A 2021 Review of Super Metroid


I'm a big fan of Metroidvanias, that portmanteau'd genre of side-scrolling exploration, so it might surprise you to hear I've never really played either of its eponymous series. I could wax lyrical about Guacamelee's wrestling moves, Yoku's pinball gameplay fusion, and pretty much every aspect of Hollow Knight, but the most I've ever played of a classic Metroid game is 20 minutes of the less fondly remembered Metroid II on the Game Boy. Until this weekend, when with all the hype around the release of Metroid Dread, I played the SNES classic Super Metroid via Nintendo Switch online.

Let's be clear, Super Metroid is a good game. At times it is a very good game. I like it better than the near-contemporary A Link to the Past. But like A Link to the Past, what flaws it has often come down to the game showing its age and origin in the SNES era.

Take the controls. Most obvious is the way that various weapon types have to be cycled through by pressing select. I'll admit that the SNES controller was probably better suited to this than the small and spongy select button in the corner of my Hori d-pad joy-con, but it's still an approach that feels very dated. I can't let this itself cloud my judgment of the game - I'm a huge fan of Link's Awakening and that has some very archaic item switching thanks to the Game Boy's lack of buttons (thankfully addressed in the remake on Switch). However, where I felt this really impacted Super Metroid was in those moments where I wanted to quickly switch from one weapon type to another. Using the grappling hook is more awkward than it needs to be, while the Metroids you fight near the end of the game were most threatening because of the need to constantly switch between the beam and the super missiles. So too when I came across a door with an eyeball-like enemy attached to it, it only having time to shoot me because my thumb was away from the d-pad and tapping select instead to get to my missiles. Strangely the game doesn't even use the Y-button as far as I can tell, while B is reserved for running (thankfully I discovered this myself, I wonder if that was a case of expecting you to read the manual), and it makes me think the buttons could have been much better arranged even within the limits of the SNES controller. In fact I'm told later games in the series do adopt a better approach, so this criticism seems pretty well backed up.

When it comes to character movement and general gamefeel, throughout my eight hours of playtime I never quite got my head around how Samus moves, especially when it comes to air control. Momentum in Super Metroid feels inconsistent - at times very prominent, like when jumping after dashing, but at other times nonexistent as I jump from swinging on a grapple hook and stop dead in the air. I took damage a lot from missing jumps because I either over or under adjusted mid-air, and I found the difference between a regular jump and a spin jump never quite clear, the former only seeming to exist to occasionally trigger when you'd really always prefer the latter. Don't get me started on trying to jump out of sinking sand.

The approach to tutorialising game mechanics is an interesting one. In many instances, especially early on, the game is designed superbly, teaching the player without taking them out of the game. A door set into the floor of a pit prompts you to shoot downwards. A gap above a block you need to destroy after picking up the morph ball bombs ensures you see how the explosion makes you jump a tile upwards.

In other cases, a bird runs off screen.

It's these forced tutorial moments, happening twice in the game, I take real umbrage with. First they lack the elegance of the other examples, requiring the introduction of random non-playable characters to try and demonstrate the move being taught. Even if they were effective - which they aren't - it's a decidedly ham-fisted approach to tutorialising that the game otherwise avoids. Second is that lack of effectiveness. In the case of the bird, trying to teach a technique I have since learnt is called "shine sparking", while the input is relatively forgiving little clue is given as to what that input actually is. Good luck, the game essentially wishes the player, as it traps them in an otherwise inescapable pit, their only option to randomise their inputs until they stumble upon the need to crouch and then jump after reaching full charge from their dash.

Wall jumping, the other technique that relies on some forced NPC demonstration (this time in the form of a gang of mocking space monkeys), offers an interesting comparison. Here the actual end result is at least more clear - the player can clearly see that they are supposed to take a run up and jump from wall to wall. Unfortunately the actual input required to achieve this is so precise, and unintuitive, it's a bit like showing someone stock footage of a plane taking off and then expecting them to pilot the next 747 out of Heathrow. This was probably the point I was most tempted to quit the game and never touch it again, if only I weren't so stubborn.

That these techniques exist in the game isn't itself a bad thing. That they are somewhat arcane and tricky isn't an inherent problem either, and that's fitting to them being almost entirely optional to finish the game unless you want to collect all the hard-to-find upgrades and reach 100% completion. The problem is that the game does require you to learn them and execute them once and once only - in the forced tutorial moments where it dumps you in an otherwise inescapable position with its infuriatingly vague animal tutors. It's unnecessary, annoying, and soured my whole opinion of the game's design philosophy.

Talking of design, one of the things I love about Metroidvanias is the way you slowly but surely gather more powers and build up your repertoire of moves, allowing you to access new areas, and I love that moment of finding a new power and returning to all of those places I remember being unable to progress but knowing I now have the tools to do so.

Super Metroid has that in spades, but I found its powers varied in how much I appreciated them. The grappling hook was probably my highlight, having come across plenty of locations where it was clear I would need something of its sort I was excited and happy to finally unlock it. The high jump and the suit upgrades I'd put up there too for expanding my exploratory options.

Less exciting were things like missiles, super missiles and the super bomb, and the reason for that is the same - they all just open different coloured doors. Yes, they have other uses, and the power bomb especially has some great moments (figuring out I could destroy the glass pipe in Maridia was genius and a game highlight), but when it comes to doors specifically as progress gates that's probably the least inventive a metroidvania game can be. I want to learn new abilities that increase my mobility, and then use those abilities in interesting ways to overcome a variety of obstacles. I don't want to just shoot different coloured doors with new weapons.

The other issue I had was that backtracking, while at the heart of the genre, just isn't that fun in Super Metroid. Moving around the map is quite slow, and it was a bit annoying I'd only ever see the map on the pause screen for the current area I was in. Fast travel between save points is a more modern game design quality of life feature, and often one I'm not actually that bothered by, but here I really felt a desire to have some quicker options for moving around.

I'm not entirely sure that complaint is fair, as where I think it comes from is actually a separate issue, and that's how the way to progress is hidden in Super Metroid. In Metroidvanias I like to see where I can't get. I find it easier to recall all those locations where I could see something I couldn't reach so that when I get the necessary power, I remember those places and return to them. That's very satisfying. Super Metroid has a lot of this, but it also just straight up hides a lot of stuff.

There were two points in the game I got stuck not knowing what to do (as opposed to being stuck trying to figure out wall jumping). One was trying to progress through Maridia, me trawling the map trying to find the way I had missed, and it reached the point where I convinced myself I needed to go and get an item from somewhere else to progress. Hence a fruitless tour of the entire map open to me, hence finding the lack of fast travel and labyrinthine map frustrating. As it turns out I had simply missed a section of floor I needed to shoot to destroy. Not a flooded passage I needed a suit upgrade to get through, not a tunnel I needed a grappling hook to reach - not even a coloured door I needed the right weapon to open. Just two tiles on the ground, identical to any other two tiles on the ground, that I hadn't tried shooting.

Super Metroid trains the player to be meticulous in searching for things like this, because searching for things like this is often necessary to progress, and this just isn't something I enjoy. Hiding optional secrets this way is one thing (and the main reason I finished the game with only 66% item completion), but gating progress behind secret hunting is quite another. It brings me full circle to my A Link to the Past comparisons, another game of the same era I hold a very similar complaint against as it expects you to lift every rock and bomb every surface. In Super Metroid's defence, at least its bombs are unlimited - something I was frequently thankful for as I traced the edges of the screen, bombing every tile and crevice. One of the game's later powers, an x-ray scanner meant to help the player in finding those secrets they'd missed, also came up short in being almost just as slow and awkward to use.

The other point I got stuck, after finally finding the way to progress through Maridia, was in that area's boss. In general I found the bosses in Super Metroid quite uninspiring, never forcing me to learn how to fight them so much as being a DPS race between tanking as many hits as possible while spamming all of my missiles (against Ridley especially). I'm not sure whether to praise or deride Maridia's boss for not following that trend. Instead I found myself repeatedly being grabbed, helpless and unable to do anything for what felt like a full thirty seconds, to the point where I was sure I was missing some input or mechanic to break free. Finally I relented and looked it up, learning that the whole boss has a gimmick that trivialises the encounter. Frustratingly, I thought I had actually tried what that gimmick was (in using the grapple hook to channel electricity), but had obviously not quite done it correctly, so I was robbed of even discovering it for myself.

Those two instances aside I did mange to make my way through the game without resorting to guides and, despite the bosses feeling much more like I blundered my way through rather than earning my progress, there were frequent satisfying moments when I discovered how to progress. Two of these particularly stand out - one I have already mentioned, in using a super bomb to blast open a glass tunnel. The other was in finding a statue, usually found holding an orb-like upgrade, but this one having an empty hand. Turning into the morph ball and placing myself on the open palm, that was probably one of the most satisfying puzzles I've ever solved in a game. Too often frustrating then, but Super Metroid isn't all that bad.


<<< back to orkn.uk/archive