Greetings, Mr. Malstrom..
Although I sometimes find myself sharply disagreeing with your opinions regarding Yoshio Sakamoto (specifically, the way you put down Fusion and Zero Mission, which I think are at least half as good as Super Metroid), I’ve come to see the unforgivable faults of Metroid: Other M. In previous Metroid games Sakamoto had always worked an in-house team of Nintendo’s, many times working alongside other people who had been with the series since NES Metroid. Iwata never should have allowed him to take complete creative control of the Other M project while working with an outside developer. With the Metroid series, he needs other experienced Metroid developers around to keep his eccentricities in check. I think that if Miyamoto can get away with Wii Music, Iwata will likely give Sakamoto another chance at Metroid in the future, if not only out of respect for the old man’s long-standing tenure at the company.
If Sakamoto is allowed to direct or produce Metroid 5 (and he will be), it would do him well to read this Gamasutra article:
Titled the Invisible hand of Super Metroid, it’s a very insightful look at what makes Super Metroid work so well. The author pays special attention to the solid level design, the game’s lack of player hand-holding, and the minimalistic story which never gets in the way of the gameplay, all qualities I think you will agree were tragically eschewed from Metroid Other M in favor of beat-em-up action and long, melodramatic cut scenes. As a fellow fan of the Gunpei Yokoi Metroid games, I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did.
My context of Metroid is entirely shaped by the very first game. Metroid’s job was to be a challenge, both in reflexes and in brain smarts, for the experienced gamers. Metroid was not a child’s game. The experienced gamers, of this time period, were Atari veterans. It is they who bought the NES Advantage because they found the idea of a stick ‘more comfortable’ because they were used to it in the arcades and in the Atari Era. The D-pad then was brand new.
There were numerous ‘difficult’ games on the NES that gamers measured each other with (back then, our ‘achievements’ were actually beating games). Metroid was a main one. The game required extremely precise reflexes. It was common to get knocked back into the magma and be unable to get out. The enemies were fast and would kill you quickly. But this wasn’t a shmup. The game required a brain. There was no auto-mapping so you had to map it out as you went along. There were fake bosses. There were fake pits. The game sought to confuse and baffle you.
And the game was sublime. It has an incredible musical score and art aesthetic for a 1986 game.
Above: An experienced Metroid player still has trouble with the game. Imagine playing it for the first time and without using Nintendo Power’s maps.
Metroid II was flawed in its ‘kill metroids, make earthquake to open up next area, repeat’. However, it was a handheld game which might have needed that. Metroid II was still an experienced gamer game for the Gameboy.
Super Metroid felt like a disappointment to me when it came out. The game was as if it was designed for babies. I beat the game in one rental. Why would I pay $60 for it? I eventually bought it for $20 when it was in the bargain bin. And why did Super Metroid revisit the area of Metroid 1? It was more like a Metroid Remake instead of Metroid 3. As decades pass, I consider Super Metroid to be a type of ‘comfort food’ game. It is something to play when I don’t feel like being challenged.
What I am going to do is read through the ‘Invisible Hand of Super Metroid’, pull out some quotes, and comment on it.
Before Super Metroid invented its supreme player leading skills, the original Metroid set up a safety net against frustration, which has always served the genre well. By hiding voluntary upgrades all over the place, it ensured that even when you don’t find the correct path, at least you find something valuable.
Above: The HaHa Song.
The original Metroid was nothing but frustration which made it so much fun. They had tunnels that led nowhere, fake bosses, rooms that looped into each, and intentionally made areas look the same which got confusing. To this day, the modern gamers cannot handle NES Metroid and gets their butts kicked on it… even while using Nintendo Power’s maps.
Metroid became popular because of its frustration, not in spite of it. Metroid was a tough game. It was a gamer’s game.
Whenever a Metroid player aquires a new power-up, her mind races back in time in a way not unlike what happens at a turning point in a movie. When a secret is revealed we are forced back through the story to mentally review everything we’ve seen so far, sometimes changing the interpretation of entire scenes. So that’s why Obi-Wan was so worried about Luke facing Vader. What did this change? This happens in Metroid too.
So I picked up the Ice Beam. I can freeze enemies solid and stand on them. Where can I use that? What did this change? I am forced to reevaluate every room I can remember, and see how this new technology fits in. And the result is that same feeling of ”Of course! That is the solution to that room in lower Brinstar, and it always was!”
This was grandfathered in from NES Metroid. These power-ups were contextual changes to the gameplay. Most power-ups in video games only worked in making you ‘better’ and had little impact on how you interacted with the environment. Metroid power-ups did upgrade you (such as the Varia suit giving you better armor), but it was the contextual change that made Metroid such a brainteaser. The Varia suit allowed you to go in the lava filled Norfair!
Because of this, the experience of most Metroidvania titles takes place on two levels simultaneously. On one level, you are traversing a dangerous corridor, avoiding lava puddles, solving riddles and shooting alien creatures. But at the same time, your mind is in macro mode. It sees you moving through the map, and is plotting your long-term course.
I don’t disagree with that. I’m not sure how it applies to the more recent 2d Metroids though. You don’t have to think of the world in a ‘macro’ mode because the cute and tidy “puzzles” are presented to you on a platter. 2d Metroid became less and less ‘macro’ over time and more modularized into ‘areas’. Metroid for kiddies.
Super Metroid will always allow you to take a detour, go exploring all the wrong areas and miss out on core concepts and scenes. But it always leaves a back door. Sooner or later, you will experience all of the crucial elements. Possibly in the wrong order, but that’s okay. As long as you get it, Super Metroid is fine with it.
A premier example of this at the micro level is found in the room in the picture, near the beginning of the game. The player has bombed her way through the blocks in this tunnel from right to left, and now upon returning she finds the bombable blocks respawned. What a bore! But as the player starts bombing, Super Metroid knows that players are likely to keep pressing the D-pad to the right even though there’s a wall in the way – there’s just no point of letting go, we’ll move right soon enough anyway. And so when the first bomb launches the player into the air, she will move right into this hidden tunnel, bypassing the tiresome bombing work.
This is a bad thing, not a good thing. Does he not see how baby-fied the game became in Super Metroid? First of all, we have that room (which there are no enemies except for many one little crawler). In NES Metroid, you had to do all that with those bug guys flying at you. And there were many ‘dead ends’ where you had to bomb your way out again. The video above shows one tunnel that leads nowhere (with bugs bombarding you).
The trick to analyzing Metroid is to differentiate which are the changes needed due to time (older gaming got, the more we learned how to do it right) versus changes from making watering the game down as is the overall trend on any Metroid game Sakamoto worked on.
Changes required by time and technology include:
-Recharge stations (instead of killing bugs from a pipe all day)
-Automatic map tracking
Changes that are a part of the Sakamoto Spiral include…
-Removing all ‘dead-ends’
-The X-Ray Weapon which destroys the flow of the game and gives an ‘I Win’ button to all environment searching.
-Symbols on blocks telling you what weapon to use. Geez. Talk about unimaginative.
The writer considers these ‘secret and faster ways out’ to be a benefit of the game. I disagree. A maze isn’t fun if you cannot enter a dead end. It is not satisfying to win where you are not allowed to fail.
The first part of Super Metroid is characterized by nearly constant forward motion, with the player often being limited to a relatively small area so as to reduce the risk of getting lost.
Why does this writer keep implying that removing the challenge of the game is making it better? Is he not aware how poorly Super Metroid performed when it was on the market? There is a reason why we had to wait generations until the next Metroid game.
Metroid became famous because of its challenge. Removing the challenge only left the Metroid brand known for its aesthetics (which was nothing more than an evolution of NES Metroid. Heck, they use the same ZONES from NES Metroid).
The game doesn’t waste time trying to establish its nonlinear nature by making left (traditionally in games percieved as backwards) the correct and only way to proceed. A similiar design opens the original Metroid, where the player was allowed to travel through several rooms to the right before needing the morph ball upgrade to proceed – an upgrade which was to be found just to the left of the starting point all along – Super Metroid’s way is more gentle by being more firm.
The writer admits that the same mechanic was used in NES Metroid but Super Metroid is ‘less firm’. It’s because there is zero difficulty. Super Metroid is a neutered game.
This is what Brinstar looks like when you first enter it. One of the first things you will find in the area however, is the Map Room, which reveals a majority of the area’s structure (as seen in the pictures below). Unlike Crateria’s Map Room, this reveals the full monty. With the exception of a clearly missing connection between the eastern and western parts of the area, this is essentially all you will ever need to know about Brinstar, and it makes your journey through this area a lot more straightforward than most of the game.
Noobified. Removing challenge from Metroid is a NEGATIVE, not a positive, because Metroid became famous due to its challenge. It would be like making a sequel to Dark Souls and making the game easy. The game, made famous for its challenge, would become known only for something else.
One of the game’s most important voluntary upgrades is hidden here – the Charge Beam. But there won’t be many players missing it.
Why not? Why can’t players miss it? When I first got this item, I wondered why Nintendo didn’t just bother starting Samus out with it. I felt no joy or elation getting the Charge Beam since there was zero challenge in getting it.
If I want ‘atmosphere’, I will go outside. I play video games for the ‘game’. Walking around doing non-challenging things is NOT FUN to me.
This room brought me great pain when I first played Super Metroid. Only later did I realize that the game did it all for my own good.
Wait a minute! If the ‘pain’ was good here, why did the writer praise removing the pain everywhere else. It is either one or the other. You can’t praise both.
Traversing Brinstar from west to east, you will eventually find yourself falling down this shaft. The shaft is several screens high and populated with invincible flying bugs. There is simply no hope of returning. This sets the mood for the next section of the game, in which exploration only serves as a means to fulfil an overarching goal – escape back to the world you know.
It’s only exciting until you realize that was the only way to play it the entire time. Imagine making a mistake and recovering from it by your own wits. But the game doesn’t allow this. The game feels very linear because of it.
Lower Brinstar acts as little more than a passageway to Norfair, but on the way there it hosts one of the game’s most spectacular tricks – the mystery of Maridia. A short corridor that seemingly belongs to lower Brinstar, is actually described by the game map as a separate area. This corridor, which is incidentally placed in a chokepoint of a passage which will traversed and retraversed over and over before the game is over, is actually the only part of Maridia we will see for most of the game
I’ll agree with this.
With the sky-high shaft blocking your way to the west, you will really have little else to do than explore Norfair. But as it turns out, Norfair is nigh inexplorable due to extreme heat in most of its rooms eating your health away. So the parts of Norfair you can actually reach are illustrated by the map above.
With such a limited set of options, it is child’s play for Super Metroid to lead you to your correct destination – the High Jump Boots upgrade at the bottom left of the map
Child’s play is the correct term for it. What the writer thinks is ‘good’ is actually ‘bad’.
I’m going to skip ahead until I find I can say something else. I’m tired of this writer praising every ‘neutering’ of Metroid and haling it as ‘great grand design’ when it is anything else.
Kraid, the first of the four major bosses, is a returning character from the first Metroid. Back then, he fooled us by sending a weak clone of himself before the actual boss fight. This trick is reprised in Super Metroid, but on a completely different level. There is still a Kraid clone, and it closely resembles Kraid from the first game. Expecting the real Kraid to look similar, the player is unpleasantly surprised when the actual Kraid is big enough to cover the screen!
My reaction was how lame it all was. The writer forgets HOW HARD it was to find the Real Kraid. In Super Metroid, it is no harder than walking left. LAME! (In the video I posted above, the player talks about how long it took him to find the real Kraid.)
This is the room depicted above.
Why is this room so memorable?
Because it’s not. That is actually one of the most forgettable rooms in Super Metroid.
But there is also one Right Way, and Super Metroid needs to make sure this is among the rooms the player thinks of.
So in the next room, we encounter this enemy, and are encouraged to freeze it and stand on it to cross the pool of lava.
As it turns out, the path upwards is the Right Way, and quickly leads to yet another powerup – the Power Bomb. The chaos previously feared grows even more powerful, but for the moment Super Metroid has you trapped in a remote corner of Brinstar. Rather than going back, the idea of Power Bombing the yellow door leading upwards seems to reap more immediate rewards.
It’s like stealing candy from a child, really.
And the gamer is the child. This is a baby game.
This is the first major turning point of Super Metroid. The game literally comes full circle, and we are back at square one. The chaos that has been building for the last hour or so is released at full power. Since you’re back where you started, you have no idea where to go.
The writer has a fantastical imagination. You always had an idea of where to go because the blocks always showed the item to use on them. If it was a dash block, it would have a dash icon. If it was a power bomb block, it was a power bomb icon.
Now, learning to wall jump can be difficult, and might not be seen as a reward by all players as they could just as well have learned it without the Etecoons. With that in mind, trapping the player at the bottom of this shaft until they learn to do it may seem a bit harsh.
But it isn’t harsh anywhere else, so why here? It is because wall jumping controls were not done well in Super Metroid. But no criticism can come to Super Metroid! Oh no! Can’t even admit the obvious!
How to show it to the player? Rather than opt for a brief text screen, Super Metroid throws the player into a nigh bottomless pit by paving the floor in a particularly long and speed boost-friendly corridor with speed boost-sensitive blocks.
Why show it? Why not allow the player to discover it by himself? Those stupid animals always pissed me off in Super Metroid. I made sure they died when the planet exploded!
The most accessible example of Super Metroid’s famous sequence breaks, the Spazer is actually accessible through somewhat clever wall jumping early in the game (notice the lack of Power Bombs or Varia Suit in the picture?), but “officially” requires the High Jump Boots. Not much to say here apart from that, it’s a pretty redundant beam upgrade
It’s not redundant if you did the wall jumping. How does the writer know it is the ‘official’ way? If it is in the game, it is official. If they didn’t want you to get it by wall jumping, they easily could have stopped it. This is one of the few parts of the game where there are multiple paths to the item instead of One-Size-Fits-All pony-adventure edition.
Yes, you can access the bottom floors of Maridia, but all it amounts to is one long dead end – and a frustrating one at that.
But if it is frustrating, why is it the most memorable room in the game? The writer doesn’t answer but merely continues.
This is one of my favorite psychological tricks in this game. Just take a look at the pictures.
What is the difference between them? All three depict a purplish cavern, with some type of stairs leading out of a water-filled hole, and the only hope of crossing it is by swinging from the grapple blocks in the ceiling.There is only one difference worth mentioning. The first two rooms depicted are tutorial rooms right after acquiring the Grapple Beam. The third is in Crateria, and it’s the place where the Grapple Beam needs to be used to further the game’s progression.
So what the game is essentially doing, is planting the Craterian room in your mind (adding it to that list of possible utilities) immediately after giving you the Grapple Beam. And not once, either.
Bet you didn’t see that one in 1994.
Actually, we did. The grapple beam was cool, the ‘tutorial rooms’ were bullshit and boring kiddie stuff. Yawn.
Forget backtracking. In fact, you might as well forget the areas you’ve explored up until now, at least for a while. From here on Super Metroid takes on a much more linear structure, which will take us through all the remaining areas one by one, and introduce us to the remaining bosses.
And he keeps praising the bad parts of the game! If the game suddenly becomes linear, isn’t that bad? “No, it is just another part of the genius that we must study!” This is ridiculous.
They can only take one hit, but killing them all individually is still a pain. This is the ultimate way to sell the Plasma Beam, which allows your shots to pass through enemies – on the way back you can simply fire once and blow them all away.
The writer is praising all the times the game is making him feel ‘overpowered’ (usually when getting a new item). But Metroid is not about the feeling of growth. That is Zelda. Metroid is about challenge and not ‘growing’ like a RPG.
Because first and foremost, Super Metroid is a game about exploration, like so many others.
No, it isn’t. Metroid is a game about challenge. Exploration is only part of that challenge. If you want a game about growth, play a Computer Role Playing Game. Zelda goes that way because one of its parents is a CRPG.
Metroid is not a sidescrolling RPG with ‘puzzle rooms’. It is game to challenge the experienced gamer in all contexts: reflexes, brainteasing, and stubborness. Metroid didn’t become famous for being a ‘comfort food’ game. Only decades later can anyone think Super Metroid’s difficulty is anything more difficult than a child’s game for ten year olds.
Now, I expect very few people to agree with this post. I see Super Metroid doing more harm than good to the Metroid franchise. For some inemplicable reason, vocal people online began declaring Super Metroid is the only ‘legitimate’ Metroid and every other Metroid is ‘fallen’ from that grace. Metroid Prime sucks because it is Super Metroid in 3d. NES Metroid sucks because it is Super Metroid in 8-bit and very hard. Metroid 2 sucks because it didn’t follow the formula of Super Metroid and was on another planet. You see where this is going?
Something similar occurred with Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. For some inexplicable reason, they became the gold standard of the entire franchise. Zelda 1 and Zelda 2 ‘suck’ because it was ’8-bit’ and ‘challenging’. Oh, and it lacked the ‘puzzles’ of LTTP. And we all know Zelda is all about the puzzles, right? And the story! And cutscenes! This is how a franchise basterdizes itself.
Metroid didn’t become popular with Super Metroid. It became popular with NES Metroid. Instead of writing love letters and valentines of Super Metroid, wouldn’t it be more prudent to unravel the mystery as to why Metroid became popular with NES Metroid in the first place?
“It’s because Samus Aran was a girl and has feelings!”
Shut up, Sakamoto!