How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. It's literally one of the two games that define the genre.
Primary Challenge: Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~5 hours
Review Info: Super Metroid was played on the Wii U virtual console.
Buy Super Metroid if you like…
- Powerful Wordless Storytelling
- Strong Atmosphere
- Deep Exploration
- Sequence Breaking
- Metroidvania games - Seriously, this game is practically required for anyone wanting to understand the definition of the genre
▼ Review continues below ▼
There’s a lot of debate on which game “started” the Metroidvania genre, but Super Metroid is generally agreed upon as the game that established the tropes that define what it is today. Released in 1994, it’s expected that the game would start to show its age. There have been three other 2D Metroid games since its release (more if you count the fan games), and while subsequent games have “improved” on the controls or other mechanics, in my opinion Super Metroid holds up very well. There is art in adversity, and what Super Metroid does within its limitations is remarkable. They’re the same limitations that are ironically being emulated by many Indie game developers today, because of how well it works. Super Metroid is iconic for a reason.
The way the game opens is brilliantly executed. The pre-title cutscene confirms that this game could also be called “Metroid 3“, and when you start the game up you get a single line that describes the stakes at hand; “The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.” Immediately following a short recap of the first two Metroid games, that last Metroid falls into the hands of Samus’ nemesis Ridley. Samus chases the pirate back to Planet Zebes from the original Metroid, and the hunt begins. If you’ve played these games in order, you’re then treated to a delightful homage to the NES classic as you are guided backwards through the aftermath of defeating Mother Brain, including coming across her shattered brain case. Without spoiling anything else, the way just this first fifteen minutes subtly layers in both game mechanics and story elements without displaying a single word to describe the situation is something modern game developers should be emulating. It’s a perfect setup for remaining genius of Super Metroid.
For the first hour or so Super Metroid keeps a tight grip on your progression options, requiring you to pick up things like the morph ball, bombs, and missiles before you can do anything else besides backtrack through a linear C-shaped path. Like with its storytelling though, it guides you through its “tutorial” without saying a word, and this is true even when things get really technical like when it tries to teach you how to do the wall-jump. At no point does the game feel like it has dropped you into a “level” that just directs you to exactly where your goal is. It feels like you’re looking for clues and hunting for Ridley as naturally as it would if you were an actual space bounty hunter. While the idea of finding missiles or power-ups is nothing new to the series, Super Metroid uses its exploration as an enhancer for its theming, as a teaching tool, and generally as a fun reward for the player.
Eventually the game lets loose and leaves you with only its mapping system and your wits to direct you. This can also happen much earlier if you know what you’re doing, because Super Metroid doesn’t care what order you kill its bosses in, only that you defeat the main four before accessing its final area. Having complete freedom to choose means that two players may not recount the same order of events – although Super Metroid does provide a most likely outcome. Just like in the first Metroid, occasionally you’ll be expected to break an indistinguishable bombable wall or simply walk through an otherwise invisible passageway, but thanks to the map and a x-ray tool specifically made for exposing secrets it’s not nearly as unfair about it. On the contrary, in my opinion, Super Metroid strikes a strong balance between simply telling the player what to do and being completely obtuse. This is what makes exploration the best part of the game.
Besides the usual Metroidvania pattern of providing power ups that allow you to access new areas because of your increased movement capabilities, Super Metroid also includes a few mechanics that reward experienced players. Any Metroid fan is probably familiar with them. Wall-jumping, bomb jumping, and shinesparking can remove the need for the high jump boots, the grappling hook, the super bomb, or other powers if you route your path accordingly or if you just directly subvert the obstacles. I tried very hard on my playthrough for this review to play the game as “normally” as I could, but I still ended up with an early Super Bomb anyway, and I can’t tell you how fun it is to have tools you feel like you aren’t supposed to have. The depth of Super Metroid’s sequence breaking runs deep enough that you could play the entire game backwards if you want. It’s just one of many elements that gives Planet Zebes the feeling that it’s a “place” rather than just a sequence of player-catered experiences. It follows rules in the same sense that the laws of physics are rules, rather than just being a recipe book for fun that the player has to strictly follow.
Just about every room has something to discover within it. Most of the time it’s an increase in your ammo capacity, which doesn’t necessarily increase your power, but it still has meaningful implications even with Samus’ increased arsenal. Explore thoroughly and you can face off with a boss as if super missiles are your only weapon and you might not even have to worry about dodging if you’ve gathered enough energy tanks. Speedrun through the game and you’ll have a much more difficult time, but strategically plan your route and you might find you’ll have just enough to inch under the bar, which can be rewarding by itself. Besides actual upgrades there are so many other tiny little details to be discovered as well, including some I didn’t know about even 20 years after playing the game for the first time. Bosses might have a secret weakness, or maybe something special can be discovered in the game’s final moments. They are things that don’t necessarily change the way you play, but they help to make Super Metroid a fuller experience.
Later Metroid games capture some portion of what Super Metroid establishes, but the thing they seem to have worked the hardest on is improving the combat. In the original Metroid and Metroid 2 you only had your main gun and missiles to play around with. Super Metroid adds in four other weapons or utilities that you have to cycle through using the same “select” button. Switching from Super Missiles to your X-Ray or to Super Bombs can be a little cumbersome – maybe even described as “clunky” by some. You can instantly switch back to your main gun by pushing the weapon cancel button, but then you still have to take your finger off the d-pad or claw grip your controller to cycle twice to get back to Super Missiles when you need them. Part of this could be blamed on a lack of buttons – two more shoulder buttons could definitely help – but Metroid Zero Mission manages to improve the format even when the Gameboy Advance removes two buttons from the controller. Later entries forgo the run button by making you basically run all the time, and if Super Metroid did this, that button could have just been an X-ray button or Super Bomb button – just as an example. With a little rework even in the SNES era the controls could have been a little better.
Even with the relatively cumbersome controls though, Super Metroid’s content is pretty well catered to its limitations anyway. None of the bosses are too terribly quick to make weapon switching much of an issue, and Samus isn’t the most agile character anyway. To be honest, even with some of the wiles the controls can present, the final fight with Ridley is possibly my favorite encounter with him in the entire series. The most iconic fights in the game are practically scripted events anyway, meaning that even if the combat isn’t terribly good it’s most certainly not the game’s primary goal or achievement.
Besides still having some of the best exploration the genre has to offer, Super Metroid’s other achievement is perfecting the storytelling it teased in the series’ second game. I’m sure most of the individuals reading this article have either already experienced this story for themselves or have spoiled it by watching it on YouTube or by watching it at someplace like AGDQ, but just in case I’m going to be vague anyway. Metroid 1 ends with an exciting escape from a self-destructing base as if it’s an adrenaline charged action movie, while Metroid 2 completely subverts whatever trend the first game might have started by making you quietly ponder the implications of the experience as you slowly make your way back to your ship. Super Metroid takes all of the events from the first two games and provides a glorious if not bittersweet conclusion to its saga that leaves you feeling both triumphant and introspective. Even 20 years later, the game’s ending still gets me a little choked up. For me, that story is the thing that seals Super Metroid as a timeless classic.
There is a lot of debate on whether it’s wise to make a singular game be the template for other games, but just like the term “Metroidvania” has stuck regardless of detractors, Super Metroid will continue to inspire players to keep looking for games that capture the feelings it creates. If you got into the genre with Hollow Knight or something else more combat centric, and thus combat is an essential feature for you, then you may still find Super Metroid a bit difficult to get into. I highly recommend you still give it a try if you haven’t though, as anyone with a love for the genre really ought to see where it all started. However, I definitely think you should treat it as “Metroid 3” and play it as such, even if you use Metroid Zero Mission and AM2R or Samus Returns instead of the original games. If you’ve managed to avoid spoilers until now, then I congratulate you; you’re even more in for a treat. There have arguably been other games to match the depth of exploration and story-telling that Super Metroid provides, but in my opinion, none have actually surpassed it.
Bosses are varied and well suited to the limitations of Samus' movement, but because of those limitations they aren't terribly complex.
The platforming design puts the exploration first rather than offering up any sort of dexterity challenge
One of the richest game worlds within the genre to explore and break in any way you please.
Figuring out how to acquire some of the power-ups offers up some real head-scratching puzzles, but the hardest ''puzzles'' are optional.
Super Metroid is one of the best examples of powerful video game storytelling. It conveys heavy emotions while using very few words to convey its message.
Has a graphical style that indie games still try to emulate. It manages to convey an oppressive atmosphere with strong environmental storytelling through its pixel art.
MIDI instrumentation may feel slightly dated, but the music is still iconic.
There are so many ways to break this game, and much of it is done using intentional advanced techniques rather than glitches. With some experimentation you can defeat the four main bosses in any order you want.