Back then platforming games were very popular, and those from the East include epic hits such as Contra 3, Strider, and Cybernator. These games, though great in their own rights, were more ‘arcadey’ in feel and gameplay. More cinematic games were available on the system, such as the excellent Flashback, but nothing combined the direction of a great cinematic experience, and the action of an arcade game, as this.
“The last Metroid is in captivity, the galaxy is at peace...”
This simple opening line echoes of a long-fought battle against a great threat throughout a colonized space, finally reaching its end. For those – like many at this point in gaming’s history – new to the Metroid universe, our unknown protagonist, an actor in this battle’s stage, looms shadowed in the background as we read a brief history of her recent events; the only backstory we’ll receive. Then, like a good book or well-directed action movie, we’re thrust into a scene of foreboding chaos, and soon forced into brutal and explosive combat. We fight, escape the facility’s self-destruction with only seconds to spare, and then as the dust settles, along with our spaceship, we find ourselves on the mysterious planet Zebes. Now the game begins in earnest.
With all of this thrust upon us within a mere five-to-ten minutes of starting the game, we know we’re in for something special. A truly cinematic opening has greeted us to the world of Super Metroid, and that welcome has slathered us with a thick near-tangible atmosphere, a mysterious setting, beautiful music, stunning visuals, and a big god-damn skeletal pterodactyl fire-breathing lizard alien that’s going to get what’s coming to him! With not so much as an abstracted GO! arrow or an immersion-breaking mission summary screen, we’re left alone with just our small spaceship and our gun-arm equipped armoured space suit, to fend for ourselves and figure out what to do next…
Next we explore Zebes. There is no hand-holding here, no directions, no non-player characters providing plot-pushing narratives. Game progression is fully directed by flawless level design. It is gaming in its purest form; made epic and expansive and deep and detailed. The master craftsman of Nintendo’s legendary R&D1 team produced a platformer so well-considered, planned and perfectly executed, that it progresses without ever having to overtly interfere with the experience. Certain doors require certain weapons to open, certain heights require certain attachments to scale, certain blocks require certain bombs, and certain environments require certain suits. The layouts, props and visual cues communicate this so clearly to the player, that getting blocked down one path never leaves you feeling frustrated, lost or confused, but merely in the knowledge that you will return later to break past that barrier… once you’ve found ‘that thing that you need’.
You play as Samus Aran; a bounty hunter equipped with a special armour suit. As you explore the various regions of Zebes you encounter power-ups that help you defeat more challenging enemies and surmount the aforementioned obstacles, allowing progression to new areas and encounters with bosses that need defeating. Even though you’re being subtly directed the entire time, it never feels like it. You feel like you’re in an open world and can go anywhere and do anything whenever you like. It feels vast and expansive. You’ll destroy one tiny little block in an otherwise plain wall, and all of a sudden you’re in a whole new massive section of the level. The game is also sprinkled liberally with additional boons to your required powers; extra missiles; more energy capacity; more powerful weapons. It feels like the game develops around you, and that’s an experience I’ve never since experienced in quite the same way.
If there is such thing as a perfect game, then Super Metroid has to be it. Every element has been considered to the last detail. It feels like the designers wanted to design an experience more than a game, but they did both, exquisitely. The music is deep and intense and compliments the world and situation with such accuracy as to take you there. This game proved that 16 BIT was no barrier. Anyone that wishes to design games should play this as their primary case study. Anyone that loves video games should play this as a testament to how their hobby can be done to perfection.