Super Metroid’s minimalistic environmental storytelling set a bar, way back in 1994, that I believe has still yet to be eclipsed. The planet Zebes is atmospheric, oppressive, and extremely lethal. At first glance, there doesn’t even appear to be any story. But then you start to look more closely. The parasite-riddled dead soldier outside of an early boss room. The crashed, half-submerged alien spaceship that may or may not be haunted. The techno lair of the space pirates hiding under your nose the entire game. It’s brilliant and confident. It doesn’t explain to you what each new area is all about. It’s all there, for you to figure out (or ignore) on your own.
But it’s Super Metroid’s ability to consistently invite the player to be curious – and then rewarding that curiosity – that makes it one of the greatest video games ever made. It’s not just that there are secrets hidden everywhere (although there are, and it’s awesome) – it’s that the game teases you with tantalizing clues – items, always just out of reach. An energy tank embedded in a seemingly impassable wall. A pair of missiles only obtainable from the collapsing blocks above, leaving you no idea of how to get up there, just with the knowledge that you can get up there.
Super Metroid is an impeccable action-platformer – that’s the “easy” part. What makes it truly special is its genius combination of puzzle-solving, atmosphere, storytelling, exploration, game design, and gameplay. There’s nothing else like it.