The Best Video Game Ever: “Super Metroid”
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.
At the proper beginning of Super Nintendo’s Super Metroid – after the exposition and after the reminders about what exactly is going on – Samus Aran descends onto Xebes, home planet of the titular Metroids. She emerges from her ship into a driving rainstorm. And then…nothing. Players receive no direction of any sort: not arrows, not textboxes, not the advice of friendly townsfolk. Samus just stands there getting wet in the rain.
This is the entirety of the game and it is awesome.
Samus is standing there in a rainstorm because she’s come to retrieve the last of the Metroids, a small baby born after she had personally wiped out the rest of the species in Metroid II. The small baby had taken to Samus and rather than killing it, Samus had delivered it to researchers who discovered that Metroids were capable of great good under appropriate conditions. That power proved too tantalizing for the Space Pirates from the original Metroid. They killed the researchers and took the baby back to Xebes, the planet on which the game itself began. Players are meant to understand that this will be the final conflict between Samus and the space pirates.
That’s the trick of it. Players are simply meant to understand this. The mechanics of other games mentioned earlier – ones in which players get a thorough explanation of what they’re doing now, what they’re doing in a few minutes, and what everything they’re doing is ultimately leading to – are almost entirely absent from the game. As are the standard assorted of collectively stronger enemies. Although they’re there, most of the enemies that Samus encounters are not allied in any significant way with the Baby Metroid’s captors; rather, they’re just Xebes’s inhabitants, as hostile to Samus as they would be to anybody else.
From that starting position on top of her ship, players can explore much of the map, assuming they can survive the experience. Although not entirely open or safe, Xebes is essentially functions as a very early version of a sandbox, the sort of environment that was later perfected by companies like Rockstar in games like Grand Theft Auto. Players can do as they please in other words, not bound by clocks or points or missions or anything else. This includes altering the environment, something that happens at several times throughout the game, most notably during the destruction of a glass tube in Maridia, the game’s underwater area. The game’s designers, in other words, managed to make Xebes feel more like a place than any game that had come before it. This extended the game’s celebrated soundtrack. The music only underscores how truly lonely a place Xebes actually is. Its atmosphere might be Super Metroid’s greatest selling point.
There are what seem like hundreds of secrets scattered throughout Xebes, including the game’s ubiquitous power-ups, and because of what the Super Nintendo allowed the game’s designers to do, those power-ups got much, much cooler. Whether it was the powerful running, the charged attacks, the wall jumps, or simply the ability to pick and choose what weapons to use and when to use them, players could employ genuine strategy in their approach to fighting and exploring. Players weren’t bound to figuring out the way to win; they could craft the way that worked best for them.
A Brief Aside
The following ought to be noted: the game requires Samus to rebuild her entire arsenal. Anybody taking even half a second to consider this ought to be confused. Samus is one of the galaxy’s great bounty hunters; are we meant to believe that she throws away all of her goodies after every successful collar? That she arrives on each new planet armed with little more than her blaster and then counts upon the environment’s generosity to sufficient arm her for whatever conflict she’s headed into? Although that mechanic is vital to the game, it is ridiculous whenever acknowledged. So just don’t acknowledge it. Or this: why didn’t her opponents simply gather the power-ups available everywhere, basically hamstringing Samus before she even gets started?
A second aside – one of the greatest things about Metroid is that Samus is a female. Female lead characters, especially at that point in video gaming, were incredibly rare, and yet there was Samus, a badass plunging into unknown environments pursuing the worst of the universe. That’s all to the good. That the most accomplished players briefly got to see Samus without her armor but in a bikini? That was bullshit fanboy stuff. There was no need to do that to the character.
The Best Part
All of that said, here is this one last thing: Super Metroid was a game that appealed to all sorts of players, whether they were slow plodders who never got particularly good at the game (me) or speed-runners who could finish the game in 33 minutes. Super Metroid keeps on giving, whether it’s yet another hidden missile pack or it’s a technique for shaving seconds off of the overall time. Unlike so many games, it is replayable, because it is only the rarest, most talented player who can finish Super Metroid thinking, “That was the best I could have done.” The game designers knew this, giving players a tantalizing percentage measuring their accomplishment at each game’s end, video gaming’s version of, “That’s all you’ve got?”
So three cheers for Super Metroid and almost all that it is: a nearly perfect game.