Space Adventures and Gelatinous Teeth-Bags
Warning: Spoilers ahead! 20 year old spoilers in this article.
I’ve been on a bit of a SNES kick lately, but I can hardly be blamed for it. It’s one of my favorite systems and were responsible for a lot of my favorite titles. Such as Super Metroid! And what’s not to like about Super Metroid? It’s got tight controls, awesome visuals, and a pretty incredible story. See, the Metroid series did a really good job of “show vs. tell” and only gives you enough text to read to recap the events of the first two games. After that, you get to experience the story. There’s no dialogue, no climactic speeches, everything is experienced by you, the Player. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Item 1: The Galaxy at Peace
As I mentioned, the intro recaps Metroid and Metroid II, and in a beautiful way that sets up the entire premise and ultimately the climax. Metroid was primarily about Samus vs Mother Brain and her Space Pirates. They were trying to unleash the destructive power of an alien called the Metroid, a gelatinous floating sack of teeth that drank energy out of you until there’s nothing left but dust. Samus killed Mother Brain and her head flunkies, Ridley and Kraid, but recognized there was more to it than just a Piracy operation. Flash forward to Metroid II, where Samus took it upon herself to track down the Metroid’s homeworld and hunt them to near extinction. She killed all except one, a hatchling that ended up helping her escape. With both major threats eliminated, Samus decides to give the Metroid to Science and get back to bounty hunting. Then all Hell breaks loose and Samus has to turn back and try to save the Science facility (spoiler, you don’t). However, this is all the story that is given to you, and in about the same amount of time it took you to read this first point. Now you know what the stakes are, the rest of it is up to you. There isn’t another frame of text of explanation (that isn’t your weapons menu) until the credits roll. So here’s where things get clever.
Item 2: Now I’ma learn ya somethin’
SNES game developers had a knack for teaching gameplay by very subtly showing you how to play, all without any prompts or messages. You start in a long vertical tunnel with platforms strewn below. When you jump down, there’s not any one spot where you can go straight down without landing on something, so you realize as you’re going down that the map tracks vertically. When you reach the bottom, you move through the door to the right through corridors until you come upon a hallway that twists down to the left. This doesn’t seem like much right now, but it’s a huge shift in the style of gameplay that was more common. Most platformers (and 2D style games) have a “move right to progress” mentality, where you head in one direction until you reach your goal. Super Metroid sets the expectation here, as this is a game about exploration. The entire theme of Metroid is about exploration and the rules of that are displayed immediately. You’re going to be going up, down, left, right, occasionally diagonally, the world needs to be explored to reach your goals. So, as you explore the facility, you find your prize in the last room: the hatchling… who is in the claws of a totally-not-dead Ridley.
As he screeches and hurls fire-bolts, you are immediately thrown into a boss battle, where you start to notice that you can take some damage. You’re not some two-hit chump getting stomped by turtles, you’re a friggin’ bounty hunter in a power suit! You exchange blows with Ridley and whether or not you win, he takes off with the Metroid and leaves you with nothing but a countdown to ‘splosion town. You have three minutes to backtrack and get out of the facility before it blows, which is plenty of time. However, this is simply another allusion to a point at the end of the game (which kind of set an unfortunate trend for the rest of the series, but I digress). We’ll go into that in more detail later, those are the core points. Within a few minutes of playing the game, you are introduced to the rules and the play-style. Now we go to the adventure!
Item 3: Perplexing Planet of Piracy
Samus starts the game on planet Zebes, the world where she stopped Mother Brain in the first game. There are a few levels you return to, and several homages to the original level design throughout. However, there are several paths you find unavailable to you. Again, the game is about exploration at its heart, so there will be places you can’t access until you have certain suits/weapons/abilities. And that can seem frustrating for some, as it involves a lot of mental notes of where things were and frequent backtracking. In my opinion, it’s done very well. There’s rarely an area you have to return to more than twice (unless you’re hunting for 100% completion) and the each new ability and item is employed in new and interesting ways to give you more chances to actually utilize them. It’s tedious to be blocked from progress by a simple obstacle, yes, but when you get the item that lets you cross that obstacle, you don’t just move forward. You fire an electrical whip that launches you through the air doing multiple flips and land on your feet like the badass space hero you are. But what is a hero without villains?
Item 4: Bosses be Bad!
There are 5 main bosses throughout the game, not including the mini-bosses (who are still pretty badass). Each one is epic in its own right. Kraid was (at the time) the largest video game boss who had ever existed, standing at two and a half screens tall. Phantoon punished you for exploiting a common weakness (Super Missiles), Ridley was just satisfying to finally murder, though they keep bringing him back in other games. Still, so good to finally watch that jackass fall apart and explode. Draygon is a big pile of WHAT THE HELL IS THAT.
But before the last boss is revealed, Samus runs into the biggest Metroid we’ve ever seen. It attacks you immediately you watch it devour an enemy that you can’t even damage at this point, and there is literally nothing you can do about it. He drains your energy while you flail about, trying to get him off you. My first playthrough, I emptied nearly my entire arsenal and didn’t do so much as bother it. And as you reach a single point of health it stops. It lets go, hovers a bit and makes strange cooing noises. It was the Hatchling!
He recognizes you (THANK GOD), and then takes off. You are given a tank of health right after that, so you follow it down to the final boss: the Return of Mother Brain. A giant brain in a jar doesn’t sound super threatening, but it’s exactly how it was in the first game! Floating energy rings drift toward you menacingly, and you have a tiny platform to move around on over a pool of boiling lava. When you crack the shell and launch a few Super Missiles into her stupid face, the whole place goes up and she drops to the ground. But before you can celebrate, Mother Brain’s massive body rises dramatically and she starts her attack again!
She kicks your ass. You deal damage to her, but she pulls out all the stops and hits you with an energy beam that drains you down to almost nothing. Right before you’re about to die, the Hatchling swoops in and grabs her, the two are tangled in a screeching melee while you sit helplessly, and once it’s done with the Brain, it turns its attention on you. But it actually gives you all the energy it drained from Mother Brain! Which is good, as she wakes up halfway through the transfer (just SUPER pissed) and unloads on the poor thing. When you’re at full health, it lets go and tries to charge again, only to get shot down and die. It’s heartbreaking! You’ve fought so long and hard to find this guy, and he gives his life for you! Glowing with your newfound power, you pay Mother Brain back in spades.
Item 5: Finale
This was my emotional connection to the Game. You’ve spent the entirety of the adventure looking for the Hatchling so the Space Pirates won’t turn it into a weapon, and ultimately you failed. My heart was wrenched when I heard the last desperate shrieks of the Metroid as it died, but there is an immediate catharsis in being able to rip Mother Brain to shreds with your newfound power. Of course, now you have to run for your life as the planet is about to explode (much like the very beginning of the game!) It’s exciting and fun and awesome, and you feel like the badass explorer Samus Aran truly is. In my personal opinion, Super Metroid is still the best in the series.