How ‘Super Metroid’ changed level design

Aesthetics.

The first metroidvania I played was Super Metroid (1994) and it was a slap in the face. Even before there was a term for the genre that we now identify it with, it was a game that wasn’t very intuitive. The general idea I had of a platformer was based on certain constants, such as “move from left to right until you reach the end of the level”. When I finally started to understand a little better what Super Metroid was meant to be — in my head, I finally understood it as a sideways The Legend of Zelda (1986) — I kept running into barriers that, even today, seem somewhat counter-intuitive: what’s with opening doors by shooting through them? Why is it that the main path is sometimes hidden by blocks indistinguishable from the others? At least in the Zelda games after A Link to the past (1991) the walls showed cracks when they could be opened with bombs.

An example is how most platform games ask you to get from point A to point B: your goal is not to get items (although they help) or defeat all enemies as much as it is to “survive”. Most metroidvania games ask you to dwell more on understanding your special situation: that is, they are games about “mastering” space. No more running away from other threats, we will be that threat.

It just so happens that Super Metroid is a game in a transitional period: with game consoles now established and the video game market (again) on the rise, games were moving from being obtuse as a way to prolong their life to being more intuitive and using their secrets more as an add-on than a must-have. But Super Metroid forces you to look under every rock to advance: it expects you to spend a lot of time painstakingly traversing the space, multiple times.

An easy to rembember corridor.

Few moments exemplify this transition than the infamous tornado in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987) that was necessary to advance but could only be activated from a specific point on the map without further prompting.

I didn’t return to the Metroid saga for some time. With hindsight, my first experience with Super Metroid is not at all unlike my first experience with Demon’s Souls (2009) where my preconceptions about what to expect from a video game were so crushed that I didn’t return to it until years later. It would be simpler models of the genre like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2005) and Hollow Knight (2017) that would restore my interest in conscientiously exploring the saga I had abandoned.

There is a very obvious contrast between Super Metroid and its predecessors. While the first Metroid (1986) can be excused for its humble and admirable origins, Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) is a different species altogether: while actually more linear — the levels are divided into highly differentiated zones by the water level that drops as we progress and there’s no need to retrace our steps — the atmosphere is particularly alienating and terrifying. By the time you reach the end of Metroid II the experience generates some anxiety. Super Metroid, on the other hand, is to James Cameron’s Aliens what the previous ones were to Ridley Scott’s Alien: the rarefied haunted-house atmosphere is replaced by action and epicness.

Nothing exemplifies this better than its soundtrack. Super Metroid’s sound design is superb, becoming eerie and catchy as we advance through the burning bowels of the planet with “The Fire of Zebes” but welcoming us in a celebratory tone when we return to the surface in “Crateria Surface”.

Environmental Storytelling.

Many metroidvanias, bent on copying the mechanics or aesthetics of Super Metroid lose perspective of the feeling of playing it: it’s being lost, trying to slowly unravel the map and find that loose tile that will lead you to the needed item. And once you’ve found that item, the sense of freedom and power it gives, the way what was once an inaccessible area now becomes a display of acrobatics until you’ve completely mastered your new ability and, with that, you’ve conquered a little more of your surroundings.

Let’s take a recent example like the enjoyable Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth (2020). The main skills acquired go through “Slide”, “Double Jump”, “Breathe underwater” and “Windstorm” (which allows you to… jump a little higher and stay more in the air). Although the inspiration of this game lies more in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) and derivatives, the important thing is that the skills do not get to exploit enough the full potential of the medium. In Super Metroid, the use of the “Speed Buster” allows you to run faster, get rid of certain types of blocks and obstacles, and jump higher by catching a run. These three functions combine at a specific time on the map to great effect: Citius, Altius, Fortius.

It is now obvious to us that the locations adapt to teach us how to make use of a new skill once acquired. Once we get the “Grappling Beam”, which allows us to hook onto certain types of ceilings, we are forced to learn how to use it if we want to get out of the place where we are and this tutorial is presented in four steps:

First, we climb several rungs up to the ceiling, see the special tiles we can hook onto, and make use of our swinging ability. We can fail as many times as we want because our only penalty is having to climb the rungs again.

The next screen repeats a similar process, only now there is water. If we fall, we don’t have any big penalty except that moving in the water, at this point in the game, slows us down. It’s a little more frustrating to fail here, but it’s still a safe place to experiment and get the hang of it.

“Weeeeee!”

Once past that, another obstacle is introduced, something we’re familiar with (enemies shooting from the walls) but it’s an increase in difficulty because, if we miss a lot, we can get killed at this point. The player who has made it this far is supposed to be skilled enough not to reach this point, but the danger is there. We ascend to the ceiling but, surprise, now we can hardly see the tiles to hold on to because of how high they are. The solution is to throw the beam in the middle of a jump and trust that it will arrive. This serves to make it very clear to us the range of the beam.

The last step is very similar to the second one: a corridor where underneath we have a pit with water and above the tiles that allow us to hook ourselves. Now we have to do it not once but twice, jump from one to the other (although we have an intermediate space that allows us to descend if we don’t see ourselves still capable) and learn that it won’t be as simple as swinging from time to time; sometimes we will have to coordinate throwing the beam in the middle of a jump to reach more extreme areas.

It’s inevitable to see Nintendo’s favorite design structure here: the four-act structure known as Kishōtenketsu. 1) A mechanic is introduced in a controlled environment; 2) A difficulty is added to that mechanic; 3) That mechanic is combined with a previous mechanic or an unexpected variation; 4) Once the mechanic is mastered, a challenge, usually optional, is offered to demonstrate complete mastery of the mechanic.

A save point that doesn’t work. Eerie.

What we will see in our future use of Grappling Beam are variations: next to these screens are extra items (life or missiles) found after a long process of swinging and jump coordination. Later on, we will discover that some ceiling tiles only hold us for a limited time.

Nothing exemplifies this idea of the usefulness of items better than the “Ice Beam”: as a weapon, it allows you to freeze enemies for a limited time, making it easier to maneuver against them especially when they have some complex movement pattern; but also, by freezing enemies, they can serve as platforms, making some screens more accessible.

As we learn to become more skilled and pay attention to the environment, it becomes more familiar. The automap and the areas where we can get complete maps (highlighting those more obvious areas that have been left unexplored) encourages us to be conscientious. Areas that were previously impregnable are now a walkthrough. And what’s better: once the game is finished, as in its predecessors, the time it has taken us is taken into account, which invites us to play now with previous knowledge of the map.

The basis of interaction with the environment carries over even to boss fights: Crocomire can only be defeated when we push him into the lava, Draygon has the possibility of being electrocuted if you use the “Grappling Beam” near a wall with sparks, while Kraid must be defeated over two screens, applying a more vertical design due to his large size.

I wasn’t ready for this fight the first time.

In general, many metroidvania sin of giving too many skills and very powerful, making the difficulty drop. But the truth is that, as opposed to those who resort to “git gud” as a defense against any complaint about the difficulty spectrum of a game, metroidvania can give a different approach. The more skilled player will be able to defeat enemies faster and easily access certain areas while the player who does not have such good reflexes can engage in an exploration in search of secrets and health or missile upgrades. An enemy can be defeated with the required number of missiles and good aim, but if we exceed that missile capacity, we can afford some failures.

Likewise, an area can be accessed with the “Grappling Bream” or, if preferred, by using the “Speed Booster” and jumping at the right time. Well known is the moment in Super Metroid where a group of little creatures visually demonstrate the “Wall Jump” technique which causes an incredible sensation in the player: not finding an item with a new ability but discovering that we have always had an ability that we could have used at any time. Probably the only later game that has taken a step further in that direction — paying attention to an ecosystem to unveil methods of advancement — is Rain World (2017).

The variety it offers is taken to all extremes, starting with how one can break the sequence of certain events. In my last playthrough, I completely forgot to pick up the Charge Beam and didn’t miss it: nowhere is totally inaccessible without it, albeit it does make the path easier. It almost seems that the placement of certain items invites you to go through the game in a much more complex order than the first time you encounter them, looking for ways to find first those that serve more for exploration than other more secondary ones like “Spring Ball”. Once mastered “Space Jump” I did not miss the wonderful “Spider Ball” of Metroid II: you can practically fly all over the stage.

A very efficient map.

We were saying that this is a game that replaces the element of fear that dominated its previous installment with a more epic tone, and certainly the few scenes that have a narrative function are the most memorable: bosses that try to deliver one last brutal attack just before they agonize, traps that open up under your feet for an unexpected fight just when you least expect it, the famous final encounter with the Metroid… there’s a sense of desperation and almost instant relief in how the game puts us in impossible situations to then release the tension with a scripted sequence.

It’s been a while since that first encounter with Super Metroid, so my second playthrough was a bit quicker. It’s no wonder that with the opening and closing escape sequences and the ability to access different areas fairly freely this game has become a mainstay of the speedrunning community. The familiarity with previous games makes you better almost without realizing it and it’s easy to beat your own personal best with each new game you start. The invitation to come back again and again to learn everything the game hides and master the planet Zebes is a must. This is, without a doubt, one of the games that any fan should finish at least once in a lifetime.

“What did you expect? A striptease? Creep…”

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Writing essays. Writing games. Writing essays about games. Narrative Design Teacher.