25 Years On, Super Metroid’s Opening Act Remains Unmatched

When someone describes something as “Metroidvania,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? There’s little to dissuade the fact that the genre has grown exponentially in presence and popularity over the yeas, and in an industry that has only granted further passage for many a studio to revive what was once a lost, though never forgotten, form, the intent relatively remains the same. For every attempt that shows clear influence from either Nintendo’s or Konami’s beloved exploration-fronted releases, the majority of the time these games often focus on just that: exploration. The ways in which levels/environments are structured and open out to the player, regardless of how this is unraveled. Few place precedent on that which may be considered the sub-genre’s subjectively resonant pull and one of the main reasons why the next Metroidvania has the potential to be something great. I’m referring to one of the genre’s key features — something that, in general, can bolster your involvement to initially surprising levels in any video game: its atmosphere.

There have been some that have done just that of course. These are the kind of Metroidvanias that, rightly so, stand out among the crowd because they recognize the genre is about more than just back-tracking. It’s about more than just the complexity of its structural layout, the immediacy of its gameplay mechanics at your disposal, the front-end elements that one can interact with and physically engage with to some sensical extent. Skills and abilities which may or may not expand further as you acquire new items or tools to help you on your way. Metroidvanias needn’t require long-winded scripts, detailed explanations on what is what or any expository statement as to how its inner workings play out in a thematic sense, primarily because the act of discovering things for yourself is the means by which the premise — its back-end elements perhaps — begin to reveal themselves. Some may want to hint or suggest as to its world-building, as to why things are the way they are, but to invest one’s self in exploration (more importantly, to do so voluntarily and with genuine intrigue/excitement/dread) is by default to surround one’s self in unfamiliar territory. Regardless of whether these strange, distant, maybe even alien lands are benevolent or malevolent; welcome or otherwise unsettling.

One of Metroidvania’s greatest strengths is in its remarking upon that most human and instinctive call to peer into something we might not understand, regardless of the outcome. Even if someone or something actively tries to dissuade you from continuing on with such curious meandering, in all honesty, what’s the first thing you’re going to do, really? Super Metroid excels on its approach in creating a tense, eventful and fascinating opening to a video game not because its then-established formula paves the way for some familiarity in exploration, but the exact opposite reason: Super’s methods are, in series context, completely unfamiliar by contrast and as the game’s opening thirty-or-so minutes demonstrates, ushering in a sense of anxiety, disconnection and absolute isolation can be just as powerful a motive to keep going.

In a year that will see Nintendo’s masterful 1994 release for the Super Nintendo celebrate its 25th anniversary, nothing has come close to matching just how phenomenal Super Metroid’s opening is, not just in a mechanical sense via protagonist Samus Aran’s more agile move-set and abilities, but as a means to portray its setting, the planet Zebes, as a more treacherous and unnerving advancement of its once colorfully diverse labyrinthns might have let off. For a game nearly two-and-a-half decades old, you’d think its age would begin to work against the overall product. But what seems more and more like a common trend for acclaimed SNES titles — Yoshi’s Island’s art-style is probably the most notable example, particularly for the fourth-generation — it’s an aspect that if anything, has only shone an even more gracious light on how well Super establishes its setting. What makes Super Metroid, on atmosphere alone, so remarkable — and one of the first remarkable subversions of its previous formula — is its near-devoid silence and refusal to play its hand too early.

You have to remember that while the original Metroid and even its Game Boy sequel did incorporate elements of isolation and warranted exploration through trial-and-error gameplay, they always had a kind of spry, supportive optimism and upbeat confidence punctuating not just the color palette of the environments on show, but the soundtrack accompanying. While its title card may have underscored a less-than-fantastical interpretation of “mystery” as a concept, the track accompanying the very first region in the game, Brinstar, had a melody and a hook nonetheless — an encouraging motif that, despite the numerous respawning enemies and energy-sapping, environmental hazards, spurred you on to succeed. Metroid II, though would later devolve into sparse ambience where only the smallest of detail would be offered, also began proceedings on the surface of SR388 with that same bullish incentive for the player to go in with high morale, with what might be one of the series’ most overlooked, stand-alone tracks.

Super Metroid, on the other-hand, does none of this; it doesn’t even grace us with an introductory trawl through the upper-most regions of Zebes’ layout. What greets you instead is a space station dim with lighting, absent of sound save for the odd whirring of machinery and a few dead bodies littering the station flooring. That is if you hadn’t noticed them already on the title screen. From the first few minutes alone, Super already sets itself apart from its predecessors visually, audibly and all-round aesthetically. There’s a precursor to discovering something all-the-more worrying and shocking here. An indicator of the game’s desire to readdress veteran’s previously-conceived notion on confidence (perhaps over-confidence) when returning to this series, this world, this sense of being one lone individual against everything else, sentient or otherwise. Had the game simply transitioned to that familiar convention of setting one’s sight on tackling the game’s many subterranean treks, Super’s opening still would have resonated sufficiently enough to instill a heightened curiosity as to why the game would lead with such an absence of that once former jubilance in an opening track. But it’s upon landing on planet Zebes where the game’s championing of subversion truly takes route.

And not through some implied teleporting into Brinstar’s first corridor section where the first acquirable item, the Morph Ball, is standing just to the left. But to the greeting of torrential rain, thunderstorms and a complete lack of hostile activity. No creatures, no enemies, not even a hint of that former 8-bit blue that defined the original’s opening region. The lifeless, clouded stretches of Crateria greet you not with some chippy melody or idle creatures to play target practice with, but instead a disturbingly slow passage of chords and no enemies whatsoever. Crateria’s first few interior sections are similarly dull, near-desaturated of even  their most earthly hues and in matter of minutes — after suspiciously dropping down a vertical shaft that looks all too similar to one Samus had to climb during Metroid’s climax — you’re back in Tourian, the original’s final region. The very room with which you fought and destroyed Mother Brain, the final boss, in shambles. Then it’s down a lift and…again, what…we’re in Brinstar?! The same exact Brinstar from the original, acquirable Morph Ball placement and all.

It takes Super Metroid just a few minutes to throw at the player one contradiction after another: Zebes’ down-trodden climate and devoid association with that previous uplifting stride; Crateria’s similarly unwelcoming but effective use of sound with both its thunder-storm and musical minimalism; the complete lack of life-forms or enemy hostiles; starting the game as if playing the original’s final sequence in reverse; arriving back in the exact same Brinstar, now with a complimentary 16-bit coat of paint to match. Only to then do away with this conceived feeling of complete loneliness and singular placement in an alien world, by the emergence of what must be a security system of sorts, serving as the cue for the series-staple Space Pirates to emerge and the game’s soundtrack to kick into a higher if still treacherous gear.

To state that the game isn’t done with subverting and catching the player off-guard even after this period only illustrates Super’s confidence — and its brilliance — as a game that isn’t afraid to perplex its players in more ways than its exploration-based gameplay can physically amount to. What the game establishes by this point is that involving one’s self with the world in place isn’t restricted to the interactive elements on display. The need and want to discover is no longer confined to the potential mystery and curious pay-off of the unknown. Super Metroid establishes, in a twisted, devious yet fully-veiled fashion, that that same need and want — to find out what lies beyond the next door or what lays stashed at the end of that small tunnel — can stem more so from its tonal connotations. That this is indeed an alien world, a world you’re not and never will be a part of. This is enemy territory, hostile territory. Worse, this is unknown territory that has led you to deduce one thing only to dismiss it just as swiftly as it deceived you — any previous allusion to simply retreading old ground and repeating the achievements of previous, denied in mere moments.

Super Metroid could well have succeeded on simply being the 16-bit upgrade the series was inevitably going to receive one way or another. That the world, graphically more advanced and graced with an increased level of detail and purpose, would indeed follow the same road-map when it came to key moments and revealing to the player its intentions as a setting one must explore and make repeat visits to. Instead, what we get is a title whose sole intent is to offer discomfort, to not so much discourage exploration but rather remind us of the severity of allowing our humble human fascination with new places in a place like this. It wants to catch us off-guard, to startle us, to heighten our need to ask “why?” to many a question. Why the doubling-down on that anxious sparsity in its soundtrack, why the immediate change in circumstances, why the general leading us to a perceived levity of confidence and assurance only to deceive us once again. Why the sudden change from upbeat, pulsating rhythms and frantic spurring forth with Brinstar’s Jungle Floor…to its reverberating ambience, halted ushering of arpeggios and startled piano with Brinstar’s bait-and-switch Underground Depths. Could Underground Depth’s use of piano and motifs too be marked down as another subverting of one’s understanding on what the music is trying to achieve here, a subversion within a subversion? Why the bait-and-switch to begin with, what are you trying to do here?

The answer is simple: Super Metroid doesn’t want you to feel confident with your surroundings. It won’t let you overestimate your deduced knowledge on how events will unfold, how set-pieces and boss battles alike may or can be approached. Most importantly, it wants to capture the darker, more dramatic side of exploration, the unknown of the end point or end result potentially as much a threat to one’s involvement as it is a benefit. The reality that, at any moment, things may change and the game, right up until the final encounter with Mother Brain for a second time, never falters in its reveals. Super Metroid isn’t just a great example on letting your player ease themselves into the flow of gameplay — on keeping a close eye on any irregularities with the world’s structure — but a fantastic case for eliciting an opposing unease through the use of sound, lighting, tone and the ill-conceived idea that what came before is sure to repeat itself. More than two decades on, in a year that will see one of the medium’s greats turn 25, Super Metroid’s opening has lost none of its immediate and astounding brilliance.