When Nintendo released the original Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1987, it introduced a new level of non-linearity to gaming. Players were thrown into an open world, not unlike the Legend of Zelda did prior, and left to figure out where to go to progress. Along with an eerie, minimalist soundtrack, Metroid truly made players feel alone in an alien world. With the limitations of the NES sound capabilities, tracks were often simple, yet had rather creepy melodies. From the ominous tone of Kraid’s Lair, to the mesmerizing, yet haunting notes of Tourian, Metroid’s soundtrack knew how to create a sense of loneliness in its world.
Though Samus would see another adventure on the Game Boy with Metroid II, the series really hit its stride in the 16-bit era. With the launch of the Super Nintendo in 1991, Metroid fans would have to wait an extra three years before the release of the third installment in the series, Super Metroid. Luckily, the wait was well worth it; Super Metroid is considered one of the finest Super Nintendo games of all time.
With enhanced 16bit visuals, improved controls, and new abilities (not to mention a map!), Super Metroid was a huge step up from its predecessors. Perhaps one of the most iconic aspects of the game is its soundtrack; not only were there far more tracks than the NES original, Super Metroid utilized the Super Nintendo’s sound capabilities in incredible ways. The result is an immersive, atmospheric masterpiece that leaves the player isolated on an alien planet.
Though Super Metroid is far from a horror game in terms of gameplay, its atmosphere is perhaps one of the darkest and loneliest on the Super Nintendo. From the moment the player begins their adventure, the opening segment doesn’t use any musical melodies prior to the encounter with Samus’s enemy, Ridley. An ominous beeping noise and single droning note are the only sounds accompanying Samus. Even when exploring Crateria, the first main area of the game, the music consists only of droning vocal samples, and a low backing drumbeat. It’s as if the vocals are coming from the alien life that lives on the planet, warning Samus to pack up her spare missiles and get out of their home.
One comparison that can be drawn to the Super Metroid soundtrack and atmosphere is the 1979 sci-fi horror film, Alien. With its droning notes and eerie sound effects, the music of Alien often builds tension with minimalism. Some tracks begin quiet with little instrumentation, before introducing brief, loud melodies that last only a few seconds. Sure, the same can be said about most horror movies, but Alien is already a big inspiration for the Metroid franchise. One of the film’s tracks, “The Lab,” in particular sounds like it could fit right at home in a Metroid game.
While Alien’s soundtrack does create tension, the film has its fair share of jump scares as well. The scariest scenes are often more frightening from the unexpected nature of the moment, rather than the Xenomorph itself. Similarly, Super Metroid is all about setting the right tone for horror; the music itself is often more frightening than the actual environment or situation. That’s not to say there aren’t some creepy enemies in the game, but the stress from the slow, lingering vocal samples and noises are what really drives the atmosphere. This lonesome, chilling tone continues for the duration of Samus’s journey.
The final level of Super Metroid, Tourian, brings the soundtrack full circle, and uses noise samples in place of an actual musical track. It consists of bubbling lava and a grumbling sound, not unlike a hungry stomach (what has Samus had to eat all this time anyway?) Much like the beginning of the game, the final segment relies heavily on in-game sound effects, including the occasional shrieks of the Metroids themselves. The result is a familiar atmosphere that reminds the player of the beginning of their adventure.
Even during the first phase of the battle with Mother Brain, there is still no music present until the last segment. It’s not until the true final encounter that a loud, dramatic track begins to play. The notes are shrill and piercing, with Mother Brain screeching at the player with every chance she gets. This is the perfect way to give the player a final send off; it begins with an ominous lack of music, drawing Samus further into the lair of Mother Brain. Then, just when her adventure seems to be finished, the boss rises up once again (after unexpectedly growing legs) and begins one final attack.
Hmm, this ending seems a bit familiar…remember the finale of Alien? Just when it seemed like Ripley was going to make an escape without having to worry about the Xenomorph, it appears unexpectedly, hiding in the same escape shuttle. In a similar sense, Mother Brain returns even after it seems like she is no longer a threat. Ok, so this comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but Super Metroid does evoke a similar feeling in its last battle. The adventure isn’t over until Samus makes it off the planet in one piece, and the player won’t feel safe until they are certain they have escaped. One final victory song plays, with a rendition of Samus’s theme. It marks a triumphant conclusion to a game that previously provided pure isolation and terror, and stands as one of gaming’s greatest finales.