We here at One Of Us love video games. We don’t talk about the medium much around these parts (leaving that craft to the fine folks at Rage Select), but rest assured many of the Us have sat our butts in front of screens, joysticks, controllers, or keyboards at the ready for fun and excitement.
If you were to ask me what is the perfect game, I would reply that there is no such thing as the “perfect” game. If you pushed the issue and by asking me what game I thought was the closest to perfect, my answer would be two words,
This isn’t just childhood nostalgia talking. I didn’t play Super Metroid until 2006, well into my adult years and a decade after the game’s initial release. This isn’t about nostalgia, this true appreciation for the craft. Even after all these years, I still hold it as the pinnacle of design and execution, even over today’s best and brightest. So why does Super Metroid continue to shine and what can modern games learn from this classic?
Well now, let’s take a deeper look and see.
5. Health Management And Save Points.
I’m just going to come out and say it, regenerating health and autosaves are overused, to the detriment of our games. The Metroid series didn’t invent the life bar or the save point, but it did manage integrate health management and progression logging into its core gameplay in a way that built tension, suspense, and atmosphere in excellent fashion.
It made the player stop and think instead of just bulldozing through because every video game protagonist is now Wolverine and death means only being moved back five feet. Do you have enough health to get to the next save point? Do you even know where the next save point was going to be? You better not screw up before you find it because then you’ll have to fight your way back here. It’s build up and then release that would make Hitchcock proud. Regenerating health does have its place, but I really do think a life bar would add more excitement to many of today’s modern games.
4. Bosses React To What Weapon You Use.
Simple idea, profound effect. The bosses in Super Metroid not only had attacks they were strong or weak against but they also would alter their behavior depending on the weapon you were using. For instance take our friend Phantoon here. Using Super Missiles was highly effective in terms of damaging him. Unfortunately for the player, they also make Phantoon extremely aggressive. By introducing the idea that just because the player was handed a new toy didn’t necessarily mean it was the best one for the job. It encouraged experimentation and analysis on risk vs reward. How many games today do anything more than give you a new weapon and then send you into a boss battle that hinges on you having said weapon? I’m not saying that this is a completely bad practice. When it is done well, it is highly effective and enjoyable, but it is also predictable and safe. Trust in your gamers dear developers, give us options and let us take our own path.
3. Backtracking And Exploration Have A Real Purpose.
I am not a completionist when it comes to games. It is very rare for me bother finishing 100% of any game I play. This is because most games pad things out with modes or trinket hunts that have little to no bearing on the overall story, so I have no interest in doing them. I don’t like being handed busy work, it isn’t why I play games. The Metroid series takes a different path, you need to backtrack and to explore to beat the main game. Exploring doesn’t net you some meaningless achievement or trophy, it is vital for progression. You start the game in a very weak position and as you figure out where to go and what to do, you are quickly introduced to the formula that exploration nets power and that power is necessary to move forward in the game. This discovery spurs you on to explore the world on your own.
The Metroid series goes one better as it taunts you with doors and places you can’t open or get to… yet. Once you do have the abilities unlocked the player feels a strong desire to go back and unlock those areas previously denied to them because important power-ups are sure to be found there. Even though it is backtracking, it is in fact progression in the game as the player searches for more power they are also mentally and emotionally rewarded by the newly found ease at which they can navigate previously challenging sections of the map.
While all Metroid games do this, Super Metroid is the undisputed king of rewarding backtracking and exploration for the series. Other entries either didn’t manage to use this element of the game to the same effect as Super Metroid or pushed to hard and turned what was exciting into tedious work at points to progress the story.
Games today seem to be focused on just how big their game maps are, but what good is a big plate with nothing on it? Give me a tighter, more focused gamespace that rewards my attention and exploration over gigantic maps that have me do nothing except drag the character from set piece to set piece any day.
2. It Is A Brilliant Piece Of Minimalist Storytelling.
All you need to understand about what has happened before this game is is this short opening section. The exposition is basic and to the point, but the real achievement here is how much is set up for you using the visuals. The opening scene of the Baby Metroid in its containment tube surrounded by dead bodies lets you know from the very start that this game isn’t messing around. The opening narration shows the player Turian and Mother Brain so that when they first visit that section of the game, you actually see the wreckage left over from that battle, giving the player an sense time and a connection to previous events. It even comes back into play very late in the game giving the player a heads up as to what to expect when they again return to Turian and how to beat the first form of the final boss, (spoiler(not really)) Mother Brain.
So much of this game is told through audio and visual cues. Many games today have long and wordy tutorial sections while games like Super Metroid makes the player learn the game by playing it. The music to this game is outstanding and meshes with the visual design for each area to make each section feel more immersive and real. The game gives the player just enough where they can infer what happened, which in some ways is more powerful than simply coming straight out and telling us.
While everything you need to know is covered in the game proper, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that can be learned from the supplemental material. For example, the reason why Samus hates Ridley so damn much is never explained in the game. However, the player is given so many reasons to hate him already, so the relationship is evident from the beginning. This fierce rivalry also encourages players to seek out the backstory in other games. It hardly makes them hate him more, it just reinforces their hatred and makes kicking his ass all the more cathartic on the next go round.
I’m not against talking and cutscenes in games, My love for the Metal Gear series should be proof enough of that. However I think many modern games use it as a crutch and don’t try and explore what really can be done with the medium in terms of visual storytelling.
1. There Is No Wrong Way To Play It.
Super Metroid is a game that is both exciting and rewarding no matter which way you choose to approach it. Completionists, casuals, speed runners, minimalist runners, and just about everybody else on the planet can find challenge and entertainment. It is a game that lets you play it the way you want to. I normally keep my playthroughs of the game casual with only very minor sequence breaking and I top out in the mid seventies in total percentage of items. It isn’t fancy and I appreciate and admire those who approach the game differently, but this is how I choose to play the game. A game that truly has something for all, look back on this dear game devs and here our cry. This is what we want so go out and try and make it happen!
I could keep going, picking apart all the pieces of this classic to show you how and why they work, but I much rather you go play the game and feel what I’m talking about, be it your first or hundredth time.