25 years later, how Super Metroid came to define a genre

On March 19, 1994, Japanese audiences got a chance to play one of the most influential video games of all time: Super Metroid, developed by Gunpei Yokoi’s Nintendo R&D team along with Intelligent Systems. The game saw bounty hunter Samus Aran once again contend with the machinations of Mother Brain as she once again tries to exploit the titular energy-draining creatures for conquest. Although not a hit in Japan, it sold over a million copies worldwide and still shows up on “best game of all time” lists well into the 21st century.

Obviously the existence of Super Metroid implies a regular Metroid, but the effects of the original NES game in 1986 weren’t nearly as strong on the industry. Satoru Okada and Masao Yamamoto’s original exploration / combat game was reasonably successful and inspired a Game Boy sequel, but it was also frustrating, often opaque, and very difficult. Like many early Nintendo titles, it had big ideas without the polish to pull them off.

Super Metroid brought that polish, and in the process drastically reimagined how people would think about action games. Let’s dive in and explore how that happened.

One Way

Traditional action games up to the release of the original Metroid were primarily linear. Sure, some let you skip content on your way to the ending, like Super Mario Bros. warp zones, but for the most part they were organized along a one-way street. There was never any reason for a player to revisit areas he’d already conquered. But both Metroid and the contemporaneous Legend of Zelda presented players with on-screen worlds that rewarded careful exploration and backtracking once new abilities were gained. A few games would experiment with the concept, most notably Capcom’s NES port of Strider, but the majority of games would only offer one way through.

What makes the Metroid series work with this backtracking is the game’s approach to power-ups. Traditionally, action games would start and end with the player able to do generally the same stuff — jump, shoot, duck, climb, the usual. Some games like the Mega Man series would let you stock up on alternate weapons, but the game was winnable without them. Others, like Super Mario Bros. would allow the player to obtain temporary power-ups lost after getting hit or dying.

Lock And Key

Traditionally, action games would gate off areas with abstract transitions or locked doors — pick up a key and you get to move on. But the world of Metroid is one massive labyrinth, and while there are certainly plenty of doors to be found, the game never gives you a single key. Instead, it gives you verbs.

The Super Metroid formula treats the gaining of new powers as the core mechanic of the game. Each change to Samus’s abilities not only makes her more capable in combat, but also increases her ability to traverse the planet Zebes. The morph ball — the first power-up you get in every Metroid game — lets you pass through tight spots. You’ll pick up boots that boost your jumps, bombs that let you crack open walls and floors, and ice rays that let you turn enemies into platforms to bridge gaps. Each power-up entices you to visit areas you’d thought cleared to find new routes.

One of Super Metroid‘s biggest innovations was the addition of an on-screen map to chart Samus’s explorations. No longer did you have to slow your roll to mark everything out on a sheet of graph paper. Instead, when you got a new ability you could immediately see the dead ends and unexplored passages you passed by in previous trips. This was the final missing link needed to make the game accessible to casual players but still deep enough for the hardcore.

Built For Speed

Sequence-breaking — when the player takes advantage of a game’s mechanics to complete it in ways the developer didn’t intend — wasn’t new to Super Metroid. The original Metroid could be glitched to let Samus pass through walls and reach Mother Brain without battling Ridley and Kraid. But Super Metroid‘s increased complexity made it a veritable playground for speedrunners, who immediately started finding new paths through Zebes.

This was aided by the game’s rich mechanics. Several of Samus’s most interesting abilities, like the Shinespark air dash, aren’t even mentioned in the manual. They were left secret for gamers to stumble upon and learn how to best exploit. And exploit they did — currently, the record is completing the game as intended with a mere 14 percent of its items collected. They can go lower with out-of-bounds glitches, but that’s still incredible. It’s fair to say that Super Metroid was a breakthrough game for the speedrunning community, and runners are still finding new paths through its environments.

Brain Children

The formula laid out in Super Metroid would next find expression in 1997 with Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. Konami’s supernatural adventures had traditionally been fairly linear level-by-level affairs, with Simon’s Quest diverging a bit, but the PS1 title went whole hog in Metroid‘s direction. Protagonist Alucard was dropped into an enormous castle with passages leading every which way and needed to gather relics and abilities to allow him full reign of its tricks and traps. It was an obvious homage and, although not a commercial success, became one of the most critically acclaimed 2D titles of its generation.

The 21st century has seen a resurgence in this style of game, now called “Metroidvania.” Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya’s 2004 Cave Story is a great example of the genre, designed and programmed by a single person. Other hit indie Metroid-alikes include Dead Cells and La Mulana. Larger studio games like Shadow Complex also plumbed the rich vein. From a development perspective, it makes sense — why work so hard on an area a player will rush through once and never appreciate when you can get more mileage out of repeat visits?

The lessons of Super Metroid aren’t just confined to 2D exploration platformers, either. A wide range of other action games use the same ability-expanding ruleset to wring the most play out of their environments. God of War director Cory Barlog said that the Metroid approach to exploration through ability informed the way his team crafted the latest installment in that series. In addition, the game’s primarily environmental storytelling — the plot is communicated with no dialogue and just a few lines of on-screen text — inspired a generation of gamemakers to dispense with the verbiage and let their worlds tell the story.

Twenty-five years later, Super Metroid still has what it takes to captivate players and designers alike. It’s an incredible achievement that changed how action games were created forever.


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