It’s not as good as I remember.
It’s better than that. That’s not an easy feat, mind you, due to the fog of childhood nostalgia that enveloped me once the opening bars reverberated in an ominous screech and shudder, followed by the title screen flaring to life. How can Super Metroid possibly be better than I remember?
And yet, it is.
Of course, many SNES and Genesis-era games have aged well visually, so long as you view them as retro 2D relics, the beneficiaries of great sprites and tiles (whereas early 3D games offer too many blurred polys to age with such dignity). And the list of Super’s contemporary greats is a formidable one. A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, and the other true masterworks of the time still stand proudly as high-water marks for gaming. But this particular game is an outlier. One can argue that its style — an action/adventure, platformer/shooter-amalgamation — has never been wholly transferred from the Metroid series’ 2D sidescrolling roots into the 3D realm (Prime got the progression structure right, but featured vastly different gameplay mechanics). It still has one of gaming’s all-time great soundtracks, plays as sharp or loose as you’d like it to, and it somehow looks as good as it ever did. Super Metroid is the Dame Helen Mirren of videogames; it shows its years, but my God, does it wear them well.
Sight and Sound
Zebes may have made its debut as a premier gaming sandbox on the NES, but it was only done justice on the SNES. Its labyrinthine corridors looked all too similar in the 8-bit days, but the extra detail afforded by the 16-bit age filled in the gaps, making each room much more distinct. Spatial awareness and remembering certain locales is essential in a large game world, and make no mistake, the map here was gargantuan for its day. Even by current standards, it’s a handful. If you’ve never played Super Metroid before, you could easily spend 12 to 15 hours exploring Zebes, without bothering to collect power-ups or really poke around to explore. If that doesn’t sound like much time, keep in mind the brisk pacing, quick run speed, and the numerous short cuts scattered throughout the world.
There’s a lot to see in such a large world. The environments may be primarily underground, but there’s plenty of variety in color and texture. From the green jungle of upper Brinstar to the soggy depths of Maridia, each area of Zebes boasts a truly bespoke aesthetic that belies its common, mostly subterranean, corridor-to-corridor structure.
It certainly helps that the sprite work here is phenomenal (and it looks especially nice on the GamePad’s smaller screen). Samus moves fluidly, while foes flutter and dive with nary a hiccup — integral ingredients for a game that can be played so quickly. Yes, it can’t help but look like an SNES game, but the art style fits the intended hardware like a glove.
That all of the above is built atop one of the greatest, most evocative soundtracks in the history of gaming is very nearly unfair.
I could easily write an entire article on the tunes here, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll say they’re as good as it gets. Super’s music manages the rarest of accomplishments: the compositions are melodic and memorable, yet subtle enough to rest into the background, setting a mood.
Speaking of background, you won’t need much in the narrative department. If you haven’t played the original Metroid, or its Game Boy sequel, Return of Samus, don’t worry. Super Metroid provides a brief introduction, which is all you’ll need. Our bounty hunter has captured the last metroid (an infant) in the galaxy, but it is quickly stolen from the science lab where it had been quarantined. Cue a return trip to Zebes to track it down.
That’s it, really. The overarching goal is important in Super, but the journey itself is a large part of the tale. Director Yoshio Sakamoto wisely allows Zebes, and the player’s exploits within it, to function as all of the narrative you could ask for. Samus undergoes a journey that is equal parts perilous and wondrous. The final act brings clever visual cues that tell you everything you need to know to wrap up this tale, with a finale that rightfully ranks as one of the great twists to gaming lore.
A fantastic presentation and clever story aren’t what have made this game legendary, though. There are plenty of pretty videogames that spin an interesting enough yarn, but there are few that feature gameplay as timeless as Super Metroid.
Do you prefer slow-paced exploration? It’s here.
Do you like fast-paced arcade-y action? It’s here.
Super can be played slowly, as a collect-a-thon. Or you can try to speed-run it in under an hour. You can methodically explore every nook and cranny of Zebes, or you can keep your finger on the run button, zipping across the world in a blur. There is no “wrong” way to play it. You can play it as a quasi-RPG, leveling our heroine up until she’s a veritable tank, or you can play as a survivalist.
This would be the part of the review where I say that the controls are as scalpel-sharp as ever, but they’re not. They’re better. The only complaint I’ve ever had with Super Metroid is purely mechanical: the placement of the run button. The game has always allowed you to remap different actions to different buttons, but if you’re like me, you’ve always kept the left and right shoulder buttons mapped for directional aiming. With an SNES controller, that always left the run button under your thumb. Now, with the Wii U’s additional triggers on the GamePad, you can map run to one of them instead. Since you’ll have a spare trigger, you might as well map missles to the other one instead of select, while you’re at it. And with that, my only complaint about this classic has been removed. The Metroid run-jump-shoot recipe is now as close to perfect as I can imagine any game being.
The aiming is magnificent. Samus sprints with a planted stability, and jumps with just enough float. And now you can time your runs and swap your weapons as never before.
Something that required no fixing in this title was its progression structure. Super has gained fame as a speed runner’s paradise, mainly because there are certain gameplay mechanics that can be exploited for sequence breaking. The real beauty of this game, though, is following the loose path suggested to you. You’re never told “go here,” but the progression of acquiring power-ups (which act both as arsenal boosts and keys to reach new areas), combined with the layout of the rooms, strongly suggest you to explore Zebes in a certain manner. For instance, once you pick up power bombs, you could keep digging in the area you found them. However, there’s a sequence of rooms placed along your path that will send you back to Crateria and Brinstar, where you’ll have access to new rooms, and where your new abilities will make mincemeat of enemies that had caused you a good deal of trouble not so long ago. It’s a genius little touch, a series of moments where you can appreciate your hard-earned powers.
Or you can ignore it, and try to best the game in whichever manner you deem fit.
Conclusion and Score
Super Metroid has always been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its release in 1994 was quickly overshadowed by Rare’s Donkey Kong Country, with its flashy digitized graphics. In 2007, its Wii Virtual Console re-release coincided with the halcyon days of motion controls, lost in the cultural zeitgeist. Now, it has been re-re-released on the Wii U, right as the console is having a rough go in its early life.
It’s possible, though, that this fate fits the game. Although Super really can be played in just about any manner you’d like, it’s still an acquired taste. It imparts a somber quality, quite unlike most other videogames. Many action/adventures place you as a lone hero in a large world, and many horror games place you alone in unforgiving surroundings, but Super Metroid? It’s a plaintive thing.
Alex set a precedent with Super Castlevania IV, scoring that game an 11 out of 10. Some might say it’s a semi-facetious score, but it’s also quite appropriate for classics. I suppose you could call this the Spinal Tap range, where 10 simply isn’t enough. Some games are so miraculously crafted, so achingly good, so visionary and so influential that they transcend a “perfect” score. They’re something more.
If you love videogames, you need to play Super Metroid. Our highest possible recommendation.