Nintendo for Super NES – Adventure – 1994 – Rating: 10/10
Name the best videogame ever made for the Super NES. For some, it’s Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Others, Super Mario Kart or Sim City. A number will point to Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Final Fantasy 3 or Chrono Trigger. And a lot of you will insist that it’s really Super Metroid.
The Metroid fans are probably correct. This might very well be the Super Nintendo’s finest hour.
I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn’t until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake or Powerslave then their beloved Metroid.
In the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. Nintendo’s forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.
Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let’s be honest here: those games weren’t as good. The first one, Metroid Fusion, made a mess of everything with a virus infestation that turns Samus Aran into a mutant. The second, Metroid: Zero Mission was better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that’s exactly what Zero Mission was all about, a Metroid that coddles you and holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Hayao Miyazaki’s Ohmus.
Words that come to mind when I think of Super Metroid: dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made — “heavy” in that late 1960s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a thick, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.
Modern videogames, if they really can be called “games” anymore, shove narrative down your throat at the expense of everything else. They believe that story can only be conveyed by scripted movie scenes. But a good videogame, all of the best ones, can employ narrative without these passive cliches. Story, setting, mood, character — all can be shown by the actions and environment of the game itself. That’s one of the things that makes Super Metroid a masterpiece. It’s a narrative-driven videogame at heart, but one that lets your imagination roam.
The only other exploration game that captures that same sense of mood and mystery, to my mind, is Todd’s Adventures in Slime World on the Atari Lynx. And that game was created back in 1990, four years prior. How’s that? In many ways, Slime World serves as a foundation for the expansive game world Super Metroid builds upon. It seems impossible to keep the two separate in my mind; the original Metroid serves as the original starting point, but this sequel stretches and expands and builds so far beyond those first boundaries that they become almost unrecognizable.
So that’s what I take out of the experience. The dark, underground world, full of life and teeming with secrets. This world is lonely and shadowy and mysterious. And the whole enterprise is tough, very challenging. I found myself stuck more than once. In this game, Nintendo drops you into a cave in the middle of nowhere, and just leaves you to rot. No goofy sidekicks pointing the way out of the maze. No cheap icons to hold you by the hand and make things easy. In this life, things are much harder than in the afterlife. In this world, you’re on your own.
Forget about that first Metroid. It’s a good game, great for its time, but somewhat dated and repetitious and tougher to hold your affections. This is the real version, the one that carries all the mystique. This is the moment which all future Metroids struggle to recapture. They are doomed to struggle in vain. You’ll probably never see a better action/adventure no matter how many years you’ll live.