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SummarySamus in Wonderland
The GoodFollowing a certain line of thought I picked up in another review I wrote recently, we can divide every game experience into two components, easily identifiable by the simple questions "how" and "where". Many people seem to care only for the first component (the gameplay), but I happen to attach a particular value to the second (the game world). Super Metroid is a prime example of a game that excels in both: it has superbly crafted gameplay, and it is set in an unforgettably atmospheric world that pulls you in from the moment you fire up the game.
I haven't played the first two Metroids, so unfortunately I cannot say how this game compares to its predecessors. It is not exactly a "cinematic" platformer (like Another World), but it is certainly a very different experience from the popular platform games of its time. Basically, the whole game revolves around exploration. You are thrown into a strange, hostile world, and you have to carefully explore it, become acquainted with it, and find your way through its complex structure.
Unlike other platform games, Super Metroid doesn't have stages (levels). Rather, its entire world is one huge level, with twisted passages and rooms that are all connected to each other. Theoretically, you can explore the whole world right from the beginning; but since you lack the abilities to access many restricted areas, you do it gradually. There is linearity in the game's progression (e.g. you acquire certain items in certain order), but at almost any given point, you can venture into different directions, visit optional areas, discover secrets, valuable items, etc.
I can't stress enough how well this steady, persistent exploration works in this game. It keeps you curious all the time: what is behind that orange door? How do I get past those bricks? Which ability to I need to withstand the heat that kills me almost instantly? There are no real puzzles in the game, but your brain is always working. You meticulously explore every corner of the map, trying to find that much-needed super-missile upgrade; you rejoice at the sight of a save point behind a door you couldn't open before; you figure out a strategy against a tough boss by recalling every move in your arsenal.
Even though it is not an RPG, Super Metroid wonderfully conveys the feeling of growth. The game cleverly, with perfect pacing, feeds you new gadgets and abilities, and you watch how your initially relatively week character slowly turns into an acrobatic genius and a juggernaut of destruction. You'll learn to roll through tight spaces, freeze your enemies, jump to unseen heights, bomb obstacles, destroy everything in your way by spinning and dashing, and more. Not all of these abilities are just there in plain sight; some of them are hidden, and you'll have to search for them. There are many different ways to handle situations; in fact, Super Metroid was one of the first games to inspire "speed runs" and all sorts of alternate, unorthodox strategies to beat it. The famed "wall jumping" is one of them; it's very hard to master, opens up many areas before their due time, and absolutely not required at any point to complete the game.
Are you frustrated by platformers that cripple you with their unintuitive controls, requiring you to perform pixel-perfect jumps and getting stuck in unfair situations over and over again? Super Metroid has fantastic, tight controls: Samus jumps, rolls, and shoots gracefully; if you fail, it is never because the game wants you to. Super Metroid is one of those games that generously leave almost everything to the player; yes, there are traps and all sorts of very tough challenges, but whenever you lose, you realize it is because you need to improve and prepare better, not because the game cruelly overpowered you.
So far, the gameplay; but Super Metroid is more than a masterfully designed platform shooter: is is also an existential experience. The game's world evokes a sense of wonder and immerses you despite the two-dimensional graphics and limited perspective. You find yourself in a hostile, dangerous, yet strangely appealing alien world; you want to stay there, get to know it, understand how it works. Locations are varied, taking you from ominous caves to awe-inspiring volcanic areas, abandoned ships and underwater passages. Even though most locations consist of simple platforms, you rarely feel they are positioned there artificially; there is something organic and logical in the structure of this world. For example, several areas feature long stretches of vertical platforms, which don't really serve any practical purpose. Yet when you begin hopping on them, carefully avoiding angry flying robotic bugs, you feel how you are slowly descending into dangerous depths, with unknown perils still awaiting you. Such is the talent of the game's developers that they managed to create such an atmosphere and convey these emotions without resorting to any gimmicks, with simplicity and elegance of design.
For a long time I refused to play this game because I was repelled by its lonely atmosphere. But this loneliness, this underlying, foreboding solitude is exactly what makes the world of Super Metroid so mesmerizing. You are completely on your own in this huge world, and you fight for survival. Without featuring any horror elements, Super Metroid can get scary because it forces you to identify yourself with the protagonist on her exotic, yet potentially deadly journey. Putting towns or shops or anything like that in this world would reduce its impact, diminish its majestic indifference that isolates the heroine, adding to the sense of despair that accompanies you throughout the course of the game.
Storytelling is not really what Super Metroid is about. And yet, when your mind fully connects with the game's world, when you realize how Samus' quest becomes your own, you don't really feel you need a story with dialogues and plot twists to complement the experience. Super Metroid is quite similar to Another World in this way. Both games managed to evoke strong emotions in the player without a single line of dialogue. As a matter of fact, later in the game there are some scripted events which add more drama to the story, and even a few moments I would describe as touching. I wouldn't want to spoil this for you, but believe me that Super Metroid is a fulfilling experience in all senses, from the beginning to the end.
The BadMy complaints against Super Metroid can be easily understood by someone who, like me, is not good at twitch reflexes and doesn't perform well under stress. The reason why I have only enjoyed a few select platform games is what I perceive as the genre's Achilles' heal: no proper save feature. I can recall a large amount of less-than-brilliant FPSs that entertained me simply because I could play them without getting cold shaky hands every time some big dumb boss made mincemeat out of me. Dead in an FPS? No problem, just reload and try again. Dead in a platform game? Tough luck, pal: in best case, you'll have to replay a large section of the game, getting more and more nervous as you anticipate your next demise and the necessity to do this all over again. Super Metroid has save spots, but they are so far apart that frustration ensues when you have to navigate complex tunnels you have already explored, defeat enemies you have already defeated, and face a very hard boss yet another time, exhausted from the trip. Like most other platformers I know, Super Metroid is best enjoyed with an emulator. God bless the inventor of save states!
Besides this attempt to justify my lameness at platform gaming by blaming the games themselves for it, I don't really find much room for criticism in Super Metroid. The game's ascetic atmosphere and complexity may not be everyone's cup of tea, of course. It's certainly not very "mainstream", and the stillness of its world requires a certain amount of mental preparation. You can get easily overwhelmed by the large maps and the necessity to explore every nook and cranny to get the best out of the game. It took me several attempts to understand what makes this game special and enjoy it.