Retrospective Overload: Super Metroid

Our Retrospective Overload continues unabated, and this time we're heading back 17 years to 1994. You can find other articles in this series (and our previous Retrospectives) through this link.

The Super NES and I have an interesting history. It's a relatively brief one too, as I've only owned one since college. For reasons that seem almost inexplicable more than a decade later, I was a Sega Genesis kid; I probably liked the advertisements and Sonic the Hedgehog, but these are sheer guesses as opposed to recollection of facts. Regardless, I remember ripping open a package on Christmas morning and being greeted by the Genesis and Sonic 2 and that was that.

That meant that, in its proper time period, I never had a SNES. My exposure was limited to playing at my friends' house down the street and, being kids, there were just some things we didn't really know. I sampled many SNES classics, like Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, and more. But things slip through the cracks, and that's why I've never played Super Metroid.

Imagine my surprise when I opened up Electronic Gaming Monthly's 2003 featuring discussing the best games of all time -- and this Super Metroid game topped the list. I mean, the name was familiar — the GameCube Metroid Prime games had hit by that time, after all — but still: What the hell? How could I have never heard of what my spiritual guide, EGM, was telling me was the greatest game of all time? After that moment of bewilderment I probably went back to playing something on the Xbox and thinking about high school, but that surprise has stuck with me ever since.

My appreciation for Metroid began with the Xbox Live Arcade update of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Many games (including recent handheld Castlevanias and XBLA exclusive Shadow Complex) can lay claim to being in the "Metroidvania" genre, but the two high-water marks are Symphony of the Night and — of course — Super Metroid. After devouring SotN twice through, I was sold on the concept. And now I'm finally taking the time to go through its spiritual predecessor.

What really can be said to judge Super Metroid, though? It's practically perfect. I really have nothing to add to the echo chamber. The graphics are straight out of 1994 but the execution is superb;  I honestly think 16-bit games have aged better than 8-bit games, so there are no complaints from me. The sound is amazing, both in quality and in execution, with the music hanging like a light aural fog as you unfold the game. After the initial hour or so spent flailing around and gaining my footing, I've come to grips with what the game wants me to do and the controls are tight enough to allow it. My only real complaint is that it handles tracking down upgrades in a more obsessive-compulsive manner than Symphony of the Night did; the map sprawled out a bit more in that PlayStation classic, whereas in Super Metroid it's about shooting and bombing every wall imaginable.

Despite those OCD demands, I'm finding the puzzle elements of the platforming more rewarding than some of the better platformer offspring of the last few years. Games like Braid and Limbo put more emphasis on the puzzles as opposed to twitchy action and combat — it's an interesting twist on the genre and a big difference, but the design of puzzles in Super Metroid brings it to mind. Though Nick may disagree, the final puzzles feel too punishingly hard. While Super Metroid may inspire you to bomb every room corner in a feeble attempt to figure out which way is next, the game itself doesn't feel as smug or clever in the way those new platformers do when solving the puzzles.

The most impressive aspect of Super Metroid has to be the way the game guides you through the process of upgrading, exploration and improvement — all the way to the end of the game. It doesn't bring up a signpost that says "You can't go here yet"; the most obvious way the game explains this is by the missile/super missile-coded doorways. Also impressive was when I followed my nose down to Norfair and tried to enter a room that instantly almost killed me. Time to go find the anti-heat suit! The Metroidvania trope of making you collect all your power-ups via exploration certainly is definitely a trope for a good reason, but damned if it doesn't work. So many games can learn from the mantra "show, don't tell" that Super Metroid makes use of so well.

I may be quite a few years behind when it comes to appreciating Super Metroid, and even then arrived after detouring to visit games that simply aped the master. But when it comes down to it, Super Metroid has not aged one iota.