Retro First Impressions: Super Metroid [SNES / MetroidVania]December 12, 2018
Welcome, one and all, to another edition of Retro First Impressions, the series where I try out classic retro video games for the first time. And we have a real doozy of a title today! So, hop in that time machine and set a course for 1994 as I experience the SNES classic, Super Metroid.
Now, I’m familiar with Metroidvania style games. I own a few, and I’ve played a few others. But, while I have had a crack at a few Castlevania games, I’ve never tried a Metroid game before. As I’ve said in a couple of posts, while my friends and I made good use of the fact that we each had different consoles, I was always a SEGA kid. My Nintendo playing friends never mentioned any Metroid games either, so I assume they either didn’t own any, or didn’t think they’d be good for our multi-person play sessions. Nevertheless, I was curious. Super Metroid is generally accepted to be one of the greatest games of all time, and the lead character, Samus Aran, is a classic female gaming hero that successfully pulls off the tough-as-nails role long before Lara Croft was even a twinkle in a programmer’s eye. So, I figured it was about time I stepped into the fray. Since the game is one of the many available to play if you visit the fine folks at AllGen Gaming, I finally had the opportunity too.
As always, a bit of history first. Chronologically, this was the third game in the series, with the original landing on the NES in 1986 and the sequel on the Game Boy in 1991. The staff from the original titles returned for this game, and spent two years developing what they hoped would be a true action adventure. What’s interesting is that it had a fairly hefty legacy to live up to. It sounds simple now, but the original Metroid was actually one of the first video games to feature exploration to the left of the screen as well as the right, opening the door for the concept of backtracking to explore previously unavailable areas. When your first game introduces audiences to something that monumental – and it really was back then – you have a lot of work to do to seem as significant.
So, let’s start with the first thing I noticed while playing. The soundtrack is so reminiscent of Alien in terms of the tone that it sets. It’s very clear from the start that this isn’t going to be a happy, colourful, Mario style story. It’s foreboding, dingy, and in a way, lonely. That really set things up nicely, because once the opening is over and you start the game itself, it’s all about the muted colours and creepy creatures. And boy do they go all out on the visual appearance with this! Graphically, the game is a fine example of how to make use of the 16-Bit era’s technology. Everything fits within the environment, the movements are smoother than you’d expect given the year it was released, and the design work is phenomenal.
But what of the fabled gameplay? Well, that was one of the things that surprised me the most in the game. There’s a lot you can do with Samus, and it expands well beyond the standard run, jump and shoot mechanics. The morph ball’s rolling and bomb dropping, the weapon switching, and the various other suit upgrades add some real depth to the overall game. What makes this so special is that it’s all very intuitive. When you look at modern controllers, there’s usually a D-Pad, two sticks, four front buttons and eight shoulder buttons, but with the SNES, you only have the D-Pad, four front buttons and two shoulder buttons. Yet somehow, Super Metroid manages to make it so easy to toggle between what you want to use, and in doing so makes the entire experience really streamlined.
It’s the level design that impressed me the most though. Compared to a game like Witcher, Super Metroid is pretty tiny, but when you take it in the context of the era, it’s actually huge. There are so many areas that you can see, that are so tantalizingly close, but that you just can’t get to until you find the next upgrade. It never feels like you’re being shepherded on a linear path, there are too many places to visit for that, but the game does do a good job of at least nudging you to keep on track. You learn very quickly which areas you either can’t get to yet or that are bad places to hang out until you find a suitable tool to aid you. Honestly, the design team deserves all the credit for their work on this, as the balance that they’ve achieved between the open feel and not letting you get too lost is a fantastic achievement.
The storyline is fairly straight forward, but the lengthy opening gives you what you need to get invested. You learn who your character is and what the goal is, and you don’t really need much more than that. The fun is in soaking up the atmosphere that the setting creates and simply enjoying the top-notch gameplay.
When I play games for this series, I give myself an hour. In this instance, that time breezed by. Not having played a Metroid game before though, and knowing nothing going into the game, I didn’t finish it. I don’t get the impression that even got close. I managed to collect the Morphing Ball, Speed Boost, and Hi-Jump Boots, but none of the other suit upgrades outside the weapon-based stuff like missiles, bombs etc. Which meant that there were several areas that I was unable to explore. When I reached the first mini-boss, I was also woefully unprepared, and frankly, my performance therein sucked. I did manage to recover afterwards though, and started getting the hang of it all from there. I was, obviously, nowhere near learning the special hidden attacks either.
The question is, was there anything that I felt the game could do better? Well, the only little niggling thing for me was that I was reading the opening credits faster than they were being played, and no button seemed to skip forward in them. It may be that the pad was not fully functional, or even a cartridge issue, I will concede that. If not though, the option to skip forward in the dialogue would have been nice, as it would have allowed me to get started much quicker.
So, final opinion time. There are plenty of games that spanned multiple consoles that I would put up against modern games in terms of playability. Outside Super Mario Bros. 3 though, I’ve not come across any that originated as Nintendo exclusives (for the record, I haven’t actually played too much Zelda, so that’s why I haven’t considered any of them for that list). That changes with Super Metroid. The title of ‘one of the best games ever’ truly fits the game, and I would happily pick this over a whole host of recent classics. It’s incredibly easy to pick up, it’s surprisingly big, and there’s not a moment during it that you regret starting. In all, this is one that is more than deserving of its accolades. Well done, Nintendo.