Thursday, March 20, 2014

Backtracking in Super Metroid

Backtracking as Theming in Super Metroid

            As loved as Super Metroid is, among the most common criticisms of the game and its franchise has been its reliance on backtracking to create the illusion of non-linearity[1], typical thought being that playing through the same areas repeatedly is unappealing. Moving forward should always be bringing about new sights, new sounds, new mechanics, new adventures: so says the conventional wisdom.

            This is borne out not just in typical nitpicks of the Metroid franchise, but also the later-era Castlevania titles the Metroid franchise heavily influenced, as well as in commercial reviews of, for example, Devil May Cry 4 or NIER.

            That reveals a special problem with how we look at videogames in the form of the commercial review, both in terms of how we assess narrative, as well as ludic content, because games often have good reason to revisit familiar places.

In the case of DMC4, for example, the way we approach the game as Dante differs wildly from how we approach the game as Nero. In NIER when we revisit old areas, we expand on the stories of the places we’ve visited before, and have a more enriching experience as a result.

In the case of Super Metroid, backtracking provides us with the means by which we display the growth of our avatar, which in turn is a display of our skill as players for having conquered the game’s challenges. This renders backtracking not a minor flaw, but in fact an incredibly important part of the game’s communication of narrative to the player.

As is especially important in this case, Super Metroid does not merely provide new tools to the player as a way of finding new areas[2], but it also gives them new ways to move through old areas, at their convenience.

Within minutes of landing on Zebes, the player can find an entrance to Tourian, where they will eventually find the Baby Metroid, and fight Mother Brain. Securing the entrance is a statue displaying four of the game’s five main bosses: Kraid, Phantoon, Draygon, and Ridley. To unlock the elevator down into Tourian, we must kill them, which means we will have to navigate our way through Brinstar, the Wrecked Ship, Maridia, and Norfair.

Thus, Super Metroid becomes a game about exploration and acquisition: Exploring new areas and acquiring new resources, which then allows us to becomes better explorers and find better resources, both skills which we will use to find a boss, and then kill them. We get a simple system of challenges and rewards which then provide us with more challenges and more rewards.

However, there a number of easy mistakes that could’ve been made in this process that Super Metroid deftly avoids.

For one, it could’ve been easy to make the games process of acquisition crucial only to fighting bosses: “collect enough Missiles and Super Missiles to hurt and kill the bosses, but they won’t be needed to defeat regular enemies or move through the game world.” On the contrary: each new Beam, pack of Missiles, etc makes regular enemies easier to beat than before, with some even making enemies that were previously invulnerable fellable to Samus’ weaponry, and each addition to our inventory opens up new places in Zebes to explore.

In addition, Super Metroid could’ve also made a similar mistake wherein Samus’ new movement tools are only ever used to move to new places. And while that is the purpose that these new items serve primarily, they also give the player further rewards by unlocking previously inaccessible areas in old places and allowing Samus and the player to further their item collection, as well as by making older areas easier to navigate. Compare that to progression items in the later-era Castlevania titles where it’s like finding a card key in an old FPS. There are arbitrary movement barriers and they only reason that these arbitrary items exist is to remove these arbitrary barriers.

That’s the real meat of this argument: Super Metroid’s backtracking succeeds because by making older areas easier to move through and older enemies easier to kill, it provides us with visceral proof that we are succeeding not only because we are moving on to newer and greater challenges, but because it proves that we are dominating this foreign environment.

It’s almost like struggling to get C-rank somewhere the first time you play on a higher difficulty in Metal Gear Rising, and then toying with lower enemy levels later on when your damage output allows you to do basically whatever you want. You succeed, and then you succeed in an even more demonstrable way.

Put simply, the backtracking in Super Metroid makes you feel powerful because it becomes so easy to do. Areas which previously required the Grappling Hook now are much more easily dominated by the Space Jump. Areas where Samus would be actively hurt or her movement hindered become as smooth as the rest of the game when you grab the Varia and Gravity suits. Blocks which previously had to be bombed one-by-one now simply vanish in frame-rate decaying glory when you use a Power Bomb, and in some of those sections, if you were already running, the Speed Booster will simply destroy the previously existing blocks, and it is also so powerful it will outright obliterate lower-level enemies as well, rendering whole rooms of the game simply a matter of running where previously they would’ve been approached more slowly with more thoughts on to how to approach the enemies. These are only a few examples.

All of this is crucial to the game’s legendary flow, and that ever elusive “game feel.” This is a tight system of challenges, rewards, movement, and atmosphere, and when you remove any one of those things, you get a game that is still strong but ultimately weaker.

If Super Metroid were to make the mistake of not having each mechanic prove crucial to moving through the game and conquering it’s environment, you might result in a game where moving through the environments becomes simply the tedious task of getting to the next exciting boss fight setpiece, or inversely it makes the bossfights an interruption of the flow of atmospheric movement puzzles that define the rest of the game.

Super Metroid is about as well-designed as a videogame could possibly be. It creates a continuous flow of gameplay whose rich detail makes it a satisfying experience even when you can beat it in less than 3 hours, with an atmosphere that still manages to intimidate and immerse even when compared to modern AAA experiences. That the solidity of its construction aids this is not only obvious, but is only another small part that makes Super Metroid the great game that it continues to be.

Also, Happy Anniversary Super Metroid! 20 years ago yesterday, March 19, 1994. Big ups to my friend Julio Peredo for helping me edit this piece. Thanks for reading.
-          Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

[1] A topic for a later date: sequence-breaking in Super Metroid actually creates true non-linearity, which the formalization of Prime and Zero Mission outright remove even though they have the same non-linear illusion in their forms.
[2] This is why that critique of latter Castlevania is a lot more functional than this critique of Metroid

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