This is a series of features that'll focus on games that we keep playing again and again, either over an unhealthy number of hours or those that keep getting return visits long after they first graced our systems.
I believe that the true test of a game's value is found in how well it stands the test of time. It's one thing for a game to be considered great during its heyday, but it's quite another for it to be held in the same regard decades later. Technology evolves and standards change, and it's here that many games fall short. How many games have you played on the NES that you found to be unfairly difficult? How many N64 games have you played with wonky camera controls? True timelessness is found in an experience that not only is just as enjoyable today as it was back then, but one that was built upon excellent game design that still holds up even under modern expectations.
I dare you to find a game that is a better example of this than Super Metroid, and I say this as a relatively young gamer, one who was not around when this game was out. I enjoy playing games from both today and yesterday, as I feel that there is value and merit to be found in both, but oftentimes when playing older games I find that they give me a deeper appreciation for equivalent games that we have now. It's interesting to see things that, in hindsight, make you ask why the developer ever thought that would make the game better. But every once in a while you come across a game like Super Metroid that leaves such a profound impression that you can't help but keep coming back.
So, what is it about Super Metroid that's so enrapturing? I could go on about the nuances of the gameplay design for hours it seems, but I'd like to really focus on the atmosphere. I play through this game yearly in October as a sort of Halloween celebration, and while I wouldn't describe its atmosphere as scary, it does carry a certain sort of weight to it that creates a sense of tension that never really wears off. This tension is one of the hallmarks of the Metroid series and is present in each game one way or another, but I think Super Metroid is the best distillation of it yet.
Just think of the first few minutes on Zebes and how well it establishes the loneliness of it all. You've just narrowly escaped death from the space station after a run in with Ridley. Samus' gunship slowly lowers to the surface of an alien planet. Thick layers of gray clouds fly by in the background, rain is battering down from above, and lightning flashes occasionally light up the dark sky. Samus slowly rises out of the gunship and runs into a nearby cave. It's dark inside and you can see the gently pulsating light of her green visor. As she walks through, little insects and other creepy crawlies scuttle out of the way and disappear into various cracks and crevices in the walls.
Nothing here is very frightening, yet it creates a fantastic sense of tension through the isolation. You know that you'll be fighting your way through aliens soon, and even though you aren't afraid of them, you find yourself anticipating what's coming next. As you descend deeper into the planet and begin to explore other areas this feeling never goes away. Even in areas that are fairly densely populated with things to blast with your arm cannon, you always feel alone.
I think the main reason why this loneliness is so enrapturing is found in how serene the overall experience is. As you explore the ruined remnants of previous civilizations and explore vacant corridors reclaimed by nature, there's a certain kind of implicit story being told through the environment. You can't help but wonder what this place looked like before it became what you're currently exploring. Sometimes, it even creates a weird sense of loss. There's a strange beauty to poking around this alien world and seeing what kind of secrets it holds, not only in terms of upgrades for Samus, but also in just familiarizing oneself more with the environment and finding new kinds of monsters and places to visit.
Just when you think you've seen all that you can in an environment, it suddenly gives way to yet another one that is completely unknown to you. How could anybody forget that experience of first stepping into Maridia? That haunting tune plays in the background and everything takes on an aquatic theme as you go explore underwater caves and jump around in slow motion, but it's the attention to details in the environment - such as droplets of water running off of stalactites – that do the best job of making this feel like a real place.
Perhaps that's why Super Metroid's atmosphere is so easy to lose oneself to, it's almost like Zebes is an actual place. The game appeals to our imaginative sides and encourages us to believe for a moment that Zebes is out there somewhere, in all of its mystery and wonder. Though everything is conveyed through a 16-bit game, it steps beyond the limitations of this reality in our imagination as we build out what this place is and fill in the gaps that the game leaves open. It offers us glimpses of this foreign place and asks us to do the rest, and in partaking in this process, it almost feels real.
That, if you ask me, is an excellent example of timeless game design. The fact that a game released in 1994 on a 16-bit machine can have such an impact this far after its release is nothing short of remarkable, and if you take the time to examine and experience a game like this, you'll likely find it to be a very rewarding endeavor. Super Metroid is a game that I know I'll still be playing ten years from now and I think it's important that we celebrate games like this. They sure don't make them every day, and if we ever forget about them, we'll be losing out on a satisfying experience that can't simply be recreated.