Version tested: Wii
Aaaah. That's the sound of contentment. That's the sound I make whenever one of Nintendo's truly classic games pops up on the Virtual Console. That's the sound I'm making right now. Admittedly, it's also the noise I make when I have terrible trapped wind, which confuses matters somewhat, but I'm 99% certain that I'm making the noise right now because Super Metroid has finally morph-balled its way to virtual European shores. Aaaaah.
That last one was trapped wind. Sorry.
- Platform: SNES
- Wii Points: 800
- In Real Money: GBP 6.00 / EUR 8.00
Retro gaming is too often a subjective meringue filled with either unpalatable sugary nostalgia, used to disguise the bitter tang of reality, or impossibly tough chewy bits that seemingly only exist so that "hardcore gamers" can brag about how they're able to digest them. Thankfully, there are also games - not many, but enough - that are as obviously great today as they were when they first appeared.
Super Metroid is that kind of game, joining Zelda and Mario as one of the reasons that Nintendo's first-party line-up remains the strongest around. Indeed, with such a beloved and fawned over game, it's hard to find things to say that won't be preaching to the converted.
Picking up where Metroid 2 left off on the NES, we rejoin Samus Aran as she delivers the last remaining Metroid larvae to a research station. No sooner has she left for adventures new than a distress call pulls her back in. Although this sounds like a typical "here we go again" sequel storyline, it's handled with a surprisingly amount of grace. Brave is the 1994 videogame that opens with lengthy sections in which you simply wander through eerily abandoned rooms with nothing to shoot or jump on. You descend into the research station, in a sequence which lovingly riffs on Aliens, and eventually do brief battle with the giant lizardy thing that has caused all the carnage. This triggers the self destruct sequence and you then have to leg it back out again as the level collapses around you.
And the game doesn't stop its narrative ambitions there. The fate of the last Metroid larvae is rather touching, and actually makes sense of the obligatory Super prefix in the title. You'll revisit locations from the very first Metroid game in a way that feels poignant rather than lazy. It's a game that has clearly been designed to be played, the late great Gunpei Yokoi and his team putting very obvious thought into how and when players will discover new elements of the free-roaming adventure, and ensuring that boredom or frustration never rear their fanged heads. Samus Aran's infamous arsenal is as varied and flexible as ever, adding fresh weaponry and skills at just the right pace, while there's always another nook or cranny to investigate in your search for the way forward, or just obsessive completion.
Produced in the dying days of the SNES era, and released only a few months before the Japanese launch of the PlayStation ushered in the next generation, this is a game that pushes its technology to the limit, creating a bold and memorable experience along the way. It may look like a 16-bit title, but there are audacious gameplay ideas in here that were years ahead of their time. It's no wonder that Konami's equally magnificent Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would take a lot of, ahem, inspiration from this ingenious adventure.
There are few games that I would class as truly essential, games that are indispensable as both entertainment and as milestones along the road of videogaming history. Games that everyone should play. Super Metroid is one of those few.
Probotector II: Return of the Evil Forces
- Platform: NES
- Wii Points: 500
- In Real Money: GBP 3.75 / EUR 5.00
While Probotector is more of a run-and-gun shooter, it still seems like an odd choice to release under the shadow of Super Metroid. Superficially at least, with their 360 shooting arc, they're similar enough that Probotector can't help but look like a less appealing ancestor.
Probotector is, of course, the European title for the Contra games, the rugged chops of Lance Bean and Bill Rizer replaced with generic armoured spacemen (making comparisons to Metroid even harder to ignore), and this particular version began life as Super Contra, which Kristan already eviscerated in his review of the Xbox Live Arcade edition.
The NES version available here is marginally less frustrating than the arcade version ported for XBLA, slightly tweaked as it is for home play, but it's still painfully difficult, a standard-bearer for one-hit-kill gameplay in which the slightest contact with anything that moves snatches away one of your three lives and all the power-ups you've painstakingly amassed.
And these power-ups can't just be picked up. No, these are the sort of power-ups that must be shot down from their floating trajectory across the top of the screen while you're fending off enemies from all sides, and jumping to dodge bullets. Significant progress without these elusive little bastards is a fool's dream, so losing them all and being forced to carry on halfway through the level with the most basic weaponry puts you on an inexorable spiral to failure. Some games make you jump through hoops. Probotector makes you jump through hoops that are on fire. And covered in barbed wire. With a pit of broken glass and dog poo on the other side.
It's precisely the sort of impossibly hard chewy experience that I railed against at the start of the Metroid review, and no doubt some grizzled veterans are already furiously hammering their bleeding finger stumps against the keyboard for even mentioning such ferocious difficulty in a negative way. Which is fine. If you're one of the elite few who get off on such sadistic gameplay, you won't need any encouragement to revisit this.
But for everyone else, this is more pain than fun. With the superior and more balanced SNES sequel Super Probotector already on the VC this release isn't exactly scratching much of an itch and, when played alongside the sublimely paced Super Metroid, the gulf between brutal arcade games that were designed to require a steady flow of coins and console games that were designed purely as entertainment has never been clearer. There is fun to be had with Probotector 2, it's just a fun that most modern gamers won't enjoy all that much.