Super Metroid – Final Review

Aesthetically, Super Metroid remains timeless, the sprite work highly detailed, environments characterized by vibrancy and a strange sort of exoticism, communicating the bizarre nature of the gameworld proper, the distant, alien planet of Zebes, where the protagonist Samus travels in response to some urgent distress call. As with the planet, Samus herself sports a compelling design, almost intimidating in appearance, when regarding her towering stature, the strength and confidence she exudes, adorned with thick, bulging orange pauldrons, visage cleverly shielded by a prominent helmet and sleek blue visor, resulting also in an intriguing figure, clearly experienced, possessive of the capabilities to right whatever wrongs have then befallen that desolate, hostile planet. But beyond Samus, the sprite work of her destination need also be described. Consistent in its strangeness, a strong sense of cohesiveness is obtained, even as each individual area is unique, decidedly different from the last, the environment morphing into one concrete whole, an admirable achievement, which is only amplified when considering the apparent largeness of the place, branching off in countless directions, extending also to considerable depths; in a manner, Zebes becomes a character in its own right, arresting in its beauty, frightening in its hostility, frequently awe-inspiring when regarding that constant environmental diversity; the spite work and overall graphical presentation, then, only serve to heighten the joys of exploration, while a diversity of enemy designs here serves a world-building purpose, enshrouding Zebes in the mysterious.

The game’s narrative is delivered in a highly minimalistic fashion, which is rather refreshing when considering the design philosophies which characterize modern video game design – Super Metroid is very much a product of its time, though this advanced age is not an objectively bad thing, the narrative scarcely interrupted for the sole sake of exposition, keeping always the player in a state of immersion; cutscenes are totally lacking, save when regarding the brief animation which serves as the game’s opening, introducing Samus and Zebes proper, establishing also her core motivations, the resolution of perils on that planet. While the title seems mostly stand alone, frustrating are the connections to Metroid which emerge as the game progresses; when considering the lore, much is lost on me – possessing a greater knowledge of this world would actually enrich the experience. Still, with the minimalistic presentation, I have to assume any profound statements were ever made in the original Metroid. The opening cutscene proper, while stylish in its construction and well-animated, is over just as soon as it is begun, matters left dangling; Samus is promptly thrust into the world, a subtle detective-like element emerging; exposition disappears, vagueness taking its place. Narrative vagueness, too, is not an objectively bad thing, again facilitating the strengthening of link between player and character, inspiring also strong contemplation and musings. So it is here – sufficient background is conveyed to immerse the player in the game’s narrative.     

Dispersed throughout the narrative are a handful of boss enemies, all menacing or repulsive aesthetically, often towering in size, dwarfing Samus, creating notions of the insignificant, while their attacks can deal considerable damage; given this abundance of strength, some are frustrating to combat, others straightforward and rewarding, though most often, truly involved tactics are not needed for success – the majority of the time, these engagements are mere wars of attrition. The narrative minimalism is attached to their very construction and presence – they are central to the narrative, in that they must all be bested to permit access to the game’s final antagonist. This is communicated in a clever manner, never conveyed explicitly through exposition: towards the opening area of the game, an ornate statue is visitable, comprised of roughly four different figures – the bosses – each interconnected, forming one concrete structure. Once defeated, their glimmering eyes will lose their luster, finally falling off. This very item, this way of story-telling, says much of the game’s narrative, its preferences of delivery. But given the prominent positioning attached to these figures, the game occasionally devolves into a mere boss rush; they are perhaps overabundant, particularly when considering the game’s vast quantity of mini-bosses. Should these figures appear less frequently, their impactfulness would only increase. The game, though, ends in a satisfying fashion, matters culminating in – expectantly – a boss battle against the mystical Mother Brain. But with this emphasis upon combat and boss battling, the game’s narrative falters – its minimalism takes over. This faltering is perhaps attributable to a core design philosophy – there exist no deliberate intentions aimed at achieving narrative greatness, gameplay prioritized always; the game knows its own identity, an immense strength, providing focus and concision.

The gameplay, fortunately, is universally impressive, featuring a strong sense of progression, perhaps the game’s greatest achievement – the Samus at the beginning of the narrative is rather detached from the Samus at the game’s conclusion, her power having swelled immensely. Initially rather weak and vulnerable, with a paltry jump height and a mostly ineffective laser blaster, she can eventually leap considerable distances, remaining in the air also for a very protracted duration, totally impervious to damage. Her puny beam can be upgraded multiple times, sometimes altering the game on a fundamental level, as with the ice beam, which freezes enemies in their tracks, completely immobilized, lessening their threat while aiding in the platforming, their frozen bodies used as structures. This constant progression marks a compelling incentive for further play, even as other facets of the title dissuade continued play time – narratively, then, the game may be lacking, but the perpetual promise of some new weapon or gameplay tool as existing just over the horizon is an engaging promise. Certain of these upgrades are well hidden, and their discovery thus becomes a joyous, exhilarating affair, particularly when their acquisition requires highly involves maneuvers; this exploration, then, is rewarded greatly, various missile packs and energy tanks dotted around Zebes discoverable, alongside the more elaborate upgrades. One mistake is here present, though, when considering the mundanity of certain of these objects. Missile expansions, while compelling in theory, exist in overabundance, their discovery thusly not exciting, instead made redundant.     

The game’s controls are tight and precise, considerable freedoms given the player, crucial to the game’s eventual successes; platforming is frequent, as is combat, and were these systems uninspired or merely competent, frustration would emerge. Not so here, combat and exploration universally enjoyable, always. Regarding combat, Samus can fire in eight directions – no enemy is truly out of reach. The charge beams which exist as Samus’s primary weapons are mostly effective, though the swapping to other, more effective weaponry fast proves a necessity – the powerful missiles, and even more damaging super missiles, need be employed to best particularly damaging or resilient enemies. This frequent swapping of weaponry is rather finnicky, partially deflating the game’s combat; while engaging in a pitched battle, nerves awakened, this simple act of swapping becomes even more difficult, lending a strong if unintentional tenseness to these encounters. Fortunately, Samus’s default charge beam is upgraded multiple times throughout the narrative, so the need for this swapping is lessened. Regarding locomotion, certain environments are a slog to traverse, even with the precise controls; a multitude of spikes may line all surfaces of certain corridors, while enemies hop about wildly, creating a sense of overwhelming frustration, even cheapness. Invincibility frames, though, are present and quite generous, removing somewhat these frustrations in more demanding areas. Also lessening potential frustrations is an intuitive map feature, which updates gradually, filling out with exploration. Initially ignoring this, I mainly relied upon landmarks in the environment – consequently, I was lost frequently, the world design occasionally obtuse. Finally embracing the mapping systems, exploration began to soar. 

A subjective failing the game possesses is relative to its detached, uninforming nature and design, never holding the player’s hand, giving them the most basic of instructions, showing high expectations for the player. Frequently was I lost, directionless and confused, prompting a certain wandering, which in turn led to a destruction of pacing. It is a rather shameful admission, but on a few occasions, I consulted outside sources, desperate to make progress, when progress had for an agonizing time been stalled. Largely, though, these were consulted for guidance on the macro level, learning which upgrades to obtain, which environments to approach, and in what order. On the micro level, the game is logically designed; on the macro level, this dearth of guidance ultimately contributes to frustration, right alongside the narrative failings. An illustration of this principle is related to a particularly menacing antagonist, the dragon-like Ridley. Without referencing guides, aimless wandering would be of a protracted sort, the dragon’s dungeon well-concealed. The game seeks to impart some direction, primarily in the environments, prodding the player forward – once the critical grappling hook is unlocked, its usage is promptly forced, serving as a tutorial of sorts, ensuring the player is familiar with these tools, what precisely they can achieve; these minimalistic tutorials assist the player in a clever, nonintrusive manner, showing excellent design. Also, being violently and rapidly thrust into the deep end only heightens the sense of reward evoked upon the completion of some particularly difficult scenario – vanquishing a boss becomes a triumphant affair, while the mere act of finding their location also serves as a minor triumph. Regarding these systems, though, the game shows its advanced age – for better or for worse.

Super Metroid’s strengths, then, are relegated to the realms of world design and gameplay, progression systems being a notable, consistent draw, Samus growing as figure ever and always, soaring in power and endurance, once-threatening foes made totally trivial, dispatchable with ease. Very dramatic upgrades are present, the most prominent being a pair of suit advancements, which can alter the game in fundamental ways, one permitting survivability in hot environments, another increasing further freedom of movement, all the while altering Samus’s aesthetics. The knowledge that such advancements exist ensures continued playtime, the constant questioning of what lies ahead, what new environments will be visitable, what new foes will be combatted. And yet, while the game constantly tempts the player with upgrades major and minor; while the game features tight controls and empowering locomotion; while the world is exotic and fantastical – these collective strengths are impossibly tempered and lessened by occasionally obtuse world design and the total absence of any compelling narrative; on an individual level, the game truly excels, but as a singular entity, it stumbles. With a playtime just shy of eleven hours, the title seemed to drag, though when considering its iconic status, Super Metroid was a journey certainly worth taking.

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