Just as reviewing a classic novel feels weird, the same for a classic videogame. I’ve never really played a 2D Metroid game before, although I loved the Metroid Prime series on Gamecube and Wii. Super Metroid is a game generally held as genre defining, and one of the few SNES classics to have passed me by. When it popped up for £0.30 on the Wii U Virtual Console I had no excuse not to give this classic a chance, and see whether it stands the test of time. The result is mixed.
Super Metroid picks up after Samus Aran’s near genocide of the Metroid species at the end of Metroid II. A baby Metroid has imprinted onto Samus, and so she brings this specimen to be examined at a lab, before Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates, shows up and snatches the baby away to clone more Metroids. Samus follows Ridley back to Zebes, the setting of the original Metroid game, to foil the Space Pirate’s plans.
An area where Super Metroid immediately shines is in its impressive atmosphere. The combination of atmospheric music, beautiful 16 bit graphics and interesting world design makes Zebes a compelling location to explore. It’s somewhat redundant to refer to this game bas eing in the Metroidvania genre, but..er, that’s what it is, and so exploration is an important factor, and trotting of the beaten track and taking the time to look around is almost always rewarded with upgrades and new items. I can absolutely see why Zebes is considered one of the all time greatest videogame locations, and in this element Super Metroid hasn’t aged at all.
The plot is kept nice and minimalist, but it is there, just not spelled out for us. This is how plot in Metroid games should be handled, not with overwrought emotional cutscenes (I’m looking at you Other M). The baby Metroid adds an interestingly personal element to the story, which humanises Samus much better than any ham fisted attempts at romance could ever do.
So, how does Super Metroid play? It’s a sidescrolling platform action game, with lots of jumping and blasting enemies. Samus gains new items along the way to open up previously inaccessible paths, and fights several inventive and interesting bosses. Mechanically, Super Metroid still holds up in most regards; it’s still a lot of fun to play, and still feels smooth. Classic items such as the morph ball and the screw attack add to the fun as things get going, and the gradual addition of cool new moves and weapons offers a compelling reason to carry on. The level design is generally good, but there’s a massive overreliance on the Metroid variation on ‘pixel hunting’, having to find a random piece of floor to shoot to open up new areas in certain rooms. If this was just for side stuff I wouldn’t mind so much, but there were several times I was stuck in the main adventure until I realised I just had to shoot a random piece of floor or wall, visually identical to the rest, to proceed. It strikes me as an artificial way to create challenge and extend the game.
The thing is, they really didn’t need to extend the game of make it more challenging. The actual story may not be that long, but if you take your time to explore and seek out the hidden upgrades, you’ll find a lot more game here. This game is hard too, although the Wii U ‘Restore Point’ feature helps. The idea of having to back track from each save point after failing on a tricky boss battle sounds nightmarish to me, so the ability to create an easy point just before a boss fight or tricky area makes things a lot friendlier.
Super Metroid, whilst feeling very modern and accessible in many ways, still doesn’t lack for flaws. I was unable to beat the final boss of this game due to a poorly signposted point of no return, leaving me underequipped to be able to take on this foe. An ability to go back out into Zebes and gain more upgrades to help me take down the final boss would have been great, but this mindlessly irritating game flaw somewhat tainted the game for me.
The excellent soundtrack, sound effect design and visuals helped numb the irritation, with Super Metroid’s brilliant design standing as one of its crowning achievements.
I finished Super Metroid with mixed feelings; in some ways it’s timeless, but it also shows some infuriatingly poor design choices, the kind of design choices which we tend not to see these days as everyone realised they were a bad idea. Still, on balance, my experience with Super Metroid was a positive one, and I recommend picking it up whilst it’s still on sale.