Saturday, July 5, 2014

Post-mortem-review #3: Super Metroid

Another favourite. Well, and not just a favourite. I think quite a lot people will agree when stating this might be the best game ever made. But maybe also one of those games not everyone may have discovered. If a random TV program mentions game classics, Mario and Doom will automatically flash by. But did you ever hear about “Super Metroid”?

He ho Captain Jack
As often in life, the good stuff comes from unexpected corners. Winning lotteries, wife suddenly pregnant (oops), or borrowing Super Metroid while you didn’t really want to. SM3 (Super Nintendo) certainly wasn’t one of those games on my “must-have-list”. I remember seeing it in a magazine, and couldn’t imagine why SM3 scored 10 out of 10(!). The small pictures showed dark, very flattish, sci-fi / grotto corridors. Not the happy colours you would see in Super Mario, or the amazing semi 3D graphics Donkey Country came along with. Nope, the shots didn’t set a sparkle here, nor did I read the game review. So SM3 just passed unnoticed really.

Ok. So you're 11 years old, and you get a (rare) chance to spend your hard earned money on a game. Looking at the pictures at the box rear-sides, trying to make a decission... Exactly. Screw(attack) Metroid, let's get ape.

One of the coolest things about the (S)NES era, was that e-ve-ry-one had a Nintendo. Friends, friends of friends, classmates, neighbours, older kids two street blocks further, homeless junks, your aunt’s pet parrot. Everyone. So, a wide variety of games was available via the good old swap & lend system. You want to check Castlevania? Give me Double Dragon in return then. Back then, a lot more games were produced for the Nintendo platform (more developers on less platforms, shorter development cycles), so having them all would have been a very expensive hobby. But luckily, by swapping you got a chance to play them all anyway. And so it happened that Super Metroid 3 found its way to my SNES in the spring of 1995 (hey Macarena, aight), almost a year after its release. A classmate wanted to play one of my games for some weeks, and gave me SM3 in return. I wasn’t really interested in it, and threw it in a corner for some days or weeks before I finally gave it a shot.

On a warm afternoon, after school, on our dusty sweaty attic, I made the crucial mistake (or maybe not) to load one of the saved-games on the cartridge, where the player already arrived in the final stage of the game. What followed was an eerie world, thrilling music, spectacular events where this “Metroid” –a powerful flying jellyfish parasite looking thing- sucked the shit out of creatures, a final boss meeting that I didn’t dare to dream if, and an epic escape from an exploding planet. Holy shit. Seems I was misled by dark static pictures, and though I already knew the end now (like women always asking about how a movie ends 5 minutes after the start), I restarted the game and patiently played it.

Who the hell stole my Metroid?!
Yes, a bit of patience is what you need for a game like this. The climaxes are smartly spread and the game starts on a seemingly deserted rainy boring planet surface. Or well, not entirely true, the game actually has a short pre-sequence where you board a space-lab that was under attack. You, bounty hunter Samus Aran (a woman btw) with the arm-cannon, are looking for a Metroid specimen you captured earlier. But the lab crew is killed, and the specimen is gone, stolen by an old familiar badguy; a dinosaur-bird/dragon looking creature called “Ridley”. Just after a few minutes playing, you already find yourself in a short but tense boss-battle with this Ridley creature. Just a taste of the epic boss brawls that will come.

Not again.

Ridley escapes with the specimen, and Samus follows the monster to Zebes, a planet we visited earlier in the first NES Metroid games. A cool gimmick is that you can actually see the old deserted basis you destroyed years ago (on the NES). Just one of the many mood-setters that give this game its special, eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere (something the more recent Metroids couldn’t quite achieve to me). Zebes doesn’t show much life this time, but yet the Metroid has to be hidden here somewhere. Cameras are following your movements… you certainly aren’t alone here… After finding your first few items while descending under the planet surface, you’ll run into an ancient Choso statue that suddenly comes alive (and tries to murder you). In all of a sudden, the planet woke up, and is crawling with alien-bugs. The adventure really starts now.

Your mission: find back the Metroid specimen. How? Penetrate Zebes deeper and deeper with all available weapons and accessory. Eventually you’ll have to kill 4 big main bosses to open a secret passage to the final part of the world; a renewed station that houses your nemesis, Mother Brain. In the old game days, we were used to the concept of (random styled) “levels”. Go from the left to right, reach the flag / door / stairs / key / finish-line / castle / pipe / whatever, and proceed to the next level. But Metroid is made of one big map, divided into six (mainly underground) sub-worlds:
- Crateria: Zebes surfaces and grotto’s
- Brinstar: Underground jungle
- Norfair: Hot lava love in the planet core
- Wrecked spaceship: That’s what happens if the captain drinks
- Maridia: Underground swamp / underwater world
- Tourian: Renewed space pirate station, deeply hidden in the planet

Ah, good old 2D map-design. Not the size of the GTA V world, but you'll be amazed how long it takes to explore every corner.

Buy your grapple beams here
Like Zelda, Super Metroid is about exploration, and action. But the sword has been replaced by an arm-mounted charge cannon, the fairy-tail world with darker underground alien planet, and the magic inventory items with sci-fi gadgets attached to your suit. Link throws boomerangs, Samus fires rockets. She can jump extremely high, run with lighting speed, place bombs, survive extreme lava heat, or morph herself into a ball to roll through narrow passages.

But as usual, you’ll have to find all these suit-upgrades first, so you start weak and without all the mega powers. Most of the fun lays in finding these gadgets, varying from whole new moves to energy containers that increase your total health. Though absolute 2D-flat, the world is big, and there is a LOT of hidden treasure. Pretty much every room has at least one item to find. Although the more important upgrades that are required to proceed, are often hard to find. Unlike those pussy games these days, Metroid doesn’t help you at all. Of course there is a certain logical “routing” through the whole game, but if you missed items or took the wrong door, it may happen you’ll have to search the entire world to obtain the item needed to proceed. Hence it took me a few weeks(!) to find the “Screw Attack” ability. May sound frustrating, but it’s very rewarding at the same time to collect stuff. Because you’ll have to sweat for it.

Most of the items are placed on spots you can’t directly reach, because you don’t have the weapon or suit ability. Other items are hidden inside breakable blocks, or at the end of narrow tunnels that require you to morph into a ball. You’ll have to carefully scan the rooms and keep a watch on the map to find walk-arounds or breakable passages. A cool and helpful item, is the X-Ray scanner that reveals special blocks.

Unfortunately you couldn't scan yourself to reveal the bikini-girl within that suit... unless you were able to finish the whole game within 3 hours, but that is a privilige for Japanese/Korean kids with hyper responsiveness.

Scanning for graphics…
It all doesn’t sound or look too shiny, but remember this game comes from 1994. Rendering a X-Ray beam like this was a technical challenge. And moreover, the whole idea wasn’t implemented in 100 other games already, ready for grab & copy. Metroid pioneered with a lot of things. The graphics may look a bit simplistic / darkish / boring, but this is one of those games you’ll have to see in motion. The way how Samus runs and jumps is fluent, and special effects such as light beams from the scanner, exploding glass pipes, or the steaming, rumbling, collapsing, rotating grotto’s in an exploding planet weren’t seen in many games before.

But the real stars of the show, are the boss characters. A bit as in Zelda, the majority of enemies is just stinky bug cannon fodder. Not really interesting or hard to blast away. As you’ll find energy containers, Samus gets really tough so you won’t get killed easily by weak-ass lava dragons, flying flees, or armoured shell stuff. But the bosses on the other hand… Jesus Christ. In many games, I found boss-battles to be annoying. Hard, frustrating, stupid. You’re just happy when you get over with it, and can continue. Metroid on the other hand is one of those games that makes you look forward to the boss fights. They are pretty hard, but especially tense. Very tense..

Younger gamers that clicked the link may think “A flying green jelly-fish sucking a robot-chicken-dino (23:30)? That’s gay.”. But try to put it in the context. Most boss-battles those days were about jumping on top of a silly monster 4 times. Very common now, but new then, is the final Metroid boss battle having some sort of “cinematic” sequences. The battle has a whole comes in multiple stages, and has some unexpected (scripted) events. Bowser would get more red, faster or angrier when Mario jumped 2 times on his head, but not as dramatic as the Metroid battles. And where most games would show a list of Sixty Mishimo-Tiyaki-named developers, and a “Thank you for playing!”, right after defeating the boss. Metroid proceeds, letting you rush as fast as you can to the surface, as the whole damn planet is about to explode! The whole sequence makes sense. Like a movie.

Asides from the final battle, Metroid had more very quick and violent battles that made you squishing the snes joypad. Fast pace, dozens of rockets, aggressive music, violent monster cries, and characters bigger than your TV screen. The sheer sprite-size of the bosses on itself was very impressive compared to any other game already.

Size matters. But unfortunately also for the SNES capacities. Large characters like "Kraid" where technical showpieces.

What makes it so great
Big bad-guys, a chick in a suit with super upgrades, visual treatment with scanners and lasers. All nice. But you said “possibly the best game ever made”… that’s a dare statement. You’ll need more than a few power-ups and large boss sprites. As said, you’ll have to put things in the 1994 context. A lot of features weren’t made before (or at least not much or as good). But in case the “back in the days” argument sounds like a weak excuse, Metroid is still a fun game to play till this day. Some games just get old, but Metroid doesn’t. Dated graphics or not, you will get sucked into it by the claustrophobic atmosphere, and challenging exploration, and lengthy gameplay. There is so much to find, but often out of reach, making the urge and reward for finding suit-upgrades bigger than ever.

The real power is that all those elements have been glued together just perfectly right. One world flows into another smoothly, bosses come around the corner at the right times, and when you’re getting desperate, a new suit power-up will charge your motivation again. And always with the right tune on the background. The music in this game is excellent. It makes you feel lonely and lost in this Planet cave structure, especially when you don’t know how to return to the upper surface. The music also warns you when climaxes are coming, and goes berserk during boss battles.

Cooking isn’t only about choosing the right ingredients. It’s also about the right dosing, and preparing things in the right order. The Nintendo chefs knew exactly what they were doing, and created a super consistent, detailed and rich game.

Pictures can't really explain this game, so let's show Motherbrain versions instead, including a cartoon version (yes, there was a Metroid cartoon a long time ago).

Metroid Prime?
It took quite a long time before another title was released after the SNES release. Of course I was waiting for a N64 title, but it never came. It wasn’t until 2002 when they finally made a new Metroid game, for the Gamecube – Metroid Prime. Valve would be jealous on that 8 year gap. Anyhow, I was worried about Prime. Living up to extremely high expectations is always a bitch, but I just couldn’t figure how to properly port Metroid to 3D. It worked out (extremely well) for Zelda though. But… I think my concerns were partially valid.

Technically, two of the main gameplay elements in Metroid are agility & searching. Agility means running, rolling, jumping, grappling, avoiding, and so on. The suit gives you plenty of features, and some moves require some joystick training. But thanks to the proper controls AND the 2D Side View, you’ll be able to perform impossible manoeuvres at high speed. But how to do that in 3D? Super Mario 64 showed how, but with an important difference; the game is in third-person-view. Metroid Prime is in first-person. The big problem is that you can’t really see or sense your own body. You can’t exactly tell if your feet are on the ledge or past a floating platform. You can’t tell what is behind or asides you. Of course you can turn your head, but the analog sticks are pretty slow compared to a PC mouse. Whether you are playing a shooter or platform game, the pace (including enemy A.I.) has to slow down because you simply can’t monitor your surroundings quickly. The turbo manoeuvres and rapid violent boss battles were key elements in Super Metroid 3, but have been slowed down a lot in Prime.

Another problem with a FPS view, is that you can’t view your own awesome moves. Not really a problem in a shooter where all the focus is on the gun, always prominent in front of you. But in Metroid you make saltos, fly around, swing like Tarzan with your grapple-beam, roll around, et cetera. But you can’t see it. For the same reason, a fighting game like Double-Dragon wouldn’t work in First Person, because you would miss half of the fancy Jean Claude van Damme moves. Prime made a wise choice by zooming out the camera when morphing into a ball, but most of the time it feels you are controlling a heavy metal mech, rather than the super agile Samus Aran we remember from the 2D games.

Not only did the First Person limit my view, the fishbowl helmet effect actually made me a bit dizzy after an hour playing. Too much stuff going on, over was my uncomplicated 2D youth.

As for the searching component, they made it too easy, although slightly different than I expected. Earlier 3D games had quite bad graphics. You could immediately tell if an object was part of the static scene, or a dynamic thing. A destructible wall or movable crate would betray itself simply by looking a bit different. No shadow casted, pixelated shaky edges, another level of detail. A 3D detective like me could easily pick out suspicious objects, making the puzzles way too easy. Basically anything that falls out of place, is probably hiding an item or part of the solution to proceed. The 2D Metroid didn’t reveal anything. A destructible block would look exactly the same as any other, making the search a lot harder.

However, Prime didn’t do a bad job rendering things. And thinking about it, maybe this is the reason why they skipped the N64 platform and waited for somewhat more powerful hardware, doing justice to their game. Yet they screw up. By giving tons of other hints. Not per accident with glitchy graphics, but on purpose. The game always told you where to go, so getting lost or searching the wrong places for hours wouldn’t happen anymore. And your visors were a bit too powerful, revealing anything suspicious. To make a long story short; the puzzles were too obvious. Of course this kept the flow in the game, but I play Metroid for puzzling, not really for the shooting part. We had Doom, Halflife, Farcry and plenty of other games for that.

The pipe tube... Probably I wasn't the only one stuck for weeks before realizing you might be able to blow it up. At least Metroid Prime would give you a hint about "the structural integrity sucks", or something.

Prime isn’t a bad game at all, but it doesn’t come close to its SNES grandpa. Doing it all in 3D was a difficult (but inevitable) transition, but possibly they could have made it better by choosing a third person view, and chill out with the overdose of hints. We gamers aren’t stupid. Although… many games now don’t even allow you to think anymore. It’s a trend in game-design, unfortunately.

Maybe my main beef with all the Metroid Prime games (there were two on the Gamecube and at least one on the Wii that I know of), is the atmosphere. It’s certainly very different from most games, making it still an unique game. Very… exotic in an alien way. Strange creatures, bizarre planet fauna, LSD trips, twinkly music… This game tries to be beautiful, rather than dark and eerie. Except for a few locations maybe, but there is much more outdoor environment, and since you never get lost really “thanks” to the hints and advanced maps, you won’t get that desperate, claustrophobic feeling that made SM3 brilliant.

The somewhat recent "Metroid another M" (Wii) actually used a semi-2D style again. But judging from the pictures, I'd say this game focusses on triggering the blaster yet again, rather than exploring spooky underground mazes. Unfortunately. Then again, I was a bit wrong about SM3 as well, wasn't I? Pictures can be very deceiving...

Well, it proves that even golden formulas can fall apart quite easily when having some misplaced elements. Of course Prime had to pick a complete new path in order to follow what other (3D) games were doing. And don’t get me wrong, they were worth buying I think. But also the other 2D Metroid games for the handhelds never reached the brilliance of SM3. I doubt if there will ever be a true follow-up for this game. Times change, and just trying to make the exact same kind of 2D game isn’t the answer either. As with Zelda, it gets too predictable when using the same characters, puzzles and items again and again. That doesn’t count for new generations of gamers who never played Metroid or weren’t even born back then. But this old grandpa probably just has to be happy he didn’t make the dumb mistake to let SM3 go unnoticed. You can only fall in true love with a with a woman once or a few times in your life. And I found my true game-love in Super Metroid 19 years ago.

Oh, for those who never managed to finish the game within 3 hours, here she is.


  1. Thanks for the final shot. I've never played this game or any other game from that console generation, which actually could be good for me because I've spent that time playing basketball :) But this little gift for the hardcore players is very nice.

    Have you tried God Of War? I think you might like it for the exploration (hidden treasures), puzzles and fights with bosses.

  2. I played God of War, the first and second released on the PS2 I think. Although I wouldn't call it a puzzle game (99% of the time you are murdering mythological creatures), it sure is a fun game with some amazing scenery. I specially liked the first encounter with Chronos. Didn't play the later GoW games though...