Metroid has a very conflicted past. To some, the series is a confusing mess. It’s a labyrinth of tunnels with a directionless story. To others, like myself, it’s a journey– a mixed walk of isolated dread and terror. Overwhelming odds at every corner, which slowly side in your favor as the adventure unfolds. To those like me, Metroid stands for an apex of quality in platforming games. Unfortunately, because the series has never been received quite as well in Japan as the Western territories, suboptimal sales lead to the Metroid falling into an unacceptably long hiatus.
It’s been over a decade since we’ve stepped into the shoes of Samus Aran for a 2D Metroid adventure. Yes, we’ve received the Metroid Prime series, which is great. The First-person take on the franchise does a fantastic job at capturing those same feelings, and the first Metroid Prime even captures a spot as one of my favorite games (as well as the best videogame) ever made! But it never quite gets at that same consistent itch for 2D style Metroid. Team Ninja came close with 2010’s Metroid: Other M, but poor storytelling, and a structure that was WAY too linear held it back from being truly great.
The thirst has been constant for fans of the series. Countless developers have tried to clone the formula with various levels of success. But clones don’t hit the spot, and cameos in Smash Brothers just don’t do the trick forever. So, imagine how we felt at E3 2017, when Nintendo announced that not only was a new Metroid Prime in development, but ALSO a remake of the Metroid: Return of Samus for 3DS would be available by the end of summer! I was excited! I was revitalized!
I was also skeptical.
After a number of mediocre spin-offs, my optimism dwindled and I had considered the beloved series to be a thing of the past. Now, with the announcement of this new game, my worry peaked. Not only was this title being brought to the aging 3DS console instead of the Switch, but it was being developed by MercurySteam; developers of the notoriously bad Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. There’s no possible way this Metroid could live up to the expectations of the loyal. This felt like a last chance. After the failures of Other M, and the 3DS multiplayer spin-off, Federation Force, failure felt like it would mean a permanent adios to the 2D-style Metroid games.
I’m excited to report every doubt I held about Metroid: Samus Returns was wrong.
Samus Returns isn’t a remake of the Gameboy classic, but a reimagining. Like the GBA title, Zero Mission, it takes the premise of an older game, and adapts it to a current day market with modern mechanics. The shape of the map is similar, the power ups are similar, the enemies are similar, but they are two very different entities. Here’s what you need to know:
The story takes our heroine to SR388, home of the Chozo and birthplace of the dangerous Metroid — a species of creature created to wipe out a parasite known as X, but now are sought after by space pirates to use as a weapon against the entire galaxy. Samus has been tasked with travelling to the planet and exterminate the Metroid before they can be harvested for use. Admittedly, the genocide of an entire species doesn’t really seem like something any sane minded person would agree to, BUT… videogames.
Following the same structure as the Game Boy title, and bound by the perfect formula of the “metroid-vania” style platformer, the player arrives with nothing but the bare minimum — an under powered arm blaster. Underequiped and unprepared, our heroine is not going to be able to venture into most spaces within SR388. Through exploration, you become increasingly powerful and more of the map becomes accessible. If you’ve played a 2D Metroid title in the past, you know what to expect. All of the bombs, missiles, and sci-fi abilities you’ve come to love are here (with a few exceptions). The difference here is how the game has been adapted for the modern day. Samus Returns very intelligently takes the classic feel of the game and implements some welcome changes.
First, and most obvious, are the aesthetics of the game. Presented in what is commonly known as 2.5D, it utilizes 3D character models but limits their perspective to a 2D plane. It doesn’t look as sharp or satisfying as a full HD sprite might have turned out, but it gets the job done and ends up looking great, regardless. The color pallette for the environments vary by location, making each area feel unique. The 3D effect on the 3DS system looks wonderful here, making it into my top 3D games for the console. Also worth mentioning is some phenominal music. Opting to use remastered versions of classic songs in various Metroid game really benefits Samus Returns’ sense of immersion and gives a great feeling of nostalgia.
Metroid has always been a very tight controlling game series. I’ve had very few complaints, even revisiting the very earliest entries to the series. That said, as the Metroid games matured, so did the control style. Small nuances like fluid in-air motion, as well as the return of Metroid Fusion’s ledge grabbing ability, find a very welcome home in Samus Returns. Adapting Samus legs to the 3DS’ Circlepad was a seamless transition from the D-pad, resulting in the best character movement in a Metroid game to date. Holding a shoulder button still allows you to focus your aim at angles that aren’t natural to finger movement, like diagonally, but a brand new feature allows Samus to lock into place and free aim in a full 360 degree radius. The result is accuracy that feels completely reliant on the player’s skill level. It also enables enemies to exist at a variety of elevations which would have been impractical in the past. If you didn’t know, Metroid games are all about shooting your arm cannon and staying in motion, so it’s key to get the combat just right.
Shooting enemies feels much the same as always. You’ve got charge shots, upgradable beams and various missiles, but the flagship feature in this game is definitely the new parry system. Enemies are more aggressive than ever before and will charge you as soon as a threat is apparent. With a well timed press of the X button, you can smash the enemy aside with your arm cannon, stunning them and leaving their body vulnerable to a flurry of devastating fire. The key to this new mechanic IS the timing, as each enemy has a different pattern you have to match. Not getting it right means damage taken, but the payoff for success is huge. It’s extremely satisfying and brings a welcomed breath of fresh air to the game’s combat system.
Also new to the game are the introduction of Aeon abilities. These are different power ups you will acquire throughout your quest which give a big power boost to Samus. Draining from a shared power bar, you can do things like slow time, increase your rate of fire, or boost your shields for a set number of hits. Controversially, the fourth Aeon ability is a sonar-like ping, allowing you to reveal a limited area in your radius. Purists call it cheating, but because there are no map rooms as in EVERY previous Metroid game, I say go for it. We are dealing with the largest map in a 2D Metroid, so it’s only there to help!
I do have two minor complaints with Samus Returns:
The first being that it lacks a variety in the enemies. Even compared to its gameboy counterpart, you will notice a big redundancy in the baddies you encounter. Combat is fun, making this easy to overlook, but it still would have been nice to experience a larger palette of baddies, especially bosses.
Second, the game has no real sense of story progression. Metroid games in the past used the environment, communication terminals, or enemy scans to tell a slow burning story. This built a feeling of increasing dread throughout the journey, resulting in a satisfying climax when you realize what’s going on. Samus Returns often feels like you’re just kind of stumbling into the next area or boss battle. It makes Samus feel like less of a finely tuned bounty hunter and more of a clueless adventurer. Metroid games have, for the most part, always been light on story anyway, but I would have enjoyed a more in-depth narrative told in those classic ways which only Metroid can.
At the end of my journey, I clocked about 16 hours to achieve 100% on my first play through. It was every bit as joyous as previous Metroid games, and I never felt like I was being dragged along. I can recommend this game to Metroid fans, regardless of how weary you might be, or anyone who likes a solid adventure. It might be a safe reimagining of a previous entry in Metroid’s history, but it does the job in superb fashion. I hope the success of this game not only encourages Nintendo to revisit other franchises that haven’t been touched in a while, but also encourages them to open their doors to talented third party developers who grew up on their library and want to help make a legacy that we can all love.
As a footnote, if you are fortunate enough to get your hands on the new Metroid Amiibo, you are able to unlock a “Fusion Mode”. This increased the difficulty by about 4x and allows you to sport the classic suit from Metroid Fusion for the GBA. The increase in difficulty is intense, and the Amiibo is squishy!