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.