Ginger Nuts of Horror
Retro-Horror Video Game Review: Super Metroid
There is a popular assumption that horror in video gaming didn't begin until what is (fallaciously) referred to as the “32-bit era,” that it came about with the likes of Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Whilst these were arguably some of the first to popularise what came to be known as “Survival Horror,” (a sub-genre in which characters are placed in extremely dire situations with little in the way of ammunition, health or defence and forced to run a gauntlet of traps, monsters and inevitable betrayals), the tropes, techniques and subjects of horror have been a part of video gaming arguably since its earliest days.
Super Metroid. I can already see some of you spitting across the screen in consternation. Super Metroid? That's not a horror game! It was a Super Nintendo title! Mario and Donkey Kong and Mega Man!
Go back and play it again. Look at it through adult eyes. The title screen alone borrows from a number of fairly evident sources (not least of which is Ridley Scott's Alien, which originally inspired the Metroid series) all of which are iconic of horror cinema. The camera panning over a darkened space, bodies littering the floor, the music chiming rhythmically, almost emulating a heartbeat, the chirruping of something unseen, something alien...panning out, revealing the creature at the heart of the carnage, as iconic in video gaming as the “xenomorph” of the Alien franchise is to cinema:
It's an exercise in tension building that, were it not for its pixellated format, wouldn't be out of place in the early frames of any science fiction horror film. Rare, not only for the era, but also for the console itself (Nintendo, particularly in its Western markets, almost exclusively targeted child or adolescent markets at this point). Not only that, but it's supremely effective; foreboding, unsettling. There's no action, no explosions; no demonstration of graphical flare...only the atmosphere, which deepens with every new screen.
Then the introduction of Samus Aran; the “Ripley” of the piece, and one of the very earliest female video game protagonists (not to mention one of the strongest, excluding the pollution of the character that occurred in the much lamented title Other M). Exploring the space station Ceres, she the player finds it in disarray, wandering through the environment seen in the opening credits, eventually finding the eponymous alien in a storage space, but not alone.
Something moves in the shadows, something emerging from the background...the first encounter, and one that sets the tone for all that will come after. Fans of the original game will get an extra jolt of recognition, as well as a sense of panic as they scrabble to fight off the alien monstrosity. Tension. Everything in the game is an exercise in atmosphere and manipulating player emotion (again, a rarity at this point in the medium's evolution, especially for what is ostensibly an action adventure piece).
The fight doesn't last long. Following that, a heart-pounding escape, a timer counting down to the space station's destruction as it collapses and erupts around you. Tension.
The descent to Zebes, the planet on which much of the game takes place, is characteristically unusual; quiet and tense, a heavy rain falling, the clouds dense, the terrain upon which Samus eventually lands rocky and barren. The design of environments is another area in which the game excels, the planet Zebes separated into distinct zones, all of which have their own themes and topography, not to mention environmental hazards, climates and denizens. From the moment you first land, there is a sense of palpable dread; as of something watching, waiting to reveal itself.
This is enhanced massively by the fact that there are no enemies. Not a single one. Also, no directions determining whether you should head left or right (the environment itself dictates that for you, obstacles such as certain types of stone or sealed barriers not allowing entry unless you have the right tools or have met the correct criteria). The music is minimalist, as was the style of horror cinema at the time, but also faintly orchestral, suggesting the manner in which it will later elaborate.
Samus's exploration of a darkened cavern reveals ancient machinery and architecture; suggestions of a civilisation that once was, or that is in a state of stasis, awaiting its time to reawaken. Alien insects dart and scamper throughout, harmless, designed to draw the player's eye, to make them suspicious and enhance tension. It works.
Nothing for several screens; only exploration, the atmosphere deepening, allowing the player to get to grips with the controls and the nature of the game (notice how each screen has its own unique environmental effects; dripping moisture from stalactites, drifting mist in the foreground, seeping slime and matter. Again, extreme rarities at this time, demonstrating the cinematic ambitions of both designers and programmers. Fans of the original NES title may recognise ruinous incarnations of environments they are well familiar with; the shattered remains of Tourian; the final area of the original game where Samus met and defeated the Mother Brain, its central antagonist.
Still nothing; no enemies. Only sealed doors and blocked off areas, the subterranean lighting shifting from almost total darkness to areas of fitful murk.
The first item, the activation of what seems to be a whirring security camera which fixes upon Samus before she can escape.
When the player returns to the previously uninhabited screens, not only has the environment changed (different lighting, different colour palette, background details that were obscured now revealed), but so has the music, becoming more ominous and threatening, and now, there are familiar enemies to contend with: the Space Pirates, who are the series' primary antagonists.
This is demonstrative of how Super Metroid makes a virtue of its technical limitations, utilising fairly basic, two dimensional graphics in highly creative ways to evoke atmosphere, foregoing the standard, “scrolling from left to right” formats that most other action adventure games of the era were typified by. There are moments of quiet, moments of stillness, in which the player character is given time to breathe and assess their environment, the enemies not merely placed as obstacles but often introduced as part of small set pieces, and always with reference to the environments in which they occur (in Crateria, the rocky plains and caverns in which the opening sequences occur, there are entities that resemble living stalactites, diving down with claw arms outstretched to burrow into the ground when Samus passes, swarm-like enemies that only attack if Samus disturbs their nests. In the comparatively lush, almost jungle-like environments of Brinstar, we find animated and extremely hostile plant-forms, moth and butterfly like entities, all seemingly designed to interact with their environments and to seem as though they are products of them).
The first “boss” encounter is an excellent example of the minor set-pieces that Super Metroid employs in order to enhance the ethos of the encounter, making it far more than something to simply be surpassed:
Upon entering a small, technological chamber, Samus finds an item on the outstretched palm of an alien statue. Upon taking the item, the door seals behind her, leaving the player to wander and investigate for a few moments before the statue cracks, a musical cue accompanying the blink of a glowing eye. The creature inside the statue roars, and the now-iconic “boss theme” begins.
The “monsters” in Super Metroid are a cut above those that one will find in most games of the era, not only in terms of their design, but also their placing and their introduction; they tend to operate in dynamic and highly atmospheric environments, usually “revealing” themselves in highly surprising and effective ways (the emergence of Kraid, a sprite which takes up five screens, making it one of the most enormous video game monstrosities ever to occur on the Super Nintendo system, is of particular note), all designed to enhance the player's sense of dread and tension. It also makes them far more challenging than their patterns would otherwise suggest, making the player panic and make mistakes.
This factor acts in conjunction with environmental set pieces such as earthquakes, collapsing tunnels and corridors, areas of extreme heat or that are flooded, all conspiring to elicit degrees of emotion from the player, which tend to climax in dramatic encounters with the entities responsible.
Nor is the style of horror the game attempts to deploy limited to one type: one of the primary areas of Zebes consists of a crashed, alien space craft, apparently left to rot over centuries, its systems barely functioning, the darkness inside haunted by the spectres of the original crew, which appear and disappear as hellish configurations of faces. Here, the player encounters one of the most distressingly designed creatures in the whole game: the spectral Phantoon, again, introduced via a small set piece in which it manifests from a ring of blue flame in the air, lending the entity an almost occult quality in a game that is primarily science fiction in subject.
For many, Super Metroid stands as their first introduction to horror in video gaming; the closest we came to such in Western markets of the 1980s and 1990s. Along with the likes of Contra/Super Probotector, Earthbound and a handful of others, Super Metroid provides echoes of what would come later; the tense and the distressing, the grotesque and disturbing. Those who remember it can likely already pinpoint particular moments that made them leap out of their skins or raised the hairs on the back of their neck. Though the moments of horror seem extremely tame by current standards, contextually, there was little to rival it, certainly not on the Super Nintendo, either in terms of its subject or sophistication. Even now, the style and gameplay stands up remarkably well, to the point that many independent developers or studios producing titles for handheld consoles still emulate it.
A remarkable example of how tension can be cultivated from extreme technical limitation; how even familiar formats can be creatively reworked to establish atmosphere and immersion.