Twenty years ago tomorrow, Super Metroid was released in North America. Nintendo was competing against the Sega Genesis, and they decided that ‘extreme’ teen marketing was the way to go.
My first memory of Super Metroid was from a department store when I was 10. My parents would go shopping at Sears, but first, they dropped me off in the video game section. Sears had several video game kiosks, and I would keep myself occupied for hours.
I would play Mad Dog McCree on the CD-i. Then Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball on the Genesis. Then Street Fighter II on the SNES. And back again.
On this particular day in the Spring of 1994, I ran towards the Super Nintendo kiosk, but instead of seeing Street Fighter II, I saw a new game.
It was immediately intriguing—there were strange aliens and even stranger worlds. The scale of the game was enormous—each area of Zebes felt unique and wholly separate from the next. Maridia was teeming with marine creatures. Brinstar was crawling with plant life. I died many times that day, but what really stuck out in my head was the Speed Booster. When I equipped my boots, I became a fast moving blur - I was so fast that I could outrun rising lava.
I convinced my parents to buy the game for me, and my sister and I spent the better part of our summer vacation beating it. We got the Super Metroid Official Strategy Guide, and we used it to locate and acquire every Missile supplement. We learned all sorts of advanced tricks—we learned about the Shine Spark, which could launch Samus across great distances. We learned about the Wall Jump, which allowed us to access areas before we were supposed to.
And of course, we learned about the Crystal Flash, which used a Power Bomb to restore all of my life.
Super Metroid created a pervasive atmosphere of dread. Endless waves of enemies could get repetitive and boring. Instead, Super Metroid’s developers had the confidence to include empty rooms, and filled them with nothing but mist. It ramped up the tension, and when enemies finally did appear, they were aesthetically themed to their respective areas—plant-like monsters for Brinstar, fire creatures for Norfair, and so forth.
The tempo of the action changed too.
One moment you were taking out weak enemies, and the next moment, you were battling a giant Chozo statue. One minute you were platforming across a fire pit, and the next minute, you were racing to higher ground as the lava rose. You came to treasure the quiet moments, when you could breathe normally and appreciate the beautiful graphics.
My favorite area was the ‘Bubble Room’ in Norfair—there were many pathways through it, and so I ended up visiting it multiple times.
Exploration was a key component to Super Metroid. Items, such as the Hi-Jump Boots, allowed access to previously unreachable areas, and you ended up backtracking through familiar territory to find everything. Super Metroid encouraged ‘fooling around’—there were so many secrets, and you found new pathways during each playthrough.
The narrative deserves its own, separate mention. Never before, or since, has minimalism been used so effectively to tell a story. There are heavy themes going on in Super Metroid—motherhood, abandonment, responsibility, and love—but the game conveys them with nary a word. The actions drive and tell the story, not the other way around.
We currently play games that need hours of cutscenes to tell a story—in the vast majority of cases, less is more.
And the boss battles? Unbelievable, and consistently so.
Back in 1994, Kraid was the biggest video game boss ever created—two screens of scaly, green fury. Three to four Super Missiles finished him off, but first, you needed him to open his mouth. You aimed for Kraid’s eyes, and when he roared in pain, you shoved a Missile down his throat. Easier said, however, than done.
There was the Phantoon. He phased in and out, and he had these little blue flames that bounced around. You could only damage the Phantoon when his eye was open—which wasn’t very often—and he moved faster every time he took a hit. It took me four tries to beat him, and I had to use all of my Reserve Tanks in the process.
And then there was the Crocomire, my personal favorite. A lizard-like blob in Norfair, the Crocomire backed you against a spiked wall. Your only hope of surviving was to shoot Missiles into the Crocomire’s mouth, which would make him back up—hopefully, into the lava pit behind him. The battle was a suspenseful tug-of-war, and it was capped by a jump scare that’s still creepy.
Games like Super Metroid come around once a generation.
It’s available on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, and anyone who considers him or herself a gamer needs to play it, all the way through, at least twice. There’s nothing that duplicates Super Metroid’s potent combination—of mood, narrative, gameplay, music, and raw emotion—and that makes it, in my opinion, the greatest video game of of all time.