A fresh case of the ‘roids (part 1)

So I began playing Super Metroid this week. As in, for the first time ever. I know, I know, I’ve been missing out, best game ever, blahblahblah. It’s my secret shame and I’m finally doing something about it, so that’s good enough, right?

[[image: ar_0042209_metroid_01.jpg:Thanks for the space jellyfish specimen, and I – wha? Y-you’re a WOMAN?:center:0]]
Luckily (and unsurprisingly), I’m enjoying it a good deal so far. In some ways, I feel really lucky to have missed out on it up until this point, since the Super Nintendo is still my favorite system of all time and it’s like I’ve unearthed a completely awesome AAA title for it. I’m basically living out the premise of Retro Game Challenge, but without my disembodied head from the future constantly watching me (that I know of). Equally fun is seeing conventions of other Metroid games I’ve played pop up here (I missed out on Metroid II and never really “got” the original as a young lad). Perhaps the best thing about Super Metroid so far, though, is that even after setting all that aside, it’s still impressing me on its own merits.

The level design in the game deserves a special nod. It’s hard to follow videogames – or, at least, the slightly retro niche this site tends to attract – and not be familiar with the Metroidvania setup, or the general belief that Super Metroid perfected the formula. While I really enjoyed Symphony of the Night, for example, there’s something about the structure of this game that really hammers home the feeling of exploration. Samus’ wider arsenal of moves — blasting, jumping (in several ways), bombs, morphing into a ball, etc. — seem to encourage seeing where you can go far more than Alucard’s running and jumping ever did. At least twice now, I’ve been stuck in a room and assumed I had to go elsewhere…only to find I couldn’t make my way back, forcing me to think a little more and find a way through the current obstacle. No tutorials popped up — heck, most of the weapons and moves you get don’t even have a description of how to activate them! — and there were only the most subtle of hints (in one specific case, enemies nearby that dropped an awful lot of missiles when I shot them) to guide me. Finding the solution to move forward was completely organic.

And, perhaps, that’s my favorite thing about the game so far: the fact that it trusts me enough to never hold my hand or do it for me, and in return, the fact that I can trust it to never stick me in an impossible situation or require some obtuse solution from out of left field. It’s no secret that my absolute favorite feeling in the world is cracking a difficult puzzle in Zelda games, and it’s largely for the same reason that I’m enjoying just plain exploring here. There’s an argument to be made for increasing a player’s desire to explore by telling them as little as possible and just cutting them loose, I guess.

Unfortunately, finally playing this is also a tad depressing, since playing it now I know that the same company responsible for such a considerate game has become so paranoid about leaving a single player behind that they put out games like Twilight Princess, which — while still very good — suck out all sense of discovery with an increasingly large pile of tutorials and “helpful” text windows in their games. Even the Prime games — again, still totally fantastic! — encourage scanning enemies first, rather than finding out on your own organically. I think everyone at Nintendo — heck, in the games industry at large — needs to go back and play Super Metroid. Couldn’t hurt, could it?

20 thoughts on “A fresh case of the ‘roids (part 1)

  1. Being stuck in a room and being forced to figure out how to escape is one of my favorite things about Super Metroid/Zelda games. It’s kinda sad that most problem solving in modern games involves in-game help or worse being forced to look up the answer on GameFAQs because the solution is so obtuse.

  2. No worries. I never had a Super Nintendo at all growing up, so the first time I played Super Metroid was about a year ago on the Virtual Console. To be honest, I don’t think I would have appreciated it’s subtlety in my youth, so I’m glad that I didn’t play it until recently as well. And to the new game’s credit, it actually took me a while to figure out how to use something as simple as the morph ball, so sometimes a small text window can help the pacing of the game. Not everyone is as patient as we are these days.

  3. I too was late to the Super Metroid party. I got my first taste of the game when it released a week before Prime 3. I was completely in love; I powered through the game and wondered if Prime 3 was going to compare (it didn’t). It really is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played, and I’ll agree that the design is simply exceptional. And, I like the “organic” comment you made, that’s really fitting for Super Metroid. I could gush and gush about it, but I’m sure everyone has already heard this disgusting compliment parade.

  4. I started playing Super Metroid for the first time last year, and really liked it, until I got stuck and got distracted and stopped playing. I really should go back to it, but the problem with that kind of game is that it’s really difficult to remember what you were doing if you haven’t played in a while.

  5. I appreciate the concession to the UI to display a short amount of text about how to activate your new ability.

    But I disagree that Nintendo’s completely abandoned this philosophy: in Zero Mission, when you first make it to Norfair, you’re directed to go right by the ever-present hint system. It lies. You’re supposed to go left, into a completely different area that never appeared in Metroid 1, and eventually double back.

    It’d be nice if they dialled back the handholding while still guiding players as necessary, putting hint blips in junction rooms, or at the start of a hallway, or something that directs players to one section of the map but forces them to explore beyond there. I’m really surprised that the Prime games didn’t do this, as their hint system metaphor (the ship scanning for activity) lends itself a lot better to the system I described than pinpointing exactly what and where the disturbance can be found.

  6. SM is only the best game of all time. We’ll never see another like it. It’s the pinnacle of 2-D games and design as a whole, from the sound design to the cohesiveness of the world. The atmosphere is incredible.

  7. At least in Metroid Prime you could turn the hint system off. The blatant hand-holding that’s been in Zelda and the like lately is quite irritating.. and can trace its roots back to Link’s Awakening. Remember, everytime you opened a chest that had a key or bombs in it.. it would tell you every time that it would open a locked door, or blow something up. That’s my theory anyway.. it all went downhill from there.

  8. My main problem with Twilight Princess is that it would tell you anew each time you played how much a rupee was worth, what a bomb did, etc. I can handle tutorials, but that was just insane.

  9. @pimento: Link to the Past did it too.

    Super Metroid was a prime example of a series undergoing an evolution of exponential proportions. Atmospherics of isolation and that it was quite influential aside, the first game was very much a product of its time.

    “While I really enjoyed Symphony of the Night, for example, there’s something about the structure of this game that really hammers home the feeling of exploration. Samus’ wider arsenal of moves — blasting, jumping (in several ways), bombs, morphing into a ball, etc. — seem to encourage seeing where you can go far more than Alucard’s running and jumping ever did.”

    This, and the overall upper hand in area design that Super Metroid had, are the reasons SotN can’t compare to that which inspired it.

  10. So why is it ‘Metroidvania’? Shouldn’t it simply be a Metroid-style game? It took many years for the Castlevania series to adapt this style of platforming and backtracking with new items to reach formerly inaccessible areas. So I ask again: Shouldn’t the genre be a Metroid-style adventure?

  11. I myself can’t get into the rhythms of the Metroid games. Super Metroid is the only one I’ve finished, and I was spiking the controller in frustration early and often (I stand in awe of people who can ninja their way through these titles in under 2 hours). That said, I definitely understand why those who DO ‘get’ the series don’t want it diluted.

  12. I think the missile thing you’re talking about may be somewhat incidental. Enemies don’t ever drop Energy if it’s not going to restore any, so if you’re full then “enemies dropping lots of missiles” (or power bombs) is just what they do.

    Not that this diminishes the brilliance in any way. Just saying.

  13. The premise of Retro Game Challenge was actually that somebody else’s disembodied head sent you into the past to blah blah blah.

    Still, Super Metroid is pretty cool. I was never all that good at it when I was young enough to own the SNES but I certainly appreciate the aesthetics of it.

    Oh, and it’s probably called the “Metroidvania” because Castlevania seems to have a new release in that style two or three times as often as Metroid. It isn’t true if you count the Metroid Prime games, but there have been at least six 2D Castlevanias on the GBA/DS compared to two for 2D Metroids (Fusion and Zero Mission).

  14. Please don’t call Super Metroid an “AAA title”. That’s just horrible.

    I played Super Metroid for the first time in 2001 or something. And yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

  15. I’ve never really been a fan of the Metroid series, but I’ve always been able to appreciate some aspects of the games; mostly the music and the incredible sense of isolation.

    I never got very far into Super Metroid before and started my own serious playthrough earlier in the week. I suppose I’m enjoying myself, but I don’t really care for the lack of context that some of you seem to enjoy. I don’t want handholding, but I do want some sort of direction. Stumbling across power-ups and secret passages works against the atmosphere in my opinion.

  16. My absolute favorite moment in videogaming and exactly the sort of thing you’re talking about happens in Super Metroid. You may not have gotten to this part yet since it’s pretty far along if I remember correctly, so for anybody who doesn’t want to be SPOILED, and if there were anything in a game I wouldn’t want to SPOIL for anybody it’d be this: eventually you’ll be trapped at the bottom of a tall vertical shaft, and the only other things there are three creatures (I think they were called eticoons) who’re jumping off the walls and up the shaft, and by and by it dawns on you that maybe you could escape by doing the same. You don’t get a new item or anything, you just learn to do something that you could’ve done at ANY time but the game just TAUGHT you how to do it! In fact, you as Samus, because the game doesn’t instruct you directly, like “do such and such a button combination to perform this move” — it’s like you said, very organic, and has always stood out to me as an example of masterful game design.

  17. Also, if I may ramble on, both because of what I was just talking about, but also I think because of the oppressive, lonely atmosphere of Zebis — for example, the game isn’t entirely mute but there are few words and most of them come at the very beginning of the game, so that a few hours into it the universe inhabited by people really seems like a dream — have I ever really felt as immersed, as BEING THERE, in a videogame. So I also consider Super Metroid one of the very pinnacles of great story-telling in videogames, because it tells its story in a uniquely videogamey way, drawing on THAT medium’s unique strengths. Also the music! Super Metroid is what I would call a virtuoso performance.

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