The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This Super Metroid analysis has been lying around on my own website for a while. Upon reading Mike Stout's Zelda dungeon design analysis here on Gamasutra, I realized that there is really no excuse not to post this here as well. Here I can assume that readers are somewhat familiar with the Metroid franchise or at least some other form of "Metroidvania", and skip some of the sight-seeing in favor of focusing on level design and the subtle tricks the designers seem to have used to direct the player through what may seem to be a haphazard experience, but is not.
This analysis takes most of its material from the first playthrough of the game by my friend Rufus, which I had the pleasure of observing from beginning to end. Watching him, a complete newcomer to the genre, still find his way around Zebes in pretty much the same way I'd do, almost never once getting lost or stuck for any considerable amount of time, made me question how that could be. This analysis is my answer.
First, I would like to establish what I percieve to be some of the core psychological phenomena behind the Metroid experience before we start.
Plot Twist of the Upgrade
So I picked up the Ice Beam. I can freeze enemies solid and stand on them. Where can I use that? What did this change? I am forced to reevaluate every room I can remember, and see how this new technology fits in. And the result is that same feeling of ”Of course! That is the solution to that room in lower Brinstar, and it always was!” The player comes out of the experience with a mental list of rooms where she believes the new trinket can be of use. In most Metroidvanias you can only hope that the right path is on this list, but in Super Metroid it almost always is. I will explain why in each case as we go along.
In the Room and On the Map
Because of this, the experience of most Metroidvania titles takes place on two levels simultaneously. On one level, you are traversing a dangerous corridor, avoiding lava puddles, solving riddles and shooting alien creatures. But at the same time, your mind is in macro mode. It sees you moving through the map, and is plotting your long-term course. This type of simultaneous navigation challenge ensures interest even when one level fails to enchant us.
The Player Will Follow Suit
But it is important to note that Super Metroid recognizes the futility of this approach. The player will never play exactly the way the designers have planned, and so the game never once relies on player cooperation. It expects it, but doesn't rely on it. There is an important difference. Super Metroid will always allow you to take a detour, go exploring all the wrong areas and miss out on core concepts and scenes. But it always leaves a back door. Sooner or later, you will experience all of the crucial elements. Possibly in the wrong order, but that's okay. As long as you get it, Super Metroid is fine with it.
A premier example of this at the micro level is found in the room in the picture, near the beginning of the game. The player has bombed her way through the blocks in this tunnel from right to left, and now upon returning she finds the bombable blocks respawned. What a bore! But as the player starts bombing, Super Metroid knows that players are likely to keep pressing the D-pad to the right even though there's a wall in the way - there's just no point of letting go, we'll move right soon enough anyway. And so when the first bomb launches the player into the air, she will move right into this hidden tunnel, bypassing the tiresome bombing work. This is not something that every single player can be expected to experience. But most will - and the rest will manage.
ACT 1: TOUR OF ZEBES
This map shows the parts of the world that will be accessible during the act. The greyed out areas are inaccessible and thus not interesting for now. The red numbers in the map each correspond to a text section below, so you can easily follow my path through Planet Zebes.
After a linear warmup level at the Ceres space colony which serves to introduce the core mechanics and set up the story premise – finding the Metroid larva stolen by Ridley – we land on the barren wastelands of Crateria.
1. The Ancient Art of Going Left
2. The First Tunnel – There and Back Again
Retracing your steps of course also lets you open many of the doors you couldn't on your way down, granting an efficient introduction to the hidden voluntary powerups. One of them includes the Map Room of Crateria, which reveals little more than what you have already explored. It does however reveal a series of less-than-obvious hidden rooms leading to the next powerup – the Bombs. These allow you to travel west, towards Brinstar.
3. Which Door to Choose?
This trick is important because it will lead a majority of players to a very important room. It's okay if they discover it later, but Super Metroid clearly wants us to find it as early as possible, as it is the game's most important indicator of progression. I'm talking about the statue room, where the game's four major bosses are depicted. When they are all defeated, this room will become the gateway to the final area, Tourian.
The left door will lead the player onwards to Brinstar.
4. The Map of Brinstar
Super Metroid will soon take advantage of the fact that this particular map is so easy to find, in the one place where the map is your only hint to find the right path - it reveals the existance of Kraid's lair in the far east (see section 10).
5. In Plain Sight
6. Examination of an Unclear Mechanic
As it turns out, this is only the first of many rooms where you have the key to progress, but you might not know it yet. Whenever this happens, Super Metroid does the only right thing. It locks you in. Because the only thing that is more frustrating than not knowing what to do, is to turn back and give up when you were inches from the truth. That won't happen here, nor anywhere in the game. You will stay in this room until you learn to run. It's a harsh school, and students of modern game design may feel that the game should have just printed it out - Hold B to run. This is just not how Super Metroid rolls. It will never let go of the illusion that you are on your own. It will hold you by the hand, but it will never admit it.
7. Shaft of No Return - Lower Brinstar
The point of no return also serves to keep the player focused. If the player had access to the "old world" during her upcoming adventures in Norfair, she might be tempted to try her new powerups back in upper Brinstar and Crateria. By closing the road, Super Metroid essentially tells the player that the answer lies in the lower half of the map, and spares her the cognitive hassle of having to remember the entire world. This will be demanded later, but not until the player is trained and ready for it. For now, the upper areas simply do not exist. We're in world 2, so to speak.
8. The Mystery of the Fourth Area - Maridia
This is a simple yet extremely effective design to create curiosity. We suspect that Maridia is essentially a fourth of the world, but while the player slowly conquers Crateria, Brinstar and Norfair, Maridia remains a complete and utter mystery. The knowledge of Maridia keeps the player nailed to the chair, and ensures that she never assumes the world to be fully explored. As long as there's Maridia, there will be the promise of something significant left to find. It's actually strange how seldom you see this in games nowadays.
9. Stuck in Norfair
With such a limited set of options, it is child's play for Super Metroid to lead you to your correct destination - the High Jump Boots upgrade at the bottom left of the map. Still in the beginning of the game, the designers can be accused of over-utilizing the trick of shutting the player into a relatively small environment to avoid her getting hopelessly lost. But no one can deny that it works. And in this particular instance it has additional effects...
10. Lost in Norfair
So where do the High Jump Boots go? Kraid's lair. Players who have already found the entrance will be too excited by the spooky door to be able to get it out of their minds, and the ones who haven't, will soon. This is once again due to the fact that the player is stuck in Norfair and eastern Brinstar and has limited options.
As I mentioned earlier, finding Kraid's lair relies heavily on finding the Brinstar Map Room. Players who haven't found the map may find themselves stunted here, as the entrance is concealed behind a wall by the elevator to Norfair - a room breeming with innocence. The problem is that the Map Room is in western Brinstar - an area now completely inaccessible due to the one-way shaft. This situation has extreme potential for frustration and should be seen as a design flaw, but it should be noted that it also boosts the familiarity effect.
11. Bigger Than You Think
After defeating this important creature (clearly important since it was depicted in the statue room in Crateria, described in section 3), Super Metroid offers up a suitable reward. The Varia Suit not only opens up the hot sections of Norfair, it changes Samus' appearance in a dramatic flash. Many would call this the end of Super Metroid's first act - the first boss has fallen and Samus has changed.
But bear with me. The tour isn't over.
12. Where to Use the Speed Booster
This is the first real instance of the upgrade plot twist described at the beginning. For the first time there is no place close by where the new upgrade can be of use, and the available area is growing quite huge. So where to use the Speed Booster? The list is assembled in the player's mind. Those with good memory may remember places in the "old world", but these are not interesting at the moment (provided the Speed Booster doesn't let you climb the shaft of no return, which it doesn't). A number of Norfair locations are sure to pop up on the list, but there is only one that is more or less guaranteed. This is the room depicted above.
Why is this room so memorable? Well, players have spent a considerable time examining every wall in the beginning of Norfair. That familiarity helps now. In this room in particular, doors are slowly lowered as you approach them, and only with the speed boost can you slip through in time. During the early Norfair captivity, the challenge of this room is unique enough to leave a deep impression in the player's memory. To further boost the memorability of the room, Super Metroid intentionally lets players through the first door, but not the second. This creates a panic-filled situation where you get stuck between doors and need to find a secret way out. It creates a lasting memory of a traumatic event that could have been averted if you had only been able to run a little bit faster.
And now you can.
13. Where to Use the Ice Beam
So in the next room, we encounter this enemy, and are encouraged to freeze it and stand on it to cross the pool of lava. The enemy is familiar. It is the invincible flying bug from the shaft of no return. A flash of insight - could it be possible to... There's only one way to find out. As it turns out, the escape from Norfair is indeed close at hand.
14. Think You're in Control?
So instead of entering that door, most players will wonder why they never jumped up to that platform. By now they are so used to their High Jump Boots (the first thing they found in the new world) that the notion of previously being unable to reach it seems unreal. They're here to explore the corners and crevices of the old world, and this is as good a place to start as any.
EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that the game is in fact more heavy-handed than that. Should the player go left through the door, they will be back in the room where they learned to run, remember? Remember how that room shut the player in? That block is still in effect, and is unveiled as an elegant solution to two completely different problems!
As it turns out, the path upwards is the Right Way, and quickly leads to yet another powerup - the Power Bomb. The chaos previously feared grows even more powerful, but for the moment Super Metroid has you trapped in a remote corner of Brinstar. Rather than going back, the idea of Power Bombing the yellow door leading upwards seems to reap more immediate rewards.
It's like stealing candy from a child, really.
15. Full Circle
Before you know it, you are back in Crateria, right where you landed at the beginning. The game clearly tries to delay the moment of recognition until as late as possible - even the music in the cave where you surface (which is part of Crateria) is specially scripted not to change from the Brinstar music until you reach the outdoor environment.
This is the first major turning point of Super Metroid. The game literally comes full circle, and we are back at square one. The chaos that has been building for the last hour or so is released at full power. Since you're back where you started, you have no idea where to go. The old world as well as Norfair lie at your feet, and they're both filled with opportunities to use your new toys - not only the High Jump Boots, Varia Suit, Speed Booster and Ice Beam, but also the Power Bombs. It signifies a radical and complete change of pace for the whole game. To emphasize the change, Super Metroid pulls an expertly timed change of music. The previously quiet Crateria is now graced with a grand, spacious piece which conveys the feeling of having just scratched the surface.
Super Metroid lies at your feet.
ACT 2: EXPLORATION
16: Back to the Old World
Super Metroid has the self-confidence to expect curiosity from its players at this point, and wisely leaves time for them to explore. As speedrunners know, the fastest way would actually be to turn back and head down to Norfair immediately after getting the Power Bombs, completely bypassing the emotional moment of the closed circle, not to mention all of these secrets:
A - The Secret of the Statue Room
B - Wall Jumping
For many players, this is where they realize the somewhat cumbersome wall jump even exists, instructed by the three adorable Etecoons that perform each jump ahead of you.
Now, learning to wall jump can be difficult, and might not be seen as a reward by all players as they could just as well have learned it without the Etecoons. With that in mind, trapping the player at the bottom of this shaft until they learn to do it may seem a bit harsh. Super Metroid sweetens the deal somewhat by giving the player an opportunity to save down there, and by providing an easy way out - if you can just pull off one clear wall jump you will reach an escape tunnel, but to get a Power Bomb Expansion you have to reach the top.
C - Learning to Fly
All you have for company in the long corridor at the bottom is a strange ostrich-like creature which spends its time sprinting until it reaches the pit, then it squats and is violently thrown skyward and offscreen.
Before you can escape the pit, you must realize that you can do the same. By accelerating to the Speed Boosters full potential and then sitting down, Samus will charge a bizarrely powerful jump which is capable of breaking speed boost-sensitive blocks. Players will soon break free and go on with the adventure in awe of abilities they didn't know they had.
D - Closed Circle 2.0
E - Setting up the X-Ray
Sure, you can open the door, but it's all but impossible to progress through the corridor, which is filled with spikes and requires either very advanced use of the Ice Beam or something you don't have yet - the Grapple Beam.
This is something Super Metroid seldom does - letting you pass one roadblock, only to present you with another. The frustration of this particular instance is a pretty good idea, though, as it will ensure that you return once you get the Grapple Beam and show this spiky corridor who's boss. And ultimately, that's why so few players miss the important sidequest upgrade that resides there - The X-Ray Scanner.
F: The Spazer
G: Breaking Into Maridia
Why not? The answer is as usual in this chapter: because you now have the Power Bombs. And you can, somewhat unexpectedly, use them to shatter the tunnel once and for all.
Yes, you can access the bottom floors of Maridia, but all it amounts to is one long dead end - and a frustrating one at that. There are two movement mechanics in Super Metroid that are so strange that I still haven't figured out how they work. One of them is how Samus handles in water without the Gravity Suit, and water so happens to be Maridia's element. She just seems to slide left and right randomly. The other one is the shady timing required for jumping out of quicksand - which is Maridia's secondary element. The internet said it best: GLHF.
So ultimately, all there is to do is make your way back (if you can), and keep wondering what the purpose of Maridia might be. Well, at least you have access to a save point near lower Brinstar now. That's something, isn't it? Oh, and okay, so you can find the Maridia map room, which will probably do little to sate your curiosity.
On a side note, the Power Bomb actually doesn't immediately destroy the tunnel - the glass won't shatter until you start to move after the explosion. So players may get that moment of wondering whether it worked, possibly even giving up and moving on - before the floor cracks beneath their feet.
17. Return to Norfair - No More Secrecy
Back to the crime scene. As I've explained, no player will be dying to return to Norfair after the first act. But when they finally do, and they will because nothing else will propel them forward, they will immediately notice a yellow door in Norfair's hallway. This leads to the map room.
As we can see on the map now, there is a large unexplored complex in the lower left of the map. How to get there? Only two paths seem close from the current position, and one is blocked by a one-way shutter. So we head back to the corridor with the closing blast doors, famous for being the first use of the Speed Booster. And there's this hatch there. Power Bomb, please.
Crocomire attacks and is defeated. Then the game shuts you in, tests your Speed Booster skills for a bit, and awards you the Grapple Beam.
What did this change? Well, for one thing, Super Metroid is now back in business.
BY THE WAY! The map room also reveals the position of the boss of Norfair, in the lower right. But there's obviously a lot left out around it. We won't explore that for quite some time.
18. Where to Use the Grapple Beam
What is the difference between them? All three depict a purplish cavern, with some type of stairs leading out of a water-filled hole, and the only hope of crossing it is by swinging from the grapple blocks in the ceiling.There is only one difference worth mentioning. The first two rooms depicted are tutorial rooms right after acquiring the Grapple Beam. The third is in Crateria, and it's the place where the Grapple Beam needs to be used to further the game's progression.
So what the game is essentially doing, is planting the Craterian room in your mind (adding it to that list of possible utilities) immediately after giving you the Grapple Beam. And not once, either.
Bet you didn't see that one in 1994.
19. All the Way Back Up - An Empty Stretch?
This act is coming to a close as soon as we reach that Craterian cavern, but what better way to wrap it up than with some more sidequests? What could have been a pretty long trek from the deepest pits of Norfair and back up to the surface, has been seasoned with two new sidequests which require the Grapple Beam.
Finding the Wave Beam calls for a detour through Norfair, but if you want to explore the entirety of the map that was recently revealed, that's the direction you'll be taking anyway. On this trip, you may also come across the ominous, and completely inaccessible, entrance to Ridley's lair.
The X-Ray Scanner is harder to miss. There is no path to Crateria that doesn't pass by it, and players will be either thrilled to conquer that defiant corridor once and for all, or curious about that yellow door that they somehow managed to miss the last time the passed here with the Power Bombs.
Either way, their reward is the X-Ray Scanner.
ACT 3: Three Trials
20. A Wrecked Ship and a Lost Buildup
Players will spend an hour or so exploring a huge lake in which an alien space vessel of unknown origin seems to have crashed - a location theme which was later to be reused in Metroid Prime for the Gamecube. Swinging across the lake is mainly used to set up my next chapter, while the Wrecked Ship itself is one big buildup for the boss. At least it tries to be.
This is as close as Super Metroid gets to actual horror gameplay. The ship is dark, the music approaches ambient sound rather than music (way ahead of its time here), and ghostly things pop up randomly around you. Since the power is out many doors are inoperable, conveyor belts are standing still and even the save point will refuse you service. Digging through the rubble of the ship interior will swiftly put you eye to eye with one of the four main bosses. I find it strange that Phantoon is allowed to appear from out of the blue like this. Although he has possibly the most atmospheric abode of the four, he is the only one whose arrival isn't heralded well in advance by showing his position on the map, and then preceded by an ominous save point (well, an ominous, working save point). This makes the buildup to the encounter quite powerless, since Super Metroid has no way left of telling what it is trying to build up towards.
Then again, considering what's coming, maybe yet another climactic boss battle would have diminshed the power of the later two. And I certainly support prioritizing Ridley over Phantoon.
21. Deep End of the Pool
As I mentioned in the last chapter, the lake that surrounds the Wrecked Ship is little more than a setup, but most players will hate it. The closer you get to the ship, the harder the swinging challenges will be, so the chance of falling in and having to head all the way back - underwater - is frustrating to say the least.
So what Super Metroid does is simply to lure you through a door which leads out into thin air, dropping you in the middle of that soup.
And of course, now you can move freely. They teach you with relief. That's a novel teaching emotion.
22. Finally a Way In
So we're finally in Maridia. We're so far from the parts we've already explored that I almost can't fit the two places on one map screen, so there must be a lot to find in between!
Now that we've finally invaded Maridia, nothing will force us to leave until we have defeated its boss and pillowed all of its powerups. So the experience gets very focused.
Anyway. The part of Maridia that we've found is, for now at least, little more than an express route to the parts that we already know. To get to the deeper parts, we will have to smash that glass tube. And for those players who still haven't grasped how to make that happen, there is a smashed glass tube just like it on the way down. Capisce?
23. The Mochtroid Mystery
WAS THAT A METROID?
This clearly isn't the right place to introduce Metroids. So what was that thing? Well, when we reach the actual room quite a while later, we will be able to see the creatures as clearly as in this picture. Metroids don't have one eye. And they have teeth, not yellow talons. False alarm, as this turns out to be a Mochtroid, a space pirate creation which is detailed in the manual (it's 1994, everyone reads the manual).
But for a moment there in that pipe, I'll bet your blood froze.
24. The Grapple Beam's Final Mission
The answer is simple. After defeating Draygon, you will acquire a method of vertical transportation so potent that it simply makes the Grapple Beam obsolete. The Space Jump is not a double jump, nor a triple jump, but... Basically, as many times as you like, jump. So, you can fly. So thank that beam for faithful service, and take to the skies. Since you may feel at this point that you have explored all the important places in the world, you are ready for a true empowerment, a feeling that you can go wherever you like. The Space Jump provides that.
It should also be noted that the grapple challenges are a great way to showcase how amazing this ability is, since they provide a very vertical environment. There's no need to scale those walls anymore. Not when you can fly.
25. How Plasma Works
26. Three Down - Where to Go?
But really, you can fly. So basically, you should be able to go anywhere. And the most logical anywhere to go to is of course the only remaining boss, which we almost certainly know can be found in the depths of Norfair. And when we see this, we know we're on the right track.
It's entirely possible that players have already seen the entrance to Ridley's lair during their previous exploration of Norfair, most likely on the detour which also makes many find the Wave Beam. But it's impossible to actuallly reach it without the Space Jump.
27. Why Ridley's Lair is Hell
Lower Norfair is a wonder of atmospheric level design. The ominous music obviously does its part, but that's not it. Remember how that very same piece failed to provide any kind of tension to the Magmoor Caverns in Metroid Prime. What really makes Ridley's home genuinely haunting is instead a series of nasty surprises.
To even get here, you had to swim through a sea of lava - did you think your Gravity Suit protected against anything? Not against this lava. You can fly, and the world is an open book to you - and yet here you find creatures that you cannot even inflict a scratch upon. You are deeper down than you've ever been, but your path leads ever downwards. Add to this enemies that are at once more aggressive and more resilient than anything else on the planet, and the artstyle once again veers towards that creepy retro style. It is around that kind of background that the music can wrap its magic.
There is a nice closure in having the game's final miniboss, the golden Chozo Statue, be an upgraded version of the first. This adds a fitting symmetry, which I think many players sense on some level, and they know that this is indeed the final miniboss. When this thing is defeated, we can channel all energy into hunting Ridley. For a time, Super Metroid invokes the same kind of raw determination as classic Mega Man. Overall, the Chozo and temple imagery makes the descent all the more engaging. This is the heart of the planet. And at its core, we will find those piercing eyes.
27. Notes on Tourian
This is the only screenshot in this guide that I have not taken myself. There's simply no need. Nor is there much need to elaborate on the ending scenes and battles in Tourian. Tourian is already all over the internet. For me, hunting Ridley represents the ending to the explorative Super Metroid experience, with Tourian being something else. Tourian is an ending for the Metroid series, tying together loose ends from both predecessors. It is absolutely crucial for sorting out what happened to the Metroid hatchling and settle the score with Mother Brain. It's also quite touching, and a wonder of semi-interactive storytelling that wouldn't be surpassed for many years.
But that's not the story I've been trying to tell here. This has been a story about a girl and a planet. Because first and foremost, Super Metroid is a game about exploration, like so many others. What is amazing is how it approaches the experience of exploration with the same love and care as a writer would approach a story. I hope that I've been able to show that.
Thanks for reading!
Hugo Bille is an independent game designer with the Working Parts doing his best to live up to the legacy of Super Metroid. When not crafting cryptic, story-centric gameplay he still writes the occasional stageplay.