Thursday, August 27, 2015

Super Metroid - The Best in the Galaxy (Part 1)
Samus Aran's mangum opus redefined an entire genre and provided me the gaming experience of a lifetime.

When I started up this blog back in the early months of 2014, I did so with the belief that giving physical form to my video-game memories would be a simple matter of briefly chronicling my history with a game and sharing a few stories about the ways in which it affected and shaped my personal relationships with family and friends. I didn't anticipate that my need to authentically, satisfactorily communicate my thoughts and feelings would require levels of contemplation and introspection well beyond those which I was originally prepared to explore. It so happened that I was about halfway into writing my first The Legend of Zelda post before it became apparent to me that I was going to have to start applying myself like never before if I had any hope of properly conveying what these games truly meant to me.

Ever since that moment of realization, it's been my lingering fear that along would come a game so profusely rich with historical and emotional resonance that it might be impossible for me to do it justice with mere text--that my words might fall painfully short of rendering the perfect portrait of a game that deserves nothing less than an endless series of flawless brushstrokes. Mainly, I've long been dreading the day when it was time to finally discuss Super Metroid, which I've been nervously reflecting upon for about a year now.

Frankly, I don't know how to approach it.

Sure, it would be easy for me to spend hours raving about its technical achievements--how great it looks, sounds and plays--but I know that doing so would never be enough for a game like Super Metroid, which represents so much more than what's visible on its surface. It's a game whose lasting memories are constructed not of the sprite-counts, specifications and special effects it boasts but rather the feelings and emotions they worked so hard to evoke.

From that angle, I can't state with any confidence that I'll succeed in clearly expressing my thoughts on Super Metroid, since it's sometimes so difficult to put feelings into words; that's why I'm not sure how much space I'll be using or how deeply I'll have to dig to find the right words. Why, it's almost as if I'm about to begin treading on ground I've never before dared to explore in print.

Now, I don't think I need to go into great detail about how big a fan I am of the Metroid series, but a little context is necessary: It all started with the original Metroid, which came into my life as a curious enigma--an unsolvable riddle whose style of play negated all of my attempts to classify it--but slowly evolved into an absorbing epic as it exposed more and more of its mysterious underbelly and opened my eyes to the potential of this new genre. Metroid was able to engross me like no other with its wondrously labyrinthine world and its uncanny propensity for storytelling via environmental and emotional conveyance. 

Its belated sequel, Metroid II: Return of Samus, overcame both my personal biases and the limitations of its platform to become one of the most deeply compelling, wistfully evocative side-scrolling adventure games I ever had the privilege of playing; it remained a staple of my Friday nights for years following its release, and I came to regard it as a game whose every aesthetic was intrinsically linked to my memories of the Game Boy, which is an important piece of my history.

They were games I learned to love more and more as I delved deeper into their alluring worlds of alien themes and unfathomable depth. I enjoyed playing through them again and again for the purpose of reliving two of the best action-adventure experiences in gaming, certainly, but more so I liked to spend time meticulously maneuvering about their maps and putting my imagination to work: I'd explore their every nook and examine their every pixel. I'd think about how their spaces would appear if I could see them from a first-person perspective. I'd wonder about the potentially infinite number of secrets that were lying in wait for me beyond their walls and surfaces if only I could breach them. I'd let their otherworldly music wash over me as I attempted to decipher the meaning of its strangely wistful tones. And above all, I'd aim to lose myself to the tight grasp of their absorbing atmosphere so that I could be better served to soak in their every captivating vibe.

They did so well in this regard that I didn't even feel compelled to spend too much time thinking about a potential sequel though there were whispers of such in Nintendo Power. I didn't know that I needed one--not in this new 16-bit era. By then, I'd established a set of narrowly defined criterion for what I felt constituted a true Metroid game, and there was no chance that a technologically advanced SNES entry would be capable of reproducing the imagination-stirring aesthetic qualities of 8-bit games that so captured me. Well, that's what I thought until I saw it.

The first images of Super Metroid appeared in Nintendo Power Volume 56, a chrome-covered special edition that included a 16-page "Member's Special" inset whose latter portion previewed the biggest releases of 1994. There wasn't much to Super Metroid's coverage--merely one and half pages' worth of illustrations, screenshots, and the usual suspect commentary (according to the author, Super Metroid was allegedly going to represent "the end of the Metroid series" and Samus Aran would "have a new galactic menace to overcome in future games")--but I was nevertheless blown away by what I was seeing and reading.

I couldn't believe it what the preview was suggesting. Samus was going to be returning to Planet Zebes--that place I know so well?! Ridley and Kraid were going to be brought back?! All of those cool new power-ups from Metroid II were going to be carried over, as was Samus' gunship, looking glorious in 16-bit form?! Its world would be so much larger in scope that they'd have to up the memory to "24 megabits" in order to contain it all (not that I understood the meaning of such, since "memory" and "cart space" were interchangeable terms to the younger me, but it sounded monumental)?!

But what excited me most was the content of the screenshot in the middle of the preview's second page; it showed Samus swinging across a gap using an electric wire, which was interesting on its own, but the graphical textures of the surrounding environment looked entirely familiar. 

"Why, those are the bubbly surface textures of the green area of Norfair as seen in Metroid," I observed, "looking almost exactly as they did back then!"

"Since when does that happen?" I wondered. "Something originally conceived as an 8-bit design being directly translated to 16-bit without a serious graphical overhaul--particularly when it's from an area of the game I doubt many Metroid players have ever seen?!"

This was amazing to me. I mean, sure--it would have been nice to have a new planet to explore, but, really, there was so much more of Zebes I wanted to see. Super Metroid represented a potential opportunity for me to finally see beyond those walls and find out if what was lurking behind them could match up to the mental images I'd spent years putting together in my head.

I'd have to wait two months before I could see more of Super Metroid, and that was more than enough time--still a small eternity to a young teenager--for me to draw up numerous possible scenarios and sketch out how I thought the newly renovated Zebes might look. Many school hours were wasted wondering about how Ridley and Kraid would be brought back to life and how Zebes survived the presumably large-scale explosion at the end of Metroid.

Normally I would have been pissed by what I saw in Nintendo Power Volume 58--angered that its screenshots spoiled game elements that would have been better left to surprise--but I couldn't conjure such emotion because I was absolutely floored by what I was seeing. The preview I was reading was even shorter than the last--a half-page entry in the magazine's Pak Watch section--but its information, however scarce, left me thunderstruck. 

Oh, there was some interesting information about the implementation of vertically aligned entry hatches and all of the memory upgrades that were required to contain Super Metroid's action plus some images that depicted an intriguing map system and a decipherable Ridley sprite-design (I could never satisfyingly interpret the cranial structure of the NES sprite, nor apparently could the manual's artist), but my eyes couldn't help but be drawn to the top-left screenshot, which showed Samus fighting a reptilian-looking creature within the confines of what was an instantly recognizable location: The Mother Brain chamber from Metroid, its devastated interior still displaying the remnants of the destroyed Zebetite barriers! The text above even revealed that my travels would carry me through the site of Metroid's ending sequence--the mechanical halls of Tourian through which I once escaped in exciting fashion!

This set my imagination into overdrive. How else, I wondered, would areas from the original be incorporated into Super Metroid's exponentially larger frame? Would the purple area of Norfair reappear? How about Ridley and Kraid's hideouts?

I got the only answer I'd ever need in the next issue of Nintendo Power, Volume 59, which again spoiled a major game element but did so in a way that was quickly nullified by my amazement. Not only would I be returning to Mother Brain's old Tourian hangout, I learned; my travails would also entail a return to the blue-tinted area from Brinstar! The preview piece was even nice enough to supply handy comparative screenshots to illustrate how the recreation of Super Metroid's Brinstar matched up pixel-for-pixel, block-for-block, and texture-for-texture (the only understandable difference being the height discrepancy, which was unavoidable in light of the extra navigable space needed for the scaled-up 16-bit character sprites)!

This made my lifetime. Everything else--including the information about awesome-looking abilities like the Speed Booster, Grapple Beam, X-Ray Scope and wall-jump plus a collection of images that gave a sneak peek of mysteriously enticing new locales--was gravy on what was looking to be one of the finest dishes Nintendo had ever cooked up! I was certain that Super Metroid was going to be a great game in the vein of Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but I was looking forward to playing it for reasons quite disparate from those that other kids would consider normal; that is, I couldn't wait to toss myself into its world and begin immersing myself in every part of it, whether newly designed or recycled.

I made sure to run out and buy Super Metroid that April, just as soon as stores would confirm it to be in stock. I was so very eager to start tearing into it, but I was more so a slave to my ritual, which demanded that I thoroughly examine a game's manual before daring to insert its cartridge into the console. I'm glad I stuck to tradition, since reading through Super Metroid's manual beforehand turned out to be a pretty important part of the experience. As a continuity hound, I loved how the manual's storyline explanation incorporated the chronicled history from the manuals of Metroid and Metroid II (though mostly paraphrased), whose accompanying lore helped to supply Super Metroid an instantly rich mythos and a feeling of enormity--a sense that a whole history was riding on the outcome of Samus' latest mission (this was similar to what A Link to the Past's manual did so expertly).

Also, it had a terrific map illustration of Zebes that established the positioning of the new locales relative to the known areas like Brinstar, Norfair and old Tourian, which I was delighted to discover retained their orientation, Crateria, Maridia and such instead retrofitted around them. And there were of course the excellent descriptions of all those new items and beams and the wonderful depictions of the enemy characters (though, disappointingly, not illustrated to the exhaustive degree as standard in the previous manuals). I didn't know what Crocomire, Phantoon and Draygon were, but I was keen on the idea of encountering them and blasting them to bits! I was particularly intrigued by the "fake Metroid" enemies called "Mochtroids", the existence of which, I had to admit, was more thought-provoking than any from that legion of weirdly named foes in Metroid II's manual.

I read through the manual with an overriding sense of giddiness that spoke of my investment in its subject-matter, but, really, it was more a sign that I was eager to hurry up and get the game already!

I break up my Super Metroid experience into three distinct parts: (1) My first play-through of the game, during which it made its utterly indelible first impression. (2) The years'-worth of follow-up play-throughs wherein I became intimately familiar with the game's world and carved out all of my fondest memories of exploring it. And (3) the modern era in which I fondly reflect upon my time with Nintendo's transcendent masterwork and struggle to explain the source of its overwhelmingly powerful resonance.

The First Play-Through

That's not to say that my first play-through of the game wasn't filled with strongly resonant moments; there were quite a few of them, actually, but my memories of such are too fragmented to be pieced together into a coherent narrative. Though, a lot of it did stick with me: I remember, for instance, how I loved the entire intro sequence in which the shadowy visage of Samus recapped the events leading into Super Metroid. Its indescribably haunting musical theme's sharply struck notes, intense percussion, and forceful progression provided spirited substance to a scene that was both chill-inducing and empowering; it instantly became one of my favorite video-game tunes of all time. I especially appreciated how the ending sequences of Metroid and Metroid II were reenacted using Super Metroid's newly established graphical style, their respectful recreation bringing the predecessors in line aesthetically while demonstrating the designers' ambition to faithfully reproduce even their minutia.

The Ceres Station was memorable to me for its disquieting ambiance--a constant whirring that created an air of silently lurking danger; the surprise ambush from Ridley (which created a link to Mega Man X for how our scripted encounter resembled the one I had with Vile); and the way its final corridor tilted and swayed during the tense escape sequence, the effect greatly reminding me of the graphical trickery that so fascinated me in the tower stages of Super Castlevania IV (Super Metroid wanted a piece of that action, it seemed).

Though, none of it could compare to what came next.

To put it bluntly, I was absolutely in awe of the opening moments of my entrance onto Planet Zebes. The previous games greeted me with an energetic phase-in animation and an heroic, invigorating starting-area theme, but Super Metroid had something else in mind. I'd arrived not within the planet's blue-tinted confines but instead on its surface, looking darker and more desolate than I ever imagined. The atmosphere was grim. A thick fog choked the entire skyline. The mountains in the distance appeared depressingly barren and unnavigable. The surface was being pounded by a relentless deluge of acid rain (as described in the manual), the downpour a product of a violent thunderstorm whose intermittent lightning strikes provided appropriately eerie accompaniment to the quietly foreboding music, their confluence evoking from me cautious apprehension and cold chills.

These weren't the happy fun times I remembered experiencing in Brinstar back in '88. Oh, no--this was just plain ominous. In only a matter of seconds, Super Metroid had unmistakably distinguished itself from its predecessors in terms of tone and gravity. I was frankly caught off guard by how dark and serious it was in comparison.

The storm's influence faded as I entered into the cavern on the left, but the feeling of unease was still palpable; the music sustained its understated presence, adding a silent threat to the caverns that appeared to be abandoned and lifeless. There were no Zoomers trailing along the walls or ceiling-perched Skrees waiting to dive-bomb into me. No Rippers were flying brainlessly about. There was only desolation, any and all activity limited to the fluttering insects whose only sustenance was the planet's decaying infrastructure; their proliferation suggested that Zebes had become uninhabitable, presumably due to the devastating blast that rocked its interior at the end of Metroid.

It was an effective setup; as I continued exploring that early set of corridors, I did so while wondering if the entire game was going to be lacking for enemy involvement beyond those I'd seen in the manual ("Is this why there are so few entries on its enemy list?).

The descent into the ruins of Tourian filled me with goosebumps. "So the area I just came from--that's where Samus escaped to at Metroid's finale," I realized as my mind began giving structure to this familiar-yet-disconsolate version of Zebes. Tourian's misty, neglected interior suggested that the pirates had ceased their nefarious occupation, but I knew that couldn't be true.

I experienced a moment of surreality as I entered into the Mother Brain room, which caused me to give pause. Everything was as I remembered it. Mother Brain's destroyed stasis chamber lay at the far-left end of a large horizontally scrolling room. There were five Zebetite stations. The mounted turrets were in their proper positions above them. And those same narrow blue platforms stood tattered but defiantly resolute. Everything was the same, that is, except for the proceeding room; what should have been a northward vertical corridor was instead an elevator room that carried me down ... where?!

"Woah!" was all I could think as the elevator dropped me off at what looked to be the starting area of Metroid, its once-brightly-colored, vigorously augmented environs now rendered in unwelcomingly drab, cheerless hues of navy blue. I didn't recall Nintendo Power's screenshots of this place conveying such a sense of gloom, but then again, as I'd soon learn, static imagery alone would never be enough to capture the atmosphere of Super Metroid.

And once again I was blown away by how parts of it that matched up to the original Brinstar. First there was the Morph Ball, which was still there on the pedestal beyond that two-tiered obstruction (though, I wondered how, since I'm sure it was supposed to have been previously collected). The only curiosity was a wall-mounted sentinel eyeball that suddenly sprung to life immediately after the Morph Ball's procurement; I couldn't tell if it was trying to attack me--if its tracking laser was meant to drain my health--but I certainly felt compelled to leave the vicinity before something really bad had a chance to happen.

I could blast my way downward in the following room, just like in the original (though without the need for bombs, as Samus had since learned to fire her arm cannon in all directions), though disappointingly not toward the site of Kraid's hideout; rather, the whole area had been cordoned off, the newly carved surface now funneling travelers directly into a distinctly crafted missile room. There was no sign that I could cut through the rubble, either, which made me sad for a moment. My mood turned toward ecstatic, though, when I learned that the ceiling in the eastward horizontal room still held that concealed energy tank (though placed a bit more to the left this time), which I found to be both unexpected and astounding! Even the continued laser-spray of those nosy sentinel eyeballs couldn't deter me from determinedly (yet futilely) trying to reach it.

However, my excitement was again somewhat muted when I learned that the dominantly featured low-hanging obstruction, which was originally intended to deny intruders further access to the rest of the planet, now served as a mere guardian for a long missile pack and nothing more, as the areas beyond--indeed all of those from Metroid--were now permanently blocked off!

And, really, I was kind of bummed that there wasn't more to it; I was naively hoping that somehow the entirety of the original Metroid would be stuffed in there, its preserved structure acting as a foundation for the rest of the game. But I couldn't be too upset about it, because Super Metroid had already done more than enough for me. The rest of the game was no doubt going to be a completely new experience--as well it should have been--and Super Metroid, with its cleverly conceived scripting and unforgettable recreation of the old Brinstar and Tourian, had done the greatest job ever of easing me into it. I felt right at home in this reimagined version of Zebes.

I'd only seen maybe 1 or 2% of its world at most, but Super Metroid was already a legendary experience to me. Before leaving old Brinstar, I made sure to spend an ample amount of time carefully analyzing every part of it--reverently admiring the care and effort that went into its faithful reproduction, which meant the world to me--as I continued to gleefully soak in the game's unsettling-yet-endlessly-alluring atmosphere.

As those Nintendo Power screenshots predicted, my trek back through Tourian was impeded by Space Pirates (I could understand, now, that those sentinel eyeballs were some sort of camera system that alerted the lurking pirates to my presence), who I was happy to finally see in physical form. Until then, they were a nebulously described race of beings (I imagined they'd look like ninjas and brandish swords and propulsion weapons)--a wholly unseen force as relegated to the instruction manuals that only spoke of their misdeeds. More so, I was once again impressed with the game's scripting and how the pirates' sudden presence forcefully shattered my notion that the planet was abandoned. They almost had me there.

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