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The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid (gamasutra.com)
194 points by jsnell on Apr 25, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

I don't comment much here, but this is one of my favorite articles...ever. I loved metroid as a kid. The idea that the game was deliberately leading me to a solution, while making it interesting, exciting, and rewarding is what I do with my children everyday. The fact I never noticed until now just shows how great that game was. Amazing. Makes me feel 12 again just reading it!

I last played it probably about 5-7 years ago (along with the primes and zero missions, was on a metroid bender). Re-reading it as an adult with little spare time, it was like playing the game but in a fraction of the time.

Thank you, poster, for preventing further loss of productivity.

One concept that's interested me is metroid as purgatory.

-Samus often repeats the same mission over and over with minor changes. Her enemies are generally Kraid, Ridley, Mother Brain, evil Samus(SA-X, Dark Samus)

-Samus is constantly repeating work getting the same power-ups and soon losing them after she completes the mission.

-Samus is mostly completely alone, unless saved by something else at the end. Everything in metroid's design emphasizes isolation.

-She blows up the planet/starship/space station, with a desperate race against time.

-Soon there is a new mission...

She's forced to repeat the same thing over and over. Perhaps she is stuck here eternally, a hell created as a reflection of her life. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned, like with the infant metroid before she can live.

The game design emhasizes isolation - there are only enemies, except artifacts left by the Chozo. Samus can only depend on herself. The world is designed to emphasize isolation from the real world by putting her on caverns below the surface of uninhabited planets. The art is designed to look like no human has set foot here. The gameplay teaches you through the world.

I think there's a fantastic parallel here to the Zelda series. Though there exists an official (and humorously bifurcated) "timeline" that determines where each game takes place chronologically, the fundamental premise, set pieces, and objectives of most of the games all echo each other. Rather than trying to fit all of these games into a linear narrative, I think it's more fun to think of each game in the Zelda series as a retelling of the exact same story, much as real-world legends change subtly over time as they are passed down through generations and across cultures.

Sounds more like Sisyphus, who was punished for lying by having to roll a boulder up a hill, when it would roll back down and he'd have to repeat the task.

Purgatory, as described in Inferno seemed like a reasonably well populated place, if not exactly a party.

I never played SM when it was originally out for some reason that's long since been forgotten. I first played it maybe 2 or 3 years ago and found it fantastic. Completely divorced from any nostalgia, I found myself really getting engrossed in the story, the environment and the design.

Even though it was 16-bit and 2D, I was completely absorbed in the environment. It feels like almost every screen and task had been poured over and over and polished until it was perfect.

It's actually kind of hard to play other games that haven't received that kind of attention because you feel the subjective difference.

It's so wonderfully designed that, even though the game ends up being pseudo-linear (everything you're going to do to progress has been more or less pre-determined), it felt like a world I really wanted to spend more time in and that I had an amazing amount of agency.

It's definitely one of those games that clearly qualifies as art in the sense that it has a story to tell and emotions it wants to evoke, while at the same time remaining interactive. I feel like this is the kind of level that Ebert was challenging games to reach when he claimed they weren't art.

While the game may feel linear from a casual play through, the speed running community have developed many sequence breaks (intended or not), to finish the game faster. With these you can grab items early, out of order, or not at all. If you were curious, you should look up a super metroid speedrun on youtube. Some of them even have a running commentary of glitches, techniques, or general information while they are being played.

As a counterpoint to this, I like this essay: A Maze of Murderscapes: Metroid II (http://forums.selectbutton.net/viewtopic.php?p=1384825#13848...). Regarding the level design of Super Metroid vs. other Metroid games, the author writes:

> Return of Samus is the only 2D Metroid with buildings the player can walk on and enter. Every door in Metroid II is located in abandoned buildings, and behind every door is an item that’s been sealed away like a time capsule. Each door is a barrier that is hopelessly locked, necessitating that you blast through it with missiles.

> Compare this to Super Metroid, where the continuity of the map is constantly sabotaged by the ridiculous bottlenecking of doors meant to transition into the next room. These doors are, of course, the perfect size for Samus to pass through and only her arsenal can open them. Some doors are located in outside areas where the sky is visible, making the game world feel like a box with holes poked in the sides of it. This problem endlessly reveals the artificiality of areas intended to seem organic and makes the game designers’ guiding hands hamfistedly obvious.

> The Space Pirates—somehow an entire species—mill around inside rooms between these doors as if they’re doomed to wait forever. Space Pirates don’t have missiles or Power Bombs, so how would they be inside places where these weapons are needed to ingress? It doesn’t feel like aliens on Zebes built those damn mazes or that they’re natural formations; it feels like sleep-deprived game developers built them

And as far as essays about level design go, this one about the level design in Super Mario Bros. is one of my favorite: http://auntiepixelante.com/?p=465.

Also see: A Maze of Murderscapes: Metroid II, a fantastic piece exploring the earlier game. http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/SRHoliwell/20150130/235329/A_...

The 16-bit era seems like perhaps a golden age of console gaming. Enough memory and CPU to do quite massive games, but still not burdened by 3D graphics and movement.

The Golden Age is when you're twelve. Always. Regardless of generation.

I dunno, that era of gaming seems to transcend nostalgia. It was basically the peak of 2d game development. The switch to 3d after that changed gaming forever in a way that seems to emphasize cinematic gaming over intricate mechanics. For those that prefer the latter, the SNES generation has yet to be topped.

> emphasize cinematic gaming over intricate mechanics

> the SNES generation has yet to be topped [for those who prefer mechanics]

Starsiege Tribes. Tony Hawk. DotA/LoL/HotS/etc. Dark Souls. Portal. N/N+/N++.

I believe that all of those games emphasize intricate mechanics over cinematic gaming, though I admit that the majority of them are also hoping for cinematics (as were most games of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras). To my mind, on mechanics alone, the SNES generation has been topped. Of course, it's also nice when a game is also beautiful (Dark Souls) or also has engaging story (Portal).

Check out Ori and the Blind Forest. It came out a month ago and is one of the best 2D metroidvania games I've ever played: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ori_and_the_Blind_Forest

Try Limbo.

3D is an option, not a requirement. There are plenty of modern 2D games.

Most of them are burdened by graphics. It sells better.

On the contrary, a lot of the 2d indie darlings have terrible graphics, they're burdened with hubris ("it can't be that hard to make pixel art") and nostalgia.

On the contrary, what? Who said anything about indie games specifically?

This sub-thread is talking about modern games, all of them. My comment still stands. Games that make most of the market share, are burdened by graphics.

Ori is a good example that does that. It's an indie game with a major publisher and was profitable within the first week. Its graphics are turned up to 11.

Have you heard of the phenomenon of Minecraft?

Interesting article... I just made a Metroid style game for Ludum Dare, and one of my key lessons from previous games was listed in the article: force people to use new tools. I have a room with a double-jump powerup, and you have to use it to get back out again. My experience was that otherwise, far too many people simply didn't figure out double jumping.


There's a fantastic series on YouTube that examines some of these types of game and level design elements in a similarly academic way. The episode on Half-Life 2's Invisible Tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMggqenxuZc) is particularly well done.

One word: overdesigned.

One of the reasons I disliked HL2 so much was because my experience of it was so controlled and funneled. I felt like the designers removed my agency, and tried to ensure that there was one right way to solve a problem, to the point of punishing me [1], or worse, main-routing[2] me when I sought an alternative route.

[1] One location early on requires you to break into a tunnel to come up behind and flank a guard shooting down at you with a mounted gun behind a screen. The problem is that the fact that a flanking tunnel exists means that the designers had no reason to make him possible to hit; it is actually possible to kill him head on, but it's difficult, and you will almost certainly take a lot of damage in the process (the punishment). The tunnel is just too damn convenient though, and breaks the suspension of disbelief; it's too obviously designed in.

[2] I invented the word main-routing to describe a situation where, when you're exploring shady nooks that you spot out of the corner of your eye, they look like they go somewhere interesting, so you go back to the main route to find out what the main stream does. But instead it dead-ends, and in fact that shady little corner you were exploring was the only way forward; what you thought was a secret shortcut was just the main route again, in a different guise. This is a double-whammy: not only does it break suspension of disbelief again, but it also punishes exploration. It teaches you that nooks are either dead ends that are pointless to explore, or that the main route will dead-end itself and you'll be forced to explore the nook. Either way, you have no choice in the matter, so you're better off sticking to the main route until it forces you to explore.

I really did not enjoy HL2. It was a cripplingly disappointing experience, especially after having played Deus Ex, which greatly increased my expectations from a game. Going back to playing a mute scientist with an alleged PhD yet whose only mechanism of interacting with the world is violence was like going back to the 90s.

Dead ends are there for a reason to create a sense of a larger world. They are usually blocked by some logical obstacle, and rarely actually lead to a short alternate area, but not an alternate path. Half-Life is linear by design, surely you must agree that a linear path that tries to create a bigger world is better than one without. Those paths perhaps broke the illusion for you, but at least there was some illusion and without the paths there would be none.

I agree with the first paragraph, the first game was better since it didn't constantly trap you in rooms, where you had to wait for dialogue to play out, which were just glorified cut-scenes. For example, in the first game if a friendly character tried to convey some dialogue you could ignore/kill/avoid him, but in the second game you can only wait.

There were plenty of situations in the first game where you had to wait for a character to finish his dialog and open a door or something so you can progress.

This may be subjective but I found Episode 1/2 much more compelling. This you try those as well?


This is something to keep in mind when praising games that manage to teach in-game concepts without floating text or explicit instruction. Games with familiar mechanics benefit from cultural context. To use an example from the OP: running. Those of us who grew up with Super Mario Bros. will be immediately familiar with the mechanic of a "run button" that exists as a modifier key to the movement buttons, but without context this is a remarkably undiscoverable concept.

This notion also penalizes games that don't introduce fundamental new mechanics over time, and instead give the player all their tools from the start of the game. Super Metroid gets away with using animal NPCs to occasionally demonstrate non-intuitive mechanics because they space these encounters out instead of front-loading them all into the player's face the moment they get off the ship.

Contrast Dark Souls, which I've seen criticized because of its use of fourth-wall-breaking how-to-play-the-game text in its opening level. But, firstly, Dark Souls is not a game that particularly cares about holding your hand (to put it mildly), and secondly its basic mechanics are more complex than Super Metroid's (though its specific choice of controls is admittedly god-awful). This is a recognition of the idea that it is more fun to actually play the game and exercise the controls than to waste your time guessing at which unknown concepts happened to be mapped to which controller buttons.

I think you're absolutely right. This touches on the de-emphasis of game mechanics in modern games in favor of story-telling (see 'The Order' as an extreme example of this -- I'm not saying this to criticize the game, I actually really enjoyed it for what it was).

I think games like Dark Souls strike a chord with people BECAUSE they have great mechanics that are fun in themselves without the need for story. For an EXTREME example of this, look at Flappy Bird. That game was pure mechanics. I'd also put Angry Birds in there as a game with very strong mechanics (with some framing elements). I think Doom is another game that did this wonderfully - to me at least, it plays very much like an arcade game.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I don't think it's the hand-holding per-se that presents a problem. I think what happens is that many games with very weak mechanics happen to have a lot of hand-holding, which leads us to blame the excessive hand-holding when it's just that the gamePLAY (emphasis on PLAY) was weak.

That's why I think it works fine for Dark Souls to have fourth-wall breaking text telling you how to play. The mechanics are strong enough that even when you're told what to do, actually doing it is a fun and playful challenge.

When I say 'play' what I specifically mean is - freedom to experiment within the game's mechanics to find a solution or defeat an obstacle. For that to work, the game has to provide enough mechanics and enough agency for the player to be able to explore them.

When I use the word 'mechanics', I mean anything that can be interactively explored in the game. So, a game's level design can provide mechanics. The way items or weapons work might provide mechanics, etc. A game might have really boring levels but interesting enemies. It might have no enemies and a really interesting world (Myst, for example). A game can make up for a lack of agency in one area (eg- a racing game set on real-world tracks) by providing lots of agency in another area (an interesting AI system that gives the player lots of ways to manipulate the AI in order to win).

The other factor with games like Dark Souls that does go back to hand-holding is that when you play them, you actually feel like you're becoming more skilled as playing the game, as opposed to just being really good at following instructions, or increasing some stat which basically amounts to the game artificially making things easier for you (I'm not saying this as a criticism, just as a point of difference to consider).

I agree with the content of the article, but there's one key secret that seems next to impossible to find without cheating. To my knowledge the entrance to Kraig is the only place in the game where there's a secret in an elevator room. If you fail to explore the elevator room, the story won't ever move forward. Here's a picture:


Shooting a super-missile at that block eventually leads you to Kraig.

It's been years since I played it, but if you look at the minimap in that screenshot, it seems you can get the area map before discovering that entrance. The unexplored blue area is a huge clue.

Yes. And if I remember correctly, if you bomb the block, the super missile logo appears on the block.

If someone was as bomb-happy as I was when exploring, the game would tell you a super missile is required to proceed when a bomb explodes. Bombed blocks change to show what smashes them.

The part that tripped me up when I was younger was using the power bombs to shatter the glass pipe to gain access to Marida. It looks like a piece of background, does not respond to any other weapons, is not colour coded or have any breakable indicators, and does not react to the X-Ray beam.

There are other ways into Maridia, though. I don't think you are actually required to bomb that glass.

IIRC, breaking into Maridia early doesn't even let you proceed. You don't have the gravity suit yet, so all you can do at that point is slog around a few rooms and then go back out the way you came. It's mostly just an Easter egg.

I think the instinct is to bomb that corner, because by this point the game has taught the player that secrets often are found by bombing a corner block and either rolling forward, or going up. When you bomb the corner, it tells you the type of device needed to destroy the block.

While I had that instinct most of the time, the fact that it's an elevator room made me miss this one, as elevator rooms are always 'in-between' spots to me. It's possible that playing Metroid Prime first might have played a role though, as in that game elevator rooms never contain secrets or important pathways.

For anyone that finds this article interesting, I recommend the Retronauts podcast. http://www.retronauts.com/

I started listening to it about a month ago, and immediately dove into their back catalogue and have listened to about half of the episodes from their current and previous season. Even when the episodes are about something I have little knowledge of, hearing about a game or producer's impact and legacy is really interesting and makes me want to go back and check the games out.

Super Metroid is easily in my top ten of greatest games ever, along with Zelda 3.

I also think it's one of the best games ever made.

I haven't played it in years, but I can still hear the sound of the power beam when you first land on the planet, with the lightning in the background. It sounds muffled and distant, like the atmosphere is really wet and heavy. They really nailed the 'alien' part of the experience.

Yes, I loved it too. The only thing I wish they'd done differently is not make me sit there for the music after every single missile powerup. Just watch a 100% TAS of it to see what I mean...

Don't forget Faxanadu for the NES, a similar semi-linear side-scrolling quest for power-ups.

Those mechanics are way too subtle. Today, the player must be explicitly told how to overcome obstacles. Games have become mainstream and so did the target audience, this caused a push towards the lowest common denominator in game design.

It could also be the case that game designers have gotten lazier, as the purpose of mainstream games shifts from challenging players to encouraging in-game purchases and DLC, and explicit tutorials take a lot less effort when all you really want to do is milk the casuals until they get bored and wander off to the next thing.

From the second paragraph:

"This analysis takes most of its material from the first playthrough of the game by my friend Rufus, which I had the pleasure of observing from beginning to end. Watching him, a complete newcomer to the genre, still find his way around Zebes in pretty much the same way I'd do, almost never once getting lost or stuck for any considerable amount of time, made me question how that could be. This analysis is my answer."

I presume this happened recently, with a gamer of "today".

Your logical fallacy is, drum roll... : Hasty generalization

Congratulations! You win nothing.

The popularity of the opaque and difficult Dark Souls/Bloodborne games proves that there is space for games that challenge the player.

What's different now than the era of Super Metroid is that there are vibrant communities where people can deeply discuss the mysteries of games and help fellow gamers discover how to move forward.

The key difference to this classic design style is that the Souls games don't really have the "invisible hand" guiding them in the right direction. It's almost the opposite.

Almost everyone who played Dark Souls probably has a story about heading in the wrong direction from the first hub world, and ending up in one of two locations that are almost impossible for a newbie (typically the skeletons) rather than the intended "slightly harder than the tutorial" area. The only thing that varies is how long they spent hopelessly beating their head against the wall before discovering the intended path.

In Bloodborne that's been replaced by half the players new to the series not realizing they can equip a weapon, and consequently spending hours trying to defeat the (rather tough) first enemy barehanded.

I absolutely adore the mental image of Dark Souls using its invisible hand to push players off of cliffs. :) It's a nifty demonstration of differing philosophies: Super Metroid wants to guide the player to minimize frustration, so that they get the satisfaction of non-linear exploration while avoiding the boredom that comes from fruitlessly trekking through the same place over and over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Dark Souls doesn't care a whit about frustration, and aims to give players a feeling of deserved triumph when they finally manage to surmount the previously insurmountable. I think there are room for games of both philosophies to exist, though they will surely appeal to different tastes.

People who want games like this have left that particular market. The players haven't changed, it the group that's willing to spend the most money that has.

I think one big difference is that we have the internet now, with wikis, Game FAQs, youtube walkthroughs, etc. I played Super Metroid using a walkthrough, and that completely breaks the illusion of exploration, because it's then clear to the player that the game is linear and there is always only one way you can go. (Metroid 1 holds up better in that situation, because it actually gives the player genuine choice about what order to do the different challenges).

The most popular game right now is probably Minecraft. Note how it exactly takes advantage of this environment: in order to have fun in it, you want to read tutorials about how to build various stuff.

there is such a wide variety of games available today that any sweeping statements like yours are by necessity untrue. but even if your thesis were correct, your conclusion is unsupported and honestly nothing more than insulting.

I don't necessarily agree with parent, but see Gran Turismo for a game that got a lot easier, with more content, as the series developed.

I'd love to see someone comparing the licence tests in each game.

I think Wonderboy III: The Dragon's Trap could be mentioned here for some of the same reasons. The animal upgrades you get along the game open up new possibilities and make the game awesome.

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