Super Metroid‘s mapping system is really pretty brilliant. The auto-mapping feature is a godsend for keeping track of where you’ve been, but the map rooms deserve equal credit. They reveal most — but not all! — of the map for a given area. Certain rooms remain unshown, but the map programmers were really conscientious about placing a room or two of the critical path that can only be accessed once you’ve collected advanced tools and power-ups. As such, it’s possible to get a bit lost when you’re wandering around freely — but if you pay attention to the unexplored blue spots on the map, you’ll eventually get where you’re going.
Once you have the grappling hook, you can explore a lot of previously unreachable rooms, but many points remain inaccessible due to the debilitating effect of water physics. Since the biggest (potentially revealed) unexplored area of the map appears to be flooded, this could be problematic. Thankfully, the good Lord and map providers are alike in that they provide for the needy, which means that the key to advancing into Zebes’ watery regions lies between the easternmost extent of Crateria that you’ve been able to access to this point and the entrance to Maridia.
Of course, to get there, you need to grapple your way forward to stay above the water’s surface. This involves, at one point, using a Ripper as a grapple pivot — an undocumented feature of the game, but one you actually had the opportunity to discover back in Norfair right after picking up the Grappling Beam. There are some interesting hidden effects with that particular tool, in fact; certain seemingly indestructible enemies go down in a single zap of the Grapple Beam.
This leads you into a small, self-contained region evocatively called the Wrecked Ship (because it’s a wrecked ship). Despite being a brief diversion at best, it proves to be one of the more artfully crafted areas of the game. When you first enter the vessel, it’s a dead wreck — or rather, an undead wreck. Most of the electrical systems are out, including most doors…
…and also including the save station, which doesn’t work. This trick of narrative through messing with the meta-gaming recording devices would later be exploited in games like Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and BioShock; in Super Metroid, it offers just as much punch without as a single word. Something is strange and ominous here, and the deactivated save feature raises the tension: You’ve spanned a fairly grueling grappling sequence, explored the decrepit passage of a literal ghost ship — weird skull-like wraiths keep materializing where Samus stands! — and now you can’t save.
The dimly lit passages of the Wrecked Ship suggest the vessel has been rotting here for quite some time — and you keep disturbing those parasite bugs that you encountered in the ruins of Mother Brain’s lair and outside Kraid’s chamber, giving the impression that you’ve stumbled into something that’s been laying here untouched for a very long time. Aside from the bugs and ghosts, there’s not much else going on here, though. This is definitely a derelict.
The only other sign of life comes in the form of another missile door eyeball thing, which you had previously encountered barring the entrance to the battle with Kraid. The way the grey protuberances spread away from the eyeball suggest this thing is some sort of parasite that’s grown over the door, sealing something inside.
Aaaand that something, it turns out, is the next major boss: Phantoon. It’s a strange hybrid of ghost, cyclopean skull, and Japanese hitodama spirit. It’s a ghost in that it fades in and out, spending most of its time immaterial. Cyclopean skull in that… well, look at it. And hitodama in that it spawns an array of what appear to be blue ghost eyeballs on fire, which is often used in Japanese media as visual shorthand for a departing soul — sort of their equivalent of an angel fluttering away from a dead body.
Phantoon’s challenge comes from the fact that it spends most of its time spraying the room with deadly objects but remains invulnerable for the majority of the time it’s on screen. Even in the brief moments it materializes, only its eye is vulnerable. Of course, the up side to all those hitodama is that shooting them causes health and weapon pickups to drop. The downside is that Phantoon creates more of them, and more quickly, as it suffers more damage.
One interesting facet of Phantoon that may not appear immediately obvious is that it responds to your strategies by alternating its attack patterns. If you blast it with standard missiles, it basically sticks to a single basic pattern. But if you shoot it with a super missile, it goes utterly berserk, unleashing multiple, consecutive, sweeping streams of hitodama in wide arcs that are nearly impossible to avoid.
So the question becomes: Do you use super missiles and take out the boss in just a few hits but suffer a huge amount of damage from its amplified attacks in return? Or do you let the fight drag on longer with basic missile attacks and run the risk of losing a lengthy battle of attrition? The monster’s screen-filling attacks and cramped quarters make for a pretty grueling conflict.
With Phantoon dead (un-undead? re-dead?), the power drain affecting the Wrecked Ship is alleviated. Energy returns to the systems, which gives you full access to its different chambers; unfortunately, it also activates a number of threats. The large cylinders scattered about the vessel turn out to be primitive bipedal robots (somewhere between R2-D2 and a Dalek) that stumble about aimlessly but occasionally fire energy blasts and no one in particular. Strange Sputnik-like objects patrol the corridors (seemingly indestructible, but vulnerable to Grappling Beams). The energy cores that occupied the glass domes in the floors and ceilings come free and hover toward Samus. Conveyer belts activate. Loose wiring creates an electrical shock hazard. And monitors in some of the room display staticky images of what appear to be metroids, making you wonder precisely what this ship was about and what caused its crash.
This uncertainty is reinforced by the presence of Kihunters, the only organic beings on the vessel, which appear in the upper (“command”) room, which incidentally is where you can spot metroids on the back monitors. Metroid Zero Mission would (maybe) provide insight into the nature of this ship, but for now there’s just enough going on to be evocative but keep you guessing.
Finding your way through the Wrecked Ship actually requires you to leave the ship and search around outside, reentering through different doors — which, cleverly, are treated as airlocks. Each door to the exterior is connected to the ship’s interior through an empty, hazard-free room. There’s plenty of exploration to be done outside the ship, with a complex maze of passages ultimately leading back around through a sealed-off chamber and an airlock hidden beneath some of the rocks into which the ship crashed and lodged.
The door in question leads you to… nothing? There’s a Chozo statue here, but unlike most statues it stands upright, and there’s nothing in its palms. You may recall the Chozo security robot at the very beginning of the adventure, but this one simply stands there. And there doesn’t appear to be any kind of hidden passage behind it.
The solution to this puzzle calls back to Metroid II — specifically, the little armadillo dude who pretended to be a power-up ball but actually was a monster… but then happened to drop the Spring Ball anyway. The solution here isn’t exactly the same, but it comes from the same place. Namely, it plays on the fact that Samus in her Morph Ball form looks an awful lot like the power-up balls the Chozo statues hold. So hop into the statue’s hands and roll into a ball…
And it’s gonna take you for a ride. It smashes the spikes along the floor of its chamber, then descends along an unseen stairway into a hidden room. This is the second of three bizarre interactive Chozo statues, but it’s definitely the most benign.
Specifically, because it deposits you adjacent to the next power-up you need: The Gravity Suit. This upgrade doesn’t simply soak up more damage than the Varia, it counteracts the effects of water pressure. With this equipped, Samus can move normally through water, and, more importantly, won’t lose her momentum when she breaks the surface.
And you’re given ample opportunity to put it to use right away, because the instant you step out the door to the left you plummet to the water below. Surprise!