Shinesparkers Feature:

Super Metroid:
The Unexpected Masterpiece

How Super Metroid pulled off the unimaginable
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Video games have their fair share of unique experiences for anyone who plays them. Whether it’s the rush of obtaining a new high score, or seeing an enthralling story to its conclusion, everyone has something they enjoy most about games. But each and every one of us have that one game that just can’t possibly be replaced no matter what comes along. For me, that game is Super Metroid.

A quick little disclaimer, Super Metroid was not my first Metroid game. It isn’t even my second. The first game in the series I had a chance to play was Metroid II, but the circumstances for that wouldn’t really count as an eye-opening experience, as I only briefly played it at an activity group as a child. In reality, Metroid Fusion was my first, on Christmas morning of 2002 when my dad gave me it and the Game Boy Advance port of Doom, of all things. Fusion really did resonate with me, and even as a young boy I still wanted more. Fast forward to 2007, I had already played through a good chunk of the series by then, and with Metroid Prime 3 on the horizon I was given my first chance to play the game through the Wii Virtual Console. It has firmly sat on the top of my favourite games list ever since.

Other games on the list have been shuffled around a lot over the years, but Super refuses to budge. Can you blame me? It set an unprecedented example of what games can be, fully capitalising on what an interactive medium can accomplish. The story isn’t told to you, it’s something you need to observe and piece together through the gameplay and environment itself. There’s no doubt that the ending sequence where the baby Metroid sacrifices itself to save Samus has been etched into people’s hearts as a powerful example of show-don’t-tell. Even the small details such as discovering the Etecoons and Dachoras tie into the game itself, as they also teach you tricks that aren’t explained in the manual. The imagery both tells the player a story as well as guiding them through their adventure, it’s all magnificently well thought out and put together.

But despite all the proclamations of love I have for this game, there is one thing I still firmly believe to this day. I believe Super Metroid’s success was largely an accident.

Shocking, right?

Shocking, right?

I should probably clarify what I mean by this. At its core, the game was designed to subtly guide the player forward through its level design and clever placement of pickups close to the areas they need to be used on. It is very common for a player to discover a roadblock they can’t surpass, but later on find the exact tool needed to unlock the puzzle. Sometimes it’s literally the room right before the pickup is needed, encouraging the player to use their newfound ability straight away. But there are still some cracks that were left unfilled which, when examined further, can break the entire game apart. A kink in the design would normally ruin a game, but in Super’s case they end up expanding the game to heights it wasn’t expected to reach.

Super Metroid actually had a rather turmoiled development cycle, repeatedly being pushed back as the team struggled with the creation process. As a result, the final map layout for the game was actually made extremely close to the final deadline. With so little time to test the game, a noticeable number of roadblocks hadn’t been thoroughly tested. This lead to exploits being discovered to bypass what should have been impassable obstacles without the required ability. Chasms could be climbed along a single wall, bombs could be used to jump indefinitely through insurmountable gaps and even physics exploits with the way the game maintains speed after a jump. With these tricks areas could be bypassed and items obtained early, further breaking away the foundations.

Normally this spot requires the High Jump Boots to even reach, but clever players can bypass it with a well placed wall jump or using infinite bomb jumps.

But this didn’t destroy the game, it only made it better. New routes were being discovered, choices began to present themselves and the game became a speed runner favourite in no time flat. The community has been running the game for over two decades and still new tricks are being discovered. All of this has led to such an open ended experience that rewards the player for trying out something different. But it wasn’t by design, it was still all an accident. There is definitely evidence in the game to suggest that this wasn’t intended to be the case, but the biggest piece of evidence was the not so immediate follow up, Metroid Fusion.

Fusion went above and beyond to correct all the tricks and exploits from Super. Wall jumping is much stricter, infinite bomb jumping was outright removed, so many speed tricks were absolute quashed. Most of all, the game was entirely locked out until objectives were met. Doors would lock behind you, physically pushing you forwards. This led to an absolutely linear experience. This isn’t to say Fusion is a bad game, its map design is certainly on-point with a completely natural and solid paced flow from start to finish, it just adopted a different approach than what Super ended up being, and what fans had come to expect. It would take over fifteen years for a proper sequence break to be discovered in Fusion, and even that involves manipulating memory corruption, something well out of the reach of an ordinary player.

A fine example of Fusion’s linearity, locked doors on either side of you whilst your computer CO instructs you of your next objective.

Truth be told, the series has flipped back and forth between open ended and linear since its inception. Metroid going into Metroid II, Super into Fusion, and so on. But the largest gulf was definitely when Fusion was followed up by Metroid: Zero Mission, which once again adopted an open ended experience with a lot of options to explore. But Zero Mission was designed to be this way, with deliberately hidden alternate paths. It’s not quite the same as surpassing a wall that shouldn’t really be leapt over by utilising your abilities in a unique way when you can just break a conveniently hidden block to open up a secret path.

All in all, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I could sit and analyse this game for days on end, but it’s best to just settle on one important factor. Super hit that ideal medium between a clear-cut path and freedom to explore. There is still an intended route you’re supposed to follow, but nothing truly stops you from breaking past the boundaries. Super Metroid had an undeniable influence on people, having led to a complete overhaul of the Castlevania series as well as inspiring many, many indie game developers. There’s a shared passion for this one game that resonates between many people and I feel it to be one of the most influential games of all time, not to mention the best game I’ve ever experienced.

And it’s all due to an accident.

Written by KomodoZero