After pressing start: Super Metroid and efficiency
(After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those stories influence the arcs of video games. A variety of games he’s totally never talked about before will be featured. This might be sarcasm. Previous Entries:
Have a suggestion about a game to discuss? Post it in the comments!)
Modern games have and exploit their freedom to be inefficient. Given all the technological prowess of modern consoles, hundreds of staffers, professional scores, and micro management, how could they not lavish attention on these facets? Games spell things out for us, make sure we aren’t lost, and take pains to set us on the stage. Retro games and modern indies don’t have that luxury. They have limited graphics, limited sound, limited everything.
But limits are good. Just ask me: sat alone, able to write anything, I will often write nothing. Given a task, I’ll get it done. Limits encourage creativity, and they encourage efficiency.
It’s no surprise my target for discussing efficiency is Super Metroid, the most efficient game in existence. It’s a master’s class in player education, and I urge you to take it. Its introduction, unmentioned in that post, is one of its most interesting features: absurdly efficient in its tone setting, full of call-backs and call-forwards, and focuses the lens for the rest of the adventure.
Super Metroid’s introduction features three components: a creepy crawl through a deserted space station, a fight with a boss you thought to be dead (the immortal Ridley), and a surprisingly tense escape sequence. In about five minutes the game has told you everything you need to know about its plot: there’s a Metroid, it’s lost, and you need to go find it. And Ridley’s going to try to stop you.
But what it really does is set the game’s tone, one of desolation and desperation. It places the lens squarely on Samus: she’s all alone in a difficult, creepy world. It brings out some of the proto-horror elements by combining the space station’s emptiness with a tense, timed escape. It is a microcosm of the game’s tone: you’ll go periods without being pushed, but you’ll always be worried one’s coming. The game doesn’t throw the timed pressure element at you very often (only once, by my count, before Ridley’s lair, and the only true timer comes after defeating Mother Brain), but when it does it’s terrifying. Even when you’re not specifically timed, the game has plenty of high-pressure rooms where you’re forced to make decisions under fire.
Your decisions become what the game focuses on, and like most Metroidvania’s Super Metroid fakes you out: it shows you this stellar world then makes you the star. It does this by making the intro a space never used, never acknowledged by the game again. Whatever galactic governing body you work for, the only other people in the world are never seen beyond the title screen. Ridley itself is not seen until the climax of the game. It’s efficiency through assets: by setting the beginning in a completely throwaway location, we won’t think about it. We’ll think about the elements that carry over from it to other segments of the game: Samus, Ridley, the creepy atmosphere, the tension. These are what we’ll remember.
Ridley’s inclusion itself is a nice callback. I’m comfortable declaring Super Metroid the best sequel ever because it doesn’t shy away from going back to its source material, the first Metroids. It builds the horror aspect by bringing back Ridley from the first game, making him defeat you in unfair combat, taunt you. Much of the beginning of the game features old areas prominently, reminding you of encounters in the previous Metroids; this makes it less surprising but also more dreadful when these encounters recur.
Super Metroid uses a very limited amount of space to manipulate its player. Rather than rely on a long-form, hours long introduction to make sure you aren’t lost or alone in a new world, this is the feeling that Metroid revels in. It wants you to feel lost and alone, because its confident its quality level design will guide you where you need to be. It knows it can drive you through its creative muscle, and it’s not going to let you get away.
It’s this efficiency of design that’s missing in modern games oftentimes. We’re given a half hour of tutorials and even more scenes setting up where the plot’s going to go, which is a buffer keeping us from playing the game. There are games out there that take longer to set up than Super Metroid‘s entire run time! The creative limitations of the Super Nintendo, of old technology, forced Metroid’s designers to keep things short and sweet, and that’s why we remember the game so well: it doesn’t overstay its welcome.