Though many have a great fondness toward the 1986 debut that changed platforming forever, most will agree it's far from perfect. And while 1991's Metroid II: Return of Samus added important new elements, it's not among the bulk of Metroid fans' favorite games in the series. The series' third and final outing for 8 years, Super Metroid - released in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System - is both the culmination of everything that came before and the benchmark for everything that has come since.
Following the events Metroid II, the story arc begun by the first two games is concluded fittingly. The Metroid hatchling Samus spared on SR388 (which she names "Baby") is now safe and sound in the Space Science Academy where it is being studied. Many scientific breakthroughs look to be possible through this lone survivor of the Metroid species. However, while Samus is away, she receives a desperate directive to return to the research facility. Finding the labs in shambles, she is confronted by the leader of the Space Pirates, Ridley, who eventually makes off with Baby. Samus must now make sure the Space Pirates don't obliterate the universe by personally destroying them once and for all. After the game's opening, all of this is told through pantomime rather than text. With its minimalistic story-telling, the game is able to achieve a cinematic feel that draws the player in without distracting him or her from the experience with dialogue and narration.
This installment has Samus controlling about as good as ever. Not only is operating Samus a unique experience for a number of reasons, but it's fun as well - with a couple notable exceptions. 'A' allows her to jump - if she jumps while stationary, it will be a normal jump, while she'll spin in a ball if she's moving left or right when the jump button is pressed; holding 'B' while moving allows her to run faster; 'X' has her shoot her beam; the D-Pad(?) lets her aim her gun forward, upward, diagonally forward-upward, diagonally forward-downward, and - while in midair - downward; the 'L' and 'R' buttons enable her to aim her gun diagonally forward-downward and forward-upward, respectively, without the movement that goes along with using the D-Pad; 'Select' turns on and subsequently scrolls through and then un-equips her different forms of extra weaponry (which are then used with the appropriate buttons), as listed on the top of the screen; 'Y' cancels this selection altogether and returns Samus to her default beam attack; 'Down' changes Samus into her Morph Ball form, from which she can roll around as tiny ball; pressing 'X' like this has her lay a bomb; finally, 'Start' opens up the map screen, which can be changed to the status screen by pressing 'R' and back to the map screen with 'L'. Granted, a number of the effects of using these buttons are not experienced until the appropriate upgrades are collected. And mind, wall jumping can be a pain to execute, while switching through the 5 alternate weapons on the top of the screen can be troublesome during boss battles.
It wouldn't be Metroid if Samus didn't learn new abilities and gain new weaponry, and this game has plenty of these to offer. She can upgrade her beam with the following, courtesy of those helpful Chozo statues: Charge Beam, which lets Samus charge her beam by holding 'X' before releasing; Ice Beam, which has her beam freeze enemies and projectiles; Wave Beam, giving Samus's beam a wavelike pattern; Spazer Beam, which adds extra oomph to the shot and fires three beams side-by-side; and Plasma Beam, the strongest beam upgrade in the game which can fire through enemies. There are two suit upgrades as well: Varia Suit, which in addition to making Samus stronger against hostiles and their attacks allows her to travel in areas of extreme heat; and Gravity Suit, which lets gives her ease of movement underwater and allows her to resist even more extreme heat. There are a number of miscellaneous upgrades: Morphing Ball, granting her access to that essential form; Bomb, letting her place bombs while in Morph Ball form; Spring Ball, allowing her jump while morphed; and Screw Attack, making Samus's spinning jump an attack that obliterates all minor enemies. Upgrades in the boots department include: Hi-Jump Boots, giving extra height to Samus's jumps; Space Jump, allowing her to perform as many spinning jumps as desired; Speed Booster, adding invulnerability and the ability to launch high into the air to a dashing Samus. It should be noted that any one of these can be turned off via the status screen, something not seen soon after in the series. Too, there is to be collected: the Grappling Beam, which has Samus swinging from certain ceilings a la Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania IV; and the X-Ray Scope, which lets Samus see the secrets of her surrounding environments without having to test the weaknesses of certain blocks or find her way through a hidden pathway personally. Lastly, there are: 14 Energy Tanks, adding 100 max health to Samus's total; 4 Reserve Tanks, basically also adding 100 points each upon losing all other health; 46 Missile Tanks, giving the galaxy's greatest guardian 5 extra missiles max for an attack with a little more packed into it than her regular beam; 10 Super Missile Tanks awarding 5 max missiles each, which are even stronger than regular missiles; and 10 Power Bomb additions carrying 5 Power Bombs each, which give off a blast that lays waste to just about everything on-screen. By the time the player is finished with this game, he or she should be satisfied at Samus's nigh-invincibility.
The Metroid formula has - in addition to the power-up component - its free-roaming aspect. Super Metroid's map is designed as a puzzle which guides the player toward its completion: as with its pantomime story-telling, none of where to go is stated outright via dialogue or map objectives. Yet, subtly - and subtlety is this game's most affecting feature - there are hints, assumptions, and general masterful map design that make the journey through Crateria, Brinstar, Maridia, Norfair, the Wrecked Ship, and Tourian feel entirely natural. There may be a point at which the player becomes confused, but the response to Metroid Fusion proves that fans do not want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it when they play a game in the series. There actually were some big mistakes in the map's conception, as certain areas can be skipped by taking advantage of particular abilities to overcome obstacles against the developers' intent (like using the bomb to "Bomb Jump" in mid-air). Rather than "breaking" the game, these opportunities for sequence breaking have led to one of the game's greatest legacies as they allow for speedrunners to work their magic and try for better times. This mistake has yielded such success that games coming after Super would intentionally include these kinds of "flaws" for the purpose of speeruns.
There's something especially cinematic about the way everything comes together presentation-wise, settings and characters acting in pantomime fashion before a subtly-handled camera to suck the player in. The graphics are dark yet popping: Samus's sprite looks great and animates well; enemies act as one with their home environments - except for Metroids, which stand out frighteningly; bosses are big and intimidating; the repeating textures in foregrounds create a natural look to the game's environments; and the backgrounds have some imagery which is either not too involved or shrouded-out, giving the player something to look out while keeping the mysterious emptiness that earlier Metroids went for. This game simply looks awesome, with attitude that's cool due to its subtlety, whereas the culture of the decade was about being in-your-face.
Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano are responsible for an all-time masterpiece in its simultaneous role of offering good music and inducing tension. The best tracks include: the staple gloom-and-doom opener 'Destroyed Science Academy Research Station'; the sci-fi sounding and just cool 'Theme of Super Metroid'; the urgent 'Raid on Ceres (Ridley ~ Escape)' and the near-identical compositions 'Big Boss Confrontation BGM (Ridley, Draygon)' and 'Escape', during which the volume itself rises and falls simply to apply extra pressure; the electronic groove of 'Brinstar - Overgrown with Vegetation Area'; the calm yet dissonant 'Brinstar - Red Soil Swamp Area'; the also staple heroic theme for the starting area which here manifests itself in the triumphant 'Theme of Samus Aran, Space Warrior'; the evil and steadily energetic 'Norfair - Ancient Ruins'; the grating and chaotic 'Mother Brain'; and the inspirational and celebratory - though at times sinister - 'Ending'.
Super Metroid is complete, captivating, and cutting-edge - the purest form of Metroidvania in all of video gaming. Later two-dimensional installments would fail in fans' eyes where they deviate from the formula and blunder where they copy its elements without the same ingenuity that Super possesses. Only by going the Metroid Prime route - honoring the series' past while not living in it - would the series yield success worthy of what Nintendo R&D1 had done here.