitome of organic in-game exposition and perfect pacing, with absolutely no fat.

  3. I’d say the only other game that’s ever done this sort of silent narrative as well as Super Metroid was Out of This World. A good storyteller can do so much with so few words — the famous “Silent Castle” issue of the G.I. Joe comic is a great example, having become so iconic that Marvel dedicated a month to senselessly aping it a few years back.

  4. Honestly, I think Ico/Shadow Of The Colossus are the high water marks for “mostly silent narrative” concept, but Super Metroid is inarguably one of the best games ever made, so it’s a wash. Yes, I said “inarguably.” If you don’t at least “like” Super Metroid you are WRONG, good sir. Or madam.

  5. Oh, definitely. The scene with Yorda and the bridge near the end of the game communicates a lot while actually saying very little, and Shadow of the Colossus’ ending does the whole “gameplay adds to the moment in a way simply watching it couldn’t” thing very well. (This is one of my favorite things about MGS3’s ending too, come to think of it.)

  6. I’ve always found it sad that the games that convey story best all do it in the subtle, no text, still interactive fashion Super Metroid really stands out for, while everyone else, in an attempt to get more plot heavy (RPGs especially) have grown more and more fond of vomiting text at you and replacing any interesting scene with a cutscene. Xenosaga, I’m looking at you. Lost Odyssey too for that matter, but at least that one had the sense to have an actual author write up the giant text walls.

  7. I agree with everything in this post, but in answer to the question you pose: I think the problem is that 10, 15 years ago when what you could do with a videogame was so limited in terms of presentation, saying “I want to make a game that compares with a Hollywood movie” made you sound like you had lofty ambitions and were a visionary, and because of those limitations, you had to really find novel storytelling techniques that rely on the intrinsic strengths of the medium. Fast forward to the present, and the technology finally allows designers to really produce essentially a Hollywood movie with all the trimmings in videogame form — a really TERRIBLE Hollywood movie! That’s really the problem: Hollywood movies are horrible and guys like Kojima are obsessed with them, and whereas formerly that was kind of their strength as directors, it’s turned into a major weakness. Meanwhile, interestingly, the Hollywood guys who back in the day were making the genuinely awesome action/adventure movies from which game designers lifted so many of their content ideas — George Lucas, Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott — have become so obsessed with CGI that THEY’re making awful movies that look more like VIDEOGAMES than movies!

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