Based on: The genius of Ridley Scott, and parasitic space jellyfish gone wild!
Super Metroid. The mere name brings a nostalgic tear to the eyes of those who realize they just don't make 'em like that anymore. One of those rare games that makes a person say, "Aw yeah! This is what gaming is all about," Super Metroid crept into being during the summer of 1994 and preceeded to kick copius quantities of SNES butt. Oddly, the title sold far better in the U.S. than in Japan; on the other hand, Japan goes crazy for Densha De Go. Who can explain such rifts between our cultures? Chalk it up to fifty years of rubber monsters destroying their major cities, I guess.
Super Metroid -- the 16-bit turbocharged sequel to gaming's most blatant Alien ripoff. There was even a monster named for Alien director Ridley Scott; I don't think it gets any more blatant that that. As the sidebar notes, the original Metroid was a startlingly groundbreaking game (well, aside from the obvious bits stolen from a certain sci-fi classic). While Super Metroid didn't precisely shatter gaming conventions in the same manner as its predecessor, it happens to be one of gaming's finest hours (or six-to-eight hours, if it's your first time through). Yeah, yeah, everybody says that about any ol' game these days, but by god, this really is.
First, let's look at what Super Metroid didn't have. First of all, it didn't have Mortal Kombat-like Fatalities or gallons of blood, even though that was the primary selling point of hot games in that time frame. Despite Samus' yellow and red armor, it wasn't a McDonald's-licensed game. Even though the eponymous Metroids resembled octopi, there were no tentacle scenes of questionable taste. There also was no attempt whatsoever to reconcile the fact that the enemies you were out to k.o. had already been polished off in the first game.
But that's quite alright, because what Super Metroid did have was tons-o-fun. While less free-form in nature than the original game (and less monotonous as well -- there's a reason I had to map out the entirety of Metroid), the loss of the ability to go nearly anywhere at any time was actually very useful in keeping the game's pace snappy and the challenges fairly progressive. That is, of course, until you became stumped by the layout.
In fact, the greatest challenge in the game was not the enemy horde -- the Game Over screen was almost a rare treat, really -- but rather the puzzle-like environment. Progress in the game was impeded by doors, high ledges, hidden pits and hazardous environments... The enemies were just there to keep it interesting. Samus had to acquire a series of new gizmos to progress ever deeper into the corridors of Zebeth -- Super Missiles, Power Bombs, the Space Jump, better space suits. Conveniently, all of these items were placed somewhere accessible for Samus, making Mother Brain one of the most considerate megalomaniacal monstrosities ever.
Despite Mother Brain's kindness, though, advancement through Zebeth could be a teensy bit frustrating for anyone who had never played the original Metroid. How would a series neophyte know that progress is a product of trial and error? Who would have thought to bomb some random spot in the wall to find a tiny hidden passage necessary to find the next important item? Well, Metroid vets, of course, but sometimes the basic path of the game was entirely too shrouded in secrets.
Another minor frustration in the game was the control - for the most part, it was excellent, and provided Samus with multiple ways to accomplish various tasks. Unfortunately, there was one little spot that hearkened back to the first game, involving a hidden pit near an Energy Tank, and the only way to get out was to perform the secret wall-jump technique as displayed by some irritating, chittering little fuzz monsters. That's all well and good, but Super Metroid's secret wall jump was probably the most finicky and precise wall jump ever -- requiring far better split-second timing than other games such as Sunsoft's Batman or the NES version of Strider?. After many long attempts at mastering the wall jump, I truly hate those annoying little squeaky guys...and thank goodness for bomb-climbing.
Still, those are but tiny little nuisance needles of a haystack of super goodness; for the most part, Samus responded and acted quickly. Even when performing multiple consecutive space jumps underwater, there was rarely a sense of "Oh crap, why won't she do what I say!?" The game actually used those oft-neglected SNES shoulder buttons, L and R (much to their delight, no doubt), to allow firing at forty-five-degree angles.
The control scheme -- barring that one annoying exception -- demonstrates the game's almost obsessive attention to detail. While a lot of games these days seem a bit, er, hastily thrown together, Metroid gives the impression of a smoothly polished product. In fact, if you look closely at the TV screen, you can even see your own reflection! You can be sure that if you only achieve 98.2% completion in Super Metroid, it's because you missed 1.8% of the game, not because the programmers rushed the game out the door in time for the holidays.
There were all sorts of tiny little details that made the game a rich, chocolatey taste sensation of video goodness - from the ominous sonic rumblings and whirring security devices when you first arrived at the Zebeth complex (culminating in a surprise attack by a company of Space Pirates in the former haunts of the Mother Brain) to the lava bubbles that foretold a mini-boss's attack from beyond the grave, Super Metroid had detail simply crammed into its little cartridge. So don't give me that crap about how cartridges are limiting; this game had more minutiae than most CD-based games out there. And a stirring speech by Dan Owsen, to boot.
The game had more than detail as well; it also had that lovely thing we like to call variety. The environments in the first Metroid were a bit stark at best, and limited to about five kinds of platform graphics. Not so in Super Metroid, where you had to explore the standard rocky dungeons and fiery underground cauldrons, but also a submerged cavern, a crashed starship, and the planet's surface. Plus, there were some right dandy mini-boss encounters, including the pumped-up original Metroid bosses (Kraid certainly wasn't two screens tall in the original game) and a giant seahorse whose worst enemy was the electricity in its own lair.
I know you're thinking, "By gum, Parish, how could this game be any better!?" Well, the truth is, not easily. Maybe if there had been an option like in Metroid to replay the game decked out with weapons from the start (and in a sexxxy bikini)...but even so, there's plenty of reason to play the game over again. Specifically, it's a heck of a lot of fun, ya know?
There was even a bit of story to this game - nothing to put yer average Final Fantasy to the test, but certainly enough to make the game a teensy little bit more interesting. Granted, the plot was a conceit and most gamers' main motive was simply to play the darned thing, but the story's conclusion was a stunning, stirring web of betrayal, the love of a prodigal child, and a valiant sacrifice. Hmm, perhaps that's overstating it, but it was pretty swell to see the series's various plot threads come together. And unlike in Alien 3, the sacrifice at the end didn't involve the heroine's anticlimactic death -- unless you really suck with the Hyper Beam.
On the whole, Super Metroid is a truly butt-kicking experience. It's not perfect, but it comes about as close as you can get without involving deities. A great game and a flawless sequel, aside from that resurrected enemies bit - but who cares about that when you're trying to find the Power Bombs to pass that stupid Yellow Door? You really must play this game, or many years down the road you'll be filled with an explicable sense of emptiness as you lay on your deathbed. Life is short, so you may as well use your time wisely - put down that copy of Tomb Raider V and play something that doesn't suck.
The Previous Adventures of Samus Aran
As the title suggests, Super Metroid is a pumped-up version of an older game - specifically, Metroid for the NES.
Metroid | NES | 1987
Metroid was a game which really varied from the norm back when it was released. For one thing, it was huge -- I remember mapping out the whole game (I was a dork, what can I say) on sixteen-quadrille graph paper, using one grid per screen, and ended up adding a second sheet of paper. Secondly, it involved very nonlinear exploration, with secrets galore; the game wasn't broken into levels and such, just large zones where your progress was determined by how cleverly you could hunt down the holes and crevasses necessary to find the game's bosses. Third, it (along with its cute little cousin, Kid Icarus) was the first NES game to feature passwords (which were a bit of a kludge meant to replace the ability to save game progress to disk which couldn't be made available in America thanks to the Famicom Disk System never making it here). And finally, as a reward for completing the game effectively, you got to see the heroine take off her clothes. Clearly, this game was a template for many to come.
Remember how in Aliens Ripley went with a bunch of marines to the aliens' homeworld to kick butt? Metroid II has a similar premise, except that Samus goes it alone. She's just that hardcore. But as in Aliens, Samus progresses ever deeper into monsters' lair, discovers secrets about their habitat, and blows their queen into little queenie chunks. As a final capstone, there's a little baby Metroid that Samus "adopts" at the end -- but unlike Newt, the Metroid doesn't bite the dust fifteen seconds into the next chapter.
Samus also appears as a playable character in Super Smash Bros., but unfortunately something about that particular game makes me want to barf. I think I'll omit Samus' appearance in Nintendo's Tetris, too, since it was sort of trivial.
It's Ridley -- believe it or not. Very early in the game, you discover that one of the enemies you had already killed in the first game is back when Ridley the lizard guy abducts the baby Metroid. No explanation is given for his miraculous recuperation, but it wasn't too hard to guess that the other Metroid baddies would be back. Now, if only Ridley Scott had come back for Alien 3, it would have been as cool as Super Metroid...instead of some existential symbolic pre-Fight Club junk from David Fincher.
An RPG-like story! If I were writing bullet-points for the back of Super Metroid's box, this scene would probably make me add the term "RPG elements!" Not that there's anything even remotely RPG-ish about Super Metroid, but look! There are little friendly non-player characters! According to gaming hyperbole today, that qualifies it as an RPG. Did I ever mention that I hate those annoying little wall-jumping cretins?
Attention to detail is good, but...I have to admit, parts of Brinstar throw me for a bit of a loop. Springtime in space? You can tell this game was made in Japan -- it may in fact be the world's first space dungeon video game featuring gently falling cherry blossoms. Between levels, Samus no doubt enjoys some nice hot tea and a package of Pocky.
Images courtesy of VGMuseum