Dreadline: A 2D Metroid Retrospective, Chapter 3

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

(Chapter 2 Excursus)

Chapter 4

It took me a while to actually put proverbial pen to paper for this chapter of Dreadline. There are a couple reasons why, despite the fact that I beat the game a few weeks ago. For starters, I beat the game just two days before we took a week-long trip to Maine, so I took a writing break. It was also hard for me to find my "angle" for writing this post, because what is there that I could possibly say about Super Metroid that hasn't already been said? The biggest reason, though, that I didn't start writing this post for a few weeks is that every time I sat down to write it...

...I just picked up Super Metroid and played through it again.

The first two chapters of Dreadline saw me play four different games. The third chapter has seen me play the same game four times.

I love this game.

Metroid 3: Super Metroid

Filed under "images you can hear"

Earlier in this series I remarked that the canon of Metroid I and II is surprisingly intact, defying its 30-year history and an industry with a strong proclivity to retcons. Now that I've revisited Super Metroid, it makes sense why that canon is so well-preserved: the opening cutscene of Super Metroid is a full summary of the events of the first two games. This is by far the most narrative exposition for the series up to this point, the only real prior example being the rescue of the Baby Metroid in Return of Samus. This time, I didn't even have to go to the instruction manual! Though, I still could have, because the manual is still great and is chock-full of awesome art. But with the superpowered SNES, full cutscenes and scripted text--even some rudimentary voice acting!--could be added to the game without taking up too much precious memory. The manual does give a similar summary of Metroid I and II as the game itself, but the in-game presentation has the special distinction of being the first time we ever get to hear Samus use her own voice.

I first battled the Metroids on planet Zebes. It was there that I foiled the plans of the Space Pirate leader Mother Brain to use the creatures to attack Galactic Civilization...

I next fought the Metroids on their homeworld, SR388. I completely eradicated them except for a larva, which after hatching followed me like a confused child...

I personally delivered it to the Galactic Research Station at Ceres so the scientists could study its energy producing qualities...

The scientists' findings were astounding! They discovered that the powers of the Metroid might be harnessed for the good of civilization!

Satisfied that all was well, I left the station to seek a new bounty to hunt. But, I had hardly gone beyond the asteroid belt when I picked up a distress signal!

Ceres station was under attack!!

There are no survivors at Ceres. The tone of this series has always been mature, but Super uses its new graphical fidelity to ramp things up a notch, as you find the corpses of scientists and Federation soldiers littering the floor of the space station. In the innermost chamber lies the baby metroid...and the Space Pirate extraordinaire, Ridley. He escapes with The Baby. You escape with your life. As the station explodes behind you, it's time to track Ridley down and follow him all the way to the initial source of conflict, Samus's childhood planet of Zebes.

In many ways, Super Metroid was the original remake of Metroid, long before Zero Mission. If Super were made in 2021, it would possibly have been labeled a "reboot" or "reimagining." Obviously the story is continued, but it's clear that this chapter of the series was intended to be a more accessible refresh of the original. The map is completely different, though there are plenty of references to the original map throughout your exploration that, for all my love of this game and this series, I didn't fully recognize until this playthrough. Seeing Metroid and Super Metroid back-to-back within a month made me appreciate some of the homages to the original map and gameplay--as well as the subversions of expectations that would have delighted fans of the series in 1994.

The twists come early, as you enter Brinstar and find an area identical to the start of Metroid. The first power-up, the Morph Ball, is even in the same spot. But as you go to the right, as you would based on your experience, the central shaft is blocked off. Your main touchstone landmark and source of traversal is no longer accessible. That's when the game really begins. When you go back to Crateria, the music finally kicks in, and the rooms are infested with Space Pirates. Now it's time to get to work.

The surprises continue when you find a Chozo Statue holding the bomb upgrade. (And yes, it actually is a Chozo Statue now, having shaken the "Artifactor" moniker and bearing explicity mention in the manual as "the ancient bird people of Zebes.")

And the very first statue you find just straight up comes to life and attacks you! This would have been shocking for fans of the series, even though it probably came off as no big deal to me and the thousands of others whose first exposure to Metroid was Super. New fans or old, though, all of us were left asking the same question when we found our next item: "Are they all going to do that?"

The world design of this game is top-notch. There are no warp points or fast travel, but the areas are so tightly designed and flow so well that it never feels like you would need it. Getting from the deepest depths of Norfair to the planet's surface only takes a few minutes if you follow the map.

Oh, the map. The map! The map!! The single greatest innovation in this game! The revolution of the Metroid series! The key to making this game the cornerstone of an entire genre that now bears its name! Seriously, it is impossible to overstate how important the in-game map is to making this entire type of game viable.

Super Metroid is just stuffed to the brim with cool moments, both narrative and gameplay. You use the new power bombs to shatter the glass tube through Maridia, giving you a nice easy entrance to the zone. You can use the grapple beam on an electric turret to shock Draygon for an insta-kill, one of my favorite easter eggs in the series. You defeat Ridley, and after a hard battle you expect to be rewarded with an item in the next room, but instead, you find the Baby Metroid capsule...with no Baby Metroid. Uh oh.

But the greatest sequence is the iconic ending of the game. As you enter the final zone of Tourian, you're quickly greeted by the fruits of the Space Pirate operation on Zebes: legitimate Metroid clones. These aren't so easily dispatched like the failed experiment Mochtroids you encountered earlier in Maridia; these are full-on Metroids, ready to attack and ready to kill. In fact, it becomes clear that they've killed every non-Metroid life form in the area. You enter a hallway in which all of Zebes' normal species, even a Chozo, have been so thoroughly drained of life that they crumble to dust at your touch.

Then it becomes clear what Metroid is capable of such power. Right before your eyes, the largest Metroid larva you've ever seen attacks an enemy and drains its entire life away. Samus's experience on SR-388 (in other words, Metroid II) has taught you that Metroids are at their most dangerous when they're young. When they grow into their Alpha and Gamma forms, they grow more cumbersome, are more susceptible to weaponry, and don't drain life like they once did. The larvae, however, are resilient, fast, can only be dispatched if frozen. Without claws or teeth, they focus entirely on their best defense mechanism and offensive asset: their ability to absorb your life's energy. What you have here is the worst of both worlds and the scariest thing you've ever seen: a dangerous Metroid larva that is five times the size of any you've seen before.

Then it goes after you.

...And it spares you. It pulls away. You hear its cry and realize how familiar it is. It's The Baby!

You continue through Tourian and rematch the Space Pirate controller, Mother Brain. This time, you are even able to do it without the frame rate dropping to single digits. This time, though, Mother Brain has a trick up her sleeve. She reveals her true form, with devastating attacks (which the speedrunning community has named entirely after a fast food menu--french fries, onion rings, ketchup...). Her final attack, a beam of rainbow-patterned energy, is inescapable. You're within an inch of your life for the second time on this trip to Tourian. The game allows you to attempt to move, but every time Samus stands up, she can only just crouch back down in agony.

And then...

The Baby returns! She attacks Mother Brain, forsaking this Mother in favor of the mother that she imprinted on at birth. She is even able to return all your energy to you--a display of the Metroid's power that you've never seen before. Not only are these creatures capable of devastating destruction, but they also have the power to heal and restore.

But as you are having your life restored to you, Mother Brain reanimates and begins attacking the baby Metroid. Throughout the game, the bosses' health has been communicated to you not by health bars, but by color. The more discolored a boss became, the closer you knew you were to defeating it. As Mother Brain lays into the baby Metroid, you see its color similarly changing. You know it's dying as it restores your life to you. It detaches and comes back for one last assault on Mother Brain, but it never gets the chance.

The baby dies, but not before endowing you with the massive rainbow energy stolen from her captor. You use this special new weapon to eradicate Mother Brain, blow through her base, and esccape the self-destructing planet. On the way you have opportunity to save some critters who helped you along the way. (I actually never knew about this as a kid, and only discovered this was even possible when it was made one of the cornerstone donation incentives of the Games Done Quick marathons.)

See that little dot to the right? That's the animal ship escaping!

Last chapter, I mentioned that the ending of Metroid II and the rescue of the baby Metroid is the single most impactful moment in the Metroid series canon. I still believe that's true, because it sets up this ending to Super Metroid, a beautifully told story with little to no dialogue whatsoever. This game is the quintessence of nonverbal storytelling. From the coloration of the Metroid to the dusty enemies to the rainbow energy, the events of Tourian are so clearly communicated without a single word.

And then, like Metroid II, the game tells you how quickly you did it.

And there's even this little blip in the instruction manual:

Friends, you just witnessed the birth of a little thing called Speedrunning.

There are a couple games that hold claim to the "original speedrun" title, and I'm sure that the practice of beating games quickly has been around for much longer than the modern speedrunning community can trace back. For my money, though, Super Metroid is the first game to galvanize a speedrunning community in the ways that we're familiar with today. The manual explicitly encourages you to re-play the game to get faster and faster. The deep movement mechanics allow for rampant sequence breaks, and for many retro gamers, this is the first game where they experimented with sequence breaking at all. Once people started comparing notes on their work on Super Metroid, the gaming landscape would never be the same.

Super Metroid is still the finale of most Games Done Quick marathons, with its "save or kill the animals" bidding war garnering thousands upon thousands of charity dollars each year. New techniques and time-saving tricks are still being toyed with and unearthed. A new 100% record was just set at the end of July 2021, as well as a new Reverse Boss Order world record. Yes, the game is so malleable that there's a category called Reverse Boss Order.

This game which has claim to be the grandfather of speedrunning is still influential for the scene and downright impressive to watch. Top-tier SM runners are praised as being some of the most skilled gamers in the world. So when I beat Super Metroid this time around, before I moved onto Fusion, I simply asked myself...what if I can go faster?

I set a goal for myself: under two hours. Can I beat Super Metroid in under 2 hours? I decided not to rely on guides or routes. I didn't want to spend hundreds of hours perfecting the craft--I just wanted to beat the game in under 2 hours, using my own knowledge and base-level expertise that I've gained from playing this game for close to 20 years. I decided on a route that would give me plenty of wiggle room with E-tanks and Missiles. For my last run I did learn one specific trick (the Mockball) to get early Super Missiles. I switched off the Switch and went to my CRT. The results? 1:25 in-game time, 1:56:46 Real-Time Attack. Under two hours! Not impressive by actual speedrun standards, but it was a goal that I set and then beat. (And to the untrained ear, it can still sound impressive to say "I beat x game in under y hours.")

I decided to stream out a run to the good people of VGF, and even submit a time to speedrun.com. It went even better than expected, clocking in at 1:33:40 RTA and 1:10 IGT! It sits at a comical 1068th place on the leaderboard, but hey, this is one of the most popular speedgames out there, and I submitted a run I'm happy with. I know how I could improve it, if I want to grind a lower time. There's a trick at the end that would save a bunch of time and spare me the collection of several missile packs, which would have significant impact. SM, like Mario 64, is also a game of micro-adjustments, where improvements to the minutia end up saving minutes over the course of the run. Will I take the time to improve my run? Maybe. For now, I'm content. Here's that run, if you care to catch some of it. (UPDATE: I streamed another run after this and lowered the time to 1:19. I even learned that endgame trick, and I think I can take even further advantage of it. I'd like to stream again this week and, maybe, see if I can eventually get under an hour.)

Some of you beautiful people watched me try to clip through this wall for like 2 hours. Bless you.

It's hard to say what Super Metroid's impact on Dread will be when Super Metroid has impacted every single exploratory platformer in existence. Of course Dread will carry some of this game's DNA--the entire genre now carries this game's DNA. I hope, though, that we see good nonverbal storytelling in Dread. I know that there will certainly be dialogue, but even the dialogue-heavy Fusion sports some awesome visual worldbuilding too.

Story-wise, I think Dread will follow up on Fusion in a far more direct way than it will on Super. Unless Mother Brain makes a spectacular comeback, or somehow the Baby has more clones or gets resurrected or something, I think the narrative of Zebes and the Space Pirates is all but done. So what's left, then? Space Pirates are gone, Metroids are gone, Zebes is gone...the only thing still around is the Galactic Federation, and they're the good guys! Right?


Fusion next week.

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