With over 200 IPs in their stable, Nintendo has a stronger catalog than most when it comes to possible game announcements. Still, one game series , in particular, has consistently been clamored for by fans in recent years. I am, of course, talking about Metroid. The franchise is one of Nintendo’s most prestigious, but it has fallen on hard days ever since the less than stellar reception of 2010’s Metroid: Other M for the Wii. Fans of 2D Metroid have had to endure an even longer wait, as the last Metroid game done in this style was Metroid: Fusion all the way back in 2004. To say that there was pent-up demand for a new game in the series is, therefore, an understatement. Mercury Steam, the developer behind the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series, had an unenviable task in developing a new entry in this legendary series. So, is Metroid: Samus Returns the return to form Nintendo fans have been waiting for?
So what’s this about?
Much like the Gameboy Advance classic Metroid: Zero Mission, Samus Returns is a remake of a classic entry in the series. In this case, the Gameboy title Metroid II: Return of Samus. This title, the second in the series, introduced a number of important features that would go on to be very important to the franchise. New power-ups, such as the spider-ball, made their debut here, and for the first time ever Samus’ new suits (such as the Varia Suit) had unique designs as opposed to just being a pallet swap. Also, Samus gained a helpful crouch feature which would allow her to shoot enemies closer to the ground (so while Metroid could not crawl, she could at least crouch). All that being said, the game has not aged gracefully. We live in an age where high-quality “Metroidvania” titles are being produced by indie teams regularly, and Metroid itself has also made numerous advancements over the years. The original title suffered from stale, repetitive environments and boss fights, and it’s very hard to go back to a game with no map after becoming accustomed to such a feature over the years. If one game in Nintendo’s history needed a revamp, this was it.
The story of this game takes place after that of the original Metroid (or Metroid Zero: Mission). After first encountering the metroid species on the planet Zebes, a mission was sent to the metroid’s homeworld of SR388 in order to learn more about the species. When the galactic federation troops go missing, it is decided to send famed bounty hunter Samus Aran in with commands to exterminate all remaining Metroids. It’s a simple but efficient plot. You will spend the game exploring SR388 and seeking out and destroying Metroids. This being a Metroid game, you will gain various abilities while doing that increase your proficiency and allow you to explore areas that were once out of reach.
What does it do right?
One of my biggest fears before booting up this reboot was for the feel of the game. Sure, a game can look like a faithful sequel to a much-beloved classic, but that doesn’t mean it will feel like the game it emulates. These fears were largely unfounded. This game is more Sonic Mania and less Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Now, that is not to say this game plays just like Super Metroid. It is a bit less floaty than class Metroid titles, and the wall jump and bomb jump both feel far easier to pull off. Despite all that, though, this game just feels right. The visuals are also top notch, and the 2.5 D design choice pays off in dynamic in-game pre-boss cut scenes. I would highly recommend you view these, at least, in 3D if possible.
Mercury Steam also added quite a few “quality of life” improvements over the original. Many of these are features found in previous Metroid games, such as a map and ledge grabbing. Other are new to the series but not the genre. The two that stand out the most to me are auto-saves for boss battles and teleportation rooms. Both of these are staples of Metroidvania titles but not of the Metroid franchise itself. Indeed, this game does quite a bit to bring the series up to industry standard for the genre. A large part of this includes the improvements to combat. There are many modern Metroid like titles, such as Shadow Complex and Axiom Verge which have more of an emphasis on combat. Classic Metroid, by comparison, has always been more plodding with enemies being more incidental then threatening. Samus Returns changes this by adding two key features: free form 360 degree aiming and a melee counter. The melee counter, in particular, changes the way you approach this game, and it allows for enemies to be far more dangerous than in previous Metroid titles. Another new addition to the game are Aeion abilities. Aeion abilities are basically this game’s equivalent to magic. You have an Aeion bar that acts as an additional resource and you spend that resource on abilities that reveal the map, increase your offense/defense, or even slow down time. It’s neat and adds an additional layer to your in-game strategy without ever feeling overly complicated or game breaking.
Another bright point for this title is the puzzle solving. The game is separated into different zones, and although SR388 isn’t as diverse of a planet as Zebes, the different zones do a good job of implementing puzzles that incorporate your suits various upgrades. I particularly enjoyed the use of the spider-ball in this game; it’s a power up that was a huge part of Metroid II but is largely an afterthought in later games.
The final verdict
Samus Returns will likely go down as a rather divisive game in the Metroid fandom. On one hand, the combat and use of special abilities make it a joy to play. On the other, it is a fairly linear experience and many of the boss fights and areas can become repetitive. While much of this can be chalked up to it being a remake of an old Gameboy game, it doesn’t forgive the tedium some might feel while playing a modern titles. Just because Metroid II had largely indistinguishable environments and reused enemy assets doesn’t mean this game HAD to. To be fair, however, Mercury steam does mix in additional boss fights and manages to keep the metroid fights fairly fresh by introducing different terrains and giving the metroids different elemental abilities. This title also has a fair bit of backtracking, but the sectioned off nature of the game makes sequence breaking in any significant way impossible.
Overall this game is a solid entry into the Metroid franchise. It will not be amongst your favorites if you care more about the open exploration of something like Super Metroid, but it nails the atmosphere and gameplay feel of the series flawlessly. Mix that in with the stellar combat and you have an instant classic.