Daily Classic: 7 Reasons Super Metroid was an SNES Masterpiece

Happy 25th birthday, Super NES! Look back at the fundamental brilliance of one of the console's all-time greatest creations with this piece from the USgamer archives.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Originally published Feb. 2014

20 years ago, Nintendo published a master class in game design, a work some call the greatest game of all time: Super Metroid. This third chapter of the Metroid saga refined the concepts explored so imperfectly Metroid and Metroid II while standing as a great in its own right.

Little wonder that so many indie titles openly imitate Super Metroid. There's hardly a single false note in Nintendo's Super NES action adventure, and its structure and content are utterly addictive. I've certainly devoted tens of thousands of words to singing praises of the game over the years -- perhaps more than for any other game I've ever played. It's the kind of game you can return to time and again and always come away with some fresh insight or observation. Rather than simply write yet another gushing review of the game to mark its 20th anniversary, instead I'd like to talk about seven features that I feel were the key to its artistic success.

1. Boundary-pushing visuals and music, but not at the expense of game design

Strange to think, in an age in which Nintendo has long since shied away from pushing technical boundaries, but when it first arrived Super Metroid was the largest game ever released (in terms of storage capacity) on Super NES. At 24Mb, it eclipsed everything that had come before it, both first- and third-party. And its designers made deft use of that space. The subterranean passages of Zebes were absolutely immense, yet unlike the repetitive corridors of the original Metroid they came packed with variety. Each room had its own look, and often employed a unique gimmick -- whether that be a specific means of traversal, an unexpected trap, a new kind of enemy, or simply a devious puzzle hiding away a collectible item.

Super Metroid's creators crammed the game with all sorts of detail. From Samus' subtle idle animation and non-mirrored sprite (her main weapon is mounted to her right arm, and don't you forget it) to the countless secret mechanics and Easter eggs, every byte of data invested in Super Metroid served to make its world more immersive, its action more dynamic, and its mazes more devious.

2. Perfect integration of weapons and tools

The most fundamental rule for Metroid's weapons: They aren't simply about blowing up monsters. Every weapon Samus Aran collects in the course of her adventures serves a greater purpose beyond merely making things explode. Even if they simply serve double duty as a key -- as with missiles opening red doors -- everything in Samus' arsenal has value beyond basic combat. Not coincidentally, Super Metroid doesn't feature an inventory to speak of; while you can duck into a subscreen to activate or deactivate Samus' powers, you never have to worry about finding a key card or some obscure widget to help you explore the labyrinthine depths of Zebes. Her power-ups take care of that for her.

The one except to this rule is the X-Ray Scope, which serves a single purpose (revealing hidden passages) and has no combat value. Fittingly, it's a totally optional upgrade, tucked away in a fairly out-of-the-way area. Otherwise, though, Samus is a remarkably efficient explorer, carrying only what she needs.

As a corollary to this fact, almost every weapon has even more esoteric features beyond their obvious uses. The Super Missile, for example, causes a small tremor that can dislodge enemies from walls and ceilings. The Grappling Beam may not seem like much of a weapon, but it's remarkably effective against certain "invincible" enemies that shrug off all other forms of attack... and on top of that, it can be used to "cheat" in a difficult boss battle for a quick and dirty win. The Power Bomb opens certain doors and wipes the screen clean of enemies, but it's also valuable for quickly exposing destructible blocks. There are even techniques so advanced that friendly little creatures in the depths of the caves demonstrate them for Samus. Or, in the case of the ultimate Crystal Flash technique, so advanced that even the attract mode demonstration will still leave you guessing how it actually works. Despite having completing the game dozens of times over the years, I still find myself discovering new techniques and applications every time I revisit Super Metroid.

3. Incredible level design

Much of the efficacy of Super Metroid's weapon-tools comes from the fact that the world around Samus is so exquisitely crafted. Maybe it's not entirely realistic that the evil Space Pirates would construct a base around an ancient civilization in just such a way that all the items Samus would find within would allow her to reach their command center in an orderly fashion while collecting 100% of the weapons laying around. But who cares? Logic and great game design don't always intersect -- and that's OK, because logic is a commodity. Great game design, that's harder to come by.

The corridors of Zebes constantly guide players toward their goals in a subtle fashion, without ever being too conspicuous about it. It's perhaps the greatest-ever example of linear design disguised to feel open-ended. Super Metroid always gives you the freedom to sort things out on your own while at the same time quietly closing doors behind you or dropping you down a hole too deep for you to climb out of until you acquire your next essential upgrade. It's very difficult to become completely lost in Zebes, because the game has a way of trapping you in the vicinity of where you need to be going.

It never really feels that way, though, because you always end up trapped in a large enough cage that you don't notice the bars. While you can often backtrack, the most crucial moments of progression gently nudge you toward essential solutions. You may feel lost from time to time, but never for long. The way forward is always nearby. You just need to figure out how to find it.

4. Substantial without overstaying its welcome

Super Metroid offered players a significant upgrade in terms of content and volume over its predecessors. Well, sort of; its labyrinth is only moderately larger than that of Metroid II, but because it's so much more intricate in its design and its secrets are so much more dense and interconnected, it feels far meatier. You'll retrace your steps through certain areas of Super Metroid several times, but you never feel like you're spinning your wheels; each time you revisit a region, you do so equipped with new tools -- that is, weapons -- that allow you to see that part of the world in a different light. When you finally find yourself empowered to connect with the tantalizing little items and passages you previously could see but couldn't reach, all you feel is immense satisfaction at finally satisfying a nagging sensation at the back of your mind. Super Metroid makes you itch, then slowly dispenses the balm to soothe that sensation.

Super Metroid doles out power-ups and other upgrades in a steady dopamine drip, perfectly timing Samus' major skill enhancements. Just as you've finally gotten a handle on one ability and start to feel that things are entering a steady groove, another power comes along and shakes things up anew. There's never a chance for boredom to set in, yet Samus' powers never come in such rapid succession that you ever feel overwhelmed or that a new technique is underutilized. And all along the way, minor enhancements (i.e., expansions for existing weapons and Energy Tanks) appear to keep you feeling like you're making progress and motivated to search. It's the same stick-and-carrot most RPGs employ, and despite Super Metroid's stripped-down mechanics versus a proper role-playing game, it's every bit as effective here as in something like Final Fantasy Tactics.

5. A minimal but affecting story

Super Metroid doesn't have much in the way of story, at least not in the usual sense of the word. Once you sit through the brief introductory narration -- the first time in the entire series Samus Aran is given voice -- the only words you'll see on-screen for the remainder of the adventure come in the form of tool tips to explain how to activate a new power. But the plot that unfolds throughout the course of the game does so wordlessly, without ever switching to a cut scene or throwing up a dialogue box.

Nevertheless, Super Metroid features one of the most memorable stories ever to appear in a video game. Much like Strider, Super Metroid conveys its underlying tale through the incidental details of its world, and through pantomime. There's a story behind the tunnels that crisscross subterranean Zebes: From the charred ruins of Mother Brain's former lair to the remains of an ancient crashed starship whose flickering monitors seemingly display a warning image of the deadly metroid parasites, every place you explore seems to have its own hidden meaning. The game never stops to explain itself, though; it leaves players to guess at what they've found. You can construct your own backstory for the planet if you like, draw your own conclusions about the nature of the Space Pirates and their mission. There is no "wrong" way to interpret Super Metroid's story, because it's all left deliberately vague. Who's the dead guy outside Kraid's lair? Is that a science lab cutting through the center of Maridia? What's with the turtle-like creature trying to protect its babies? Super Metroid has no explanations for you. You provide your own answers.

Compare that to Metroid Prime, which mimicked Super Metroid's structure and atmosphere to a fault but let you scan every item and room you encountered for more information. While the data you uncovered at your discretion did provide a logical sense of progression to the final boss, it still felt cumbersome compared to Super Metroid's elegant silence. From the ominous opening moments in which Samus returns to the seemingly dead world of Zebes only to realize she's being watched all the way to the intense finale, Super Metroid tells an intriguing story without a word -- and in its muteness, it sparks players' imagination in a way that simply explaining everything could never have done.

6. That amazing finale

Speaking of the finale, the real high point for Super Metroid's quiet narrative was by far its absolute least subtle moment. At the end of Samus' journey, she faces off against the Mother Brain once again, only to discover her nemesis has received a massive upgrade. The reprise of Metroid's final battle is but a warm-up for the real Mother Brain, now a massive biological computer capable of unleashing hellish beams of destructive energy. Samus, teetering at the brink of defeat, is saved by the last-minute self-sacrifice of the deadly "super metroid" -- the metroid larva that imprinted on her as its "mother" at the end of Metroid II. Empowered by the metroid's final gift, Samus makes short work of Mother Brain and flees the dying planet.

It's a powerful moment that works in large part because it represents the culmination of three games' story beats. The revelation of Mother Brain's true form is a shocking twist on the original game, while the baby metroid's sacrifice brings the second game's ending full circle. And only at the end do you realize that a seemingly trivial bit of information in Super Metroid's intro -- the capacity for metroids to create energy as well as consume it -- was setting up Samus' final weapon upgrade, the Hyper Beam that's bestowed by the metroid's death. As for the baby metroid's shocking mutation, that actually came from the narrative thread binding the entire game, from its abduction in the prologue to Samus' discovery of its shattered container upon defeating Ridley to the bizarre gallery of creatures turned to dust. The early Metroid games didn't do much overt storytelling, but what little existed comes into razor-sharp focus at the end.

7. It respected the player

The single most important thing Super Metroid did, however, was to respect the player. That may seem an obvious feature -- so essential a consideration as to not be a proper feature, in fact -- but respect for the player is something in short supply in video games. Super Metroid's trust in you permeates the game, manifesting in every possible facet of the adventure.

Super Metroid has no hand-holding; it guides players to play the proper way, but it never strongarms them. It gives adventurers the freedom to learn, but also the freedom to fail, to get lost. It reveals its working in subtle ways; for instance, players might never realize that the Super Missile can knock enemies loose from walls on their own, but you're forced to use them for the first time to open a door near where a couple of monsters are hidden along the ceiling. That explosion, required to progress further, dislodges them. If you don't grasp this secondary function of your new weapon, it's not the game's fault; it's because you didn't pay attention when it was giving you its discreet lesson.

Even when the game lays out its details plain to see, it places the burden of making sense of these facts on the player. When you uncover a new region's map via the map rooms, certain areas are left unrevealed, and the connections between different rooms remain opaque until you sort them out for yourself. What the map reveals do accomplish, however, is to give you a general sense of where you need to go and when it's time to backtrack or move along. The map data also has a tendency to include certain areas that can't immediately be accessed, leaving little unexplored spots to tug at your attention as you make you way through old haunts again.

Super Metroid doesn't waste your time, but it also lets you take your time. It trusts you to figure things out on your own, but only after discreetly teaching you all its tricks. This sense of respect for the player helps make a great game truly one-of-a-kind. In fact, the worst thing about Super Metroid is that it all comes together so well that the franchise has struggled to escape its gravity and find a compelling style that isn't simply a reprise of this adventure's design. After all, how do you improve on perfection?

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Comments 29

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  • Avatar for jmroo #1 jmroo 4 years ago
    I think number 4 is a really understated value when it occurs in games. I can understand those that want their one or two games to last them a year, but damn if a good concise experience with perfect pacing isn't a think of beauty.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #2 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    It's actually rather strange. I enjoyed Metroid and Metroid II back in the day, but I wasn't overly excited about Super Metroid, even with the extensive Nintendo Power coverage. Perhaps because I was more obsessed with RPGs than anything at the time.

    Fast-forward a few years, and I finally manage to snag a copy of the game from our local video store. It blew everything out of the water. Super Metroid is amazing, for all the reasons you list and then some.

    Now, Nintendo, about a Metroid for your current systems...
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @jmroo For sure. I'll play an awesome 8-hour game over and over again. I probably won't even play an awesome 8-hour game to its conclusion. PS1-era padding is one of the worst things to happen to game design.
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  • Avatar for koalpastor30 #4 koalpastor30 4 years ago
    Excellent article for an excellent game. Jeremy you're the best!
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  • Avatar for BeeZee #5 BeeZee 4 years ago
    Still my favorite game of all time after twenty years. It's weird to think that #7 has basically been abolished from modern AAA game design.
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  • Avatar for sean697 #6 sean697 4 years ago
    I finally played this for the first time when they had the Wii U .99 cent VC sale on this game. I don't believe I waited all these years to finally play this. Easily takes a place on my list as one of my favorite games of all time. It still holds up so well that it was more enjoyable than most stuff released today. That's saying something for a game that's 20 years old.

    Having only played the 2D Metroid games for the first time in the last 3 years, this is the only one that absolutely hooked me where I could not put it down. I enjoyed the first Metroid games but it had its flaws. The GBA versions were decent, I couldn't get into Metroid 2. But this game did so much right and was so good it really felt like I was playing one of the most well designed games all around that I had ever played.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @BeeZee I think "respect for players" mutated into "respect for corporate shareholders" somewhere along the way.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #8 pdubb 4 years ago
    Level design, level design, level design. I can't possibly imagine how good other "almost there" games could be with Super Metroids level design.

    The ability to create levels that are appealing to the casual audience, but beg to be exploited by determined players just blows my mind. Bravo Super Metroid, Bravo.
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  • Avatar for docexe #9 docexe 4 years ago
    Something that I have been thinking about recently (mostly because of some of the games I have played in the last year, like Journey) is how this trend of minimalistic storytelling that we see in many indie games nowadays was actually perfected by Super Metroid 20 years ago. It’s fantastic how the game manages to tell so many things and transmit so much emotion without a single line of dialogue. Just through the gameplay, level design and environment design, it transmits a lot.

    I have to admit that years ago (back in the PS2/GCN era I believe) I was among those gamers who believed that Nintendo should have “moved with the times” and start telling more complex and “mature” stories in their games with cinematic production values. But considering how they nailed it so effectively in this game, and how some of those games with minimalistic storytelling have affected me more deeply than other games with tons of cut-scenes and dialogue… Well, it certainly made me reevaluate how I considered Nintendo’s approach to storytelling. Nowadays I think it would be better for them to stick to that minimalist design.
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  • Avatar for orient #10 orient 4 years ago
    I've quit an hour-or-so into Super Metroid multiple times because I thought I was in for a 20 hour slog...I didn't realise it was a sub-10 hour experience. That makes it far more appealing.

    Super Metroid was discussed on this week's Bombcast and Jeff seemed to think the game was more like 4-5 hours long. I wouldn't know if that's accurate, but I do kind of agree with his assessment of SNES music: it was great at the time, but hasn't aged as well as the raw FM synth of the Mega Drive. To use his analogy, the SNES sounds like playing speakers underwater. It doesn't diminish any of the amazing tunes created for the SNES, but it does make you want cleaner versions of them.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #11 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    Has it really been twenty years since Super Metroid came out? I can still remember the TV ads, which made the game all the more tantalizing since I didn't have an SNES at the time. Where's our year of Samus Aran Nintendo?
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  • Avatar for jjmahoney3 #12 jjmahoney3 4 years ago
    Great article. One of my best gaming memories is from Super Metroid. I was playing through the final area with my best friend on the phone (who was playing it at his house). We both fought Mother Brain at the same time, were saved by the baby Metroid at the same time, and were racing to escape at the same time. The only difference was that he missed a crucial jump during the escape. As we were seconds from our ship, I was a few seconds ahead of him and made it to safety. He got to his ship only to have time run out. In the same instant I'm relaxing after beating the game, he's screaming, "NOOOOOO!" as the planet explodes and he has to do the sequence over again.
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #13 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    It's interesting about the story in Super Metroid . . . at the time it was released, I'd preferred the more minimalist story in NES Metroid, feeling that Super Metroid interfered with my mental image of Samus as a female Boba Fett. But when Metroid Prime came out, I wasn't upset about everything being scannable - at least in terms of flaura and fauna. It somehow seemed to fit with its predecessors' motifs of ecology and evolution that you could perform detailed biological analysis of everything. But maybe the Chozo and Space Pirate lore was a bit too revealing.
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  • Avatar for dfunked #14 dfunked 4 years ago
    Fantastic article! I think I know exactly how my Sunday is going to pan out now...
    Funnily enough, the one and only review of this game I read before getting it didn't exactly oversell it. CVG - back when magazines were still a popular thing - gave it either 7 or 8 out of 10 IIRC.
    Thankfully that taught me to read between the lines of reviews and not just look at the score. I dread to think of what kind of gamer I would have turned out to be if I'd just skipped to the score of that review and thought "Nah... Not worth it!"
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #15 Kadrom 4 years ago
    These are all also reasons why@jeremy.parish needs to buckle down and finish a Souls game.
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  • Avatar for arnoldcorso14 #16 arnoldcorso14 4 years ago
    Nice to see such a great article about my favorite game. I'd take some issue with what you said about Prime though. I actually thought the logbook entries was a nice way to make the storytelling unobtrusive. If you wanted to read everything, you could, but if you wanted that air of mystery, it was possible to just skip the logs. I certainly like that approach far more than Nintendo's two biggest recent attempts at storytelling, Skyward Sword and Other M, which were far too explicit with long and cutscenes that felt emotionally flat.
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  • Avatar for ryanbarrett77 #17 ryanbarrett77 4 years ago
    About the "still discovering new things" bit: it wasn't until a few years ago that I realized you could collect item replenishers with the Grappling Beam. Mind = BLOWN!
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  • Avatar for MojoBox #18 MojoBox 4 years ago
    @orient You, and Jeff, are nuts. As a Genesis fan (had one long before I had a SNES) I think it sounds like a robot having sex with a tin can. Gross.
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  • Avatar for orient #19 orient 4 years ago
    @MojoBox Everyone has their preference, but listen to any Sonic soundtrack, Shinobi, Streets of Rage, and tell me it sounds "gross". Don't blame the hardware for bad music -- there's bad music on all consoles. It's about finding the talented people who knew how to make the sound chip sing, and there were plenty on Genesis.
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  • Avatar for MojoBox #20 MojoBox 4 years ago
    @orient This debate always seems to hinge on the music, but I think the real difference is in the SFX, which are typically extremely harsh on the genesis.
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  • Avatar for Stokers #21 Stokers 4 years ago
    I'm playing through super metroid for the first time, its a real joy to play at the moment, lives up to all the hype.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #22 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @PhotoBoy ...but Nintendo released a Metroid game last week.
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  • Avatar for Stepout #23 Stepout 2 years ago
    I played it for the first time last year (only watched a friend play back when it first launched). It was awesome, I had a blast. I only had one issue with the game, the wall jumping, it's too hard, lol!
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #24 Mooglepies 2 years ago
    Wonderful game. For reasons I won't go into, I actually own 3 physical copies of this game - probably a bit worrying but oh well.

    The one thing I would day about this that isn't really reflected in the article is that the game is, by design, a linear game that can fool the player into thinking that they have choice and that the world is more open than it appears. What's interesting is that, with sufficient knowledge and execution, it actually IS possible to open the game up and turn it into something truly non-linear.

    Most of this is done by methods that the designers did not intend, but it does still work - as RBO (Reverse Boss Order) speedruns will attest. This is in sharp contrast to Fusion and Zero Mission, which took the two different approaches to game structure and world design to their natural conclusions by intentonal design decisions.

    Metroid is a wonderful thing and I hope Nintendo really do stick with it. I'm not anti Federation Force (it's not even out where I live so I can't really comment on the game) but it really has been too long since the last full-fat Metroid adventure.
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  • Avatar for NeoRasa #25 NeoRasa 2 years ago
    I always thought it was so cool how the game's attract mode shows all the advanced stuff in the game in a mysterious way, it really made me experiment with all of the different abilities way more than I would have otherwise.
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  • Avatar for SomeKindaWizard #26 SomeKindaWizard 2 years ago
    Couldn't resist writing more about this game then Jeremy, can't blame you!
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #27 SuperShinobi 2 years ago
    Good game, but the visuals are blocky and muted, almost 8bit-esque and fairly unremarkable for the SNES. As a visual tour-de-force SNES platformer I'd recommend Super Ghouls'n Ghosts.
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  • Avatar for sylvan #28 sylvan 2 years ago
    Too weird. I just started another replay of Super Metroid the other day for no reason in particular. Probably close to the 20th play through for me. Just had the urge and I wanted an excuse to download the Wii U VC version (pretty good btw). I also have the original cart and a Wii VC version.

    It really is a perfect game. Every time I play it I am still impressed by how snappy and tight the controls are, how smoothly Samus moves through the environment, and the amazing level design. Never gets old.
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  • Avatar for orient #29 orient 2 years ago
    I'm playing through Zero Mission for the first time and I'm enjoying it a lot. I was kind of taken aback by just how similar it is to Super Metroid. Not a bad thing by any means but just...very familiar, like I'd done it before. I've just reached the "twist", so maybe this it where the game makes its' mark.

    So far, though, Zero Mission is like Super Metroid with the rough edges filed off -- a smoother experience, but less atmospheric. Just as enjoyable but not as captivating.
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