Saturday, April 14, 2007

Super Metroid - Review

The original Metroid was a grand experiment in making an open-ended, exploratory game. It had a huge world where you could go almost anywhere from the beginning. There was no direction given to you, you just wandered around, ocassionally discovering hidden passageways and different items. It felt wonderful - almost no game was quite like it. It was truly atmospheric.

It also had three major flaws. The first was that there was no automapping system and mapping by hand was an absolute pain. The corridors and passageways were of all different size, so typical graph paper wouldn't do. You had to figure out where rooms connected to each other, especially when there were secret passageways. Since so many of the corridors looked similar and it was hard to map (either on paper or in your head) it was easy to get lost and just wander around randomly in frustration. The second is that there was no way to save your progress. There was a password system which would have sufficed except for the fact that you only got one when you died. So when you started over, you had to not only start from the beginning, but also had to spend the time defeating enemies in order to refill your energy tanks (and possibly missile reserves). The third flaw was less prominent than the other two, but was just that some of the passages you needed to get to were a bit opaque - they were hard to get to or completely unobvious with no hint that there is even a passage there.

Metroid II: Return of Samus corrected some of these flaws, but made the way in which you progress defeating various Metroids and causing earthquakes that lowered lava/acid. So, pretty weird.

Super Metroid, though, gets it right. Absolutely.

Once again, you play Samus Aran, a bounty hunter on a strange planet - the same planet actually from the original game. You start off with just a blaster and limited energy. As the game goes on, you acquire new weapons and abilities. These weapons and abilities allow you to access new areas of the map. This is pretty much the way that all non-linear 2D platformers went and Super Metroid is the ultimate example of them. As you explore, you can see other areas, but you can't quite get to them because you don't have the right weapon or ability. You remember then and when you get a new ability you come back to see if you can now pass them. It really strikes the perfect balance in allowing free-form exploration around a large game world, but cordoning off certain areas that the player will have to return to.

The game world (which is fortunately and necessarily automapped for you) is massive and is divided into different areas. Even though you generally move fairly seamlessly from one area to another, each area has a distinctly different feel. Areas have enemies that are distinct to them. They also have a design aesthetic that is unique. One areas are lush with vegetation, another is cold and metallic, and a third is filled with lava and igneous rock. The finally have music that perfectly sets the mood for where you are. The music can be subtle - you often don't notice it, but it absolutely reflects where you are.

The new weapons and abilities you gain really add to the sense of who your character is. While the super missiles and super bombs are pretty much just upgrades on the regular ones, they also have their unique effects. Your weapon goes from just being a pea shooter to a charged up, wavy beam that splits into three, freezes enemies, and can go through enemies and walls. Most abilities from the original game, like morph ball, bombs, high jump, and varia suit are kept. The space jump and sping ball are brought over from Metroid II. Two new abilities absolutely shine, though. The speed boost allows you to reach hyper speed while running. With this, you can plow through enemies, certain walls, and store up the hyper energy in order to make amazing jumps. The grappling hook gives you all the fun of Bionic Commando, swinging from block to block and sometimes enemy to enemy.

Speaking of enemies, they feel as much a part of the environment and the blocks and platforms. This game is much more about exploration than shooting things and many enemies can just be ignored. They most just seem to be the natural denizens that inhabits the caverns and corridors you go through. Some do come after you, but rarely are the natural enemies you encounter very tough. The game wants to encourage you to explore and swarming you with enemies that kill you would inhibit that. This can sometimes make the boss encounters a little jarring as these guys will often kill you. Boss encounters are also generally long affairs with a kind of attack, counter-attack mentality between you and the big bad you are fighting.

Super Metroid makes me nervous at times. This is a good thing. Many games, even ones that are supposedly open-ended, lead you by the hand and show you where you need to go next to progress. Super Metroid never does this and so you need to figure out where to go on your own. When you take one door instead of another, you wonder if you made the right decision. When you take the passageway you found through bombing rather than the door, you wonder if this is the way to go to find the next item. When you go back to one area after acquiring a new item, you wonder if this is where you see more of the game or if it is the other area you remember that requires use of that item. Sometimes the lack of direction can be a bit frustrating - you turn back because you don't see an obvious way to progress and go to some area that uses the new item you acquired. Even when this happens, you always end up blaming yourself. You second-guessed yourself into going somewhere else and that was the wrong move.

All of the above is the heart of Super Metroid. The free-form exploration with new areas begging to be explored after acquiring something new. The world feels truly organic with everything adding to the level you are in. Many games that I enjoy have additional modes or different ways of beating the game after doing it once and I say to myself that I should do that. With this game I actually did. The Super Nintendo has a great library and I've played several games for it. I would probably even still put Chrono Trigger ahead of Super Metroid on my personal top SNES games list. But while I would hesitate before I recommended Chrono Trigger to anyone with a Super Nintendo, I would feel no such hesitation about recommending Super Metroid.

Rating: 10 / 10

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