Sunday, January 17, 2010

Videogame Classics - Super Metroid

Name the best game ever made for the Super NES. For some, it's Super Mario World or Zelda 3. Others, Super Mario Kart. A number will point to Final Fantasy 3, which was how it was named here in the States). And a lot of you will insist that it's really Super Metroid.

You may be right. This might very well be the SNES' finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn't until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake and Doom then their beloved Metroid.

And, in the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. The forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let's be honest here. Those games weren't any good. The first one, especially was a clunker. The second, Zero Mission? Eh, better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that's exactly what Zero Mission was all about. A Metroid that holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Miyazaki's Ohmus.

What comes to mind when I think of Super Metroid? Dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made - heavy in that late-'60s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a dark, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

Modern videogames, if they really can be called "games" anymore, shove narrative down your throat. They think story can only be conveyed by scripted movie scenes. But a good game, all of the best ones, can tell a story without these tired cliches. Story, setting, mood, character - all can be shown by the actions and environment of the game itself. That's one of the things that makes Super Metroid a masterpiece. It's a very story-driven game at heart, but one that lets your imagination roam.

The only other exploration game that captures that same sense of mood and mystery, to my mind, is Todd's Adventures in Slime World on the Atari Lynx. And that game was created back in 1990. How's that? In many ways, Slime World serves as a foundation for the expansive game world Super Metroid builds upon. It seems impossible to keep the two seperate in my mind; the original Metroid serves as the original starting point, but this sequel stretches and expands and builds so far beyond those first boundaries that they become almost unrecognizable.

So that's what I take out of the experience. The dark, underground world, teeming with life and teeming with secrets. And the whole enterprise is hard. Real hard. In this game, Nintendo drops you into a cave, in the middle of nowhere, and just leaves you. No goofy sidekicks pointing the way out of the maze. No cheap icons to hold you by the hand and make things easy. In this life, things are much harder than in the afterlife. In this're on your own.

Forget about that first Metroid. It's a good game, but it's too dated to really hold your affections. This is the real version, the one that carries all the mystique. This is the moment which all future Metroids struggle to recapture. They'll struggle in vain. You'll probably never see a better action/adventure no matter how many years you'll live.

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