Metroid and the Magic of Superfluous Mechanics

[Originally published August 7, 2016]

Hey, happy birthday Metroid! Nintendo didn’t seem to remember, but don’t worry – I got you something. A day late. It’s an analytical breakdown of ‘Metroidvania!’

Truly the greatest gift of all.

I’m throwing a bit of a spoke in the wheels, however. We all know the broad strokes of ‘Metroidvania.’ Backtracking. Using your cool new gun to find secrets. Exploring previously inaccessible areas. These are the characteristics by which most folks understand Metroidvania – I’ll refer to them under the banner of ‘expansion backtracking’ for short – but there’s more going on beyond the superficial catharsis of ‘seeing a new area.’ Expansion backtracking is an important part of the Metroidvania formula, but it’s an incomplete assessment of the designs at play in a classic Metroid game. The most crucial element of good Metroidvania – one that so many continue to forget – is the inclusion of Superfluous Mechanics.

Shinesparking. Walljumping. Neither are actually required to beat the game, but they’re vitally important to the overall experience. These are different from superficial mechanics like the ice beam, or the super missile. There’s no skill in remembering to return to a wave beam door. Sure, it requires a good memory – or maybe just a pen and paper – but it doesn’t require any sort of technical skill. All you have to do is return to a previous point and hit a button. Enter the room, pick up the power up. That’s just a chore – that’s tedium. Shinesparking isn’t a tedium. Shinesparking requires technique, in addition to a sharp eye. When you return to a previous point, it’s to overcome a challenge. It requires experimentation with the base mechanic. ‘How much distance do I need to build up speed? How long can I store it for? How far will it take me?’ It’s not just ‘point and shoot.’ Though these mechanics have no real importance – in the sense of ‘progression’ – they work in concert with Metroidvania’s exploratory characteristics to elevate them above their mechanical value.

We’re working with a bit of an oxymoron here. Yes, by definition, you don’t need superfluous mechanics. They’re not required for progression or completion (sans one or two moments – yes – but shush. I’m trying to make a point here).

BUT

We need them to complete the circle of mechanical satisfaction. By comparison: the collectibles we attain through our backtracking aren’t ‘necessary’ either. Should we get rid of them as well? Of course not. We love them because they’re superfluous. They represent a mastery over the space. ‘Mastery.’ That’s an important word. We like to ‘master’ things. We like to be ‘good’ at them. This can apply to more abstract concepts, like ‘the space.’ When we’ve seen all there is to see, we feel as though we’ve gained a command over the visual content. That fourth energy tank is a trophy, wrested from the most obscure depths of the map. It becomes a representation of our exploratory expertise.

By the way, this is something that Hyper Light Drifter (an otherwise really good game) gets wrong about exploration. Instead of gaining power ups, the exploratory trophies of HLD are currency – which we then use to purchase goods at the main hub. The measurable markers of personal progress become separated from the actual acts we take to attain them. When we utilize a superfluous mechanic in Hyper Light Drifter – a mechanic like chain dashing – we acquire ‘currency,’ not ‘upgrade.’ It’s such a small distinction, but it’s vitally important when considering the psychological differentiations between Metroidand Hyper Light Drifter.

When we shinespark our way to a missile expansion, powerups become a representation of our mechanical mastery. It’s more than just ‘five extra missiles.’ Now we have proof over our skills as a player. Rather than cultivating an association between ‘empowerment’ and ‘exploration,’ Metroid cultivates an association between ‘empowerment’ and ‘play.’ When we put forth the effort to pick apart the finer mechanical points of the game, we become stronger, more capable. It’s quite literally extra credit; though these ludo-explorative elements aren’t required, they increase our score at the end of the assignment.

That term: ‘Ludo-explorative.’ That’s what separates Metroid from other exploration-heavy IPs. When a game partakes in ‘expansion backtracking,’ they’re not actually providing the player with new mechanics. They’re just giving them keys disguised as a gun or a double-jump. But when Metroidgives us wall jumps or shinesparking, they’re inexorably tying expansion with the act of play. Ludo-explorative is what trueMetroidvania is, and it’s why we love it so much. We’re given something to master – something totally superfluous – that ultimately contributes to our overall strength and empowerment. We struggle, and triumph, and overcome through the use of these mechanics, subverting their superfluous inclusion. It’s a little ‘punk rock,’ isn’t it? We don’t shinespark because we have to. We do it because we can. We do it because we can, and because it rules, and because we feel better for it. That’s what Metroid is all about, and it’s why I’ll cry out in vain until we get a new entry.

 

Love you Metroid. Happy belated birthday,

Tom

 

When he’s not weeping over the ghost of Nintendo’s past, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about video games. You can find those writings here. Follow him on twitter @tloughnessmnstr

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