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Super Metroid is Still a Genre-Defining Masterpiece 30 Years Later

"The last metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace…”

Super Metroid’s opening is not the most explosive but it’s certainly one of the most iconic. Released in 1994, it was the third game in the series and is when Metroid really hit its stride, so much so it went on to become one of the most influential games ever made. Long before Demon's Souls and Dark Souls made it cool, it had its own sub-genre (sharing custody with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night which would arrive three years later), one that has spawned countless imitators and become eternal muse to indies with games like Hollow Knight or Dead Cells.

Gated progression, non-linear world design, bonafide action set-pieces… Super Metroid brought a lot of new ideas within its (for the time) technical marvel. Even if you've never played it you'll almost certainly recognise all the staples it popularised. No genre or medium can be traced to a single origin but like Samus Aran herself, metroid DNA is so well blended at this point it is impossible to see where the line of influence ends. You can find traces of it in games as far flung as the Tomb Raider reboots or Alien Isolation, which is fitting given Metroid's debt to the Alien series.

Yet if all Super Metroid did was be the first to innovate on specific mechanics and design ideas, its influence would likely have become far more obscured over the years. Instead it still feels readily identifiable, because more than anything it created memorable moments. It crafted ambience and atmosphere. From the second players arrive at the main menu they're given an ominous taste of what's to come as the sole surviving metroid screeches from within its glass cell in a derelict space station. Over the course of the game it would shift through varying themes and moods, taking Samus from haunted to heroic and back again. Packed in are a dozen, iconic surprises. Nobody ever forgets that one Chozo statue, do they?

Whether intentional or not, I’ve seen Metroid’s influence in countless places. In Halo Combat Evolved's climactic "warthog run" I see Samus's desperate escape from the exploding station in Super Metroid's opening moments; waking up outside the shuttle under the rain in Returnal, I think of those first cautious steps onto the eerily quiet Zebes. How many games still try to put in a sneaky horror level after Super Metroid so expertly deployed its haunted space ship? And how many games can serve up boss encounters that rival the drama of its recurring villain Ridley? Three decades on, games are still trying to fill Samus Aran's shoes. Perhaps that's why the series could return so strongly with Metroid Dread, 19 years after its last 2D foray, and not feel like it missed a step. While innovations from the intervening decades are brought to bear in Dread, the essence is classic Metroid.

Super Metroid told a simple, haunting tale of Samus (and by extension the player) reckoning with their genocidal quest against the titular metroid. It paints a picture of Samus as a character, a no-nonsense bounty hunter whose introspections are gestured at with small but powerful actions. That mood and character is all too easy to shatter, as Metroid Other M showed with infamy. Dread found a much better balance, simply by being truer to the original material. While it is more spectacular than Super Metroid could ever be, its pace and set pieces are all informed by the imagination of 1994. Having Super Metroid director Yoshio Sakamoto back certainly helped.

Super Metroid remains a stand out among stand outs. [But] where every other Metroid is about finding and killing, this one is about saving a life

Which isn't to say it doesn't have its own tricks. Each Metroid game stands out for its own spin on the formula. Super Metroid's descent into Zebes is a contrast with being hunted by Samus's evil doppler in Fusion. Each of these games are shaped around their themes, happy to shift the tone in one direction or another to serve the story, putting players through set pieces that make them feel the emotional core of each entry. As if declaring this, Dread tasks Samus not with another descent but an ascent, reframing that adventure's journey as a possibly more heroic quest than her usual, murkier descents.

Super Metroid remains a stand out among stand outs however. Where every other Metroid is about finding and killing, this one is about saving a life. It is easy to forget when facing hordes of space pirates but Samus hasn't come to Zebes to exterminate. Well, except for all those space pirates but they're really naughty and are trying to take over the galaxy or something. No, she needs to rescue the baby Metroid she saved at the end of the last game. That little thing represents her last chance for redemption. The urge to protect it and perhaps salvage her very soul is the driving force behind her unbreakable resolve (yeah, Metroid did the whole Baby Yoda thing long before The Mandalorian). Samus's mission, despite the galactic threat, is intensely personal. That's what makes Super Metroid special. In Samus's determined run, in the numerous silences and ever deepening descent, this quest is felt. An economy of storytelling that's as elegant now as it ever was.

Perhaps the masterstroke of the game (and a benefit for the sequels that would follow) is that Samus ultimately fails in her mission. She defeats the baddies of course but the metroid she fought to save gives its life for her. Robbed of redemption, Samus is forced to sit with the finality of her actions in a way few action heroes are made to. The metroid are truly vanquished from the galaxy, never to return, something the sequels never walked back on. Regardless of whether the player internalised any of its subtext, I think many feel the sadness in that ending. It hangs over every subsequent Metroid and, arguably, the entire sub-genre it created. I'm not sure any metroidvania has given me an experience quite like that.

30 years later, the most remarkable thing about Super Metroid is that everything that made it great then, makes it great now. For all its numerous innovations, both technical and conceptual, it's the game's commitment to crafting a specific emotional experience that keeps it feeling fresh. Super Metroid set out to thrill, scare, exhilarate, confound, uplift and ultimately haunt players, and it did so at a bar of quality that remains undefeated.

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