the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Architecture of Metroid (The Early Years)

The Architecture of Metroid (The Early Years)

Super Mario Bros. may be the archetypal 2D platformer, and The Legend of Zelda is generally seen as one of the foremost paradigms of the action-adventure genre, but one thing that neither of those games has accomplished is having an entire subgenre named after it (unless you count “Zelda clone” as a specific subgenre). Enter the Metroid series, which pioneered the action/adventure/platforming/exploration subgenre that we now know as “Metroidvania.” (The “vania” part comes from the Castlevania series, specifically the 2D installments from Symphony of the Night onward, though those were heavily influenced by Super Metroid.) Some people also use the term “Castleroid” to describe the subgenre, but to me, that word just sounds like something that would make it painful for a monarch to sit down.


The original Metroid (released in 1986 in Japan, 1987 in North America, and early 1988 elsewhere) laid the foundation for all Metroidvania games to follow. At first glance, it resembles a Contra-esque run-and-gun-type game, with the player character running through side-scrolling stages, shooting enemies and jumping across gaps. However, anyone that’s played a Metroid game knows that it’s so much more than that. Instead of charging through a series of linear gauntlets, you instead must navigate your way through a massive non-linear world filled with many interconnected passages. Exploration has always been a large part of the Metroid series, and with no in-game map, you’ll be doing a lot of exploring in the original NES game.

The other major hallmark of Metroidvania games – and the thing that separates them from earlier adventure games like Pitfall! – is the way that the upgrades you collect not only boost your combat ability, but also aid you in exploration. One of the most famous tools in Samus’s arsenal is the Ice Beam, which can freeze enemies. A frozen enemy is obviously much easier to fight, and shattering an enemy with a missile after freezing it has proven to be an extremely effective combo throughout the series. However, the Ice Beam is also notable in that it makes it easier to get around; flying enemies can be frozen in midair (try not to think too hard about the physics behind this) and then used as stepping stones to reach higher locations.

Back when Metroid was released, this combination of combat, platforming, and upgrade-based exploration was new and alien to gamers. There simply wasn’t any other game like it. The level design itself makes this apparent right from the beginning. Since the early days of gaming, whenever we are presented with a side-scrolling view, we have been conditioned to move to the right side of the screen. If you do this in Metroid, you eventually find this:

"This... isn't the end of the game... is it?"

To get anywhere in Metroid, you’ll actually need to travel left from the starting screen to pick up the Morph Ball (or the Maru Mari for the purists out there). Once you have that, you can squeeze through the small opening seen in the screenshot above and continue to the rest of the game. In side-scrolling games released since, it isn’t uncommon to find secrets hidden to the left of the starting point, but there are very few games that actually require you to check behind you before charging to the right.

As influential as the level design in Metroid was, it is not without its faults, mostly related to the hardware and software limitations of the NES. At less than 1 megabyte in capacity, an NES cartridge cannot hold a lot of data. The developers of Metroid worked around this limitation by building the game with a series of cut-and-paste environments. The game keeps track of your location on a grid, and uses values on that grid to determine what segment of the environment to load (similar to how data compression/decompression works). To conserve memory, many rooms (particularly vertical shafts) are comprised of the same segment repeated several times. There are also many areas that look almost identical to other areas in the game.

These are all different Missile Expansions.

Metroid II: Return of Samus

After the success of Metroid, a sequel was inevitable. But unlike Mario and Zelda, Metroid’s first sequel was not on the NES, but on the Game Boy. Released in 1991 in North America and 1992 elsewhere, this portable chapter in Samus’s history didn’t receive nearly as much praise as the other games in the series, but it did introduce many innovations that became mainstays in the franchise. Metroid II was the first game in the series to feature save points, Samus’s gunship, the ability to crouch and shoot, the ability to shoot downward while jumping, the Spazer Beam, the Hyper Beam, the Spider Ball, the Spring Ball, and the Space Jump. It also had a large impact on the appearance of Samus’s power suit. In the original Metroid the difference between the regular suit and the Varia Suit was a simple change of color. Switching missiles on and off was also indicated by a palette swap. However, with only four shades of grey (or cabbage green, as it were) to work with, this approach was not feasible in Metroid II. Instead, picking up the Varia Suit added large, round shoulder… things, and switching missiles on would open up a “missile hatch” at the end of Samus’s arm cannon. These aesthetic changes have been present in every Metroid game since. (An in-depth video by LPer MeccaPrime detailing Metroid II’s influence on the series can be seen here.)

As far as level design goes, Metroid II actually took a few steps backward from the first game. Instead of a labyrinthine web of passages, the game has a linear main path with disconnected areas branching off, much like leaves growing on the branch of a tree. However, the main passage is filled with acid, and the only way to continue is to kill all of the Metroids in each “leaf” before the acid lowers and grants you access to the next one. This makes it practically impossible to sequence break, that is, impossible to complete objectives in a different order than intended, or even skip objectives altogether. While eliminating sequence breaking may seem like one of the goals of a polished game, and therefore a good thing, the potential for sequence breaking has always been part of the appeal of the Metroid series among the more dedicated players.

Another thing that separates Metroid II from Metroid 1 and Super Metroid is the fact that the world of Metroid II, SR388, is spatially impossible. With the other two games, you can take all of the pieces of Zebes and put them together like a puzzle, and they will line up, with nothing overlapping. Elevators may be a bit longer than they appear in the game, but they still travel straight; two elevators that are 29 screens apart on Crateria will lead to two elevators in Brinstar that are also 29 screens apart. However, SR388 has many areas that, when put together, overlap. Below is a map of a section of SR388, with the overlapping areas highlighted in red.

Who says you can't be in two places at once?

Of course, the fact that parts of SR388 overlap doesn’t actually impact the gameplay in any negative way. And despite the things I’ve said so far, the level design isn’t bad – it’s just not up to the same high standard as the other games in the franchise. If you’re a fan of the series, or simply a fan of old Game Boy games, you might want to check Metroid II out, since it’s still one of the better games for the original Game Boy.

Super Metroid

Last week, I said that Nintendo franchises that started on the NES generally underwent a massive increase in quality when they moved to the SNES. The two series for which this is most true are The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. Everything that the original Metroid did right, 1994’s Super Metroid did even better, and just about everything that Metroid 1 did poorly, Super Metroid fixed. With improved gameplay, design, graphics, and sound, it’s not hard to see why this is considered not only one of the greatest games on the SNES, but also one of the greatest games of all time. Super Metroid truly has stood the test of time, and the experience still holds up to this day.

Although Metroid 1 laid the groundwork for all subsequent Metroidvania games, it’s Super Metroid that most games in the subgenre are trying to emulate. While the exploration-aiding upgrades in the original game were all found relatively early, the upgrades in Super Metroid are acquired in more of a steady trickle. You still find the Morph Ball, Missiles, and Morph Ball Bombs almost immediately, as is customary within the series, but after that the upgrades are spaced fairly evenly throughout the game, and new areas are uncovered gradually.

However, this style of gameplay comes with a price: backtracking. The game is designed in a way that keeps backtracking to a minimum if you know what you’re doing, but unless you have a photographic memory of the game or a walkthrough in front of you, you’ll often find yourself running halfway across the map (especially if you’re trying to collect all of the upgrades). Thankfully, given that each room typically has its own set of challenges, backtracking in Metroid games is not terribly tedious, and can even be fun in its own way.

The more powerful hardware of the SNES also does wonders for the game’s level design. With much more memory available, the cut-and-paste corridors of the original game are gone, replaced with hundreds of unique and distinctive rooms. The improved graphics, beyond making the game look absolutely gorgeous, add a lot to the atmosphere of the game. I will admit that I played this game for the first time very recently (which is how I know that the experience has withstood the test of time), and found it to be much more immersive than F.Three.A.R., which is supposedly a combination of horror game and first-person game, generally the two most atmospheric genres. Metroid games famously have a strong sense of solitude and isolation, but each of Super Metroid’s areas present the feeling differently. Maridia is dark and lonely, but oddly calming; Crateria, despite being overcast and drizzly, has a serene feeling to it; and the Wrecked Ship is downright spooky. You may even get an eerie sense of déjà vu early in the game.

I'm getting the feeling that I've been here before.

The developers were also a lot more clever in hiding the dozens of Missile Expansions and Energy Tanks (and Reserve Tanks and Power Bomb Expansions) this time around. While the first game simply had a majority of the upgrades sitting out in the open, Super Metroid often tucks them away behind some sort of barrier that requires a certain weapon to deactivate/destroy, or conceals them in plain sight. My personal favorite upgrade can be found in Maridia. As you climb a tall room, you may spot a Missile Expansion just sitting in a wall.


If you have the X-Ray Scope, you can scan the area for an idea on how to get it.

Those two blocks underneath it are Boost blocks, meaning they will only break if you are moving very fast.

To obtain this Missile Expansion, you must perform an advanced technique called a Shinespark. After building up speed, press down to store the energy, then press the jump button to shoot straight upward extremely quickly. In this particular room, you must build up speed at the bottom before Shinesparking and “threading the needle” between several platforms.


Just in case relying on trial and error and blindly Shinesparking your way up the room are not your idea of fun, the developers actually included a subtle visual hint as to where exactly to initiate the Shinespark. If you fall straight down from the Mission Expansion, you’ll find that you land on a small patch of grass that looks slightly different than the surrounding vegetation.

Samus Aran does her best Vanna White impression.

Super Metroid is actually full of helpful visual cues like this. In another room, you must jump across a series of platforms suspended above acid. By this point, you will have obtained the High Jump, and jumping too high means that you won’t be able to see the platforms anymore. To aid your platforming, the developers added columns in the near background that indicate where the solid ground is.

I came to get down, I came to get down, so get out your seats and jump around

Over the years, Super Metroid has also garnered a reputation as a speed runner’s paradise. The potential for sequence breaking is absurd, in the best possible way. The game is polished enough that a first-time player will likely complete the game as intended, but someone with a good deal of ingenuity, quick reflexes, and intimate knowledge of the game can use tricks like Wall Jumping, Mockball, and the Gravity Jump to complete the game in any manner they choose. Some of the sequence breaking opportunities were even put into the game on purpose by the developers. In the years since, sequence breaking and speed running have become a huge part of the franchise’s identity, so much so that there is an extensive website dedicated entirely to cataloguing the various tricks throughout the series. (Naturally, when Metroid Fusion was designed to make sequence breaking next to impossible, the fans were not pleased.) To see some of Super Metroid’s mind-blowing techniques in action, feel free to watch some of the excellent speed runs.

Nintendovember will conclude next week at The Architecture of Gaming. When I mentioned that I would be discussing Nintendo games that helped pioneer certain genres, Mario, Zelda, and Metroid were probably the first three that came to mind for many of you. But what will the fourth game/series be? Place your bets now.

One Comment

  1. Just excellent, as always! It’s a fantastic tribute to Metroid’s early days, and goes on to explain how Metroid was just a fledgling entry in the now massive subgenre, which also explains why I didn’t get into the series until I rented Super Metroid just to see what all the fuss was about, despite not having enjoyed the first game. I’ve grown to appreciate it now, but as I kid, I hated it.

    Anyway, I think this is the first time that I’ve gotten all of the references in your pictures (friggin’ hilarious, by the way). I’d noticed the plant in Super Metroid before, and ascertained its purpose, but never really knew what those pillars were for before. I’d just used my Platforming intuition.

    As for the next, my money’s on either Kirby or Donkey Kong (mainly of the Country variety, but also perhaps including Donkey Kong ’95).

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