With the advent of the Super Nintendo came “Super” versions of many fan favorite games. Take, for instance, Super Metroid, released in 1994. The action platformer is a direct sequel to Metroid II: Return of Samus, itself a follow-up to the classic Metroid, so I was puzzled to see Ridley, a mini-boss I’d already killed, featured so prominently on the packaging. Even more befuddling is the drawing of what appears to be the lower half of a giant lizard in the background. Why not show the upper half instead? It might look a little more threatening.
Anyway, as Super Metroid begins, we’re treated to a cut scene summarising Samus’ previous adventures. After her glorious campaign of alien extermination on SR388, our protagonist comes across a larva that she cannot bear to kill. She brings it to the Ceres research station, where scientists discover that the metroid could be used for the good of humanity (the Galactic Federation must feel pretty foolish for having tried to eradicate the whole species). Unfortunately, a revived Ridley steals the specimen, prompting the galaxy’s toughest androgynous bounty hunter to return to Zebes and get it back.
The gameplay is similar to that in the previous chapters, but massive improvements have been made. First, Samus can now shoot in all eight directions on the joypad, thus increasing her firepower and speeding up the already fast-paced action. In addition, a map now automatically appears for each area explored. This removes the need for players to pause the game and draw one of their own. New items like the x-ray scope, the speed booster, and the space jump also help our heroine progress through Zebes more efficiently.
As they scour the alien planet, fans of the franchise will spot various tributes to the first Metroid. For example, one of the first areas visited is the spot where Samus defeated Mother Brain. By the same token, a weaker Kraid clone makes his appearance as you fight your way to the real McCoy. It’s little details like these that give Super Metroid such a strong connection with the other games, one that extends far beyond just the story and the bestiary.
The music, another staple of the Metroid franchise, doesn’t disappoint either, helped in large part by the Super Nintendo’s upgraded sound capabilities (this was the mid nineties, okay?). Improving on the original soundtrack is no small feat, but I can’t think of any other game in which the music contributed as much to the claustrophobic atmosphere and sense of urgency. Even before you start playing, the eerie score at the main menu induces you with a feeling of paranoia.
Unfortunately, Super Metroid does falter in one respect: the final boss fight, which turns out worse than in Metroid if that’s even possible. As a throwback to the Nintendo classic, you begin by fighting a brain in a jar. Then its body appears. I guess it’s supposed to look creepy, but all I see is a giant skinned chicken. More to the point, the beast proves ridiculously easy to beat. Just shoot diagonally toward its head. You’ll lose a lot of health, but that’s the point, as a cut scene is generated when you’re on the verge of death. I appreciate the desire to weave a full story into the game, but this sort of material should appear after your archenemy has been defeated. Otherwise, you end up with a final boss that pales in comparison to the underlings guarding it.
Despite its lackluster ending, Super Metroid remains a spectacular action platformer. Even now, nearly twenty years after its release, I still pop it in my Super Nintendo Entertainment System every once in a while and see if I can finish it faster than the last time. For those who missed out on the sixteen-bit classic back in the day, the game is available on the Wii Virtual Console. It’s a worthwhile purchase, if only to find out what the giant lizard’s upper half looks like.