The Greatest Games: Super Metroid (1994)

Super Metroid
Developed by Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems

While Metroid Prime was a nearly perfect transition into the third dimension, I have to give a slight edge to the previous entry. The Metroidvania genre has largely stuck within the 2D realm because it’s a perfect twist on the traditional platformer. Despite its quality, Metroid Prime can be a bit unwieldy – Nintendo is at their best when they stick with simple mechanics surrounded by stellar level design. Thus, Super Metroid is Nintendo’s best game, with Samus being smooth to control yet the planet Zebes being among their most intricate designs.

To me, the Metroidvania is Nintendo’s greatest formula – there’s a reason it spawned a genre that includes it in the name. As a design, it’s easy to imitate but quite difficult to pull off. Even the franchise that paved the way has struggled to capture the magic each time – no other entry in the Metroid series came all that close to my top 100, yet the two that did managed to land all the way within the top 10. Some games which fall under the Metroidvania umbrella don’t really seem to fit – they have a wide world to explore, but they’re light on the backtracking. Many of these are still great games, but that has more to do with them being great platformers than particularly notable Metroidvania games. Others go all in on the backtracking, but that sometimes gets tedious. It takes a certain balance to actually make backtracking feel fun. What I said about the other Metroidvania games featured in this project is true of Super Metroid – the game is designed to let the player explore, yet there’s always a sense of where to go next.

What separates a Metroidvania from an open world game is that many Metroidvania games are linear – their massive world is more a puzzle to be solved. The player must explore to find the right sequence, keeping track of certain areas which are blocked off. This can be through doors locked behind items the player doesn’t have, areas which require certain protective gear, or even a ledge which is just out of reach.

Even more than the 2D Mario games, Super Metroid is a hard game to praise with words. When I praise its best features, it sounds as though I am describing the Metroidvania genre in general. This is the danger of being so influential – what were once unique traits become seemingly generic. But Nintendo has been at the forefront of a lot of genres and mechanical evolutions. And like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Metroid both serves as a revolution and a refinement. This paved the way for the Metroidvania yet is also one of the finest examples. Perhaps the most important evolution is the introduction of a map – a Metroidvania without a map sounds ridiculous now, but the first two Metroid games did without. This little bit of navigational assistance went a long way toward complex yet reasonable designs.

What can make or break a Metroidvania game is the pacing – go too long without giving the player a new upgrade which allows them to explore an old path and the linearity begins to show. Which, yes, this is admitting that the genre is built around a certain sense of illusion, but that’s true of most art. The feeling of open exploration is more important than actual implementation. Super Metroid is bulky enough to feel significant yet paced where there’s a constant sense of progress.

Another winning feature of Metroid is the setting. Super Metroid does little beyond setting the stage before dropping the player off on Zebes – outside of the NES era, this is a rare Nintendo game to start the player off with little instruction. The bosses are fairly intimidating due to their alien design and lack of lore. Super Metroid is oozing with a sense of quiet isolation. It’s not just being free to roam a big area that makes this a classic – like the later Soulsborne games, every new region feels like stepping into forbidden territory.

Super Metroid is the perfect showcase of everything that has made Nintendo an important company: simple mechanics, stellar level design, quality of life innovations, minimal yet effective storytelling – this is 2D gaming at its finest.

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