1994

Red on black.

Flash of blue-lit machinery. Scientific. Emergency-lit blue. Bodies. Unearthly screech.

Nintendo.

More blue. Pipes. Cables. Abandoned terminals flickering green. Pounding heartbeat.

Metroid 3.

Close up of the titular larva. Slow zoom back to reveal a lab, strewn with discarded scientists. Title screen.

Thirty seconds after switching the power on, Super Metroid has already succeeded in invoking the atmosphere and tone of the adventure to come. It would be impossible to achieve the same effect today, empty silence obscured beneath generic splash-screen parades, health and safety warnings and social network log-ins. Nintendo's understated opening shows amazing confidence in their product, and yet at the same time reveals the Metroid series' dirty little secret:

Super Metroid isn't an action game.

"But what about the jumping!", I hear you cry. "And the shooting, and the missiles and the bombs and the screen-filling bosses?" Sure, Samus did those things, just like in every Metroid game which followed. But what about that intro? What about Ridley fading out of the darkness, intent on escaping with his prize? The crushing solitude, deep within Brinstar's depths, or the bait-and-switch to reveal the monstrous reimagining of Kraid's pathetic 8-bit guise? Or Crocomire's gruesome skin-melting death in a pool of lava, only to return for one heart-stopping moment in skeletal undeath?

Super Metroid is about the unease of exploring an alien environment, alone, claustrophobic, afraid. That sense of cloying solitude is at the heart of the greatest moments of the Metroid franchise; Retro Studios sensed it with Metroid Prime, before it slipped away again; Nintendo themselves revisited the series' horror roots with Samus fleeing the implacable and invincible SA-X in Metroid Fusion (even if the constant adviser in your earpiece sapped the sense of claustrophobic solitude).

Unfortunately, the last two Metroid titles – admittedly, both by third party developers – have been carried away with vacuous cutscenes, forgettable characters and attempts to instill in Samus some form of genuine personality beyond her role as a powersuited cipher.

After all, Samus herself was never a fleshed-out character; as a silent protagonist with only minimal backstory, the series left room for the player to extrapolate her actions and high level of competency into a strong, confident personality. The greatest of Other M's failings was to attempt to redefine her as a subservient team player rather than the solitary maverick of our imaginations.

So please, Nintendo. No more emphasising action over atmosphere and exploration. Enough with Samus's endless soliloquies, or cutscenes about her past. That's not why we're drawn to her. It's that she's not afraid to stand alone in the darkness, she's not afraid of the solitude, nor the creatures lurking in the shadows, nor the thousands of tons of alien rock looming overhead.

And while we're in that suit, neither are we.


Originally posted at Generation Minus One, the webcomic of last-gen gaming.