Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Super Metroid

The third time's a charm.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

(Note: This week's Super Metroid review for Metroid Game By Game also doubles as our Super Metroid review for our ongoing SNES Classic Game By Game series!)

Debuting midway through 1994 on Super NES, Nintendo's Super Metroid — also listed as "Metroid III" in the introductory credits — represented a return to the original NES game in many ways. It marked the return of the series to consoles after its journey into portable monochromia. It saw the return of original designer Yoshio Sakamoto. Even the game setting walked it back, returning to the first game's setting: The space pirate stronghold planet of Zebes.

By no means does that mean Super Metroid existed as some sort of repudiation of Metroid II. On the contrary, the game begins with a brief sequence of exposition that sets the stage by building directly on Metroid II's finale. Many of the previous game's quality-of-life elements carry over into this third chapter: Save stations, resource recharge depots, large rooms, and handy power-ups including the Spring Ball and Plasma Beam. Nevertheless, much as with this game's 16-bit cousin The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Nintendo consciously circled back around to the first game of the trilogy and applied more than half a decade of technological improvements and game design experience to the framework that had kicked off the franchise. And, as with A Link to the Past, this refine-and-expand approach resulted in a genre-defining work whose design principles continue to define gaming.

Super Metroid's creators did an extraordinary job navigating the very narrow line between inspired reiteration and insipid rehash. A sizable chunk of Super Metroid's otherworldly underground labyrinth comes directly from the NES game. By 1994, we'd seen the dangers inherent in treading creative waters in video games: Formerly masterful franchises like Mega Man and King's Quest had grown incredibly stale by playing it safe. Super Metroid may have reused material, but it certainly didn't play things safe. Instead, it harnessed the familiarity of its setting in the same way that Konami used the first stage of the original Castlevania in that game's many sequels: Revisiting a known location to contextualize and define each new work.

Castlevania had never reprised the first game quite so dramatically as we saw in Super Metroid's take on the corridors of its NES predecessor, though. After a brief introduction that brilliantly takes Samus Aran — and players — through the devastated bio lab seen on the title screen (minus a key difference: The baby metroid has gone missing by the time you reach the space colony), you arrive on Zebes. What you initially find is simply the ruins left in the wake of your first mission to the planet. You infiltrate the remains of the old pirate base through the tall vertical shaft through which you escaped the time bomb activated after you defeated Mother Brain, pass through the rubble of the Mother Brain's lair itself, and make your way to the iconic platform where the very first Metroid quest kicked off.

Throughout all of this, the only things you encounter are gloomy ambient sounds and what appears to be some sort of surveillance system. There are no enemies to fight, no hazards to avoid, just murky corridors and disused door and elevator mechanisms. However, once you collect your first item — the Morph Ball that allows Samus to curl up and duck into narrow spaces — the space pirate fortress explodes with activity. The minions of the Mother Brain clearly knew you would be chasing their boss Ridley back to Zebes and planted a trap accordingly, using Samus's (and the player's) compulsion to collect helpful items against them. It's a surprising twist, turning the series' chain of skill progression against the player, and the idea pops up a few times throughout the game: Sometimes, when you least expect it, the birdlike statues that enshrine item pickups will come after you for plucking away their prizes.

Super Metroid revels in subverting the player's assumptions like this, in putting unexpected spin on what had come before. Plummet through one of the false floors that littered the original NES game's labyrinths and you once again have to deal with the chore of working your way back up to the critical path... but this time, friendly local critters will offer handy diegetic tips to unlock Samus's hidden skills, such as wall-jumping and rocket jumps. You'll encounter a fake version of Mother Brain enforcer Kraid, as in the first game... but this time, the real Kraid turns out to be a towering monstrosity too enormous to fit onto a single screen. You catch a shocking, unnerving glimpse of a metroid while traveling through a conduit in underwater zone Maridia, long before the showdown with Mother Brain... but it turns out to be a failed clone of the space parasite. And once you do encounter metroids (precisely where veterans of the original game would expect to come across them), you don't expect the terrifying new twist that gives the game its title: The eponymous super metroid, a creature altogether different from the lifecycle variants of Metroid II.

Ultimately, though, Super Metroid's most important exploration of the original NES game comes in the way it refines the exploratory structure of the earlier work. Metroid's designers incorporated some skill-based gating to its world, which gave the open-ended adventure a certain degree of mandatory progression while encouraging players to press ahead until they hit a sticking point and had to backtrack in search of the ability needed to advance. You've found the missiles along the path to the fiery Norfair zone? Great, but you won't make it far in Norfair until you acquire the bombs back in upper Brinstar, where you came from in the first place — but of course you need missiles to open the door to the room containing the bombs.

Super Metroid leans into this concept and turns the revamped, expanded Zebesian fortress into a complex puzzle box of interlocking gates and keys. The overall structure of the game requires constant exploration and acquisition in order to advance. Importantly, though, it holds true to a fundamental principle of the original Metroid: There are no literal keys in play here. You "unlock" doors by gaining new powers for Samus. While Super Metroid does introduce a status and inventory screen to the mix, it never becomes Zelda-like in terms to the need to shuffle between tools. You swap between a limited selection of weapon-tools with the Select button — missiles, super missiles, grappling hook, X-ray beam — with the inventory screen reserved strictly to make use of reserve energy tanks in a pinch, or to activate and deactivate certain mutually exclusive weapons (finally, no more wasting time by replacing your wave beam with the ice beam before heading into the metroid-ridden final zone).

Super Metroid's dual-purpose power-ups — they're weapons and tools — redefined the concept of efficient game design. As Samus becomes stronger, she can access new areas, where she finds her advanced skills newly put to the test. Super bombs allow you to wipe out all enemies on screen, and they also have the ability to open otherwise indestructible yellow doors... and on top of that, a well-placed super bomb can also reveal all manner of hidden passages built into the walls. Super missiles don't simply pack a punch and open green doors; the power of their impact shakes the room and can knock enemies off the walls and ceiling. No skill in Super Metroid has been added frivolously, and exploring their undocumented capabilities is half the fun.

The game makes a brilliant effort to teach players the value of their newfound acquisitions. Most power-ups are situated so that you can't make your way back to the critical path after acquiring them unless you make use of that new skill. You can only escape the room containing the space jump by mastering the timing of its infinite jump chains. You can only leave the ice beam's room by using the new gun option to freeze enemies leaping from the lava, turning them into tiny platforms that will allow you to roll through a narrow exit halfway up the wall.

Super Metroid rarely becomes challenging in the traditional sense. A handful of encounters put up a fight — the two golden space pirates pose a greater threat than any single boss in the game — but the point of this quest isn't to test your physical mettle. Plenty of ROM hackers have created variants on Super Metroid that demand pixel-perfect play; yet with all due respect to their hard work, those efforts completely miss the spirit of Super Metroid. This game asks you to play at a more leisurely pace, to become lost in its labyrinth, to work your way through its mysteries one at a time. Raw dexterity doesn't really factor in.

The concept clearly has merit, given how many developers have copied Super Metroid's design and structure almost verbatim. It took a few years for everyone else to catch on. Only a handful of games worked like Super Metroid in the decade following its release, but once the indie game revolution kicked into gear, Super Metroid became a template for dozens upon dozens of budding designers. Pro creators have done their share of lifting as well; would Dark Souls or Batman: Arkham Asylum be half as beloved if they didn't adapt the flow of Super Metroid into immersive, 3D spaces?

Much of what Super Metroid introduced to the medium seems to have been accidental genius. By that I don't mean Sakamoto and his team stumbled onto good ideas through dumb luck; a game as drenched in tiny details as Super Metroid clearly didn't happen by mistake. Rather, I simply mean that the devs invented elements for the sake of making Super Metroid better and, in the process, came up with game design concepts that worked just as brilliantly in (and soon trickled over to) other games. The auto-map improved greatly on the one seen in A Link to the Past, and its format became a universal standard once Castlevania: Symphony of the Night canonized it. Meanwhile, Super Metroid's ending screen expanded the original Metroid's concept of giving players different images of Samus based on performance to include a numeric breakdown of their speed and thoroughness. In the process, Super Metroid essentially created speedrunning.

If there's a single reason to dislike Super Metroid, it's that the game's sheer immensity and excellence have cast an impossible shadow over the rest of the franchise. How do you improve on perfection? Nintendo has given it a shot many times over, but no follow-up to Super Metroid has had both the impact and influence of the series' Super NES outing. There really was brilliance lurking in the 8-bit heart of the original Metroid; it just took a few attempts to do it justice.

Super Metroid didn't simply lay down the ideal design for Metroid games, it created a template that countless other developers have imitated across innumerable franchises (sometimes to-the-letter). Add to that a preposterous number of loving subtleties and details, an incredible sense atmosphere, and a story that manages to be gripping despite its pantomimed nature and you have a true, timeless classic. It may not be a flawless game, yet somehow... it's still perfect.

5 /5

Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Super Metroid Jeremy Parish The third time's a charm. 2017-08-16T23:00:00-04:00 5 5

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Comments 23

  • Avatar for DrCorndog #1 DrCorndog 6 months ago
    So will Nadia be providing her own review of Super Metroid for her SNES Mini series in the near future?
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  • Avatar for guillermojiménez88 #2 guillermojiménez88 6 months ago
  • Avatar for guillermojiménez88 #3 guillermojiménez88 6 months ago
    @DrCorndog I'm guessing not. I'm hoping yes.
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  • Avatar for ViewtifulJC #4 ViewtifulJC 6 months ago
    @DrCorndog Jeremy Parish has written approximately 14,000 love letters to Super Metroid at this point. He's not gonna let anything like an alternate editorial series stop him.
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  • Avatar for AtOneWithGames #5 AtOneWithGames 6 months ago
    This will sound odd, but the beginning ruined it for me. The cool, aloof aesthetics with palpable intensity created a series of events (the landing, traversal, and the moving to lower floor) in a game that will *always* stick out in my mind as just sheer brilliance. But. Didn't dig too much else. While it was cool to use the various abilities and in doing so, their uses. The open endedness with rather dry impersonal graphic design (that would be norfair). Just didn't work in my mind. (The very end, with its out of nowhere twist, and subsequent events, are excluded however.)

    Nintendo I feel can be guilty of this. Makes awesome first worlds (galaxy), worlds (the plateau in breath of the wild) and so on.

    But the middle portion tends to just "sit". Not much fanfare.

    I mean I don't know the intricacies of game design. But I know when I'm in a desert too long or the ice stage isn't thrilling me.

    When the beginning sets *such* a tone. I still get the chills when Samus Aran' s visor lights up.

    In the room leading to the elevator...Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2017 by AtOneWithGames
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #6 cldmstrsn 6 months ago
    @jeremy.parish Jeremy can you open a barcade and call it Jeremy's Parish?Edited 3 times. Last edited August 2017 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 6 months ago
    @AtOneWithGames I feel like Super Metroid is one of the few times a Nintendo game maintains its tone (in this case, eerieness) throughout. The crashed ship, Maridia, Ridley's Lair... all oppressive and unnerving in distinct ways.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #8 SargeSmash 6 months ago
    Super Metroid is undeniably fantastic, but if there's any game in the series that can stand up to it, it's Zero Mission. I don't think I've played a bad game in the series, though, including the much-maligned Other M.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #9 Monkey-Tamer 6 months ago
    The best thing about Super Metroid is that it doesn't overstay its welcome. It's the perfect game length. I play through it once every few years. Prime was good, but had some warts that make it second best.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #10 NiceGuyNeon 6 months ago
    I have to say, if Super Metroid is only a 5 out of 5 then other games have no business being rated over a 3 ever. I'm just saying. Who can I talk to about this gross injustice? This is at least a 7 out of 5, if not 8 out of 5.

    I played Symphony of the Night before Super Metroid and I still maintain that it's arguably the greatest game of all time. I played Super Metroid for the first time in 2016 and I was blown away that not only did I think it was better than every modern Metroidvania that I played but that it was also arguably the greatest game of all time.

    This is other-worldly levels of good. There are some challenging bits that I think could be altered a bit in hindsight, but for the overall experience this is genuinely stellar game design. Say what you will about the modern Metroidvania titles, Dust, Shadow Complex, Guacamelee, Ori, etc. They're solid works, but they owe everything to Super Metroid for laying that foundation of excellence and Symphony of the Night for pushing it even farther.

    You don't need nostalgia to tell when you're playing a once in a lifetime type of game, and Super Metroid is just that. If I could erase my memory of it and play it all over again I would because it's that damn brilliant. Now I'm just haunted by the fact that I'll never experience it for the first time ever again (ditto for Symphony of the Night).
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #11 chiptoon 6 months ago
    Ridiculous! Super Metroid clearly deserves 6/5.
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  • Avatar for AtOneWithGames #12 AtOneWithGames 6 months ago

    I would have to disagree. Those areas feel awfully a lot like "video game areas", conventional if not totally surprising.

    What the game gives you at the beginning proper is just absolute resonance. That ominous music, unnerving sound effects, absolutely intense atmosphere, little touches, and so on. They contributed into making a portion of a game that felt downright transcendent. Like zelda's call in link to the past, alucards run, the very first stage in mario galaxy. Moments that are absolutely indelible and made me appreciate gaming because it bought aspects to the forefront I didn't see anywhere else. (By the way, that would include 7th dragon.)

    And at the same time didn't reek of lets throw in the kitchen sink.

    Super Metroid may have nuances other games don't have. But with so many of them. It seemed like the designers decided to forego aesthetics for fun at times. Norfair would be a case in point.

    Maybe this is just me. I have played games for a very long tine but it's not until now I've realised I did it for the moments. Now I'm quite jaded. I've seen games "that do it right ". Final Fantasy IV, Klonoa (PS), Link's Awakening. That I want more like that. As much as I like seeing retro games, they got to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible or its a no go for me.

    And Super Metroid just doesn't fall into that category. After the beginning.Edited August 2017 by AtOneWithGames
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  • Avatar for ViewtifulJC #13 ViewtifulJC 6 months ago
    @AtOneWithGames see I only like Super Metroid AFTER the beginning. The beginning is a slow, useless cinematic thing, an unskipable cutscene you have to go through every.single.time. you play the game. You go through the motions, you twiddle your thumbs, and you wait for it to be over so the game can begin.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #14 VotesForCows 6 months ago
    I've not played this, looking forward to doing so. Only decision is between waiting for my SNES mini or just getting it on 3DS...
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  • Avatar for MojoBox #15 MojoBox 6 months ago
    The lock and key point is one of the main things that I find elevates it above a lot of games after it's fashion that have come since. The Castlevania games have a fairly heavy reliance on skills and items that have little function beyond unlocking the next area, and one of the biggest knocks I can make against the Prime games is that they are littered with literal keys that are no fun to collect.

    Super Metroid's commitment to gating progress behind player empowerment helps the whole thing feel more organic, more like a real place and less like an artificial labyrinth purpose built for the player.
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  • Avatar for namdor #16 namdor 6 months ago
    Pro tip:

    Open secondary tab and listen to the below link while reading Jeremys review.

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  • Avatar for MARl0 #17 MARl0 6 months ago
    Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time. Without question. It has been since it released.
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  • Avatar for AtOneWithGames #18 AtOneWithGames 6 months ago

    I used to feel that way. Yet having, at the risk of sounding redundant, become more tuned to (and desiring of) games through aescetical design. The various lairs and their color schemes (as well as an mimatching of sound in the score) just through me right off.

    I think, also, the first metroid succeeded where the sequel didn't in that regard. A much more foreboding, haunting feel which is to me what metroid is all about. Not knowing what comes next is how I see it par for the course..

    After all this series *was* based on the aliens series if I'm not mistaken.

    And Super Metroid s only created that kind of tension give or take a couple times. During evacuation, *the initial traversal* when, the metroid turned space pirate into a heap of sand, and mother brain attempting to snuff you. (Edit: that wasn't actually a space pirate but rather one of the giant carnivorous plant things that got smoked. But you get the point.)
    Other than that they played it safe. Exloration in beginning the exception to that rule in my opinion.

    By the way, when I say beginning i don't mean the laboratory. No matter how perilous it seemed to samus, that's a tutorial baby. :)Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2017 by AtOneWithGames
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  • Avatar for pdubb #19 pdubb 6 months ago
    The one thing I wish more modern games would have done in the CoD hey day was keep using the varied color palettes that the SNES games did.

    I love the area early on where Samus is in Brinstar and has the pink areas with flowers (or pollen) is falling gently. Yet Super Metroid has dark and dingy areas as well.

    Games are coming back around to imitating this, but it was pretty crappy for those 4 or 5 years when it seemed every map in a AAA game was some shade of brown
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  • Avatar for pdubb #20 pdubb 6 months ago
    Deleted August 2017 by pdubb
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  • Avatar for lenovosupport1258 #21 lenovosupport1258 5 months ago
    This is very nice and informative article and please keep post amazing article like this and if you have any query related to this then you can visit us Lenovo Tech SupportEdited August 2017 by lenovosupport1258
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  • Avatar for BulkSlash #22 BulkSlash 5 months ago
    One of the things I love about Super Metroid is it's not too hard. Even if you get beaten up there's always a nest of respawning creatures nearby you can farm to recharge health and ammo. The brilliant thing about this is it means you aren't punished for exploring.

    As much as I enjoyed Symphony of the Night, I was forever losing progress because I was stumbling around a new area and didn't know where the nearest save room was. Then I'd end up dying and having to repeat all that exploration again. I think if your game is about exploration then don't discourage or punish the player for exploring!Edited August 2017 by BulkSlash
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  • Avatar for guillermojiménez88 #23 guillermojiménez88 5 months ago
    At least we've had Nadia written about Super Metroid before.
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  • Avatar for mganai #24 mganai 5 months ago
    @BulkSlash SotN wasn't any harder, just more backtrack-y.

    Super Metroid was so much better designed, with shortcuts via just obtained powers.

    I agree on the lock-and-key sensibility. Whereas in various Zeldas some items were only useful in the dungeon you got them, powerups in SM had potential throughout the entire game. The wave beam's matter piercing properties had immediate and continued application thereafter. One of my favorite minor moments was escaping the lava trap after picking up the Dash Boots using said boots to do so.
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