Super Metroid Retro Review | A Timeless Classic

In 2021, people who play video games have an absolute smorgasbord of different types of games to play from sprawling AAA open-world action games to narrative-rich interactive story games to high octane first-person shooters. We are living in a golden age of gaming where there are so many fantastic games available, it’s honestly hard to parse through it all and decide what to dedicate your free time to.  Rather than play through the visual feast that is Demon’s Souls on the PS5 or hop on the Viking survival hype-train that is surrounding Valheim, I recently decided to turn back the clocks, hook up the SNES Classic, and play the highly praised Super Metroid for the first time. And there is no better time to discuss this game seeing as today, March 19th, is the 17-year anniversary of Super Metroid’s release in Japan.

To give context for this review, as I mentioned above, I played Super Metroid for the first time using a SNES Classic system which has not only the benefit of using an authentic feeling SNES controller but also the modern conveniences of save-states, basically checkpoints that you can place wherever you want and a feature I used pretty heavily during my playthrough. I’ve always had an interest in the Metroid series at large, but never really played any of the games before.

Seeing as a SNES Classic is not easily accessible to many due to Nintendo ending production of the mini consoles some time ago, Super Metroid is more readily accessible to Nintendo Switch owners via the SNES library that is included with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, or it’s also available for purchase via the Nintendo Wii U and New 3DS eShops.

Immediately from the opening seconds of Super Metroid, the game feels unique from all other Nintendo games. Usually characterized by the bubbly uplifting tunes of Super Mario or Kirby or even the adventurous melodies of the Legend of Zelda, Super Metroid is ominous, quiet, and suspenseful. A slow panning shot of a dark lab intercut with red “Nintendo Presents” titles sets the vibe before you even hit the main title. And when the title erupts on screen, the low music washes over you like a deep fog. It’s mysterious, foreboding, and it’s honestly one of the coolest opening sequences to a game from the mid-’90s that I have witnessed.

But to start painting a broader picture, Super Metroid was released on the Super Nintendo in 1994 and is a 2D side-scrolling shooter with a semi-open-world design, more commonly known as a ‘Metroidvania’. Metroidvania is a subgenre of games where the design principles of both the Metroid and Castlevania series serve as the primary influence. Throughout the game, you play as the bounty hunter Samus Aran as she ventures forth on the planet Zebes in a quest to retrieve a baby alien Metroid (one of the last of its kind) that has been kidnapped.  Super Metroid is actually the third installment in the Metroid series with the first game releasing on NES in 1986 and Metroid II Return of Samus releasing on the Gameboy in 1991.

Throughout the game, you explore the various underground environments inside the planet Zebes, ultimately getting stuck and needing to seek out upgrades for Samus’s weapons and suit in order to backtrack and make your way towards a number of scary boss encounters. This loop of exploration, finding upgrades, and backtracking through old areas are the hallmarks of the Metroidvania game.
While Super Metroid for the most part is laid out in a somewhat straightforward nature, towards the ending of the game particularly in the area Maridia, the game has so many interweaving points and restricted paths that it is easy to get turned around or lost entirely. The entire game prior is complex, yet manageable with the game designers actually cutting off the ability to backtrack at parts, forcing you to find an item that you will need to progress. These smart gameplay and world design decisions make the experience have just the right mix of open freedom and linear progression. However, when the world opens up completely in the final hours of the game, it definitely becomes harder to remember where certain paths lead to specific areas of the game without looking up a guide.

Super Metroid does feature a map system that fills in as you explore. You will also come across map stations that reveal a larger layout for the area you are exploring. The map will mark important rooms you have visited such as save rooms or ammo and health stations while keeping secret areas (of which there are many) hidden for you to discover on your own. The map is a very important tool at your disposal, but it could have been improved by being able to see entrances and exits of each room on the map. Much of the confusion that comes with navigating the area stems from figuring out how the many rooms connect to each other, and having the entrances and exits clearly highlighted would have gone a long way in aiding the player into not getting lost. That being said, I would like to give praise to the game for not including specific waypoints that guide you to where you need to go. I feel like I really discovered things about Zebes and charted my own path to my end goal and that’s a feeling that is lost in many contemporary games that sort of mindlessly guide the player from point A to point B. 

Every level in Super Metroid has its own identity and all are great. From the lava-filled ruins of Norfair to the overgrown roots of Brinstar, each level is distinct visually in terms of color, the types of enemies Samus encounters, and the haunting music. Simply moving around these environments and blasting space pirates is a fun time. This simple fun expands as you discover hidden rooms that contain missile and energy tanks that increase Samus’ health and ammo, as well as new abilities that help the player traverse new areas like the grapple hook or the iconic morph ball. Super Metroid controls great for a game of its time as well which adds to the overall enjoyment of the game. 

There is no shortage of alien fodder to blast through in Super Metroid. The enemy sprite work like the rest of the game is very high quality, all of the designs look suitably ‘alien’ and often time are placed in such a way where you can’t just mindlessly blast through everything. Enemies will be all over the place attacking from above, below, or right in front of you. The bosses in particular are a cut above the rest. Main bosses like Kraid and series antagonist Ridley have great designs and are actually pretty tricky encounters if you go in unprepared. The boss fights are some of the very best moments Super Metroid has to offer and they are a great way to break up the long treks of exploration and light puzzle solving. 

In general, the music deserves special praise. Not only is the opening music amazing, but each environment in the game has its own musical theme that makes each area feel distinct from the others. Even though the tracks loop, each are designed in such a way where they are catchy enough to remain interesting, yet never become annoying. The atmosphere the music produces is so strong, it pulls the player deep into the 16-bit pixel art world and refuses to let you step away. The boss themes ratchet up the intensity of fighting these larger-than-life alien beings, and the jingle that plays when Samus picks up a power-up never gets old. It’s also worth mentioning the great sound effects as well from Samus’ arm cannon laser blasts to the screeches of the alien creatures. The entire audio scape of the game receives high marks. 

Speaking of 16-bit pixel art, the art direction and graphical design, in general, is really well done considering the limitations of the Super Nintendo. At many points, it almost faded into the back of my mind that I was playing a game that was nearly 20 years old. The colors pop and blend together in such a way that nothing feels out of place, even compared to other Super Nintendo games. Super Metroid is definitely one of the coolest looking games of its time, and its visual style still holds up in 2021. 

One big negative I hold towards the game is that there is a point of no return that is not signaled in any way whatsoever to the player. Minor spoiler alert, during the final boss fight there is a scripted attack that you need to be able to survive in order to proceed to the ending. Seeing as there is a point where a door will close behind you and lock you in, it’s possible that you won’t have enough health to survive this attack and have no way of going back to the game world to look for more health upgrades. This is sort of what happened to me. Luckily, I had the built-in save states of the SNES classic so I was able to use those to retry the fights leading up to the boss so I would enter the final battle with enough health. However, for those who are not playing with the ability to use save states or choose to not use them, this can come as a nasty surprise right at the end of the game which can really sour the final moments of an otherwise amazing game.

Overall, Super Metroid is very much playable in 2021. Occasionally retro games have absurdly high difficulty bars or the controls are just too archaic to have much fun with but Super Metroid feels like a game that could come out today. It does have a couple negative aspects such as the ending of the game becoming quite confusing and that point of no return, but the vast majority of the game is so great it overshadows these relatively small shortcomings. 17 years later I now understand why this game is considered a classic and why many people point to it as being the pinnacle of the Metroid series. If you have the ability to play Super Metroid, I would strongly encourage you to do so.

Post a Comment