Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 6, Super Metroid

A masterclass in game design and mood that helped to spawn an entire genre, but more importantly, it still holds up to this day.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

I have long had a theory about Super Metroid. The theory is as follows: Super Metroid got so much right, and so exquisitely and thoroughly, that it cost us additional 2D Metroid games in the future. How does one innovate and improve on perfection? Given we have had one (1) original 2D Metroid game released in the style of Super Metroid since this absolute classic debuted on the Super Nintendo back in 1994, it appears this is a question Nintendo themselves is still attempting to find an answer to.

Nintendo has outsourced Metroid for the most part since the release of Super Metroid. Maybe part of this is because series producer Gunpei Yokoi left Nintendo a couple of years after Super Metroid, after the failure of the Virtual Boy. We know a Metroid for the N64 was never in development in part because Nintendo couldn’t figure out how to make a 3D one work like they did for Mario and Zelda, and attempts to get a mystery third-party to develop one instead were declined out of fear of failing to live up to the standard set by its predecessor.

Eventually, eight years later, Metroid Fusion (number 25) would be developed by Nintendo R&D1, same as Super Metroid, but other than that, the series has been handled by a slew of others: the dread of successfully matching up with Super Metroid continued to hang over Nintendo’s own developers. Tecmo’s Team Ninja co-developed Metroid: Other M with Nintendo SPD, and their ideas for iteration on the series are the main positives from that game; the ideas from Nintendo’s side are part of the reason we haven’t had a brand new Metroid since. The remake of Metroid II for the 3DS (number 54) was handled by another third-party entity, MercurySteam, which had a history of working on the other side of the Metroidvania portmanteau before getting the reins to the first half of the genre.

Bandai Namco Studios, which already works with Nintendo on Super Smash Bros. and various Pokémon spinoff titles, originally had development duties for Metroid Prime 4. The first three Prime games, and now 4, as well, are the domain of Retro Studios, a Texas-based Nintendo subsidiary that took the series to a completely different place than Super Metroid had left it. That place is a pretty good one — Echoes (36) and Corruption (57) both ranked on this list, and I haven’t written about the best of the trio yet for a reason. The point is that a shift to a 3D, first-person adventure platformer* developed by someone else with fresh ideas was what was needed after Super Metroid did its thing and caused a “well now what?” in the first place.

*No wonder people say “Metroidvania,” Christ.

None of this is a complaint, by the way. Personally, I’d rather have one Super Metroid to play and play again than half-a-dozen series entries that were half as good or even 80 percent as good, that come out for no real reason other than they sell. (Selling well has never really been a, uh, strength of Metroid games, so that probably also helps Nintendo’s decision to be deliberate with the series.) Part of Nintendo’s strength as a developer (and publisher) is in recognizing that they’re out of great reasons to be the only contributing force to perpetuating a series. They realized they couldn’t just do Super Metroid again, so instead, they ramped up the horror elements and shifted how Metroid played a bit for Fusion, and told Retro — made up of a whole lot of former FPS developers from their days as Iguana Entertainment — to make Metroid even less recognizable, while still, somehow, clearly being Metroid in the end.

It’s probably the same inclination of Nintendo’s that has meant Star Fox is someone else’s problem to solve since Star Fox 64, the same reason that has kept us from a new F-Zero since Amusement Vision and Sega blew everyone away with F-Zero GX. Metroid isn’t a system seller like Zelda or Mario games are, so, as great as these games are, they’re less of a priority to figure out for each and every console generation. So here we are. Of course Nintendo hasn’t surpassed Super Metroid yet: they haven’t even tried to, haven’t really had a reason to. They did, however, apply Metroid’s philosophy elsewhere, and in other series: another top 10 game on this list, Wario Land 3, is the greatest example of that, but as for Metroid itself? Following up perfection is no small endeavor, so for the most part, Nintendo just… didn’t.

Super Metroid isn’t here on this list because it was perfect 27 years ago, though. Super Metroid is here on this list because it’s still perfect 27 years later. It continues to be a source of inspiration for a whole bunch of games, many of them great, some of them even excellent, that also aren’t quite as good as this one for one reason or another. Given its modest sales, every person who purchased it besides me became an indie game developer so they could make games like it. It is one of those rare games that was one of the greatest ever at the time of its release, and remains that way decades later. If I wasn’t on a schedule, I’d stop writing and go play it again right now.

It’s atmospheric, infinitely replayable, possessed of unrivaled pacing. It is a masterclass in getting out of your own way to tell a story, with a speed and efficiency in this realm that makes even Link to the Past’s hurried beginnings seem plodding in comparison. Super Metroid not only sets the stage for the game you’re about to play within its first few minutes, thanks to text, short cutscenes, and a boss fight, but it also gets you up to speed on the previous two games in a way that works either as a reminder of where this series’ narrative is, or fills you in enough if you’re a first-timer. Masterfully done, and still impressive in its execution and effectiveness to this day.* You can watch the entire opening sequence below, or read about how it sets the tone for what follows in depth.

*Just a note that Samus vanishing when struck by Ridley in the above video is an emulator issue, and not the game itself.

Super Metroid is a 2D action-adventure game, with a world that slowly opens up both through exploration and through backtracking once you’ve acquired new powers that show just how layered this game world is. You’re meant to take your time to explore and to figure out how the game works, at least on your initial playthrough. Once you’re familiar, you’re meant to go about all of this as fast as possible. The ending is slightly different depending on how quickly you can wrap things up: it took me about six hours to get through the playthrough I did for this project, which is pretty standard for the amount of energy tanks and missiles I felt I needed to collect in order to take on Mother Brain at the end, but you can beat it in a much shorter timeframe than that if you’re highly skilled and know your way around, and I’m not even talking about speedruns here.

This kind of game is far from unique, but what makes Super Metroid stand out is, well, everything else. Playing through every Metroid release for this project, and in story rather than release order, made me wonder if this would finally be the time I was underwhelmed with Super Metroid, as has happened to some other classics from my youth, as the industry and I both aged. This is not what happened at all, though: on the contrary, replaying Super Metroid — and after replaying nearly every other Metroid beforehand — instead caused me to remember all the reasons it had held up in my mind as a genre-spawning masterpiece. So many of the items and techniques we now think of as central to Metroid games in general were first introduced here: the Spring Ball, the Speed Boost, the Grapple Beam, the X-Ray Visor. They aren’t introduced in a way that makes you think, “oh, these were used in better ways later on in the series,” either. They’re all fully realized in their application, out of the gate: you yourself just have to realize how to utilize them.

The aforementioned atmosphere remains such a strong point of the game, lending an undercurrent of creepiness throughout that the original couldn’t achieve on the same level, mostly due to what the NES was capable of from both an audio and visual point of view. You won’t catch me badmouthing the original Metroid, nor its sounds and songs: it’s just that Super Metroid had the advantage of a system that could really build on the look and sound and therefore feel of what Metroid was all about. And it did just that.

The soundtrack is great, and not just because of the atmosphere it creates. These songs are legit, extremely listenable outside of the game itself, whether in their original form or in a newly arranged, metal-flavored one. How important is Metroid music to me? I don’t have a Metroid t-shirt, but I do have a t-shirt from a band that does covers of Metroid songs. There’s a reason for that, and the reason is that the music is fantastic, especially in Super Metroid, which features more than just a few of the series’ musical highpoints.

The visuals, the music, and the brief intro to what it is that you, as Samus, are doing in Super Metroid, help to create this feeling that you are alone, that no one is coming to help you, that you are always one mistake away from an untimely death. One of the brilliant design decisions of Metroid was to make Samus feel almost overwhelmingly overpowered as she builds up her arsenal and toolkit through exploration: the “almost” there is the caveat. Despite being essentially a six-foot-tall world destroyer, all it takes is not figuring out some similarly overpowered enemy’s weakpoint fast enough, or dodging its attacks successfully enough, and suddenly, Samus is near death. Energy tanks drained, missile reserves depleted: this is where you feel the sheer terror of Samus’ endeavor, where the weight of her mission, the loneliness of it, comes crashing down. It is a tension you carry with you throughout the game, part of what makes all of the atmospheric elements work so well: this knowledge that you are a single misstep away from failure, no matter how overpowered you might seem.

The life of this bounty hunter is a lonely one, which only makes Samus’ relationship with the baby Metroid that much more poignant. Coming back to Super Metroid after the 3DS remake of Samus Returns only helps with that feeling, too, since that game did more than just have Samus run around during the credits with the infant Metroid in tow. In Samus Returns, the game does not end with the defeat of the Metroid Queen, but instead, after Samus and the infant that believes this bounty hunter is her mother team up to defeat Ridley, who, like in the beginning of Super Metroid, wants this last-surviving Metroid for his Space Pirates and their weapons research. The infant puts itself in danger to defeat Ridley and save Samus — remembering this while seeing Samus put herself in danger to stop Ridley and the Space Pirates, and free the last remaining Metroid, as well, while eventually seeing the not-so-little Metroid come to Samus’ rescue yet again, makes all of it work even better than it did. And none of it needed the assist to work either thematically or emotionally.

What impressed me the most about my return to Super Metroid, though, is just how tight of an adventure it is. The game does not tell you how to do anything, and yet, it’s designed in such a way that you can figure it all out on your own if you stop to consider what and where it is you should be focusing. The map gives you some little hints about where to go next, but not necessarily what needs to be done or found or achieved. Just go over there, figure it out, there’s an energy signature or something. You also don’t have to follow this limited advice right away: spend your time revisiting old haunts to see if your recently acquired powers and abilities can make them feel new again, then head out to whatever is next on your briskly-paced agenda.

There are some secret powers that might make your adventure a bit easier, that might benefit a curious mind, but you are not directly led to them. You discover some creatures native to the planet in a passageway you could have easily missed, and they passively show you one neat trick for getting around: the shinespark, which augments the power of your speed boost to allow you to travel to great heights at great speeds, or to blow through walls and obstacles at an angle simply running would not. You can complete the game without discovering it or mastering it, just like you can complete the game without being able to use the wall jump, but they are tools that further open up the possibilities of exploration in a game that is very much about exploration.

Sequels to Super Metroid might be lacking in number, but the places in which you can play Super Metroid are not. There is, of course, an original cartridge for the SNES, but that’s more of an “if you already have one” solution unless you feel like purchasing what are very likely mostly reproduction carts on eBay, if the all-caps claims of “AUTHENTIC!” on the more expensive listings are any indication. Super Metroid was available on the Wii Virtual Console, and is still available on the Wii U’s VC. It’s also on the 3DS’ eShop as a Virtual Console title, and was included in the SNES Classic. Super Metroid is one of the few masterpieces the Nintendo Switch Online SNES service has bothered to make available, too: unlike with some classics, this one is pretty easy to get your hands on. And if you never have, what are you waiting for?

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