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The Secret History of Super Metroid
I’ll admit it; I’m kind of a history and trivia geek. Not hardcore by any means; you won’t find me sitting under a tree reading textbooks or winning at Trivial Pursuit any time soon. But I’m still fascinated by the origins of things and the oddball histories that trail behind them.
And since gaming is an industry rife with legends, rumors, stories, and history, I’ve decided to start this series, The Secret History of… in order to dig into the past and unearth some of the more obscure details about the industry’s most popular games.
This being the first installment, I thought I’d start things off by taking a look at one of my all-time favorite retro games: Super Metroid.
Jump back with me, if you will, to 1986, a time of big hair, popped collars, and when it was socially acceptable to listen to hair bands.
It was during this time that Nintendo had become a giant in the gaming industry, helping to prevent the collapse of video games as we know them by introducing a number of new games and the Nintendo Entertainment System for in-home gaming and making video games a form of personal entertainment rather than an arcade fad.
Now, when one thinks of Nintendo and all of its standout franchises such as Mario or The Legend of Zelda, it’s typically the name of the goofy, fun-loving, and brilliant mind Shigeru Miyamoto that springs to mind, the man behind a majority of Nintendo’s popularity.
But despite Miyamoto’s multiple creations, he actually did not create the Metroid series. Rather, the series is credited to Miyamoto’s biggest rival, Gunpei Yokoi.
Before Miyamoto was brought in to Nintendo, Yokoi had been something of a star player for Nintendo. Known for his work on games like Duck Hunt and Ice Climbers, there was one major distinguishing factor behind Yokoi’s and Miyamoto’s games: Miyamoto’s had lasting appeal as franchises, while Yokoi’s were merely one-hitters. It was because of this that Yokoi and his team, R&D 1, found themselves scrambling to find a game that could rival this.
But Yokoi didn’t want to create the same kid-friendly, colorful games created by Miyamoto. Rather, he wanted to go a competely different direction, seeking to break the mold of traditional linear games and adding in a small amount of grit to make the game more geared toward action fans. The result was a dark, non-linear sci-fi adventure with phenomenal atmosphere and revolutionary gameplay that made Metroid a standout in video game history.
Sadly, Metroid released at an inopportune time and did not sell well at retail. However, after Yokoi’s creation of the GameBoy handheld system, Samus was able to see her return in a sequel called Metroid II.
Fast forward now to the early 90’s, after R&D1 had gone through multiple changes and had been reduced to a much smaller group of two teams. Looking for a project, original Metroid director Yoshio Sakamoto decided to take up the mantle of Samus and pitched a sequel to the series that promised to be bigger in every way imaginable, from story to scope.
It was because of the game’s lackluster success that Nintendo was wary of the development, leaving Sakamoto to continue championing his cause until the game was finally approved nearly half a year later. Budget cuts and skepticism plagued the game’s production, but it still soldiered on, eventually releasing after a two-year development cycle on the SNES in 1994.
Previous to Super Metroid’s release, the video game world had been shaken by the sudden and unexpected appearance of overt violence in games such as Mortal Kombat in 1992. It was because of this that developers were seriously questioned about the violence Super Metroid would contain, and whether or not it would be as gory or disturbing as the fighting game had been. Of course, the game’s violence was much tamer compared to the spine-ripping and exploding fatalities of Mortal Kombat, and developers cited that the violence was in it for a specific reason, rather than to shock players.
Ever the underdog, Super Metroid released at an incredibly inopportune time in Japan, facing off against the releases of Donkey Kong Country, the Sega Saturn, and the original PlayStation. Because of this, sales in Japan bombed, seeing a marginal uptick in North America and Europe.
But despite the game’s mediocre success at retail, it was wildly popular with fans and released to great critical acclaim. Which, as we all know, was well deserved, considering what the game did to revolutionize both gameplay and game design of our time.
While games like Resident Evil are credited with having a great amount of atmosphere, the Metroid series was one of the first to really embrace and implement it. Using an amazing and iconic soundtrack and ambient sound, Super Metroid added an eerie and realistic feel to a hostile alien world, the likes of which still holds up as relevant today.
One of the first series to star a female protagonist (which supposedly came about after a staff member’s joke about a woman in the suit), Super Metroid featured a big and bold story, using exploration and traversal to convey a strong narrative following Samus’ exploits in Metroid II, all conveyed in an impressive visual style that tested the hardware and stands out as one of Nintendo’s more stylistically impressive games.
But I would be remiss to not mention the biggest convention that made Super Metroid one of the most important games ever created: exploration. Using a massive map of corridors and rooms, the game was built on the idea of players reaching an area, getting stuck, then having to go back and explore other places in order to obtain new abilities and get past obstacles that once hindered them. This idea of re-traversal was also seen in the famous Castlevania games, giving rise to the term “Metroidvania” assigned to 2D games built on exploration.
It wasn’t until some time later that Samus made a return to gaming, taking a hiatus during the Nintendo 64 years and eventually returning on the GameCube in Metroid Prime. But it’s not what followed after Super Metroid that makes the game so special. Rather, it’s the series’ ability to survive despite the odds and continue to endure as one of the most influential and underrated Nintendo franchises of all time that makes it such an interesting game worthy of playing not only eighteen years ago, but in our modern day as well.