Time Extend: Super Metroid

If you carefully pick them apart, it becomes clear that many games fall over when it comes to the basic underlying principle of structure. Sometimes even a simple arc such as ‘clear beginning, involving middle, satisfying conclusion’ is missing. In gaming, that beginning is perhaps the most important aspect to get right: plunge the player into something unfamiliar and they’ll reject it; handhold excessively and they’ll resent it. Then there are other considerations: how do you set the tone, the mood? How do you get a player interested in the potential of your character? How do you get them involved in your game?

Super Metroid was to be Gumpei Yokoi’s final hurrah with the franchise he’d birthed – he said it should be the last Metroid game – and the last developed by Nintendo’s formidable R&D1 team for eight years. It was also a partial return to the first game in the series, an attempt to refine and rework that universe. In hindsight, that’s an auspicious beginning. But next to what Yokoi, producer Makoto Kanoh, director Yoshio Sakamoto and R&D1 created to open the game, it seems nothing less than destiny.

Super Metroid begins with text outlining the events of the previous Metroids, green characters slowly punched out against the rumble of a metallic, ominous beat lifted from The Terminator. Samus’ ship peels into view, heading towards a space colony, the burning of its thrusters rendered by the then-unparalleled SNES audio hardware, the only other noise monotonous digital wheeps indicating that something isn’t right.

Samus enters; Super Metroid begins. Computer whistlings form a background as the antiseptic corridors and automatic doors are navigated. Then the lab is reached, and it’s instantly familiar: the title screen. Computer terminals glow unoperated. Isolated, hanging notes punctuate the dull mechanical thrum. But something’s different: before the game began, a metroid larva was here and in its jar, behind another layer of protective glass. Now, the glass is shattered, the luminous alien form nowhere to be seen. Bodies of scientists, torn apart, lie all around. At the end, another automatic door. In the silent, final room beyond, the larva sits in its pristine jar, breaking the silence with owlish chirks.

At this point, you’ve been playing Super Metroid – actual button-pressing playing – for all of two minutes. Within that time the game’s makers not only bring out the importance of Samus within this universe, but also her yin and yang relationship to the metroids. It’s a recognisable archetype, though subtly introduced, and this quick framing of Samus and the larva is instantly recognised by the player as the fulcrum of the entire series. If the measured and calm approach to this point has been the hallmark of Super Metroid’s opening thus far, a creeping unease but no more, then this is where it all literally comes crashing down.

Something has to break the tension. A fiery glint appears above the jar, the black background begins to coalesce into a spiny dragon, and soon the grotesque Ridley, claws fixed on the metroid larva, is staring straight at you. The final boss of Metroid 2 is your first encounter in Super Metroid, and there’s no way to stop it escaping with the last metroid – straight at the player, in fact, breaking out of the restrictions of your screen.

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