Super Metroid – Critical Miss #15

Lost in Space

Getting lost in a video game is quite the balancing act for designers of adventure games. If a game is too linear, it can feel stifling and corridor-like, but if a game is too open, it can feel directionless and obtuse. Some game genres thrive on letting the players get lost and figure things out for themselves, mostly notably sandbox games and Metroidvanias. The term Metroidvania came to be after the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which had a world design and map strikingly similar to the Metroid series, especially the third game, Super Metroid, released in 1994. I enjoy the Metroidvania genre but had never actually played a Metroid game before. So to cut my teeth on the series, I decided to play the SNES classic.

A Metroidvania survives on the strength of its exploration and Super Metroid’s world seems deceptively small at first. When you find a map terminal, it only reveals a small portion of the surrounding area. It’s only after exploring the rooms, poking and bombing around for secret holes in the walls, that you see the true expanse of the map. The levels expand out like a spider web with hallways, vertical shafts, and rooms connecting and weaving together. The world is sectioned off into distinct biomes and interconnect throughout the game. With power-ups and missile increases hiding everywhere, you are incentivized to search every nook and cranny of the map.

Many of the power ups you’ll find often aid with the exploration. The high jump boots and space jump let you reach higher ground then before, the grapple beam lets you grab onto and swing from certain blocks scattered around the planet, and the ice beam lets you freeze enemies, turning them into platforms. Missiles and bombs work as a means to open up certain colored doors for progression. I’ve always preferred how Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Hollow Knight upgrades were changes in movement abilities like double jumps, wall jumps, and dashes. These allow the game world to feel more real, like a place that might actually exist, as opposed to something constructed solely to block passage until the right upgrade is found. Obviously, the upgrades don’t change the fact that the game is constructed and might block the player in order to guide them, but later games like Hollow Knight hide that fact much better than Super Metroid with its more organic exploration.

With constant exploration, you should be finding power ups at a very consistent rate and it does work to give the player a sense of growth throughout the game. Watching your health or max missiles increase helps the player feel better suited for the increasing challenge of the game; it empowers them. The game is great about helping the player figure out what a new power up does immediately after acquiring it. If it’s a movement ability like the grapple beam, it will be found in a room where you must use it to get out, and this lets the player think back on all the other areas it can be used. If it’s a weapon like the plasma beam, there are typically enemies you must get past that are much easier to kill with the new weapon.

It is on these small scales, the rooms with power-up designed to teach the player their uses, where the level design of Super Metroid is genius. With the minor annoyance of progress being locked behind boring colored doors, the world crafted in the beginning of the game is spectacular. The game does a lot to lead the player. Signposting boss entrances with monster heads and important areas with interesting landmarks helps the player remember parts of the map to return to later. The game actually feels rather linear in the beginning, where there is usually only one way to go without hitting a dead end. But Metroidvania games need to be open and the game soon flings wide open when you have acquired the high jump boots, ice beam, and super bombs. Sadly, as the game world becomes more open and explorable, I feel it also starts to collapse under its own weight. There is one moment in the game I can point to when this feeling cemented itself in my head and that’s when you acquire the X-ray scope.

With the X-ray scope, you have the power to shine a light on any surface of the game and reveal its secrets. Destructible blocks, hidden passages, missile upgrades and health tanks, you can now find them easily. This leads to the main area explored after finding the scope, Maridia, being plagued by seemingly dead ends and secret passages that either need to be found with X-ray scope or by blasting every tile with every weapon you have. The later part of the game feels like the developers either came up with the idea for the X-ray scope and felt justified hiding all progression from the player because they have the tool to find it, or that they built the levels with too many hidden passages and added the scope so it wouldn’t feel unfair. Either way, it doesn’t work because the X-ray scope is just too slow to use constantly. The game pauses around you while you use it and you can move with it activated, but the beam is slow and finnicking to direct. I’m sure it was the best they could do with the SNES hardware and controller, but it kills the pace. It’s a shame too because Super Metroid is a very fast paced game when you get into it.

And I did get into the game. Even while all my frustrations were mounting with the game as it went on, I wanted to keep playing. I found it very hard to put down because it was so satisfying and immersive. Part of it was due to my love of 16-bit games, but mostly I kept playing because Super Metroid has some of the best atmosphere on the SNES.

It’s hard to find a 16 bit game that is truly immersive, that makes you feel like you are in the world displayed on the screen, but Super Metroid accomplishes it with atmosphere, through incredible sound design and pixel art. One of the first things I noticed when turning on the game, is the sound effects all sounding muffled. Samus’s footsteps, her blaster, the cries of enemies, they are all slightly dampened, like they are being heard through a helmet. Explosions are crunchy, but soft, as if you were hearing them with Samus’s ears through the metal of her power suit. The world you explore is always interesting to look at. While Super Metroid doesn’t have the best pixel art I’ve seen on the system, the different biomes are lovely rendered with fitting color palettes and interesting backgrounds.The boss sprites are large and intimidating. The whole thing helps the player feel completely isolated in the game.

The atmosphere of Super Metroid is one of loneliness and bleakness. You truly feel that you are in Samus’s shoe, fighting for her life. You feel her anxiety when exploring an unknown area and her triumph when defeating a tough boss. I think that is why Samus, despite being a silent character in a relatively small number of games, is so beloved. People praise her for her bravery and for being “badass,” but she has no real character. Mario has more character than she does. I think that players projected onto her. It’s not that she is brave, you are. She’s not the badass, you are. But this gets confused in the mind because of the level of immersion the game offers the player, where they are not playing as Samus, they are her. The fact that Super Metroid, a 25 year old game from the SNES, can offer that kind of emotional experience is incredible. 

Mega Man X & Level Interconnectivity

I first played Mega Man X about a year ago and I had fun with, but when I recently replayed, I had an absolute blast. It was thrilling to dash jump pass enemies and using boss weapons to dispatch of enemies enemies. It’s the type of game that warrants multiple playthroughs after the player get used to the stiff controls and learns the layout of the levels, which can be tricky the first time with obnoxious enemy placement and hazards. The game is very replayable since the levels can be competed in any order and the upgrades collected along the way will help makes certain parts easier. There is a great sense of interconnectivity between the levels, but there is one smart aspect of the design on Mega Man X that is criminally underutilized.

First, I want to discuss boss weapons. The most basic and obvious benefit of  boss weapons is that every boss is weak to a certain weapon. This has been a staple of the franchise since the very first Mega Man released on the NES in 1987. This directly guides the player, who will most likely want to go against the boss who’s weakest against the weapon they just acquired, but there are also more subtle ways these weapons incentivise players to complete levels. 

Some basic enemies throughout the levels are easier to beat with certain boss weapons. The turtles and sea dragon mini bosses in Launch Octopus’s level die in a snap with the Storm Tornado acquired from Storm Eagle and Boomer Kuwanger’s Boomerang Cutter is useful against the Hoganmer enemies whose shields will block every projectile coming from the front. This helps experienced players choose what level to play next if they have a good idea of what enemies to expect and nudges newer player to experiment with weapons to see what works best. It also works as a guide similar to how it was handled in the older NES Mega Man games where it was sometimes best move to a different level if an obstacle or enemy was too tough because there was probably a weapon or upgrade in another level that will make it much easier, like the Magnet Beam in the original Mega Man.

During my most recent playthrough, I wanted to get the Buster upgrade as early as possible. To do so, I got the helmet upgrade from Storm Eagle’s stage and then went to Flame Mammoth’s stage. It was interesting to see that the levels were set up in such a way that both the helmet upgrade to break the blocks to the Buster upgrade and the effective weapon against Flame Mammoth were found Storm Eagle’s stage. Since I started with Storm Eagle, instead of Chill Penguin as usual, I also remembered that Flame Mammoth’s level is supposed to have fire throughout the stage.

Chill Penguin’s stage is the easiest Mega Man X stage and it is also where you get the most important upgrade: the leg’s upgrade, which lets you perform a short, quick dash. This upgrade is so useful and important to the game, that the developer’s didn’t even hide it in the stage. It’s right in the open on the only route through the level. I believe that the creators of the game intended Chill Penguin to be the first stage of the ideal playthrough because it is relatively easy with one of the most simple bosses in the game to defeat, there’s an important upgrade that impossible to miss, and it even has a new feature to the series being the ride armor. Another interesting thing that happens after defeating Chill Penguin is that the rivers of fire in Flame Mammoth’s stage completely freeze over.

There are a number of ripple effects that defeating certain bosses will have on other stages in the game and they are the most interesting thing about Mega Man X. Most notably of these is when defeating Storm Eagle. The boss fight takes place on top of an airship and, after defeating the boss, the ship comes crashing down onto Spark Mandrill’s level. This cuts off the electrical currents running through the floor in the beginning of the level  but also causes blackouts later in the level that momentarily hide the bottomless pits. Another example of this would be defeating Launch Octopus and flooding a pit in Sting Cameleon’s stage, which is needed for a health upgrade. 

These changes based on boss defeats show a lot of interconnectivity between the level and not only helps to encourage replayability, but also makes the world of Mega Man X feel alive and functioning. It feels like the world exists without the player, like it’s a clock with its gears turning to keep it ticking, and that the player is actually disrupting the natural pace. It’s a very uncommon feeling for a SNES action, in my experience, and is more akin to an epic RPG like Chrono Trigger.

While these changes across levels are brilliant, they are sadly underutilized. There really aren’t that many examples of them in the game. In fact, I named the three biggest ones in this post. I would have loved to see more like if defeating Flame Mammoth caused the trees in Sting Chameleon’s level to be on fire, exposing new enemies and making the player dodge periodic stampedes of frighten robots. Or is beating Spark Mandrill electrified the ocean in Launch Octopus’s stage, making the water dangerous and creating a more standard platforming level above the surface of the sea.

Mega Man X is a game I love and is a perfect example of why sometimes leaving the player wanting more is the smart option. While the interactions between levels due the boss weapons and stage changes give the game great replayable and help it feel alive, it’s hard not to want every boss defeated to affect the overall game in some way. The effects of defeating bosses like Chill Penguin and Storm Eagle are great, but they are so few and underutilized, it leaves the player wanting more in the best way. If nothing else, this is an aspect of the first game for Capcom to expand on if they ever make Mega Man X 9. 

Earthbound – Critical Miss #2

Smiles & Tears

We had a Sega Genesis in my household growing up which means I missed out on the entirety of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan. When I started getting more into video games years later, there was a game from the Super Nintendo that always came up as one of the best games on the system. That game was Earthbound and it always intrigued me.

The game stars Ness with his three friends, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, as they travel across Eagleland to stop an all powerful evil force named Giygas, who is making the world around them act strange and hostile. Along the way, the friends will help towns solve their problems, make new friends, and unlock their latent psychic abilities. It’s a standard RPG but with the traditional fantasy setting traded for a real world setting and the swords and bows switched for baseball bats and yo-yos for weapons.

The setting is what intrigued about Earthbound from the start. It seemed so quirky and unique. Before this review, I had tried to play it a couple times, but I never managed to beat it before. Now that I have completed the game, I see that there was a reason for that.

The presentation of Earthbound is instantly inviting. Cheery, colorful graphics with simplistic sprites meets the eye and the bouncy, bizarre music meets the ear. The music especially is great. It covers so many genres and moods while maintaining a strange, sci-fi feel. It compliments the otherworldly undertones of the game.

Earthbound has a goofy feel throughout and the enemies exemplify this. A highlight of the game is reaching new areas and seeing the sprites of all the new enemies. They range from crazed hippies and multiple types of robots to googly-eyed ducks and dinosaurs. The sprites of these enemies are always bright and colorful and cartoony. Underneath all the cartoony visuals and silly dialogue, there is an undercurrent of darkness running through Earthbound. Throughout the adventure, Ness and the gang will be attacked by police officers for causing trouble in a town, dismantle a group of cultists, save a town being plagued by zombies, and the final battle with Giygas takes place on what looks like the intestines of some giant creature.

Giygas itself is the payoff to all the darkness and tension building under the game as you play. It is a Lovecraftian nightmare, a being whose power and lust for evil is said to break its own mind at the end of the game when you face it. In true cosmic horror style, Ness and the player cannot comprehend the true form of Giygas or even its attack, which are portrayed only as swirling red shapes and flashes respectively. The battle with Giygas was a highlight for me in the game, but not for the fight itself but for the character and design of Giygas. The mechanics of the battle in the final phase when the player has to keep the party healed and have Paula pray for help I found to be tedious . With each turn of this, you watch a cutscene of the prayer reaching someone you meet along the journey and them offering you their help. While these scenes are charming, they are extremely slow and just bog down the pace of the fight for me.

The pacing of Earthbound is the biggest issue in the game. The walking speed of  the party seems fine at first, but without any consistent means of speeding them up like a run button it starts to grate. The menus are slow and clunky to navigate and the battles drag on because of these menus. These small things add up to make the moment to moment gameplay feel tedious, but there are also bigger issues with pacing that quickly fatigued me towards the end of the game.

The first of these was the grinding. In honesty, it’s not absolutely necessary to grind in Earthbound, but every time you get a new party member, whether Ness is level 10 or 40, that new character starts at level one. So if you don’t want them to be smeared by enemies or want them to be useful in combat, you have to stop and level them up. This kills the pace of the story, but not as much as the structure of the game itself. Earthbound has a overarching story, but it’s more of a loose guiding thread. The structure of the game feels more like a monster of the week cartoon series where the team comes to a new area dealing with some odd problem, they solve the problem, and move on. While this structure works to some extent because the sets are usually quirky and interesting, with only passing mentions of the looming evil of Giygas, I often felt discontinued from the main plot.

Earthbound is never great at guiding the player and nudging them in the right direction. It’s not terrible in the beginning of the game, gets at little more confusing around Twoson and Threed, and gets totally obtuse starting in Fourside. Admitting this could be a mistake in my playstyle, but even when speaking to NPCs and paying attentions of the hints they dropped, I still found myself completely lost at points. The worst examples of this were the few instances where I had to enter certain areas just to leave and trigger an event or when you have to backtrack to past areas to get information on a puzzle or key item to the current section.

All this adds up to Earthbound feeling like a slog. Towards the middle of the game, when the quirkiness was starting to feel less fresh and engaging, I started feeling very fatigued of the game. I didn’t particularly dislike the game, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I hoped I would.

Like most games, Earthbound is a mixture of good and bad. While I truly enjoyed the setting and enemies, it wasn’t enough to combat the slower pace of the game. If you’re a fan of older RPGs and can handle a slow moving one, I say give Earthbound a try if you haven’t already, but it’s definitely not the first Super Nintendo RPG I would ever suggest.