Sunday, January 26, 2014

Super Metroid has still got it

It was just one of those things. I felt like replaying Super Metroid, so I replayed Super Metroid.

This was the first time I'd played it in over a decade, and the fact that I'd forgotten so many specifics really underscored the game's biggest strength: its sense of discovery. Nearly every new piece of equipment that you receive is accompanied by a dead end, and you're asked to think back to all of those doors you couldn't reach, all of those walls you couldn't break down, all of those obstacles you didn't know how to pass. The game never explicitly tells you where to go, but you always seem to wind up in the right place anyway. Whenever you retrace your steps, you do so with a fresh perspective. Maybe now you can open orange doors, or jump to higher places, or freely move through water. When we compare unrelated games to Metroid, this is what we're talking about.

Super Metroid was released when I was four years old. Many of the games that came out when I was four years old are crap by today's standards. This one has held up spectacularly well. It's certainly aided by the fact that only one Metroid game since (Prime) has really recaptured its spirit, while the rest have either robbed the series of its distinct rhythm in world design or mishandled Samus as a protagonist. (Corruption turned her into a silent protagonist even though she's spoken plenty in other games; Other M stole her stoicism, independence and dignity right out of her pockets.)

It's still genuinely terrific, though, and I will now convey my opinion by medium of bullet points, because I'm tired, and also because prettying up a blog entry such as this defeats the entire purpose of what is intended to be an outlet for casual writing.

• If you've somehow made it nearly two decades without having Super Metroid's ending spoiled, I won't be the one to end that streak. What I will say is that this game was made when video game storytelling was still quite simple, and having said that, it's amazing what Super Metroid accomplishes in its final minutes with no dialog and only the barest minimum of backstory and context.

• This game is hard. Very hard. I don't simply mean that the bosses will make you work a sweat - though they will - but that nearly everything that you do in Super Metroid takes patience, precision and skill. Take the Space Jump. In any other game, you could simply press the 'A' button in midair to launch your character into a double jump. In Super Metroid, you have to press the button at a very specific point in Samus's jump, and even then, she must be performing a spinning jump for it to work, and she'll keep moving in that direction. You don't have as much control as you would in other games and that gives you more to master.

Having said that, the one major issue that I have with this game is the Grapple Beam. The momentum with which Samus swings just doesn't abide by realistic rules of physics, the precision required to chain a couple of grapples together is at times inhuman, and the sections in which the player is called upon to scale walls with the thing are very close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best.

• I loved the handful of instances in which the players learns a valuable technique by observing local wildlife. There's a point in Brinstar in which you need to escape from a pit by performing a successful wall jump, when it's perfectly possible that you could have made it that far without even realizing that Samus can do a wall jump. You "learn" by noticing that a couple of green koala-like creatures are leaping about in such a manner and attempting to do it yourself. That is so clever. Modern games are so tutorialized, eh?

• Oh yeah: My other big complaint is that the wall jump itself is incredibly fidgety, but you almost never need to use it.

• The X-Ray Scope is such a great touch. This game is absolutely full of little hidden passages and concealed items that would be borderline impossible to find otherwise, so being able to scan environments for anomalies is a nice way of giving players with rigid schedules an optional edge. It's also notably a primitive version of the whole visor system in the Prime trilogy, which of course was a major component of those games.

Prime is still my favorite game of the series. It's the highest on atmosphere and converts the series' ideals to 3D as well as any other game franchise has done (and I'd argue that it's comparable to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in that regard). That said, Super Metroid is still a close second and easily the more important and influential of the two; after two practice rounds, this is the game that perfected the formula that's been copied by countless other games since. Some have done it well, too. Guacamelee, one of my favorite releases of 2013, owes its existence to this series. That's great in and of itself; the fact that I can return to it so many years later and still have a blast makes the timelessness of Super Metroid so much easier to appreciate.

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