Friday, August 28, 2015

Super Metroid - The Best in the Galaxy (Part 2)
Samus Aran's mangum opus redefined an entire genre and provided me the gaming experience of a lifetime.

From there the experience played out similarly to the one I had with the original Metroid. That is, I made a limited amount of progress (I'd beaten Spore Spawn and acquired Super Missiles) before becoming hopelessly stuck because I couldn't figure out what to do next. More specifically, I couldn't find a way to advance past the energy-draining caverns of the sweltering Norfair; I had no idea where it was the game wanted me to go or how I was supposed to get there. After spending hours fruitlessly exploring Zebes, I was convinced that my game was bugged--that either some access point was missing from my copy of the game or some bombable wall had been improperly coded. I remember going downstairs to express this sentiment to my mother, who couldn't have been less interested ("Well, try again!" was her response).

Desperate to be proven incorrect, I resorted to returning to the game's starting point, Samus' hovering ship, and meticulously bombing every visible, navigable block in every accessible room (just like old times). I was close to giving up, devastated by the notion that it might be impossible to finish the game, when I decided to try something silly. I decided to try bomb-spamming the last place I would expect to find a secret: The right wall in the lower-Brinstar elevator room, which surely wasn't going to be hiding a critically important access point. Right? I mean, come on--it was an elevator room for Christ's sake; they weren't going to hide anything behind the surface of one of the game's most mundane, purely functional locations. The thought of such was ridiculous.

But lo and behold, there were of course Super Missile-engraved blocks lining the wall (those sneaky bastards), and blowing through them, to my great relief, opened up the whole rest of the game, which I never ceased enjoying immensely.

I don't remember how I went about finishing the game or how I ranked in terms of completion-rate, but I recall the opinions I formed about its gameplay. Mainly, it was my conclusion that Super Metroid had improved upon the series' formula in most every way. I liked how the specially engraved blocks made it clear how and to where I could advance, eliminating the need for exhaustive guesswork; I wouldn't have to go about randomly bombing every inch of the game, anyway, when cool new upgrades like the all-revealing Power Bombs and X-Ray Scope existed. I loved how the beams stacked upon one another, their amalgamation creating the potential for awesome combos like icy Spazer lasers and wavy, surface-penetrating Plasma shots; this also provided me the luxury of having to trek back across the entire planet every time I wanted to switch weapons. Hell--I could even go into the inventory and switch weapons off! I didn't know why I'd want to do that, but it was a neat option to have.

The Speed Booster was an ingenious addition, the scenarios built to challenge its destructive force both cleverly constructed and memorably designed; really, it was just fun to run around and shine-spark indiscriminately (though, I could never figure out how to pull one off diagonally) and let the move carry me where it may. The way the Grapple Beam functioned again reminded me of a game mechanic from Super Castlevania IV (whip-swinging, of course), and though its implementation was a bit sloppy (particularly when it came to momentum), I had a lot of fun experimenting with what turned out to be a multifaceted weapon (it could also damage enemies and corral item drops).

The game's impressively programmed, thoughtfully designed weapons and items offered me so many more new and interesting ways to interact with its environments, whether it was blitzing through walls with the Speed Booster or Screw Attack, using Rippers as a grapple point, or Morph Balling into the waiting claws of a Chozo statue that would come alive and aid my progress in spectacular fashion (I'd always roll into a ball and pose as a Chozo orb in the original Metroid, which is why I felt so rewarded when I discovered that they'd turned it into an actual game mechanic!). I knew as soon as I laid eyes on it that there would be a way for me to destroy that glass tube in Maridia, and I was close to entering a state of euphoria when by chance I laid down a Power Bomb and watched it shatter to pieces; the deceiving three-second stall before the first crack appeared really added to the drama and made the tube's destruction all the more satisfying!

Otherwise, Super Metroid did a great job of improving upon abilities like the Space Jump and the bomb jump, which weren't particularly intuitive in previous games. There were an abundance of secret passages to discover and dozens of expansions to collect. Older enemies translated wonderfully to 16-bit form, their assortment joining a new cast of miscreants who turned out to be just as memorable. Every area of the game was brilliantly designed. It played amazingly. And its unmistakable aesthetic qualities made marks so indelible that I knew I'd never be able to forget them. Super Metroid had it all, baby.

Oh, but I of course had some issues with it--at least at the start. For one, I didn't know if I was fully on board with the music of the new Brinstar, which I thought lacked the heroic spirit of Metroid's Brinstar theme; it seemed standard that a Metroid game have at least one high-energy musical piece as a source of hope and inspiration, but Super Metroid wasn't looking to have any in that category (at this point, I might have still been a little resistant to the game's ambition to be a creature of its own design; naturally, in retrospect, I wouldn't change a thing about its soundtrack). I wasn't sure that it was a good idea for them to make energy replenishment so readily available, the convenience of such potentially trivializing the all-important (I thought) survivability factor. Detailed maps were great, sure, but they ruined the mystery of it all.

The game controlled a bit awkwardly at times, too. I was never in love with its default button assignment, but then I couldn't find a fully comfortable scheme even when I created my own custom scheme. It was either that I could run and shoot fluidly or run and jump fluidly--never all three at the same time. I'd always slip and slide off the narrow platforms--particularly those placed above spikes or those obnoxious carnivorous plants. And I found the execution of wall-jumping to be incomprehensible; more than half the time, Samus would limply fall back to the ground as if I hadn't hit a button, and I was lucky if I could string together more than two wall-jumps. Had they decided to whip up mandatory challenges that required its use, I might have lost my mind. (I can pull it off reliably, now, but that's only thanks to 20-plus years of experience.)

And, well, parts of the game might have been a tad too easy. It was my expectancy that the design of a Metroid game test Samus' physical endurance as a rule, but this wasn't always the case with Super Metroid (the aforementioned readily available health pickups quelled any sense of danger). The Kraid battle was indicative of this shortfalling: His new form was impressively rendered, and the battle itself made for an amazing spectacle, but he went down so easily--with maybe two or three Super Missile shots--that it hardly seemed worth it to scale him up five-times his original size (as an aside, I loved that they threw in a mini Kraid as an homage to the fake Kraid from Metroid).

But Super Metroid had a way of trivializing its flaws using its power of emotional conveyance as exuded by every pixel of its wondrous world (it stomps even the original Metroid in this regard). Take the final Tourian sequence, for instance: I was terribly disappointed with how easy it was to cut through the largely unthreatening Metroid horde and how both forms of Mother Brain went down with little resistance (a sentiment as shared by my friend Dominick), but it didn't even seem worth it to further explore that feeling when I was too busy being engrossed in the in one of the most powerful, emotionally charged storyline sequences in the history of video games. 

I'm of course referring to the events leading into the sacrifice of the Super Metroid, which moments earlier tried to suck the life out of Samus but relented for "unknown reasons" (it was obvious to me, as well as anyone who played it, that the mutated Metroid was Metroid II's hatchling, which suddenly became cognizant that it was killing what it considered to be its own mother). The Super Metroid's death hit me hard because I'm an animal-lover, and I can't stand the pained wails of dying or wounded creatures. I was pissed with Mother Brain for how she mercilessly killed my gelatinous friend and couldn't wait to get even; as that revitalizing Crateria music kicked in, I took firm grasp of my controller and readied myself to fry Mother Brain with my new Hyper Beam--the Super Metroid's final gift. The entire scene evoked so many different emotions from me, and it did so without using a single line of text. 

I thought it was such a clever design choice to have the new Tourian spilled into the old one during the escape sequence, revealing an unforeseen link between them. Before the shroud fell, there was nothing to suggest that I'd been brushing up against the outer wall of the pirates' new hideaway the whole time. Those sneaky varmints.

Super Metroid wasn't a terribly difficult game, no, but that didn't matter. From beginning to end, it was purely about the experience and how it made the player feel. That it also happened to be a mind-blowlingly great game was just a large bonus.

When it was all over, I didn't hesitate to declare that Super Metroid was one of the best games I'd ever played, and I had no doubt that I would play it dozens of more times in the months and years ahead. It was a game that resonated with me like no other, but I couldn't at the time explain why that was; instead, I'd describe its allure using simple, overused terms like "lonely atmosphere" and "feeling of isolation." Putting feelings into words was difficult for me because I hadn't yet fully explored who I was, and, frankely, I still lacked the vocabulary necessary to articulate as much (though, those like ICOM's point-and-click adventure games were helping me to grow in this area). Decades would drop off before I'd find the words to explain how Super Metroid managed to evoke those powerful emotions.

But I knew how I felt inside, and it was clear to me that Super Metroid was going to be a big part of my life going forward. 

The Follow-Up

Indeed, as I predicted, I played through it dozens of times. I spent hours re-exploring every charted screen and observing its every foreground and background detail. I'd think about Super Metroid any chance I got; I'd wonder about the existence of the Wrecked Ship and how long it had been there ("Was it parked on the planet's surface during original Metroid?!"), or I'd try to come up with logical explanations for how Mother Brain was able to resurrect Ridley and Kraid. I'd talk about the game with my friends and record their thoughts on how they felt about its most memorable moments.

When Nintendo Power Volume 60 arrived with feature coverage of Super Metroid, I feverishly compared its maps of old Tourian and Brinstar to those from Metroid to see if they truly matched up block-for-block (there were a few differences, of course, but the reproduced designs still came remarkably close). I was shocked by the confirmation that the second-to-last vertical room in Metroid's Tourian indeed lined up with the game's starting point; it made sense, then, that Super Metroid's Tourian elevator would carry Samus down to that exact point!

I came to the conclusion that Super Metroid's red vertical room (with all of the Rippers) was one in the same with Metroid's mile-long blue-colored corridor; also, I figured, the lower portion of Maridia had to be the flooded remains of Kraid's hideout due to its proximity to Brinstar. For whatever reason, I always found it fascinating when developers recycled level design between games, like when Konami replicated the main halls of Castlevania in Simon's Quest (though now rendered in a state of disrepair, much like old Tourian).

I used my tape recorder to record my favorite music tracks, which I'd listen to at appropriate times. I would, for instance, pop open the windows and listen to the Crateria (Raining) piece on a rainy autumn afternoon; its ominous vibe was the perfect accompaniment to my reading sessions and monster-based art projects (the Wrecked Ship theme and the downright-evil-sounding boss-statue theme worked to this effect, too). I'd listen to the depressing "Red Brinstar song," as I called it, whenever I was feeling reflective. And the stimulating Brinstar and Crateria themes were perfect for providing flavor to my daydreams.

I was also sure to incorporate Super Metroid's major enemies (Phantoon, Crocomire, Draygon, Botwoon and the Super Metroid) into my "Master of Evil" card series, their kind naturally overpowered due to my affection the game (the bipedal "Super Mother Brain" ranked up there in power with Dracula, Sigma, Doomsday, Satan and even the Master of Evil, himself).

Modern Times

I've had some breakthroughs in recent years, certainly, but it's been my ongoing struggle to explain what it is that makes Super Metroid so endlessly compelling. I think it might be that its world, more than any other in gaming, functions like a living, breathing organism, its cramped passageways, haunted caverns and branching corridors sprawlingly structured yet somehow interconnected as if the blood vessels of a complex cardiovascular system. Its environments are rife with the kind of motion and ambiance that could tell a story without need for textual interpretation. Crateria's ominous acid-rain downpour speaks of the planet's bleak long-term outlook. An eerily flowing mist obscures the dilapidated, abandoned innards of old Tourian, its persistent cover  creating a sense that unseen danger lurks somewhere within the logically unthreatening metallic ruins.

Pink leaves perpetually shower the floral surroundings of Brinstar's jungle, the ceaseless abscission telling the sad tale of the cold, lonely alien world's silently decaying ecosystem. The sweltering heat of Norfair's fiery depths manifests in a pulsating, shimmering backdrop, the sight of which is enough to evoke feelings of discomfort and a strong urge move along quickly. The Wrecked Ship's ghost-infested interior shifts from undoubtedly lifeless to concerningly operational, the glow of its mechanical, computerized components working to ward off the lost spirits and illuminate newer threats.

The foreground layer of Maridia's aquatic subterrane is embellished with an undulating texture filter that simulates the flowing movement of water, its heavy saturation and murky appearance contributing to the dreary, hopeless atmosphere of these submerged, forgotten ruins (some areas of Maridia once belonged to the Brinstar drylands, I've read, lending credence to my Kraid's-hideout theory). When mercifully spared of rainfall, Crateria's washed-out-yet-resiliently-luminous skyline becomes a welcome sight--a temporary source of optimism for a player who's been lost within Zebes' depths for hours.

And somehow the game's unconventional-yet-masterful soundtrack functions not only as augmentation but as synchronized environmental conveyance, the music's affixed bubbling and rumbling sound samples helping to supply locales their foreboding, spine-chilling complexion. 

As in the case of Metroid II, some of its tracks can be described more as "enriching ambiance" than "music," which is the sound designers' way of using alien-sounding compositions to supply their game an unmistakably unique personality and therein differentiate it from all others in the action and adventure genres. The best example of such is the unsettlingly dissonant ditty heard in the item and elevator rooms. The original composition, heard in Metroid, was merely a curious series of high-pitched beeps with an accompanying pattering noise; Super Metroid's version retains the original's structure but embellishes it with additional strains of unmelodic bleeping and the eerie resonance, which creates the sense that the walls around you are alive.

There's not an area of the game that can escape the soundtrack's characterizing influence, which is a big part of why Super Metroid feels like a living entity--even when you're in a room where nothing seems to be happening.

Indigenous creatures like the tortoise-shelled Tatori and its Buzzy Beetle-lookin' offspring occupy their marked territory and operate as though they'd always been there. The speedy Dachora and the nimble Etecoons dash and wall-jump about as if they know this place inside and out. A single Choot rests in a tiny, out-of-the-way pocket of Maridia that exists only for the purpose of housing it. Their presence creates a sense that Zebes was alive and kicking long before Samus' ship touched down in even the original Metroid.

There's so much going on in every corner of its map--so many tiny details I'd like to discuss. I want to talk more about Super Metroid's world and provide hundreds of screenshots in accessory, since every pixel of it has meaning to me. But I can't; there isn't enough space left on the Internet. I'm going to stop now and start to wrap this up. (Though, I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about this subject in future pieces.)

In the end, my reasons for frequently revisiting Super Metroid haven't changed. It's a top-tier action-adventure game, yes, and always worth my time in that regard, but I also like to have fun by meticulously exploring Planet Zebes and soaking in every aural and visual vibe available throughout its masterfully crafted, wondrously designed world, which still feels fresh to me 20 years later (I'm definitely not the type to play for best time, and I only sequence-break to grab a missile expansion in Brinstar and the Spazer Bream).

For certain, I continue to be astonished by the hidden depth of Super Metroid, which seemingly never runs out of secrets. I remember being floored by the discovery that you could score a cheap victory over Draygon by frying him using the Grapple Beam. I don't know how I missed it, since it was right there in the game's demo sequence, but I had no idea that you could pull of a "Crystal Flash" and replenish all of Samus' health (though, the process by which you execute the move still seems arcane to me). What a shock it was to learn that each beam had a special attack assigned to it. That Phantoon was acting so aggressive because Super Missile fire pissed him off. That I could make a quick stop in Crateria's Torizo room during the final escape sequence and rescue my animal friends (who I always make sure to save). That it's possible to beat the game without seemingly mandatory items.

And yet there's still so much more to explore; speedrunners are discovering new things about the game every day, be it interesting glitches or new sequence-breaking techniques.

I can further quantify the enormity of Super Metroid's impact by telling you that it stands atop the list of the handful of exceptionally inspirational games (a group that includes Rygar, Castlevania and Shadowgate) that have managed to weave their way into every fabric of my being, their impressionable subject-matter helping to shape my thinking, my tastes, and my creative endeavors. The seeds it planted continue to bear fruit even today, the ever-reverberating emotional resonance of Super Metroid a huge factor in why I've grown so passionate about this idea of exploring my video-game history in print and sharing my deeply embedded memories with others. For sure, my mind would be a much-emptier space without it.

Super Metroid is my favorite entry in the series and a permanent resident in my pantheon of greatest games, and it's unlikely that it will ever be topped--not by Nintendo or any of the independent companies that feel so compelled to replicate it ad infinitum. Sure--its GBA successors might have improved upon the formula mechanically and control-wise, but I've always regarded them as pale imitations despite their high quality; they could neither recapture its spirit nor boast of the same level of influence.

That's because Super Metroid is already the perfect version of itself. The best of its kind.

When my adventure came to a close--after all of the totals had been calculated--I was assured by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems that they would "see me next mission," which was a desirable prospect. In reality, though, it would be a long time before that promise was delivered upon--nearly eight years, which seemed exponentially longer to the younger me. But that was OK; I never lamented that a sequel didn't arrive in timely fashion, nor did I wonder about lost opportunity. I didn't have to.

After all--Super Metroid was good enough to last me a lifetime.

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