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.

The Greatest Games: Metroid Prime (2002)

Metroid Prime (2002)
Developed by Retro Studios

Nintendo sometimes insists on certain terminology for their games. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an ‘open-air’ game, whatever that means. Metroid Prime, meanwhile, is not a first-person shooter, despite being in the first person and involving shooting. No, no, Metroid Prime is a first-person adventure.

Genres themselves are nebulous – when I began this project, I tried to classify each of my top 100 games by their main genre. “Action-Adventure” is a real doozy – what is The Legend of Zelda series doing in the same general category as both Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus? Several others pull from so many genres that any term becomes virtually useless. Metroid Prime is one such game, featuring elements from first-person shooters, platformers, action-adventures, and, perhaps most importantly, the Metroidvania.

The hesitance to call this a first-person shooter stems from an obvious source. The grand majority of games in the genre are about taking proper aim and attempting to outshoot the enemy. Here, Samus can use lock-on, so combat revolves more around strafing while having a continuous shot. Anyone coming for traditional FPS gameplay would have been disappointed. In many ways, this feels more like a variant on something like Zelda than an FPS. At the same time, it would have been nice for Nintendo to embrace the term – Metroid Prime perfectly showcased how the first-person shooter genre could explore different ideas, and it’s clearly in line with later works like BioShock. The emphasis does not always have to be on the shooting itself.

But the core experience of Metroid Prime really is exploration in the Metroidvania fashion – without the Prime trilogy, the Metroidvania might as well have remained a term exclusive to 2D platformers. It’s actually surprising. Indie developers churn out a dozen 2D Metroidvania games a year, and Metroid Prime was one of the most critically acclaimed games ever upon release – why has no one else made a successful attempt? The fact Metroid Prime still stands as the best 3D Metroidvania simply because it has no real competition after 18 years is mind-boggling – the closest things are the Soulsborne games and Arkham Asylum, but neither of those games have this specific brand of exploration as the core focus.

What makes the Metroidvania genre so special is a feeling of interconnectedness. Even while something like Half-Life features one clear journey from point A to point B and thus remains connected, the idea of trekking through earlier territory remains rather unique. Open World games obviously allow revisiting locations, but they also lack the signature level design which makes going to the right place at the right time so key. The best Metroidvania games balance a line between partial openness and subtle guidance.

Metroid Prime would probably be a classic simply for existing in a space few other games have even attempted. But, clearly, it goes beyond that. Tallon IV is a beautiful world. Even the ice section is a classic, with a gently ambient theme that’s hard to forget. Like the best Zelda games, every inch of the game world feels like it has purpose. Adding to the exploration is Samus’s ability to scan for more information. The older Metroid games rarely gave direct exposition, and this is a nice way to include more without being as intrusive as a cutscene. The game maintains a heightened sense of isolation throughout, and there are moments which might even be described as scary. This game isn’t afraid to drop the lights completely at certain points. Space is a big and empty place, and the Metroid series has always captured that atmosphere well.

Nintendo led the pack when it came to transitioning their classic series into 3D. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time established several concepts which have become essential for the medium at large. With Metroid, Nintendo took an extra generation to figure things out, and they went in a surprising direction – was anyone asking for the Metroid series to be converted into first-person? The insistent terminology seemed like something to worry over, suggesting Nintendo was desperately trying to appease the established fan base. Yet when the final product hit, it was clear they captured the magic of Super Metroid in a new form. Metroid Prime may not have redefined the industry like Mario and Zelda, but this was a top-notch take at what might be Nintendo’s most remarkable formula.