Metroidvania, it’s something of a made up genre. A word invented by less than creatively slamming Metroid and Castlevania together, it’s the best way industry writers have came up with to classify games whose design principles were inspired by those series. Characterised by their large open worlds filled with hidden nooks and crannies, metroidvania prizes exploration above all else. Weapon and equipment collection is key to success as every upgrade players get allows them to re-visit previously unreachable areas. Modern examples of games influenced by Metroid and Castlvania include the Batman Arkham series and the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot. In addition plenty of small indies games like Guacamelee subscribe to the design philosophy too. Later this year we’re getting two more metroidvania style experience that are pretty hyped. The AAA Batman Arkham Knight and indie Axiom Verge. What better time could there be to revisit the classics which helped define the genre?
So over the next few weeks I’ll be playing through both Metroid and Castlevania’s most popular early instalments to better understand just what they did so well. This week and next I’ll be playing through the SNES’s Super Metroid. And the few weeks after I’ll move onto the original PlayStation’s Castlevania Symphony of the Night, regularly hailed as the best in the series. Each week I’ll report back here with my findings, thoughts, praise and probably criticism too. If you want to play along you can, I chose each title because they’re easy enough to acquire on modern platforms. Super Metroid is available on Wii U’s virtual console, and Symphony of the Night is a downloadable PS1 classic on PlayStation 3 and Vita.
Let’s start talking Super Metroid then. My history with Metroid is pretty slim. The first time I ever encountered the series was on Gamecube with Metroid Prime, the first 3D instalment of Metroid and considered by many to be one of the best games ever made. Despite the critical admiration hurled upon Metroid Prime my teenage self didn’t have much love for it. I remember running around aimlessly for a few hours before eventually deciding to throw in the towel; then I never went back. Years later I tried to play Super Metroid on some emulation software (don’t do that); again I wasn’t very tenacious and managed to get no more than one hour into the game before stopping. Honestly overall I’ve spent way more time as Samus in Smash Bros than in her own series.
So when it came to booting up Super Metroid for the first time my memory of it stood at exactly nil. For all intensive purposes this was my first time playing. Navigating through the simple main menu I started a new game. Super Metroid eased me into the story via a readable opening monologue by bounty hunter heroine Samus. Immediately I was impressed that a game from 1994 was so eager to share it’s story, and the writing wasn’t awful either like so many games from the time. I learnt in the previous instalment Samus had captured an alien known as the Metroid and handed it over to scientists for experimentation. Now though the research space station where it was being held has went dark, and Samus is en-route to investigate.
As her ship touched down on the station Samus disembarked and I was handed the reins. Moving through the hallways I found immediately noticeable that Samus’s movement felt very stiff when compared to similar modern games. By modern standards Samus feels slow and cumbersome, the restraints of having no right analog stick were immediately obvious. Aiming Samus’s arm cannon using the shoulder buttons felt incredibly dated and inaccurate. Even jumping doesn’t feel smooth, instead it’s like leaping through goopy syrup, she seems to almost stick in the air. As a whole moving Samus takes some readjustment, obviously I’ve been spoilt by the fluidity more recent experiences.
Whilst the controls may feel stiff the way Super Metroid actually teaches them to the player feels really intuitive. Within five seconds of investigation I’d already figured out how to move and shoot Samus’s arm cannon in a multitude of directions. That intuitiveness and learning through experimentation speaks to a strength that older games generally have that’s lacking in more contemporary ones. It doesn’t walk players through a painful hand holding tutorial explaining what every single button does. It gives the player the tools and says ‘figure it out’. Even when acquiring new upgrades and weapons Super Metroid doesn’t tell the player whan each item does, it’s up to the player to figure how each tool enhances their journey; that feels really rewarding. Exploration isn’t limited to just the world, but the tool set as well.
The first lab setting is the perfect tutorial. There’s no enemies in the opening section, and obstacles are cleverly placed so the player must learn before moving on. I made my way though the bloodied halls of 16 bit laboratory complex, past what was presumably the mangled corpses of scientists. Hardly detailed by today’s standards it was pretty difficult to make out just what anything was in the background – that was left up to my imagination. Considered in the perspective of the time though Super Metroid looks fairly impressive. At the very least playing it today gave me warm nostalgic retro gaming feel. Reaching the end of lab I found a small Metroid trapped in a glass container. Confused I saw no way to collect the alien or destroy it, I moved back towards the entrance again. Then, out of the Shadows Samus’s monstrous Pterodactyl like nemesis Ridley appeared clutching the Metroid.
Jumping into action as I began firing at the monster. Less than gracefully I dodged to avoid some of Ridley’s vicious attacks before he fled the scene. As he did the space stations self-destruct sequence kicked in – typical sci-fi. There was no time for a leisurely stroll, I had to flee back through the space station quick as I could, Metroid was testing me, making sure I’d properly attuned to it’s controls. Battling the clock I made it back to Samus ship comfortably, she climbed aboard before giving chase. Eventually Ridley led her to Metroid’s planet of origin Zebes. And it’s here where Super Metroid really begins.
Zebes is a planet of winding caverns, filled with diverging paths each with blockage removable only by someone with the right tool set. It’s to this backdrop that Metroid proves why it’s the progenitor of a whole genre. It’s here that Metorid proves why it’s so important to videogames as a whole. And we’ll discuss just how I got on next week.