Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz trumpeter, once described jazz as being a bit like gumbo (with blues as its roux). It is a music that remakes itself every night, improvised and twisted into something new. It is that freedom, that open-ended sense of wonder at new possibilities, that also forms the spine of one of the greatest videogames ever created.
The genius of Super Metroid is that, like jazz, it allows you to improvise. You may never play it exactly the same way twice. The structural rigidity of most other games isn’t reflected in this title. Whereas rote and stiff level design characterizes so many other games, Super Metroid swings. The subterranean corridors of Zebes curve, crumble, and shake. Within them, Samus Aran rushes, flutters and pounds, while her foes stalk, float, and pounce. If you know your way around, you can tackle the task of beating the game in a variety of ways. And yet, there is structure, cleverly hidden, almost an opening melody that you’re allowed to later improvise over.
Like any good melody, the time since Super Metroid was first released has only underscored its genius. Two decades is a long time by any human standard, but it’s a lifetime in the world of gaming. New console generations usher in a steady stream of new content, novel mechanics come and go, influence waxes and wanes, developers burst onto the scene and then fade from notoriety – it’s a constantly evolving, ever-shifting hobby. Games that were cutting edge in childhood become relics by the time you’re old enough to drive. But in 20 years, the stature of Super has only grown. Its legacy has only been burnished in the ensuing years, eliciting a sort of wonder at how on Earth the developers could have created something so timeless on hardware so humble by today’s standards.
The answer was through a lot of hard work, blowing past deadlines, and…well, funk. As game director Yoshio Sakamoto told NowGamer’s Jonti Davies in 2010:
“During the final six months of development I didn’t know where I lived any more; the Nintendo building – not here, but the old place [in Higashiyama] – became like a boarding house for the Super Metroid team. It got to the stage where I really don’t remember going home at all! There was a nap room where it was okay to sleep, but sometimes it was full [of sleeping, overworked Super Metroid staff].
“Those were the worst times, when I wanted to sleep but couldn’t, and I didn’t have time to go home! There were always between ten and fifteen of us in the office through the night, so we had to take naps in turns. The nap room wasn’t being cleaned or looked after at all, because we were always using it; one morning staff from another area came to wake us up and told us that the room smelled like a zoo. Another Nintendo employee put a room freshener in the nap room, but that only made the place pong even worse. Everyone in Nintendo gave us funny looks.
“Yokoi-san, who at the time was my section chief and who always had fresh ideas, was always angry when he saw us all completely absorbed and working crazy overtime on Super Metroid. He came in and said, ‘Are you lot trying to produce a work of art or something?’”
As it turns out, they were.
One of the first things that smacks you about the game is how un-Nintendo it looks. Sure, the original had its own look, but in the 8-bit age, there was only so much differentiation possible. On the other hand, Super’s aesthetic was something else. It still stands out, with an astounding range of perfectly-tiled locations; its sprites and animations are the calling cards of a visual masterwork. At the time it was released, the House of Mario was busy having its “kiddy” image lampooned by Sega. Then along came Super, with a title screen festooned with corpses, a menacing theme thudding in the background. It was deadly serious business before you had even pressed start, and there was precious little cheer to be found once you did. A hostile ecosystem awaited, and the mission ahead was bleak. When Samus wasn’t busy with assorted monsters assembling in her path, there were bosses she could push into lava, or electrocute. Mario and Donkey Kong would blanche at the thought.
The music reinforced the gloom. Planet Zebes greets our yellow-armored warrior with the atmospheric crackling of Crateria (which doesn’t exactly give one the warm and fuzzies), and then the horror is turned up a notch when the Space Pirates appear. And this is all after you’ve tiptoed through a spaceship full of dead people en route to a fight with a giant dragon. Had I played this game when I was a kid, I probably would’ve run away and hidden beneath a blanket. The only break in this fever dream is the music of upper Brinstar, and even then, it’s more focused than whimsical. Then, of course, you reach the lower level of Brinstar, and the music there gives the impression that you’ve trespassed into something private you weren’t supposed to hear.
Perhaps you have, really. Mother Brain’s plot to abduct the infant metroid obviously didn’t include Samus getting in the way, decimating Space Pirates and destroying her finest lieutenants.
But our Chozo-trained protagonist does, and is tossed into the ringer, with few powers at her disposal. This brings us to what might be the game’s greatest achievement – its progression structure. Plenty of games feature retraversal and backtracking, but no game before or since has been quite so perfect in the execution of it. A power-up (often functioning as a key to a previously unreachable location) is never terribly far away, and the smart pacing creates a feeling that Samus is always getting stronger. Which is fortunate, because Super Metroid is a behemoth of a videogame, even by today’s standards. But it was so carefully designed, so artfully curated, that you can easily beat it in an afternoon with time to spare (even if you aren’t sequence breaking). How? Because the map is so damn logical. It’s a maze, but one that is inter-connected so well that it becomes second nature after awhile. There are rooms that seem to serve no purpose…until you leave them, drop through quicksand somewhere else, and find yourself back in them. Plus, the major areas are connected just well enough to give you a certain amount of freedom. For instance, in anticipation of writing this article, I started a new save file. When it came time to visit Maridia, it occurred to me that I always go through the famous pipe entrance. This time? I decided to go from the other end. As I’m not a speed runner, I’d never even thought about tackling Maridia in reverse. Why do it that way? Because you can.
That’s the sort of psychology the game imparts – you can do it your way. You can improvise. You obtain this sort of confidence via powering Samus up; once you have new powers, you can backtrack through old areas, easily dispatching foes that once seemed fearsome. By the end of the game, our heroine is so remarkably powerful that it seems she can scarcely move without kicking some unfortunate Zebesian’s ass. There’s an incentive to experiment with new paths once you have new abilities, and you can plot future play sessions around this. There is an equal reward offered to methodical players (who get to find every optional power-up and missile upgrade) and speed fiends (who get the fanservice ending). You can’t play this game wrong, you can only play it your way.
If Super’s improv-heavy progression and flashy gameplay get all of the attention, then its most underrated contribution to the art of videogames is its storytelling. Outside of a brief opening narration by Samus, the game’s story is told wordlessly. Without one line of dialog, we’re somehow told everything we need to know. There are deeper themes imparted, about loyalty, duty and responsibility. It is, perhaps, the most propulsive and poignant piece of minimalist storytelling gaming has ever seen. And that is not meant as a slam against later Metroids, or cut scenes in general. Super is simply that good, in a league above most other games.
Technically, Super’s anniversary occurred back on March 19th, the date of its Japanese release. But we didn’t get it here in the U.S. until April 18th, 1994. Originally, I had intended to write a series of articles leading up to this date, analyzing every portion of this game. But really, that would be a disservice to it. No amount of gaming-nerd navel gazing will do it justice. You can’t really grok it unless you’ve played it, and if you haven’t, today is as good as any to do so. Like Satchmo and Bix, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.