Super Metroid was a game-changer for the industry, inspiring countless developers with its sprawling, maze-like world. But after Nintendo pioneered the formula, they tossed it aside. 2002’s Metroid Fusion had a rigid, linear structure, and it would be nearly two decades before Nintendo made another sequel. In Metroid’s absence, homages thrived, especially in the indie space. In particular, Hollow Knight received critical acclaim and went on to outsell any Metroid game. Now that 2D Metroid is officially back with the launch of Dread, I’ve seen many comparing it to Hollow Knight, debating which world better captures the spirit of Super Metroid.
Hollow Knight and Metroid Dread
As two of the most successful games in the genre, it’s natural for people to compare Metroid Dread and Hollow Knight, and to compare them to Super Metroid. But I think we’re much better off looking at the ways in which they all differ. Metroid Dread and Hollow Knight each succeed because they aren’t afraid to stray from Super Metroid’s formula and evolve the genre in different ways.
Story-telling and pacing
You may not think of story as being a key component of Metroidvania games, but the way the story is delivered can help set the tone for the gameplay. In Super Metroid’s case, the story is extremely simple and to the point. A playable opening sequence sees Ridley kidnapping the baby Metroid, and the rest of the game is spent exploring Zebes to find it. The game doesn’t rely on cutscenes or NPC dialogue, delivering all further information through environmental details, like the golden statue outside Tourian. As a result, the few moments where something plot-relevant occurs really stick out as memorable.
This bare-bones approach to story-telling keeps the focus on the world itself. There’s no mission list to guide you and no map marker highlighting your next destination. The pacing is largely dependent on your own ability to form an understanding of your environment. It’s up to you to explore based on your own intuition, and you’re rewarded for investigating every room thoroughly and paying close attention to detail. It’s easy to become lost in the twisting caverns of Zebes, which is paradise for some and a frustrating headache for others.
Wandering through Hallownest
Hollow Knight is similarly light on story in the beginning, arguably even more so than Super. The Knight stumbles upon the ruined kingdom of Hallownest and begins exploring, seemingly beckoned by a mysterious call. The only goal is to explore, and you’re not in any rush to do that. The game implores you to take your time and fully immerse yourself in its world.
This philosophy is baked into almost every aspect of gameplay. Hallownest is full of long hallways and massive rooms, and traversal is extremely slow in the early game. Enemies take several hits and can block, dodge, and parry. Equipable Charms augment your abilities, compelling you to take time experimenting with different combinations. Important items are expensive, requiring you to save up. That last one is a huge selling point for me, because there are plenty of evenings where I don’t necessarily have the mental energy to focus on a fast-paced experience or venture bravely into unexplored territory. But with that soft piano music setting the mood, mindlessly grinding enemy kills for money can be incredibly relaxing.
Hollow Knight’s story is similarly delivered at a relaxed pace. Cutscenes are few and far between, and it’s perfectly normal to beat the game without fully understanding what caused the kingdom’s ruin or why the Knight is the key to its salvation. But that’s not to say that the game’s plot is shallow. Far from it. But Hollow Knight largely employs a hands-off style that lets the player decide how big of a role the story will play in their journey. If you truly invest the time into exploring Hallownest, you’ll find it’s one of the most lore-rich worlds in gaming. Hidden tablets, detailed entries in the Hunter’s Journal, and cryptic monologues from NPCs put you in the role of an archeologist and historian, piecing together a complicated past. The game rewards those who truly put the time in with five different possible endings.
Running and gunning through ZDR
Right from the start, Metroid Dread’s story creates a sense of urgency. Unlike Super, you’re not slowly making your way into the depths of the planet. You start in the belly of the beast, and your only goal is to survive long enough to escape to the surface. This point is hammered in again a few minutes later when you encounter a fully functioning EMMI and your only option is to run away as fast as you can. It’s fitting then that Samus moves faster and smoother than ever before thanks to various upgrades and quality of life improvements. You can melee and aim on the run, carry a Speedbooster charge over gaps and through wall kicks, and jump seamlessly from a slide, maintaining your momentum.
The control scheme and physics reward you for staying in motion, and the level design similarly complements a bold approach. Dread rarely tells you where to go, but environmental clues like glowing pipes, tempting collectibles, and suspicious-looking walls silently guide the player down the intended path. If you trust your instincts and keep on running and gunning, chances are you’ll go the right way through most of the game. It allows Dread to feel like a non-stop adrenaline rush, and you won’t want to put the controller down. The in-game timer and rewards for fast completion incentives you to keep replaying, faster each time.
However, this isn’t the only way to play Dread. In several places, a key item (such as the Morph Ball) opens up significant opportunities for backtracking and exploration. Players who like going off the beaten path can get their fix in these moments without fear of losing their way back to the main route. This is because Dread’s plot is delivered primarily through a series of brief interactions with the AI Adam, who is thankfully not nearly as restrictive as he was in Fusion. You can take your time exploring ZDR, then boot up your mission log for a reminder of when and where you got your last key item, and return there to get back on track.
Aside from the regular Adam briefs, Dread tells its story with a series of cutscenes that smoothly transition to and from gameplay. Most of the plot is dished out in three big scenes at the beginning, middle, and end, providing some structure without interrupting gameplay too often. Additional cutscenes are scattered throughout the game’s boss fights, enhancing them with a dramatic flair that would feel right at home in an anime.
Approach to item sequence
Super Metroid is famous for its key item sequence and the many ways in which you can break out of that intended progression. There are always many paths to explore, but most eventually dead-end into optional item pick-ups, locked doors, or impassable terrain. When you find the correct path forward, you’re rewarded with a new key item, and previously closed-off paths become available. This process repeats itself on loop, opening up more and more of the game world until all of Zebes is your playground.
It’s a satisfying formula, but where Super really shines is when it allows you to break out of that intended sequence, collecting key items out of order. For example, by the time you reach Norfair for the first time, you’ll likely have come across several areas that are too high to reach with your jump. The intended sequence would have you seek out the Hi-Jump Boots, then return to these places. But if you master the Wall Jump mechanic, you can reach these areas without the upgrade, fighting Kraid early and acquiring the Spazer Beam and Varia Suit ahead of schedule. In the many years since Super ‘ was released, players have achieved so many sequence breaks that it’s even possible to beat the four main bosses in reverse order.
Break out of sequence in Metroid Dread
The primary path through Metroid Dread may feel a bit more obvious than in Super, but it is far from the only way through the game. MercurySteam made sure to advertise ahead of launch that Dread had many potential sequence breaks, and they followed through. But you’re unlikely to stumble upon most of these secret route deviations by accident. Dread’s sequence breaks each require you to explore thoroughly, use advanced movement techniques, or both. They require some real skill, and it might take you several tries to succeed. This makes it incredibly satisfying to discover and execute a sequence break. It makes you feel like you’ve outsmarted the game and you’re refusing to play by its script.
These well-hidden breaks help scratch the itch for those who prefer to take their time exploring a game world for secrets. But once you’ve figured them out, they also provide quicker routes through the game, catering to those who prefer a fast-paced experience as well. It would be a huge understatement to say that this approach has succeeded. Metroid Dread became the most active speedrun game in the world almost overnight.
Choose your own sequence in Hollow Knight
On the other hand, Hollow Knight re-tools the concept of an item sequence altogether. The Vengeful Spirit, Mothwing Cloak, and Mantis Claw need to be collected in that order for progression, but then all bets are off. Once you can climb walls and dash across pits, over half a dozen new areas become accessible via multiple pathways. Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit brilliantly illustrated this in his breakdown of the game. With so many paths open, there are many different possibilities for which key item you’ll collect next.
This allows you to feel like you’re getting lost in Hallownest without ever really being lost. You’re venturing into the unknown, but if you keep pressing onward you’re almost certain to stumble upon a key item before too long. It maximizes the player’s freedom and makes it incredibly easy for them to experience the game in a different order the next time. It’s as simple as wandering in a different direction after the Mantis Claw.
Evolving beyond Super Metroid
Hollow Knight’s slow pacing, RPG mechanics, and endless treasure troves of lore make it a unique and immersive experience. I’m excited to see that Silksong looks to be leaning even heavier into these ideas. The sequel features a fully fleshed-out NPC quest system as well as an inventory upgrade system that involves gathering resources and crafting. All of this would feel totally out of place in Metroid, and Team Cherry is better off for not caring about that one bit. On the flipside, Dread’s fast and fluid movement, carefully curated level design, challenging sequence breaks, and over-the-top anime cutscenes make it incredibly engaging and memorable.
Super Metroid is one of the most influential games of all time, but it’s not the final word on explorable 2D worlds. The video game industry has continued to evolve over the past 27 years, and modern games can and should draw inspiration from the classics without feeling shackled to them. Hollow Knight and Metroid Dread both thrive in the ways they differ from Super Metroid and forge their own path. And that makes me extremely excited for the future of my favorite video game genre.