On This Day in Gaming: Super Metroid
It is not often that one game spawns an entirely new video game genre. While many developers have attempted to capture the “magic” needed to spur such iconic titles, most fall short. Modern examples include Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, and even Nintendo’s Wii Sports. Although highly innovated, each of the aforementioned built upon previously established genres. So what does it take to create an entirely original concept? And what kind of legacy can such a title leave behind? Perhaps no game is a better answer to these questions than a title released 26 years ago today: Super Metroid.
On This Day in Gaming is a series that honors the anniversary of the most iconic video games in history. We analyze director and studio development decisions while also reminiscing on the enduring legacy that continues to influence the industry.
Living in the shadow of an industry star is as difficult as it is stifling. How can a video game director top that level of work? Such is the case with Super Metroid’s Director, Yoshio Sakamoto.
After designing a series of arcade hits, such as Donkey Kong Jr. and Balloon Fight, Sakamoto wanted to expand his abilities. It just so happened that Nintendo was also looking to expand its library of first-party games. With Shigeru Miyamoto’s Mario and Zelda series, Nintendo already had a strong presence in the platforming and adventure genres. What the company lacked was “a pure action” game; hence, the Metroid series was born.
While the original NES game sold more than 2.7 million units, Metroid was hardly as successful as Miyamoto’s Zelda and Mario games. In fact, the game proved more popular overseas than in Sakamoto’s native Japan. Thinking the series was isolated to one game, Sakamoto decided to move on to other projects, such as Kid Icarus and Balloon Kid. Even when Nintendo greenlit a Game Boy Metroid sequel, Sakamoto was not interested in contributing.
It was not until the spring of 1991 that Sakamoto realized the international popularity of the original Metroid game. When his boss, Makoto Kano, pitched the idea for a Super NES Metroid title, Sakamoto hesitated. However, during a routine business trip to Nintendo of America, the staff took Sakamoto to several Seattle-based shopping centers and introduced him as “the guy who made Metroid.”
The response shocked Sakamoto. Americans were so excited to meet the man behind their favorite game. In fact, even non-gamers knew about Sakamoto’s work and were equally impressed. Inspired by the fan’s reaction, Yoshio pitched the idea for Super Metroid to Nintendo. Although it took 18 months for the company to approve the project, the rest is history.
Yoshio Sakamoto’s primary goal with Super Metroid was to create a “true action game” and expound upon the lore of Samus Aran. Needless to say, Sakamoto accomplished this feat and so much more.
- 2D Exploration. Until Super Metroid, few games attempted to create a massive, two-dimensional world. Several tried, including Zelda II; however, none achieved the scale of the SNES Metroid. The expansive world of Ceres coupled with an in-game map proved that exploration on a two-dimensional plain was not only possible but also captivating. This feat was the sole inspiration for the most important indie game of all time: Cave Story. The success of Cave Story proved that indie developers could make games that fans enjoyed while also saving money by developing in a two-dimensional space.
- Ability Progression. Whereas most games relied on items or experience points for advancement, Super Metroid embraced abilities as its primary means of progression. This choice temporarily blocked off parts of the map until players earned new abilities. While controversial at the time, the mechanic encouraged gamers to explore. Modern indie hits, such as Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest, were heavily inspired by this mechanic.
- Environmental Storytelling. Perhaps the game’s most important legacy is its method of storytelling. From the opening cutscene of Ridley stealing a baby Metroid to Samus defeating Mother Brain, not a single word is spoken. Instead of written narrative, Super Metroid relies on its environment to tell a compelling story, which Sakamoto describes as “cinematic presentation.” From epic boss battles to Samus Aran’s salvation at the hand of the baby Metroid, the environment tells a harrowing tale. Modern classics, such as Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Inside, and many others, cite Metroid as inspiration for their cryptic and cinematic storytelling.
While Sakamoto initially sought to create a “true action game”, he ultimately blended the best elements from the shooter, platformer, and adventure genres.
- Shooter. Make no mistake. At its core, Super Metroid is a shooter. But unlike most shooters at its time, the game uses a wide range of weapon types to defeat enemies. While Samus is initially armed with a standard cannon, she can also acquire a variety of missiles and environmental charges. This array of weapons leads to creative boss battles that combine platforming patterns with elemental weaknesses.
- Platformer. The wall jump. Several games attempted to incorporate this mechanic; however, Super Metroid made it “game-breaking”. Players who mastered this skill could bypass certain abilities to reach new areas and battle bosses. Few games prior to or afterward even tried to embrace this type of ability. In addition, the game utilized swinging physics and bomb jumps as additional means for Samus to navigate the world of Ceres.
- Adventure. Finally, the world of Ceres would not be complete without a sense of exploration. Prior to Super Metroid’s release, games relied on lock-and-key mechanics to block players’ progression. Super Metroid flipped this mechanic on its head by instead using abilities to sequester portions of the map. As Samus earned new platforming abilities, the game enticed players to try these new abilities on previously visited areas. As Samus’ abilities opened new portions of the map, players were filled with a sense of wonder and achievement. This same feeling could not be accomplish with a simple lock and key.
No game retrospective would be complete without a short list of fun facts. Below is a list of our Super Metroid favorites:
- Sakamoto originally planned for Samus to both scream and be fully naked upon death. However, he later removed the scream and gave Samus her iconic “zero suit” attire.
- Samus is based on the actress Kim Basinger. Sakamoto had a secret crush on Basinger after seeing the film 9 1/2 Weeks.
- Super Metroid was meant to be the final game in the Metroid series. Until Retro Studios took over development of Metroid Prime, Sakamoto had no desire to create another game.
The crescendo to Yoshio Sakamoto’s masterpiece was a new genre. And not just a new genre but a name that perfectly embodies his legacy: “Metroidvania”.
And there you have it. The story behind one of the most important action-adventure games of all time. But we want to know what you think. Did you play Super Metroid during the SNES era? Let us know in the comments below or the social media links on the right. Also, be sure to check out our other news items on Pokemon, Modern Warfare, Capcom, Blizzard and more.
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