Analysis of Design – Super Metroid intro level

Ok, being inspired by some fantastic and intelligent analyses by titans like Extra Credits and the PBS Game/Show, I decided to do my own analysis of a classic first level, and how some basic game design can teach players essential information about the game that they’re about to play as well as the story and world in which they will play it. We’re going to be taking a look today at the very first moments of Nintendo’s SNES classic Super Metroid. Bear with me, there will be a lot of pictures.

Untitled

After a short bit of backstory and exposition by way of a text monologue, Samus is told that Ceres Space Colony is under attack, the place she literally just dropped of the only living metroid specimen (for those who don’t know metroids are a species dangerous alien parasite that siphon life force from their prey. They’re not evil per se, just used for evil.) She hurries back to the station and when the player gets control, they find Samus centered in the screen, with equal space on either side of her and a series of platforms below.

Starting

This is a subtle clue to the nature of the game as an open world experience; that there is not a specific direction in which their goal is, unlike in the early Super Mario or Megaman where the player generally spawns with an open road to their right. As they progress towards the platforms, the player can begin to see the speed at which Samus falls, and also how her arms move up to show that she is clearly falling rather than finishing a jump.

Falling Cues

It’s at this point that they then are funneled by visual cues to a door on the right. As you can see in the picture below, the stair lead up towards the right, away from the blank wall on the left, and towards the red arrow and door. As they get to the door, it makes a sound and slides open. Visual cues and audio cues working in perfect harmony.

Bottom of room 1

The next room does two very important things.

1: It makes absolutely sure that the player knows how to jump, which almost sounds too basic to be worth mentioning but, at no cost to the player, the little block in this room ensures that the player has at least become aware of one of the game’s integral skills. The stairs in the previous room are also tests of jumping skill, but could theoretically be bypassed by a new player if they run to the right off the second to last platform and land smack in front of the door. This one is literally impossible to pass without jumping.

Learning to jump

One of us is gonna have to move, block, and it ain’t gonna be me.

2: This room immediately begins building atmosphere. In the monologue at the beginning, we’ve just been told the station is under attack. Yet as we enter the area we find nothing, see nothing strange, hear no sounds of battle. There are no enemies here, no puzzles to solve, just empty corridors on a space station. The ambient sound of machinery humming begins to make the player anxious as it remains unchanged from the previous room. This builds tension and is central to the feeling of isolation that prevails in the game.

Atmosphere

At the end of this room the player exits through the right again, but this time, the screen fades entirely except for the door which is then slid to the left side of the screen while the environment fades back in with Samus entering through the door into the next room. This simultaneously disguises any loading time that might be necessary for the next area and builds even more tension. Going through doors in Super Metroid feels deliberate and methodical, and this animation helps to convey the feeling that you’re creeping through an abandoned space station. This next area has a set of stairs leading down further into the complex, and while there’s nothing really in this room right now, it’ll be important later so remember it!

Stair set up

This is that room. Study it. Know it like you know your name.

In the next room, we finally find something out of the ordinary which confirms that the growing sense of unease we have is not without cause: a set of dead bodies. It’s in this room that we get the narrative connection to the scenes from the cutscene at the start of the game. The glass that the baby metroid was being held is has been shattered, the scientists who were standing around it are dead, and there are no discernable signs of the metroid or whatever might have taken it. This room brings a lot of questions to a player’s mind, and takes the creepy atmosphere of the game to the next level.

Narrative Connection

After another long hallway to build more atmosphere, the player finds the baby metroid, locked in a glass tube on the far side of the room. It hovers slightly and appears to be alive, and cries out when the player enters the room, (The first sound the player has heard besides ambiance or doors opening.) Things just don’t feel right about this place though, and for good reason. Shortly after the player enters, the ambiance stops, the map disappears, and the player finds that the door has been locked. They are given just enough time to see a ghastly red eye flicker in the darkness and then Ridley leaps out of the shadows, grabbing the baby metroid and attacking Samus.

Enter Ridley 2

Even though the player hasn’t even been taught how to shoot yet, they are faced with a powerful monster for the game’s first enemy. However, the odds are that in their panic at being suddenly jumped by a purple dragon, they’ll figure out how to fire off a few shots. This seems pretty unfair to the player at first glance, but it’s all orchestrated in an effort to increase player investment and engagement by giving them a reason to want to learn and grow. There’s no way to kill Ridley at this point, and even if the player lands a few shots, they most likely will find themself clearly outmatched. Luckily, after a period of time or once the player’s energy gets low, Ridley will take the baby metroid and run. It’s a scripted event, yeah, and even though the player can’t kill or be killed by him, his fight teaches the player a lot in terms of the characters involved. It shows off a few of Ridley’s moves, which are sweeping, fearsome, and far more dangerous than anything the player can muster at the moment, while also showing the way that he moves around the screen and how his attacks land, giving the player an idea of what to expect in the later fights with him. In terms of the narrative, this fight gives the player a look at how powerful Ridley is compared to Samus and brutally shows that they’re going to need to get a lot stronger to face him. It’s the beginning of a rivalry that runs parallel with the narrative one between Ridley and Samus. After this fight the player has a personal reason to want to defeat him, which is reinforced by the lore of the game as well as general boss design logic. Ridley will always leave before the player dies, but once he does, the player is given some bad news: he’s blowing up the station when he leaves.

Evacuate

The player is then given a minute to run back through the previous rooms and leave the station, there are no real obstacles in their way for this sprint up until the room with the stairs that I said to remember. It’s here that the player is eased into learning a slightly more subtle facet of the jumping mechanic. To progress here (as well as out of the room you battle Ridley in) the player has to understand that holding down the jump button increases the height of Samus’ leap. (I know this is the same basic analysis of how design teaches a mechanic from Extra Credit’s Mario level 1-1 video, but it holds true in Super Metroid as well and I would be loath to not mention it simply because the same concept appears in another game and analysis.)

Stair Challenge

It seems like common sense to people who play video games a lot, but to a complete beginner this is something that would trip a lot of people up. The jump is relatively low in terms of difficulty, but a tap of the button will definitely not suffice, you have to hold it for a solid “One Mississippi” count in order to make it through here. Once that skill is learned, it’s put to the test in the elevator room where the player has to ascend the series of platforms they previously dropped from in order to return to their ship and to safety. As a side note, I feel like the fact that the player is asked to do this on a timer is honestly a really cool look at some old fashioned game sensibility, where failure was failure even in the tutorial level. So many times in the fast paced, action packed intro levels of modern games I’ve been told by NPCs that “WE GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE” or “IF WE DON’T HURRY WE MIGHT NOT MAKE IT,” only to be free to wander about to my hearts content, picking up collectibles and knick-knacks as tip pop-ups fill me in on every aspect of the game. Dawdle about in Super Metroid’s tutorial, and you wind up with a nice long cutscene of the space station you’re on turning into a brilliant explosion followed by a Game Over screen.

Game Start

After a harrowing escape, Samus tracks and follows Ridley to Zebes where the player truly begins the game. The next time they get control they are once again in the center of the screen facing forward, indicating that they have full agency over which direction they would like to proceed in. This is a fantastic way of telling the player that Super Metroid is an open world game, regardless of it’s 2D graphics. Up, down, left, right; the player gets to explore. And that, in of itself is part of what makes the introduction of Super Metroid so strong. It gets the player in touch with the world immediately through the creepy atmosphere and subtle teaching methods. You land on the planet with full health, an understanding of how to jump, a gun, and a vague idea of how to use it. You get to learn all the rest as you leap forward into the unknown.

Questions

  • Is there any significance in the player moving down so much? What does the descent teach players about the game or it’s world?
  • Why is the player not taught that they have the ability to sprint when the timer starts ticking down?
  • How does Ridley teach basic gunplay, even while remaining a scripted fight?
  • Why is it important to visually differentiate between when Samus has dropped off an object and when she has jumped?

Feel free to talk about these questions or any others you might have down below in the comments, and if you notice anything that doesn’t really make sense or that you want to talk about, be sure to let me know. I’m not a design expert, I’m out to learn like all the rest of us. Good Gaming ladies and gentlemen!

6 comments on “Analysis of Design – Super Metroid intro level”

  1. Tyler Graham says:

    Hey, I’m really glad I found this because I have actually designed a few assignments around Extra Credits’ Design Club series, and it looks like you’ve unwittingly completed one of them. If you’re interested, it’s at tinkerspace-edu.tumblr.com/courses/extracredits-designclub

    Anyway, enough with the self-promotion. I haven’t played through Super Metroid, but I am going to watch through a Let’s Play of this section so that I have a better idea what you’re talking about.

    Okay, I’ve watched through the first part of a Let’s Play, and I think I have an answer for your second question (why is the player not taught how to sprint). I think that the main purpose of the countdown sequence is to teach the player how to aim for a platform and land on it, and that the added mechanic of extra speed may complicate and convolute this tutorial. I’m guessing the designers have another section where the sprint ability is highlighted, which occurs AFTER this section, in order to effectively layer the tutorials and not overwhelm the player.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Jackson says:

    First off, thank you so much for the comment and for engaging with some of the questions! That analysis assignment looks like an awesome exercise in recognizing design and finding out what makes the teaching of individual components to a player a smooth and engaging experience. I actually might give a few of these analyses a shot just on my own for fun!

    As far as the specifics of Super Metroid, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The timer section at the end is a perfect opportunity to give players a chance to test out precision jumping. The timer of 60 seconds is actually pretty long for how little the player really needs to do in it, but it gives enough of a ticking clock that the player is given pressure to achieve the task at hand on time. This sort of precision under fire (often literally) is a core component of Super Metroid’s platformer/shooter gameplay, and throwing out another advanced mechanic like sprint at the same time might just serve to set people up for failure at a later time when they are in more imminent danger. I know that I’ve been met with failure many a time in a game because I was messing around with all the fancy tricks I’d been given, while if I had stuck to the core components and slowly gotten used to the advanced moves I would have fared far better. So, I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say that the sprint is left out in order to layer the tutorials and keep the player on a nice even learning curve.

    Thanks a ton for your great input! What games are you looking at for your assignment, and what are you thinking you might want to focus on for a few of them?

  3. Tyler Graham says:

    For the first one I am going to expand on EC’s analysis of the tutorials in Portal. It is taking a long time because 90% of the game is tutorials and they are all incredibly precise in their design. If you ever do any more analyses like these please let me know!

  4. Jackson says:

    Nice choice! I’d love to see how it turns out! And I definitely will keep you posted!

  5. sharc says:

    One of Super Metroid’s few mistakes is that it doesn’t specifically instruct the player within the game about running until they pick up the Speed Booster. Players either know from outside the game (read the manual, watched someone else play), or learn about it through unprompted experiments with the controls.

    The end result is that a surprising amount of new players get stuck at the Brinstar screen with the walkway made of collapsing blocks: http://metroid.wikia.com/wiki/A_Bridge_Too_Far

    This is the first moment that explicitly requires running ,and it comes long before the Speed Booster. Barring advanced tricks, it’s impossible to get past here without running because at the regular walk speed the blocks erode too fast to make it across.

    As for Samus’s two different mid-air animations? Looking at her posture tells you if she’s currently rising (arms lowered, legs tucked) or falling (arms raised, legs extended). Part of that is just artistic detailing to sell the momentum and physicality of these actions. But even if you’re in a room so large and open that there’s nothing else onscreen to gauge your relative speed and position, you can partly read it from her sprite. It quietly slips the player visual cues that help form an intuition for how her jump controls.

    That doesn’t really hold true with the spinning animation from a directional jump, though, does it?

    Welp.

  6. Jackson says:

    Yeah, while I do think that they developers were hesitant to crowd the opening segment with too much information on how the game works, your point about the bridge makes me feel like there has to have been a missed opportunity to better instruct the player in how to use the run ability. However, I’m having a hard time thinking up how they might better convey the concept in a less blunt manner than a controller map or related tutorial box.

    I suppose it’s possible that they could have implemented a narrative aspect to prompt the player to experiment with the controls if they weren’t already familiar with them, i.e, perhaps during the self-destruct segment, they could put a little less time on the clock and have a character radio to Samus a message that highlighted a need for more speed than the regular walk function provides. However even that is pretty clunky, and might serve to clutter the opening level as Tyler suggested earlier. I actually wasn’t familiar with the notoriety of “the noob bridge,” and I appreciate that you brought it to light here!

    As far as the spinning jump goes, I think you hit the nail on the head with artistic detailing, because I also could think of for the directional animation is purely aesthetic and possibly a bit of muscle flexing on Nintendo’s part with the graphical capabilities of the SNES.

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