Developed by: MercurySteam
Published by: Nintendo
Despite being one of the most groundbreaking game franchises of all time and a mandatory staple of Nintendo’s catalog, the Metroid series has fallen into a bit of a slump during the decade after the excellent Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. After Other M came and left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth 3 years later (no bad sex joke intended), the series had effectively laid dormant for a long stretch of time. The franchise had skipped the Wii U entirely (something that hadn’t happened since the N64), and there was very little fanfare from Nintendo’s side for the 25th anniversary of the series. Apart from a spin-off shooter on the 3DS, the franchise has just sort of crawled into a hole for a long time. However, after this past year’s E3 presentation, Nintendo managed to restore some good faith in the franchise with the announcement of not just Metroid Prime 4, but also Metroid: Samus Returns, a new classically-styled side-scrolling entry for the 3DS that finally came out a couple of weeks ago.
The game, as advertised, is an enhanced remake of the series’ lone Game Boy entry, Metroid II: Return of Samus. The basic gist of the story is the same: following the events of the original game, the Galactic Federation undergoes a mission to planet SR388 to investigate the threat of Metroids, but the team sent suddenly goes missing. After this, the Federation sends the number one ace up their sleeve to deal with the Metroid menace: who else but Samus Aran. The game proceeds from there, exploring the depths of the planet while upgrading all your weapons and killing Metroids to unlock further areas of the planet to get more weapons and kill more Metroids until the planet is purged.
The gameplay is about on par with any 2D entry in the series, so the basics should be completely familiar to series veterans. Puzzle solving, world exploration, and fast-paced combat are the name of the game here as you explore every nook and cranny of the planet, needing to backtrack across various areas to unlock new paths with more advanced powers and skill sets. Many of the power-ups are directly lifts from the original version of the game, such as the original version of the Spider Ball that lets you traverses all the vertical surfaces/roofs of each room, and the screw attack for defeating enemies while jumping through the air via physical contact. The travel is made a bit more manageable this time around with the addition of teleport stations to warp across the map.
Other power-ups are completely new to the game, with the big new revolutions around being not just the ability to free-aim, but the addition of the new Aeion abilities. On top of the weapon upgrades, you can now collect new abilities that operate on a limited-but-expandable energy meter that help you overcome the world’s obstacles. You’re given 4 total, and these are the shining tip of the iceberg of the combat and world exploration, as these abilities are just so much fun to utilize and mess around with. The standout ability for me is the Beam Burst, which enhances your basic beam attacks into a furious all-out barrage of beams and missiles that can clear through even the toughest enemies, making some of the tougher encounters in the game a blast to deal with. Additionally, the player will make great use of the Scan Pulse, an ability which clarifies pathways on the map and unveils destructible obstacles in the environment, meaning the player won’t get pointlessly lost as often and helps keep the world navigation not just engaging, but also more manageable than it’s been in prior games. I actually really like this as a design decision, as even though it does demystify and clear up the nature of obstacles, it still makes it clear that you’ll need to employ the right amount of player skill to overcome certain obstacles. The challenge comes from needing to use the right timing/set of techniques to get past certain areas to gain new upgrades instead of having to scour all around just to find where those areas are.
On the subject of combat, the game’s controls feel really good and it’s pretty intuitive regardless of whether or not you’re a veteran Metroid fan. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a learning curve at play to get used to the free aim and navigating the weapon menus. Both of these are handled by the left and right shoulder buttons, respectively, and there’s also some touch screen control needed to switch between the beams and missiles. It’s admittedly a bit cluttered and strenuous of a setup at first, but after a little while playing, it’s actually really easy to get a hold of and you’ll be able to get used to the flow of battle. It’s also aided by the new parry ability, which you can use to stun enemies and pop off some free shots on them, and this ability also becomes rather useful for some of the bigger enemy encounters, especially with all the Metroids you’ll be fighting.
Getting used to the controls and making wise use of the power-ups and Aeion abilities is important, because at least in combat terms, this may very well be one of the more difficult entries in the series. The normal enemies are rather tough and can take out pretty big chunks of your health meter with a single attack, so refining your skills and use of Aeion abilities is pretty essential. This also comes through in the Metroid battles, which makes up the bulk of the game at a total of 40 major Metroid encounters. Every stage of their life cycle can pack a punch with quick mobility and powerful energy beams/bite-and-claw attacks. These fights can be pretty engaging at times, especially with some of the later stage evolutions that require more advanced reflexes and deeper use of your available arsenal (the Beam Burst is most satisfying during these fights), but admittedly, 40 is a bit much. These fights get repetitive in the starting areas of the game, with the more advanced evolutions being the more interesting fights to play through. This is somewhat accentuated by the fact that there’s only really 3 non-Metroid boss encounters in the game, with the Diggernaut encounter arguably being the best boss fight in the game from a sheer design perspective, acting like a puzzle that exploits a great deal of Samus’ arsenal. The game could have improved its variety a bit by scaling down the quantity of Metroid encounters a bit while adding a few more unique boss enemies.
The presentation of the game is some of the finest to grace the 3DS console to date, with a gorgeous amount of detail in all the ruined backgrounds, vibrant but haunting color schemes, and the sense of scale when exploring some of the bigger areas. Admittedly, some of the areas blend into one another with not a lot of landmarks outside of the typical Chozo remains in certain key areas, but the sense of isolation felt when exploring the world is well-conveyed, and there’s actually some neat 3D effects here and there that helps bolster the presentation. On the aural side of things, the music is really well done, conveying the sparse sense of intimidating isolation while still making sure to work in several of the franchise’s most famous themes. The sound quality for these compositions is like a more fleshed-out version of the midi music that characterized the Prime series. The actual sound design of the game is a mixed bag, though. While the environmental sound effects sound pretty good and reinforce the loneliness felt exploring the planet, the actual combat sound effects feel weirdly limp, never having the violent jabs and bursting crackles of explosive and electrical energy that would have put it on par with the best sounding game in the series, Metroid Fusion.
Metroid: Samus Returns is a much welcome return-to-form and a great comeback for one of the most seminal franchises in the history of gaming. The combat is thrilling, strategic, and exciting, the exploration is intriguing and excellent, and the new Aeion abilities are unbelievably useful and satisfying. There may be a few shortcomings in terms of the presentation and pacing/structure, but these are minor things compared to the game’s many triumphs, and I am so grateful to see so much loving attention paid to one of my favorite gaming franchises, restoring some much needed dignity and respect after the last decade or so. Samus is back, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Final verdict: Metroid: Samus Returns is the exact shot in the arm that the series needed to get going again, and you absolutely should seek it out if you haven’t already.