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The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid

In this in-depth analysis, I offer my perspective on the subtle player direction tricks that makes Super Metroid a tight and focused experience, while never quite letting the player out of the illusion that they are exploring Zebes on their own.

This Super Metroid analysis has been lying around on my own website for a while. Upon reading Mike Stout's Zelda dungeon design analysis here on Gamasutra, I realized that there is really no excuse not to post this here as well. Here I can assume that readers are somewhat familiar with the Metroid franchise or at least some other form of "Metroidvania", and skip some of the sight-seeing in favor of focusing on level design and the subtle tricks the designers seem to have used to direct the player through what may seem to be a haphazard experience, but is not.

This analysis takes most of its material from the first playthrough of the game by my friend Rufus, which I had the pleasure of observing from beginning to end. Watching him, a complete newcomer to the genre, still find his way around Zebes in pretty much the same way I'd do, almost never once getting lost or stuck for any considerable amount of time, made me question how that could be. This analysis is my answer.

First, I would like to establish what I percieve to be some of the core psychological phenomena behind the Metroid experience before we start.

Always Something

Before Super Metroid invented its supreme player leading skills, the original Metroid set up a safety net against frustration, which has always served the genre well. By hiding voluntary upgrades all over the place, it ensured that even when you don't find the correct path, at least you find something valuable. This greatly reduces the potential frustration of any Metroidvania experience, and encourages exploration of not just key locations, but the whole world.

Plot Twist of the Upgrade

Whenever a Metroid player aquires a new power-up, her mind races back in time in a way not unlike what happens at a turning point in a movie. When a secret is revealed we are forced back through the story to mentally review everything we've seen so far, sometimes changing the interpretation of entire scenes. So that's why Obi-Wan was so worried about Luke facing Vader. What did this change? This happens in Metroid too.

So I picked up the Ice Beam. I can freeze enemies solid and stand on them. Where can I use that? What did this change? I am forced to reevaluate every room I can remember, and see how this new technology fits in. And the result is that same feeling of ”Of course! That is the solution to that room in lower Brinstar, and it always was!” The player comes out of the experience with a mental list of rooms where she believes the new trinket can be of use. In most Metroidvanias you can only hope that the right path is on this list, but in Super Metroid it almost always is. I will explain why in each case as we go along.

In the Room and On the Map

Since the player never completely leaves an area behind and forgets about it, the game world constantly expands in the mind of the player. By never completely exhausting an area before moving on to the next, Metroidvanias promise us that if we remember and acquaint ourselves with the game world, it will not go unrewarded. The ever-accessible map is a huge help in keeping track of it all, but players will not be interested in looking at the map at every turn. Instead, they start to create a mental map of Zebes.

Because of this, the experience of most Metroidvania titles takes place on two levels simultaneously. On one level, you are traversing a dangerous corridor, avoiding lava puddles, solving riddles and shooting alien creatures. But at the same time, your mind is in macro mode. It sees you moving through the map, and is plotting your long-term course. This type of simultaneous navigation challenge ensures interest even when one level fails to enchant us.

The Player Will Follow Suit

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The design of Super Metroid takes a laid-back approach to the problem of interactive storytelling. In every instance there is a clearly identifiable best solution, a certain way in which the game is clearly meant to be played. The game constantly assumes that the player behaves in exactly the way the designers expected. In an attempt to ensure this, the game is riddled with subtle hints and tricks to pull the player in the right direction, and much of this analysis will focus on these.

But it is important to note that Super Metroid recognizes the futility of this approach. The player will never play exactly the way the designers have planned, and so the game never once relies on player cooperation. It expects it, but doesn't rely on it. There is an important difference. Super Metroid will always allow you to take a detour, go exploring all the wrong areas and miss out on core concepts and scenes. But it always leaves a back door. Sooner or later, you will experience all of the crucial elements. Possibly in the wrong order, but that's okay. As long as you get it, Super Metroid is fine with it.

A premier example of this at the micro level is found in the room in the picture, near the beginning of the game. The player has bombed her way through the blocks in this tunnel from right to left, and now upon returning she finds the bombable blocks respawned. What a bore! But as the player starts bombing, Super Metroid knows that players are likely to keep pressing the D-pad to the right even though there's a wall in the way - there's just no point of letting go, we'll move right soon enough anyway. And so when the first bomb launches the player into the air, she will move right into this hidden tunnel, bypassing the tiresome bombing work. This is not something that every single player can be expected to experience. But most will - and the rest will manage.

ACT 1: TOUR OF ZEBES

The first part of Super Metroid is characterized by nearly constant forward motion, with the player often being limited to a relatively small area so as to reduce the risk of getting lost. It serves as an introduction to the basic concepts and areas of the game. It is during this first ”act” that the game's excellence in leading the player is most prominent and most important.

This map shows the parts of the world that will be accessible during the act. The greyed out areas are inaccessible and thus not interesting for now. The red numbers in the map each correspond to a text section below, so you can easily follow my path through Planet Zebes.

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After a linear warmup level at the Ceres space colony which serves to introduce the core mechanics and set up the story premise – finding the Metroid larva stolen by Ridley – we land on the barren wastelands of Crateria. 

1. The Ancient Art of Going Left

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The game doesn't waste time trying to establish its nonlinear nature by making left (traditionally in games percieved as backwards) the correct and only way to proceed. A similiar design opens the original Metroid, where the player was allowed to travel through several rooms to the right before needing the morph ball upgrade to proceed – an upgrade which was to be found just to the left of the starting point all along – Super Metroid's way is more gentle by being more firm. To the right there is an insurmountable stone wall. It's clear that it's breakable, but you don't have the hardware yet. Turn around. Turn left.

2. The First Tunnel – There and Back Again

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The subsequent segment is a clear introduction to how Metroid works. You are led through a strictly linear tunnel, surrounded by doors you cannot open yet. After your first upgrades at the bottom (the Morph Ball and missiles), you realize there is nothing more to find, and you must return through the tunnel. To counter the tedium of retraversal, the tunnel is mostly vertical, and so presents different challenges when you try to get back up than it did when simply falling down (though this was seemingly judged inadequate, as the tunnel was also filled with space pirates on the way back). The retraversal is important, because travelling this same route in both directions lets the player quickly set up a mental safe zone. This tunnel now feels perfectly safe, explored and familiar. There is already a part of the world to call home – something that takes most Metroidvanias hours to achieve.

Retracing your steps of course also lets you open many of the doors you couldn't on your way down, granting an efficient introduction to the hidden voluntary powerups. One of them includes the Map Room of Crateria, which reveals little more than what you have already explored. It does however reveal a series of less-than-obvious hidden rooms leading to the next powerup – the Bombs. These allow you to travel west, towards Brinstar.

3. Which Door to Choose?

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On the way towards Brinstar the player is presented with a shaft filled with space pirates which can only be killed using missiles (the space pirates are constantly used in this way to showcase the power of new weapon types). They also drop missiles when killed, ensuring that you have enough ammo to counter the next threat. Now, at the bottom of the shaft you see these two doors, like in the picture to the right. One of them requires missiles to open, the other one doesn't. Now that you have your missiles equipped and warmed up, what will you do? The player is compelled to go right.

This trick is important because it will lead a majority of players to a very important room. It's okay if they discover it later, but Super Metroid clearly wants us to find it as early as possible, as it is the game's most important indicator of progression. I'm talking about the statue room, where the game's four major bosses are depicted. When they are all defeated, this room will become the gateway to the final area, Tourian.

The left door will lead the player onwards to Brinstar.

4. The Map of Brinstar

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This is what Brinstar looks like when you first enter it. One of the first things you will find in the area however, is the Map Room, which reveals a majority of the area's structure (as seen in the pictures below). Unlike Crateria's Map Room, this reveals the full monty. With the exception of a clearly missing connection between the eastern and western parts of the area, this is essentially all you will ever need to know about Brinstar, and it makes your journey through this area a lot more straightforward than most of the game.

Super Metroid will soon take advantage of the fact that this particular map is so easy to find, in the one place where the map is your only hint to find the right path - it reveals the existance of Kraid's lair in the far east (see section 10).
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5. In Plain Sight

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One of the game's most important voluntary upgrades is hidden here - the Charge Beam. But there won't be many players missing it. In this corridor, which is likely to be traversed several times, two blocks stand out like a sore thumb. Not only that, but the ground to the right of them seems strangely disconnected, and at the bottom of the screen we see a hint of the cieling of another room. Each of these hints would be enough to pull the player's attention, and by now the player knows to blast everything that calls attention to itself. This way the Charge Beam can feel like a hidden gem while being practically impossible to miss.

 

6. Examination of an Unclear Mechanic

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This room brought me great pain when I first played Super Metroid. Only later did I realize that the game did it all for my own good. What you see is the first room that requires you to use the run button - if you don't run, you will fall through the brittle floor. And if you haven't yet figured out that you can run, you're in for some frustration. 

As it turns out, this is only the first of many rooms where you have the key to progress, but you might not know it yet. Whenever this happens, Super Metroid does the only right thing. It locks you in. Because the only thing that is more frustrating than not knowing what to do, is to turn back and give up when you were inches from the truth. That won't happen here, nor anywhere in the game. You will stay in this room until you learn to run. It's a harsh school, and students of modern game design may feel that the game should have just printed it out - Hold B to run. This is just not how Super Metroid rolls. It will never let go of the illusion that you are on your own. It will hold you by the hand, but it will never admit it.

7. Shaft of No Return - Lower Brinstar

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Traversing Brinstar from west to east, you will eventually find yourself falling down this shaft. The shaft is several screens high and populated with invincible flying bugs. There is simply no hope of returning. This sets the mood for the next section of the game, in which exploration only serves as a means to fulfil an overarching goal - escape back to the world you know.

The point of no return also serves to keep the player focused. If the player had access to the "old world" during her upcoming adventures in Norfair, she might be tempted to try her new powerups back in upper Brinstar and Crateria. By closing the road, Super Metroid essentially tells the player that the answer lies in the lower half of the map, and spares her the cognitive hassle of having to remember the entire world. This will be demanded later, but not until the player is trained and ready for it. For now, the upper areas simply do not exist. We're in world 2, so to speak.

8. The Mystery of the Fourth Area - Maridia

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Lower Brinstar acts as little more than a passageway to Norfair, but on the way there it hosts one of the game's most spectacular tricks - the mystery of Maridia. A short corridor that seemingly belongs to lower Brinstar, is actually described by the game map as a separate area. This corridor, which is incidentally placed in a chokepoint of a passage which will traversed and retraversed over and over before the game is over, is actually the only part of Maridia we will see for most of the game.

This is a simple yet extremely effective design to create curiosity. We suspect that Maridia is essentially a fourth of the world, but while the player slowly conquers Crateria, Brinstar and Norfair, Maridia remains a complete and utter mystery. The knowledge of Maridia keeps the player nailed to the chair, and ensures that she never assumes the world to be fully explored. As long as there's Maridia, there will be the promise of something significant left to find. It's actually strange how seldom you see this in games nowadays.

9. Stuck in Norfair

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With the sky-high shaft blocking your way to the west, you will really have little else to do than explore Norfair. But as it turns out, Norfair is nigh inexplorable due to extreme heat in most of its rooms eating your health away. So the parts of Norfair you can actually reach are illustrated by the map above.

With such a limited set of options, it is child's play for Super Metroid to lead you to your correct destination - the High Jump Boots upgrade at the bottom left of the map. Still in the beginning of the game, the designers can be accused of over-utilizing the trick of shutting the player into a relatively small environment to avoid her getting hopelessly lost. But no one can deny that it works. And in this particular instance it has additional effects...

 

10. Lost in Norfair

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As it turns out, the High Jump Boots do not do much to open up Norfair, so the available area is still miniscule. This prolonged situation of near-captivity will define the player's relationship to Norfair for the rest of the game. Between scouring Norfair for the High Jump Boots and scouring Norfair for where to use them, most players are likely to completely exhaust the available rooms, creating a strong feeling of familiarity, however hostile. This is used in several ways. Not only does it help establish the mood of being stuck in Norfair and the goal of escape, but the game also uses the captivity to ensure that the player is exposed to a number of setups, most importantly the one discussed in section 12.

So where do the High Jump Boots go? Kraid's lair. Players who have already found the entrance will be too excited by the spooky door to be able to get it out of their minds, and the ones who haven't, will soon. This is once again due to the fact that the player is stuck in Norfair and eastern Brinstar and has limited options.

As I mentioned earlier, finding Kraid's lair relies heavily on finding the Brinstar Map Room. Players who haven't found the map may find themselves stunted here, as the entrance is concealed behind a wall by the elevator to Norfair - a room breeming with innocence. The problem is that the Map Room is in western Brinstar - an area now completely inaccessible due to the one-way shaft. This situation has extreme potential for frustration and should be seen as a design flaw, but it should be noted that it also boosts the familiarity effect.

11. Bigger Than You Think

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Kraid, the first of the four major bosses, is a returning character from the first Metroid. Back then, he fooled us by sending a weak clone of himself before the actual boss fight. This trick is reprised in Super Metroid, but on a completely different level. There is still a Kraid clone, and it closely resembles Kraid from the first game. Expecting the real Kraid to look similar, the player is unpleasantly surprised when the actual Kraid is big enough to cover the screen! But it doesn't end there - the epic battle culminates in Kraid breaking the cieling and stretching to his full length, which is even bigger - nearly enough to cover three screens. It always takes elegance to be able to pull the same trick twice in a row.

After defeating this important creature (clearly important since it was depicted in the statue room in Crateria, described in section 3), Super Metroid offers up a suitable reward. The Varia Suit not only opens up the hot sections of Norfair, it changes Samus' appearance in a dramatic flash. Many would call this the end of Super Metroid's first act - the first boss has fallen and Samus has changed. 

But bear with me. The tour isn't over.

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12. Where to Use the Speed Booster

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The Varia Suit cracks Norfair open by allowing Samus to traverse the hot chambers unscathed. There is only one way to go (although it twists and crosses itself enough to feel non-linear, much like the Zelda dungeons), and after an ultralinear series of challenges the player is lead to the next powerup - the Speed Booster.

This is the first real instance of the upgrade plot twist described at the beginning. For the first time there is no place close by where the new upgrade can be of use, and the available area is growing quite huge. So where to use the Speed Booster? The list is assembled in the player's mind. Those with good memory may remember places in the "old world", but these are not interesting at the moment (provided the Speed Booster doesn't let you climb the shaft of no return, which it doesn't). A number of Norfair locations are sure to pop up on the list, but there is only one that is more or less guaranteed. This is the room depicted above. 

Why is this room so memorable? Well, players have spent a considerable time examining every wall in the beginning of Norfair. That familiarity helps now. In this room in particular, doors are slowly lowered as you approach them, and only with the speed boost can you slip through in time. During the early Norfair captivity, the challenge of this room is unique enough to leave a deep impression in the player's memory. To further boost the memorability of the room, Super Metroid intentionally lets players through the first door, but not the second. This creates a panic-filled situation where you get stuck between doors and need to find a secret way out. It creates a lasting memory of a traumatic event that could have been averted if you had only been able to run a little bit faster.

And now you can.

13. Where to Use the Ice Beam

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Beyond the sliding doors, we quickly come upon the Ice Beam, and with it we face another exquisite upgrade application. Where could freezing enemies solid possibly be of use? Again, there are several places in Norfair where this could lead to minor powerups. But there is also one Right Way, and Super Metroid needs to make sure this is among the rooms the player thinks of.

So in the next room, we encounter this enemy, and are encouraged to freeze it and stand on it to cross the pool of lava. The enemy is familiar. It is the invincible flying bug from the shaft of no return. A flash of insight - could it be possible to... There's only one way to find out. As it turns out, the escape from Norfair is indeed close at hand.

14. Think You're in Control?

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It is indeed possible to climb the shaft by freezing the flying aliens, and for one quivering moment Super Metroid stands on the verge of losing control. If the player enters the door to the left in this picture, she will be back in the "old world". Now armed with the High Jump Boots, Varia Suit, Speed Booster and Ice Beam, the list of potential applications is way too large for the player's working memory to handle. If she enters that door, chaos will ensue. Super Metroid realizes that this chaos is ultimately inevitable, but it has a much better way of presenting it hidden up its sleeve.

So instead of entering that door, most players will wonder why they never jumped up to that platform. By now they are so used to their High Jump Boots (the first thing they found in the new world) that the notion of previously being unable to reach it seems unreal. They're here to explore the corners and crevices of the old world, and this is as good a place to start as any.

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that the game is in fact more heavy-handed than that. Should the player go left through the door, they will be back in the room where they learned to run, remember? Remember how that room shut the player in? That block is still in effect, and is unveiled as an elegant solution to two completely different problems!

Anyway...

As it turns out, the path upwards is the Right Way, and quickly leads to yet another powerup - the Power Bomb. The chaos previously feared grows even more powerful, but for the moment Super Metroid has you trapped in a remote corner of Brinstar. Rather than going back, the idea of Power Bombing the yellow door leading upwards seems to reap more immediate rewards.

It's like stealing candy from a child, really.

 

15. Full Circle

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The player is on an exploration high. The promise of mountains of loot in the old world, powered by the recent super-fast progression through the Power Bomb area makes us careless. And the ensuing shaft is too easy and too linear for most players to bother checking the map. 

Before you know it, you are back in Crateria, right where you landed at the beginning. The game clearly tries to delay the moment of recognition until as late as possible - even the music in the cave where you surface (which is part of Crateria) is specially scripted not to change from the Brinstar music until you reach the outdoor environment.

This is the first major turning point of Super Metroid. The game literally comes full circle, and we are back at square one. The chaos that has been building for the last hour or so is released at full power. Since you're back where you started, you have no idea where to go. The old world as well as Norfair lie at your feet, and they're both filled with opportunities to use your new toys - not only the High Jump Boots, Varia Suit, Speed Booster and Ice Beam, but also the Power Bombs. It signifies a radical and complete change of pace for the whole game. To emphasize the change, Super Metroid pulls an expertly timed change of music. The previously quiet Crateria is now graced with a grand, spacious piece which conveys the feeling of having just scratched the surface.

Super Metroid lies at your feet.

 

ACT 2: EXPLORATION 

Immediately after the first circle, the guiding hand of Super Metroid almost completely disappears, leaving the player at the mercy of his own curiosity and will to explore. To make this experience worthwhile, almost all of the game's optional secrets are made available. The ancient Metroid feeling of "I didn't find the way forward, but I found something cool" is elevated to new heights, when what you find is often much cooler than the old missile expansions and energy tanks. Where almost all other Metroidvanias (or other adventure games for that matter) call this "Endgame" and save it until after the credits, Super Metroid utilizes it as a welcome change of pace.
 
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16: Back to the Old World

Actually, the Right Way isn't in the Old World at all. It's where you'll least suspect, and feel least inclined to look - in the very same Norfair you've spent the last few hours trying to escape. This encourages the player to thoroughly explores Brinstar and Crateria and find as many of their secrets as possible before moving on.

Super Metroid has the self-confidence to expect curiosity from its players at this point, and wisely leaves time for them to explore. As speedrunners know, the fastest way would actually be to turn back and head down to Norfair immediately after getting the Power Bombs, completely bypassing the emotional moment of the closed circle, not to mention all of these secrets:

A - The Secret of the Statue Room

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The fastest way from the landing site back down into the underground leads right past the statue roomFor those players who managed to miss it the first time around, this is a second chance, and one that will be difficult to pass up with the explorative mindset that dominates the game at this point. But even if you've been here before, you will now witness the greying out of Kraid's statue, clearly heralding that something will happen here once the other three have fallen. To make sure that you don't mi

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