Donald Mustard remembers poring over previews of the sci-fi game Super Metroid in Nintendo Power magazine back in the summer of 1994. He remembers mowing lawns in the hot Houston sun so he could save up enough money to buy the game on launch day. And he’ll never forget when he and his brother plugged the cartridge into their Super Nintendo that night, and were immediately blown away. “The opening is one of the most dramatic storytelling moments in games,” he says.
Mustard is the co-founder and creative director of Chair Entertainment, the studio that made the iPhone hit Infinity Blade and is working with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Interactive on the upcoming Spy Jinx. He’s never wavered in his devotion to Super Metroid. “It’s hard for me to name my top 10 favorite games,” he says. “But I never struggle with greatest game of all time.”
He’s not alone in this assessment. Super Metroid was the third game in the Metroid series which began in 1986 and is widely viewed as a perfectly crafted game, and a pinnacle of what could be done with 2D game design at a time when 3D games were starting to make inroads as first the Sega Saturn and then Sony’s PlayStation kick-started a new era. Many game developers hold it in equally high regard – it inspired a whole genre, and imparted lessons in how to make exploring a game’s world feel organic and intuitive that had an effect felt across the industry.
Super Metroid flipped conventions on their head, confronting the player with a terrifying boss at the beginning rather than the end of the game. It let players briefly experience the thrill of starting out with the powers you’d normally acquire over the course of the game, then it stripped them away, forcing you to slowly rebuild your arsenal. And the game had different endings depending on how fast you completed it, helping to touch off the trend of “speedrunning” through games as quickly as possible.
But it may be the creepy, endlessly explorable sci-fi environments that were most influential.
In the game, the player controls interstellar bounty hunter Samus Aran, who suits up in a powered exoskeleton that can be upgraded with a variety of weapons and tools to help her traverse strange alien worlds. But she’s not really the star of the game. “I really believe that the game world is the main character,” says Mustard. “It expands as you explore it and gain mastery, like you’re peeling back layers of an onion.”
The game appeared a year after Doom, which let players roam around a 3D space station overrun with monsters. But this seemingly simpler 2D game did a much better job of creating a memorable setting, “It has this incredible lonely, dangerous, and mysterious atmosphere,” says David D’Angelo of Yacht Club Games, creator of the recent Eighties-style platformer, Shovel Knight.
Super Metroid has no dialogue and little text. The environment tells you what’s happening. “You start off going through this wrecked laboratory, and you see a few bodies strewn on the floor; clearly something terrible happened there before your arrival,” says Chris Johnston, a senior producer with Adult Swim Games. “It’s so tense in a way I hadn’t experienced in games before.”
“The world is festooned with sci-fi conduits and piping, but there were vines and veins intertwined with machinery,” says Tom Happ, whose game Axiom Verge owes a clear debt to Super Metroid. “There’s a strong sense of an alien ecosystem – larvae sprouting out of egg sacs, spores drifting from the ceiling, creatures emerging from dried up skin moltings. The soundtrack is mostly downtempo, moody electronic, echoing the decaying technology seen throughout the world, but it sometimes gives way to the ambient hum of machines and circuitry. It accentuates the feelings of isolation.”
If that, too, sounds familiar, Super Metroid‘s director, Nintendo’s Yoshio Sakamoto, has cited Ridley Scott’s Alien – and Giger’s artwork in particular – as influences. “All of the team members were affected by H.R. Giger’s design work, and I think they were aware that such designs we be a good fit for the Metroid world we had already put in place,” he tells the U.K.’s Retro Gamer magazine.
Super Metroid‘s richly imagined world is large enough to require an in-game map to help you keep your bearings. Still, you never feel lost. You freely explore, finding new tools and learning new techniques that let you access more and more areas on the map. And there are never any clunky tutorials. “It teaches you new concepts through experience,” says Johnston. “You observe these cute little creatures doing a move called a wall jump, and then you know how to do it yourself without the game bringing up a dialogue box explicitly telling you how.”
“It formalized the reward loop of encountering an obstacle, exploring further to obtain the ability needed to bypass the obstacle, then finding your way back to surmount it,” says D’Angelo.
“You can see the influence of that kind of environmental storytelling in everything from the classic Half-Life to Playdead’s Inside, released last month,” says Mustard. It’s use of what Mustard dubs “nonlinear exploration” also served as a more direct inspiration for other games, such as the 1997 Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. These two games became such touchstones that they created an entire subgenre of 2D action-adventure games that have been dubbed “Metroidvania.”
Mustard himself made a Metroidvania game called Shadow Complex. He and his team studied Super Metroid obsessively during pre-production to internalize the tenets of “nonlinear exploration” found in the SNES classic. He literally had them all play the game to completion every day for a month before they began working in earnest, then not look at it again for the duration of development. The finished product proved to be a huge hit when it was released for the Xbox 360.
“My evil secret intent in making Shadow Complex was demonstrating that this type of game was commercially viable, so there’d be more of them,” says Mustard. “Look at all the nonlinear exploration titles nowadays! There’s Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Guacamelee, Axiom Verge, Ori and the Blind Forest… They’re all awesome, and I get to play them all!”