Spoiler Alert: This blog entry describes the plot and final battle of Super Metroid on the SNES. If you haven't played this game to completion and do not want the ending spoiled, you shouldn't read any further.
I grew up gaming. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is of my father holding me up in front of a pinball machine (the Gorgar table) and helping me hit the buttons on the flippers so that I could bounce the silver ball around. I think I lasted all of about twenty seconds, but wow, what a great twenty seconds they were! I can also remember pulling up a chair so I could stand and watch him move the little yellow mouth around the maze, eating all those bright little dots and running from the ghosts in Pac-Man. Every so often, he would let me move the joystick, and again, I would last about 20 seconds. But again, what an awesome twenty seconds! Here was something that actually responded to me, a little three year old. I told Pac-Man to move left, and he went left. You've no idea how much that bit of control means to a child who has no control over anything else in her life. I was hooked.
I'm not giving a history lesson, just a simple note that when I say I've been gaming pretty much my entire life, you know I'm not kidding. Joysticks and buttons are as familiar to me as my favorite Sesame Street characters were back in the day. So one would think that with nearly three decades of gaming under my belt, and so many great memories involving so many different games from so many different eras in gaming history that I'd have trouble picking out one game as the "best of all time". But this is not the case. Ask me what my favorite movie of all time is, and the answer is apt to change depending on what kind of mood I'm in. Ask what my favorite video game is though, and the answer has remained the same since 1993: Super Metroid.
As far as I'm concerned, Super Metroid is sheer perfection that has yet to be matched by any platformer before or since. There have been great action games, great platformers, and great 2D side-scrollers, and many of them rank up there as my favorites. But Super Metroid exists, for me, as the single greatest shining achievement of video game design in history. Maybe later, I'll try and list out all the reasons why it has obliterated the competition even now, fifteen years after its original release. But this post is about the single most important reason in my mind: the battle with Mother Brain and the return of the baby Metroid.
Super Metroid picks up immediately after the end of Metroid II: The Return of Samus for the Game Boy. At the end of that installment, Samus is witness to the birth of a Metroid hatchling, who imprints upon her as its mother. Not having the heart to wipe out the defenseless creature, Samus instead coaxes it into a stasis tube and delivers it to the scientists at Ceres Station, an orbital science facility where it can be studied to see if its propensity to drain the life energy from creatures can in some way be reversed. Just as Samus is leaving Ceres, however, she picks up a distress signal: the station is under attack, and she returns to find the place devoid of life save for the Metroid hatchling, and Ridley, one of Mother Brain's lieutenants who she assumed had perished in their original encounter. Ridley grabs the baby Metroid, and dashes off to Zebes with it while Samus hops into her ship and gives furious chase in the hopes that she can rescue it before it falls into the hands of Mother Brain.
Mother Brain and Samus go way back to the original NES version, when Samus first invaded planet Zebes and blew up the Space Pirates' lair. In the end of Metroid, Samus smashes the protective enclosure around the Mother Brain (which literally is just that: a big brain) and proceeds to pump missile after missile into the overgrown cerebrum until it bursts in a fiery pyrotechnic display and she is forced to evacuate before the base goes up in flames. Did I mention she has to do this while dodging other creatures, avoiding incoming fire from gun turrets, while balanced precariously on small ledges and trying not to fall into the molten lava underneath said ledges? It's not a simple proposition.
In Super Metroid, the designers bring back the small platforms, the gun turrets, the fire rings, and the big glass enclosure with the Mother Brain inside. And then, just when you think you've seen this all before, the real battle begins. The brain is revealed to be only part of an enormous creature, with eyes, arms, a mouth and legs. Mother Brain is no longer just some defenseless blob of grey matter: she's a fireball-spewing nightmare all her own, and she's just too much for Samus. A vicious laser attack saps Samus of nearly all of her power, leaving the bounty hunter kneeling weakly on the floor waiting for the final blow to come. Mother Brain charges up again, and you watch, helplessly, knowing that Samus is about to be vapourized and preparing to reach for the reset button to give it another go.
Except that there's a slight change of plans. Before Mother Brain can unleash her laser, in swoops the largest Metroid you've ever seen, and with a speed borne of determination and single-minded purpose, the Metroid attaches itself to Mother Brain and begins to ferociously drain the boss of energy. Mother Brain wails and spits and cries out and thrashes, but the Metroid will not let go, and slowly but surely, Mother Brain ceases to move and collapses to the floor. Afterwards, the Metroid chirps, then flies over and attaches itself to Samus. But rather than finish off the wounded warrior, something completely different happens: the Metroid begins to pump energy back into Samus, filling her primary and reserve tanks slowly but surely. Baby Metroid has come to the defense of its "mother" and is gradually bringing her back to life.
But all is not well. Mother Brain stirs. The eye opens. There's a hint of movement, a gutteral gurgle, and the monster that will not die begins to come back to life. And while Samus is defenseless, the Mother Brain is not concerned with her at the moment: she wants the Metroid. Over and over and over she attacks the hatchling as it continues to transfer its stored energy into Samus until finally, after it disengages, weak and near death, Mother Brain blows it out of midair in a vicious final attack that Samus can only watch helplessly unfold. The hatchling Metroid is dead, and in one brutal moment, the game has shattered the player's emotions forever. This is one of the few times in my life when I have actually yelled at the TV set: "NO!" Despite this terrible sacrifice, the game isn't over. Oh no. Now, you as the player are seeing red. There's an ass-kicking coming, and Samus gets to her feet to discover the tremendous overload of energy in her suit has translated into the ability to fire obscenely powerful blasts from her arm cannon. Mother Brain doesn't stand a chance, and the player gets to wipe the floor with the final boss almost with impunity.
It's true, Mother Brain is one of the easiest final bosses in video game history. But at this point, the player doesn't care. She wants revenge, she wants it hard, brutal, and fast, and the game delivers that request in spades. When Mother Brain goes down for the count, there's no sense of remorse, no thought that maybe it could have ended differently. With the death of the hatchling, Mother Brain has assured herself of both Samus's and the player's undying wrath. The subsequent escape from the planet as it starts to implode upon itself is little more than an afterthought, a simple task for the player to perform post-smackdown and pre-ending sequence.
The kind of game design required to tell a story like this with no dialogue, no FMV sequences, and virtually no text of any kind save for the opening sequence which just sets up the backstory from the first two games, is impossible to describe: it just happens through careful planning and execution. No other 2D sidescrolling platformer has ever been able to elicit this kind of emotional reaction from me, and very few other games in general have come anywhere close to it outside of the role-playing genre. Super Metroid stands head and shoulders above the competition in this regard, and it's why my first post about memorable fights had to be about a bounty hunter, an evil boss monster, and a little greenish, pulsating alien creature that rose above its station to become so much more.
People talk about great games. Super Metroid rewrote what it meant to be a great game all the way back in 1993, and designers today are still working from its example. So when you ask me, "What's your favorite game of all time?" and I answer, "Super Metroid," the reasons should be a little more clear.