“The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace…”
The start of last summer was special, in spite of everything: I completed System Shock for the very first time. I had long been acquainted with its sequel, but the original eluded me. To my surprise it was unquestionably the best gaming experience I had throughout 2020, save Half-Life: Alyx.
Not bad going for a game close to thirty years old. I didn’t much expect anything comparable in 2021, but 1994 wasn’t done with me yet.
Enter Super Metroid.
For the most part I didn’t grow up playing Nintendo games. My first home console was a PlayStation. When my folks bought me a Game Boy Colour in 1999, it was strictly for the purpose of playing Pokémon games (or face ostracisation from the school yard). I didn’t actually use it for anything else!
And my only experience with the SNES came exclusively through a cousin, who I would occasionally visit on weekends. We’d go with his mum to the video game rental store and select a new title – usually Mario related – to plough through until I was eventually, begrudgingly, returned home (I have very acute, very happy memories of Yoshi’s Island, but equally it’s related to the only time I got head lice…).
The GameCube was my first Nintendo home console, which I also bought for a specific reason: Resident Evil 4. But unlike my singular experience with the Game Boy Colour, I took the opportunity to branch out a bit. It lead me to Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
I knew of the Metroid franchise – vaguely, with intermittent awareness – but I didn’t know anything about it. As a cultural touchstone in video games it had largely passed me by, much like Zelda.
But Echoes appealed to my tastes, arriving as my interest in the first-person shooter genre was at its peak and I was looking to get my hands on as much of it as I could. Samus Aran’s muscular and colourful power suit spoke very directly to my tastes – and my imagination.
I was fascinated by Echoes’ gorgeous world and strange premise, but it was unlike anything else I’d played before. Because of that I don’t think my teenage brain was ready to properly engage with it, so I never much thought about Metroid again after that experience.
That changed a few weeks ago when I decided to give my housemate’s Switch a go, in anticipation of buying the upcoming OLED model. With Metroid Dread to be my first purchase, I dutifully signed up to Nintendo’s silly subscription service for access to their NES and SNES libraries (just let me buy them?), and went straight to Super Metroid.
I can’t tell you what I expected to find. I don’t think I even knew what this game looked like. But as the prologue text filled the screen – warning that the Metroid entity I’d just delivered to scientists on Ceres Station was at threat of kidnap – I found myself immediately immersed in this fascinating new universe.
Five minutes later that Metroid was gone; swept away by a winged, almost dinosaur-like space pirate. Now in pursuit, Samus was returning to a planet she already exposed but I had never known. And as her ship descended onto that sodden world – Zebes – now in search of the stolen Metroid, I realised I wasn’t just immersed in Nintendo’s classic.
I was fucking entranced. And entranced is where I would remain for the next nine wonderful hours, delving deeper and deeper into Zebes’ hidden depths.
It’s not an easy game. It took time for me to get comfortable with the platforming, although that was in part due to my unfamiliarity with the Switch. And there were certain things I just could not do, no matter how hard I tried (the infamous ‘wall-jump’ remains out of my reach).
But mostly the game’s mix of combat, jumping, and exploration felt fluid and intuitive – and above all extremely addictive. There came a point where all I wanted to do when the Switch was down was pick it up again. Super Metroid had me totally compelled by what was happening on that screen.
And it’s interesting, because here’s a narrative that relies almost exclusively on its environment. There’s a bit of introductory text for the prologue, but once the scene is set it’s up to Zebes itself to tell Super Metroid’s story.
It does so with aplomb. Each area has its own unique identity, both in gameplay and in art, aptly signifying your progression in terms of what you’re able to do based on what you have. Sometimes that’s a suit upgrade that lets you jump normally in water, sometimes it’s a new weapon that opens a special kind of door. But it’s always your relationship with the environment that’s telling the story, and I was always being fed exactly what I needed to know as I moved towards my goal.
The whole experience weaves itself together in a brilliant final boss fight that exemplifies Super Metroid’s ability to convey narrative purely through visuals and gameplay alone. Not only did what happened powerfully prove a notion established in that opening text, but it did so in such a way that only a video game could do.
That ending moved me – not at all what I expected from a side-scrolling adventure game closing in on the big three-oh. You might have thought my experience with the similarly aged System Shock would have prepared me for the unexpected, but I was – unsurprisingly – caught unawares yet again. What a delight it was – what an absolute pleasure discovery of this sort is.
Super Metroid, then, is more than just a superb adventure game. It’s actually a perfect example of the medium thriving on its own inherent artistic strengths. One of the best games ever? Certainly. And it’s never too late to discover them – although, sadly, you can only do so once.
Roll on Dread, ey.
Screenshot via MobyGames