Video Games: Samus it ever was: At last, a game where a woman does the zapping. A sign of the times or just a gimmick? Rupert Goodwins wonders

Super Metroid sounds like a fanatical owner of a rather unattractive small car, but it's really a brain in a jar. A brain, furthermore, that can drain any living being of energy, and one that's just been stolen from the Good Guys. Your mission is to retrieve said pickled organ; your only weapons, agility and cunning. Oh, and bombs, lasers, shields, special suits and so on.

The game is another variation on the old business of running around a huge set of interconnected caverns, squeezing off the odd shot at the multitudinous monsters, rampaging robots and antisocial aliens. The hero, one Samus Aran, is apparently female, although the Transformer-like suit she wears could just as easily contain a large centipede; it's hardly a breakthrough for feminism.

Although the game starts with a rather exciting race against time, it then slows down dramatically with few nasties and lots of empty space to explore. The rest of the action soon kicks in. There's no set sequence of play; you can explore the areas in any order, although many are only accessible once you've acquired some of the gizmos left lying about. First on the shopping list are the bombs and the Morphing Ball; the latter are useful for blowing holes in walls, and the former lets Samus roll up like a woodlouse and tumble through the smallest gaps.

You want more? Stock up on grappling beams, X-ray scopes, missiles, ice rays and other more incendiary delights; you'll need them all to cope with the Choots, Skrees, Beetoms and other dastardly denizens. Each area has its own boss, a peculiarly large and difficult to kill nasty with secrets of its own.

Anyone who's cut their teeth on Sonic or Mario will recognise many of the traps sprinkled about. Crumbling platforms? Sprint across. Spikey pits? Jump or get punctured. Swinging chains? Leap up, grab and do a Tarzan. As usual, the penalty for mistiming any of these little pas de deux is at the least painful and more usually fatal. At least there's a modicum of subtlety; there are practice points where you can get into the swing without losing a life, and sometimes the pitfalls aren't quite what they seem.

During the game, you can consult computer maps which show your current area and the bits you've explored. There's also a screen that shows the status of Samus' systems, how much energy is left and how many special weapons have been picked up. Data save units are sprinkled around; hit one, and you can mark your current state of play for resumption when you subsequently die.

People are starting to get a little chary about paying 50 quid for a box the size of a paperback book, so Nintendo has packaged the game in a much larger format, with a glossy magazine- sized player's guide. The game itself is the same size as any other Nintendo cartridge, but the huge guide is much improved over the previous leaflets; it's got copious screen shots and playing hints. It'd be nice if it had fewer spelling mistakes and grammatical howlers; kids might or might not be tempted to become violent psychopathic villains through laser-festooned video games, but they should at least have a chance to get their apostrophes in the right place. Oddly, you can also play the game with German subtitles, although it's unclear that being able to say 'Now I need to zap the Mother Brain with the Super Bomb' in colloquial Teuton will stand you in good stead during the Oktoberfest. Worth trying, though.

(Photograph omitted)