It’s incredible that a 20 year old game can still be considered one of the most atmospheric ever made. Great design is ageless, of course, but the audiovisual tools today’s developers have at their disposal for immersing players, for evoking place and time and temperature and tone, are light years removed from what was possible in 1994. Yet Super Metroid remains a masterpiece of mood, a game that can stop hearts and raise hairs with no more than its title screen.
It’s not exactly working with the most promising of materials, either. So towering is the Metroid saga’s reputation, it’s often overlooked that its foundations are the stuff of bottom-dollar videogame cliché: power-suited cosmic adventurer battles space pirates and hunts energy-sucking, jelly-like aliens in mazes of caves. With the NES original hailing from 1986, that’s easy to excuse. It’s not quite so easy to explain how the Metroid games attained the rarefied power they did.
They do deviate from tradition in one crucial respect: the revelation at the end of the first game that Samus Aran, the protagonist under that suit, was female shocked the gaming world of 1986. At the time it was a show-stopping reversal of damsel-in-distress archetypes. Even today, when super-powered game heroines are far from unusual, it’s rare to see one so unsexualised, and yet iconic. Super Metroid exploits the contrast between the normal woman and the outlandish, bulbous spacesuit better than any other game in the series, revealing a flash of Aran’s true form when the screen fades to white at every death. It makes her vulnerable as well as mighty, and serves as an effective reminder of the extreme hostility of the environment.
In Super Metroid, that environment is the game’s main character, and Aran’s chief opponent. The tortuous, leading design, riddled with more secrets, puzzles and mysteries than a Zelda dungeon, is the most significant part of that. Mazes in other games present themselves as the devious man-traps they are. Super Metroid’s caverns and ancient hallways are just as meticulously drawn up, but then the man-made plans are disguised with a crust of vegetation and dilapidation that makes them feel much more organic, and twice as inscrutable.
Despite the map that fills in as you progress, this is a game where it’s possible to feel utterly, desperately lost, so thorough is the misdirection, so carefully hidden the clues. Its extreme use of backtracking – seldom has any game had the courage to double-back on itself so often – makes the exploration feel as natural and open-ended as possible, without sacrificing the tight claustrophobia of the surroundings. That sense of confinement is key to the amazing hold the game has over you, and it’s achieved with the simplest trick of orientation: in Super Metroid, there’s ultimately only one way to go, and that’s down.
No game has ever exploited the fear and pressure of descent so well, not even the other Metroids, not even Descent itself. Both the prologue and the earliest sections of the game proper are characterised by impossibly long, implausibly quiet drops down empty shafts. The airlessness and building temperature are almost palpable. Although the game clambers back to the surface for regular and much-needed gulps of air, you know you’re always going to have to go back, and the ground is going to stay over your head, until the final boss encounter – with that classically Freudian nightmare, the Mother Brain – inevitably takes place at the very bottom of the very deepest pit.
And it’s a journey you have to make alone. If there’s a key note to Super Metroid’s eerie, dreamlike mood, it’s isolation. Enemies abound, but aside from the occasional skirmish with the space pirates and the monumental boss battles, they mostly take the form of strange, barely sentient alien wildlife: dangerous but predictable and (once you get the ice beam) even useful. Nintendo’s artists seem to have taken more care imbuing the environs than the animals with personality. Plant life undulates, statues eyes’ glint, tiny insects scatter, electronic arrays scan Aran, mutely. Lonely as you are, it seems like something is there and watching you, and it feels like it’s the maze itself.
Accompanying the lush, subtle gloom of the graphics is one of the finest soundtracks of the 16bit era. The grace and power of every stride and somersault of Aran’s suit is highlighted with crisp thuds and swishes; and there’s an unnerving abstract quality to the toneless squawks of the wildlife, the chirrups and clicks of the machinery. Beneath it all are the dark choral intonations and booming atmospherics of a classic score, a series of unsettling, echoing, cyclical tunes that never resolve. They just rack up the tension and the dread.
It all sounds rather oppressive, and it certainly can be; for a fairly slow-paced, exploratory action-adventure, Super Metroid is quite the pressure-cooker. But its incredibly rich atmosphere beguiles as well as scares, draws you deeper into one of gaming’s most head-scratching and intricate mysteries. And any time you feel like the weight of all that alien rock is getting too much, the game, with exquisite timing, doles out one of its range of genuinely thrilling suit upgrades. These operate as weapons, often, and of course as keys to the myriad locks and obstacles the maze has already thrown up in Aran’s path. But they’re also some of the most gloriously empowering tools in the history of gaming.
In so many games, an unlocked ability feels like something that’s been removed, a right withheld until you earn it. In Super Metroid, you start out strong and confident in Aran’s intimidating suit, and then enjoy a prolonged, exponential power rush as each devastating upgrade is found, eventually running at rocket speed and launching her into ten-story leaps, piledriving through walls and slicing through enemies. Their ingenuity and potency area a perfect, exquisitely paced match for – and reward for – the demands and frustrations of the most bewitching and singlemindedly perverse maze in gaming history. No wonder that, 20 years on, you can lose yourself in it just as easily as you can get lost.