Metroidvania is a word that is synonymous with the indie games scene today. Whether you’re a fan of Hollow Knight, Cave Story, or the Ori games, all of these games owe a lot to the first half of the genre’s name: Nintendo’s space-faring adventure series, Metroid.
While the first Metroid was popular enough on the NES, it was the third game in the series that stood the test of time and became the beacon for all action-adventure enthusiasts – 1994’s Super Metroid.
While it took the team at Nintendo three tries, they simply nailed it with Super Metroid, refining and introducing the hallmarks of the metroidvania genre. So, let’s take a look back at some of the elements that Super Metroid brought to the world of gaming.
The first Metroid game already laid the groundwork for the genre, introducing a massive alien world for players to discover, power-ups that let players go to previously inaccessible levels, and even an element of speedrunning; the faster players complete the game, they’ll be rewarded to seeing protagonist Samus Aran without her suit and find out that she is, in fact, a woman.
Metroid II: Return of Samus was especially impressive, as it fit the adventure into a Game Boy cartridge, allowing players to explore on-the-go. Though this did come with some caveats, since the Game Boy didn’t really have a coloured screen. This saw the gameplay shifting from exploration to the eradication of the Metroid menace, with a counter on the game’s HUD that counts down the number of Metroids destroyed by the player.
Super Metroid was released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, free from the limitations that its predecessors had. This came with more story elements with Samus’ narration of the events of the previous games, and an entire intro stage before the adventure begins on planet Zebes.
Once Samus landed on the planet, it began a lot like the first Metroid, so returning players may feel a sense of deja vu. From there, players must explore the planet thoroughly for new weapons and armour, all while chasing down the evil Space Pirates who have taken a baby Metroid captive.
The power-ups really show what the SNES was capable of, giving Samus super speed or giving her the ability to blast through the sky. Even the new weapons like the Ice Beam were used for traversal. Seasoned players, on the other hand, will learn to use these moves expertly to even sequence-break the game, completing it in the shortest time possible.
What began as a complete amalgamation of Super Mario’s side scrolling platforming with the Legend of Zelda’s open-world exploration instead gave birth to a completely new genre, where players are incentivized to know the lay of the land and optimise their weapons and movesets to tackle anything that stood in the way. One of Super Metroid’s main innovations was its ever expanding mini-map, and its blocky design is still being used in modern-day metroidvanias.
Super Metroid then gave birth to other imitators, chief among them was the -vania part of the genre’s name. 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night refined the formula even further with the addition of an RPG-like level progression system. Nintendo outdid themselves further when they translated the formula into a first-person 3D environment with the Metroid Prime series.
Nowadays, it seems that metroidvania games are a dime a dozen, while the two progenitors of the genre are almost nowhere to be seen. While the Castlevania games have lived on through its Netflix adaptation, the elusive Metroid Prime 4 is nowhere on the horizon. Hopefully, when that game does come out, it will just have just as big of an impact as Super Metroid did.