Soapbox: 30 Years Later, Super Metroid’s Foreboding Atmosphere Is Still Unmatched

Soapbox: 30 Years Later, Super Metroid’s Foreboding Atmosphere Is Still Unmatched

Super Metroid
Image: Nintendo

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they’ve been chewing over. Today, to celebrate Super Metroid’s 30th anniversary, Ollie sings the praises of the game’s enduring foreboding atmosphere…

The Metroid series is perhaps best known for its wonderful atmosphere and keen sense of isolation. In addition to its consistently strong structure, interconnected locations, and formidable antagonists, its oppressive yet irresistibly intriguing atmosphere is one of the reasons why the games gained such a loyal following, and why it continues to become more successful as time goes on (albeit more slowly compared to other Nintendo franchises).

30 years after its launch, however, Super Metroid for the SNES remains the undisputed king of the franchise in terms of its atmosphere and tone. Before its launch, Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus laid down some solid foundations, but hardware limitations meant that you struggled to get a full sense of what Samus’ world was supposed to look or sound like. It wasn’t until Super Metroid that the developers, led by director Yoshio Sakamoto, could really flex their creative muscles and bring Metroid to life.

Gone were ‘Hip’ Tanaka and Ryoji Yoshitomi’s catchy 8-bit melodies of the first two games at the start of this one. Instead, Super Metroid drops Samus into the derelict Ceres space colony, and it’s practically silent. Aside from the ongoing diegetic drones of the station itself, there is no music whatsoever until you come face-to-face with Ridley, one of the franchise’s most iconic and lethal enemies.

After the short encounter, you hightail it out of the space colony just as it begins to explode, and it’s not long until you land on Planet Zebes, the main location for Super Metroid. It’s here that the foreboding atmosphere really kicks into high gear.

As you exit your spaceship, you find yourself in an open plain, rain pouring down while lightning illuminates the barren background. The accompanying ambient soundtrack is quiet; gentle yet distinctly unnerving. It’s not until you gain both the Morph Ball and your first set of Missiles that the background music properly starts up, and even then it’s an almost monotonous repetition of the same notes; hardly the kind of thing you’re likely to hum to yourself while sitting on the toilet.

Compared to later entries in the franchise that undeniably bring a sense of beauty and wonder to their locations, Super Metroid’s visuals and music combined make you feel like you’re in a completely alien world; one that, quite frankly, doesn’t want you there and will resist your presence at every opportunity. In another life, Nintendo could have leaned further into this and turned the Metroid franchise towards sci-fi-themed survival horror; one that wouldn’t be worlds away from the likes of The Thing or Dead Space. Of course, we’re not complaining about the direction the developers ultimately went with the series, and entries like Metroid Fusion and Metroid Dread have their fair share of grotesque creatures that would give even John Carpenter nightmares, but it’s an interesting hypothetical to ponder.

Super Metroid’s incredible atmosphere — greatly aided by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano’s 16-bit soundtrack — is just one of the many reasons why the game is still considered one of the best entries, if not the best, in the franchise 30 years after its launch. Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate just how important it was; it’s not often that a game can be credited with birthing a genre, but that’s exactly what Super Metroid did (with the help of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, of course).

Countless games have launched in the years since that have done a varying job of emulating its immaculate gameplay, visuals, and structure, but honestly, for me, the only ones that have come remotely close are Nintendo’s own Metroid games. It’s that good.

We adore Super Metroid and could quite comfortably sing its praises every day, but what do you think Where does it rank amongst your favourite Metroid games? Let us know in the comments down below.

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