Like any good game, Super Metroid contains plenty of secrets. Some intentional, some less so. The sheer number of working parts in the game that collide as you put the programming code through permutations the developers couldn’t have predicted or accounted for inevitably make for some surprising interactions.
Some of the details are simply there for fun. If you manage to best Ridley in the prologue, it doesn’t change the outcome of the game… but it does embarrass your enemy by causing him to lose his grip on the baby metroid’s container. Rather than flying off because you’ve been bested, he takes off because you’re too awesome for him to deal with while he has to worry about his captive.
But then there are more arcane secrets. The Crystal Flash technique is demonstrated in the game’s rolling attract mode (which I didn’t even realize existed until I saw it on a demo loop at Waldensoft), but the attract mode doesn’t tell you how to activate it.
Besides being a Michigan-based chain of gas stations, Crystal Flash is also a super technique that allows Samus to convert weapon energy into health when low on life. The conditions for activating the ability are terribly specific: She needs to have 50 or fewer points of health, a large stock of all expendable weapon types, and nothing in her reserve tanks. Pressing an arcane button combination while in morph ball form will then allow her to enter this sort of energy cocoon that drains her weapon stock in order to restore health. It’s cool-looking – one of the few times we see Samus without her Power Suit outside of the original Metroid‘s New Game + – but few people would ever discover it on their own. It’s there, though, just in case.
That so many details were accounted for actually is one of the game’s more surprising features. The wall jump, for example, is a hidden ability that requires practice to master. And while you can use it to acquire certain items out of order, locations where you might potentially put it to use to severely break the game’s intended sequence have almost entirely been accounted for. Likewise potential bomb jumping sequence breaks; rather than removing a feature that allowed players to break open the original Metroid, Super Metroid‘s creators left it intact without gimping it and simply built their stages to reflect their awareness that their fans would be experimenting with that technique. This is the definition of great design: Empowering players, never tying them down or stripping away their abilities, but taking great care to make sure that empowerment doesn’t diminish the game experience.
Of course, there’s no stopping a truly determined army of obsessed fans, so naturally Super Metroid players have found weak points in the level layouts, or other ways to exploit the game design.
For example, even after you learn you can perform the Shine Spark flying dash, you may not realize you can execute it in several different directions. Up is obvious, but you can also fly along flat surfaces. If you’re really good, though, you can fly at a 45-degree angle – this requires exquisite timing and has very few practical applications. But you can use it break through a secret wall in your gunship’s landing area to access a small set of rooms that you could normally only reach upon returning from the Wrecked Ship through a certain door. There’s no real advantage to doing this, but again, the sense of personal empowerment that comes from doing things the “wrong” way is undeniably satisfying.
I’ve mentioned a few areas where the wall jump can be used to get to certain items out of proper sequence, but even here in the tutorial area you can find a test of wall jumping skill that goes beyond merely mastering the timing of the action. There’s a narrow gap in the wall to the right at the top of this shaft, only one block high, that Samus can’t simply leap into. Once she has the Spring Ball, it’s a simple matter to hop over there and acquire the power-up within – but you’re likely to stumble into this section long before acquiring that tool. With truly spectacular timing, though, you can wall jump over to the right and duck quickly into a ball, collecting the power-up and saving yourself the trouble of returning to pick it up later. Again, this is totally inessential… but when you pull it off, it feels amazing.
There are even more advanced exploits, things so specific and unintuitive the developers clearly never thought to test for them. For instance, you encounter a number of collapsing floors and descending gates early in the game that you should only be able to clear once you have the Speed Booster. But if you do an unaccelerated run while toggling the 45-degree aim controls, the resulting animation glitch may allow you to clear the descending gates before you’re supposed to. This can result in a more extreme form of sequence-breaking than simply snagging an extra missile early; one of the items hidden behind these gates is the Ice Beam, which allows you to gain access to all sorts of interesting places. Likewise, it’s possible to open green missile gates from the wrong side, granting you the ability to poke around in areas that you should only be able to explore much later in the game.
These tricks and exploits lack the enormity of, say, the “minus world” in Super Mario Bros. or wall-walking in the original Metroid. Nevertheless, they’re a part of the game, and they’re grown over time to be a part of its fan culture. In a sign of class, the Metroid folks acknowledged Shine Spark exploits in Metroid Fusion, locking down certain potential sequence breaks but at the same time acknowledging the skill required to pull it off. That sure beats Retro’s approach to the double-jump exploit in Metroid Prime, which they simply ironed out of the game altogether in rereleases of the game. Where’s the fun in that?
Both with and without its secrets and exploits, though, Super Metroid stands as a true classic. Its intuitive, gamer-friendly design walks a delicate tightrope between developer control and player freedom, and even when it’s exerting the former it demonstrates a remarkable ability to seem like it’s wallowing in the latter. No wonder so many developers – independent and otherwise – look to Super Metroid for inspiration. This is one of those rare games that you can look at and say, “Yes, this is how it’s done.”
– End: The Anatomy of Super Metroid –