In Super Metroid, No One Can Hear You Scream

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Super Metroid recently celebrated its 30-year anniversary. Below, we look back at how it used and helped to create horror game tropes.

It begins with a benign pulse over black. An otherworldly synth shriek interrupting. Random shots of dead scientists in a pitch black laboratory. The only thing alive is an unknowable entity under a class capsule. Somehow, that isn’t the start of a new Resident Evil DLC, but the very first thing you see in a first-party Nintendo game in 1994. The game was Super Metroid.

Because there are entire generations of full grown adults who don’t understand the enormity of such stark horror imagery in a Super Nintendo game, we should go back to the early 90s a minute. While it’s now pretty commonplace to see M-rated games on the Switch, back in 1994, Nintendo was still trying to hold onto its innocence. Their Sega rivals had been bathing in digital blood for years, but Nintendo was trying to remain the place where everyone could play safely, and without invoking the ire of, say, Congress. As such, they were still regularly censoring arcade ports, and hesitant to put anything out that could court too much controversy, frighten children, or spill too much of the red stuff–though Mortal Kombat II was a major exception.

Super Metroid is still a product of that era, but even with the restrictions of its publisher at play, it’s not an experience to be trifled with. The Alex Garland Annihilation vibes of the Spore Spawn boss. The deep, bone-chilling mood of Brinstar Red’s soundtrack, and its alien chants as a driving beat. An entire level in a sunken, haunted spaceship, ruled over by the ghost of a kraken. Maridia making Zebes’ oceans feel utterly cursed. That’s to say nothing of the premise in general, with Samus forced to relive the haunted, hollowed out ruins of her 8-bit adventures in higher, grimmer fidelity.

Samus arrives on Zebes in Super Metroid (naswinger on YouTube)

Replaying Super Metroid in 2024 is striking when you realize that even with all the other ways the game is a masterpiece–it’s half the reason the term “Metroidvania” exists, after all–what we don’t talk about are the ways in which it was elevating digital horror in a way nothing else was at the time. And make no mistake, Super Metroid is not just horror, but it is uniquely horrific, even now.

Much has been said about Metroid as a fundamentally lonely experience over the years, especially in contrast with every misguided attempt to insert more human connection into Samus’ adventures, but that’s a tradition that begins with Super, reinforcing that loneliness through sound and stage design. Where the original games are all driven by courageous marches, and the tiny blips of Samus’ jumps, Super is immediately a different beast. The events of the previous games are retold as a hunter’s journal right at the start, the first time we’ve truly seen Samus’ thoughts on screen, and, as it turns out, the last we’ll see in this particular game. The first time the player gets control of Samus, it’s onboard the derelict space station from the title screen, utterly silent except for the unfeeling industrial hum of the ship.

We get to the room of the title sequence, and the bodies are still there, but the metroid inside the glass case is gone. When we find it, the silence of the scene breaks only as we see a glowing red eye in the dark, and Ridley fades into view. Storytelling through gameplay wasn’t a new concept in 1994, but it was very much an outlier when it came to establishing tension, and without the aid of cutscenes or voiceover, or even text to do any heavy lifting. Right away, Super Metroid is a game of not just constant discovery, but discovering time and time again that something is horribly wrong.

The same magic trick of narrative happens when Samus lands on Zebes. Years of training had us expecting to fire on the first thing that moves when Samus steps out of her ship. Except there’s nothing to fire on. Zebes is a dead planet when Samus arrives, battered with rain, with caves seemingly leading to nowhere, funneling Samus down through the labs where she fought Mother Brain in the original Metroid. No one has cleaned. No one has tried to reopen the place. It’s just dead, until Samus grabs her morph ball upgrade somewhere in the depths, and there is something so primally unsettling about the single spotlight that then shines on her, following her every move. Whatever is happening on Zebes, she’s absolutely not alone.

There are few examples of that simplicity of storytelling around this era–off the top, the long walk to Dracula’s staircase in Super Castlevania IV eerily lighting up candles to guide the way comes to mind, but that’s also an exception proving the rule. There’s such a unique patience to those first minutes in Super Metroid, for a game where the protagonist goes in with a cannon strapped to her arm, and even once the enemies start coming out of the woodwork, Super Metroid returns to that silence and patience when it has a new enemy or a boss to establish. It does it right away in fact; the first boss you fight on Zebes is one of the Chozo statues holding the Missile upgrade. What should be a place of safety is suddenly a fight to the death with a deadly bird-like goliath. And with that, Super Metroid teaches the valuable lesson so many games fail to impart: Samus is not just truly alone, but even the boons that help her may not actually be of of help. Souls games have brought that danger back, but of all the things the glut of Souls-likes try to copy, that’s not typically one of them.

There are a few titles that have attempted to deftly instill that peril upon the player. Axiom Verge, a game that feels like one of the most direct and blatant progeny of Super Metroid, performs those tricks admirably. The thing to remember is that at the time, Super Metroid represented a series unshackled from the NES. This is what series director Yoshio Sakamoto did with the freedom afforded by the Super Nintendo. And it’s telling that the 2D games he’d helm after all carried that element forward, albeit with far more narrative conceits to fall back on, like animated stills, and mission-giving AIs. The series has always done more with less. “More with less” isn’’’t necessarily uncommon in AAA gaming, but it is an ethos that’’’s too easy for creatives to ignore when they have more elaborate tools at their your their disposal. Given more horsepower, the approach has typically been to attempt realism or the look of cinema, while failing the things that games can do that cinema can’t. There are full fledged horror games that can’t accomplish across 20 hours what Super Metroid pulls off with just a single room with a Cronenbergian statue of the four main bosses and a low drone. It’s a difference between a game that’s trying to scare you rather than just being scary.

The bosses, in particular, are Super Metroid’s showcase for using the conceit of gaming for mood rather than challenge. That’s not to say Super Metroid’s bosses aren’t challenging, but aside from Kraid, there is always a more dramatic touch to these fights. They’re usually less about stopping the player from proceeding; rather, they focus on the abomination that is Samus’ enemy and encourage the player to consider the enemy to a greater degree than another piece of cannon fodder. The Crocomire fight is the obvious example: You don’t actually kill this thing, you just force it backwards to fall into a pool of acid. Try to exit through the other side of the room afterward, however, and the still-flailing corpse makes one last lunge at Samus before dissolving into a skeleton. There is a straightforward way to beat Maridia’s corpulent flying baddie, Draygon, but that way makes him one of the hardest bosses in the game. The “easier” way is a dare straight out of a Saw movie: Destroy a turret to expose the electrical conduit underneath, and then–then–when Draygon grabs Samus–, –fire the Grappling Beam into the wreckage to electrocute you both. It’s a strategy that, if you haven’t found enough energy tanks to upgrade her health to upgrade her health, can kill Samus in the process.

The final area in Tourian is the ultimate example: A metroid- -infested hellhole utterly hostile to Samus’ presence on sight, until suddenly, it isn’t. Samus comes to a room full of her most powerful enemies turned into lifeless piles of sand. This is, as it turns out, the realm of a massive, overgrown metroid sucking the life out of everything it sees… until it latches onto Samus and realizes it’s the first person it saw upon birth in Metroid II. This, ultimately, is not the final boss. That distinction goes to Mother Brain, who (alongside Kraid) delivers the full on giant monster type of horror, a boss that is fully just ugliness personified. Samus legitimately almost loses to Mother Brain, only saved by the famous deus ex metroid.

There have been multiple Metroid games at this point, and while the aptly titled Metroid Dread comes awfully close, Super Metroid’s legacy remains secure when it comes to committing to something more subtle whenever possible. 30 years on, it still has plenty to teach the new breed of exploration action titles about how to do more with less. What this genre can do can be utterly terrifying if a studio gives the game enough space to let the terror breathe. Surviving that terror is what makes Samus Aran’s triumphs all the more gratifying.