Samus Aran has been in retirement. It’s not only been seven years since her last major game (the controversial Metroid: Other M) but also nearly twice as long since her own 2D platforming title. After the general disaster that surrounded Metroid Prime: Federation Force, Nintendo’s long-winded reluctance to approach the legendary franchise makes a bit of sense, but E3 2017’s announcements of both Metroid Prime 4 and a Metroid II: Return of Samus remake demonstrated that the company is mustering up the confidence to do right by Samus. While the former game is still shrouded in mystery, the latter was immediately met with skepticism since it was being co-developed by MercurySteam. With some questionably generic mechanics in tow, doubts about the remake could be understood, but they can be laid to rest. Metroid: Samus Returns easily rests among the high pedestals of its forebearers, expertly capturing what made them iconic with exceptional level design and gameplay that remind us what makes 2D Metroid so great.
Just as the back of the box claims, it’s more appropriate to call Metroid: Samus Returns a reimagining instead of a remake. While the area layouts and boss encounters remain conceptually similar to the Game Boy title’s design, those elements have been refined and altered alongside drastic gameplay changes. Whereas the original was more linear and discouraged intentional backtracking, the new game opts for the design philosophy popularized by Super Metroid with expansive, daunting areas. New abilities are essential since you’ll need to get through doors guarded by specific barriers or strange creatures, which can hide the next boss or helpful upgrades that increase your missile counts. This means backtracking is par for the course in these complex webs where you have several pathways and methods of exploration.
You won’t be fumbling in the dark since your minimap fills in as you chart the world, and other aspects of navigation are more convenient as well. The Scan Pulse’s ability to reveal hidden items in a large radius may seem to remove a sense of self-discovery, but it’s certainly better than randomly bombing walls to see if you missed a Super Missile or Energy Tank. Besides, most items still prove difficult to acquire since they’re hidden behind great puzzles that test your reflexes and multitasking with abilities. Even if it’s easier, the challenges of discovery aren’t lost.
There are Teleport Stations in each area that ease one of my biggest complaints about Metroidvania games: repetitive, needless backtracking. It’s nice to go straight from Area 7 to 2 or from the left side of Area 5 to the right, and you’re encouraged to do so since areas contain sections that were impossible to access before. If you’ve been attentive to getting enough upgrades along the journey though, the only real reason to pick up any stragglers is to see what clever puzzles hide them from you; there’s no practical motive for getting more upgrades since, by the end, your reserves will likely be in excess.
The Metroid bosses have received massive expansions to their movesets and behavior, which can be excitingly unpredictable since there are no concrete patterns to memorize. There are over 30 to hunt down throughout the campaign, but there are only three unique forms amongst them. While this sounds strange for a franchise known for distinct bosses, it’s a curious design choice of the original game that the reimagining adheres to in spirit, for better or worse. Fighting your twelfth Alpha Metroid does wear on you halfway through the game, but varying environments spice these repetitive encounters up a bit. The bosses are at their best for the last several hours where you’ll take on big, tough Metroids and a few unexpected fights that are difficult delights. Big portions of your arsenal and abilities are truly put to work as you switch between them on the fly in these frantic encounters that will get your blood pumping.
I alluded to a major gameplay addition with Scan Pulse, which is unlike the X-Ray Scope in Super Metroid in how it consumes something called Aeion Energy. This is used for three other abilities that have limited yet powerful applications in both combat and puzzles. Lightning armor can be triggered to negate any damage at the cost of consuming a lot of energy, Beam Burst heavily increases the fire rate and damage of Samus’ Power Beam, and Phase Drift slows down time. For example, Phase Drift makes it possible to cross a bridge of blocks that instantly collapse in normal time or avoid fireballs fired rapidly by a certain turret. Beam Burst specifically eliminates several obstacles and enemies that can’t be defeated with normal weapons. You’ll slowly regain Aeion Energy from enemies in addition to health, so if you happen to be far away from any stations that replenish these things, focusing foes while you’re low on these resources is important. After all, you have less of a choice to engage in combat since half of your opposition launches toward you as soon as you show up.
This AI behavior complements the new melee counter that changes the feel of how enemies engage you and vice-versa. Instead of minding their own business or attacking you from a distance, many foes will charge at you on the ground or from the air. This can make traversal a bit slower than usual since you’ll need to stop short to counter enemies with a timed whack of Samus’ arm cannon followed by a single shot. It makes quick work of them, and you’ll need to use it in many cases since shooting won’t stop enemies from reaching you. It’s a fitting addition to the 2D games that’s especially fun to use on bosses, which will trigger awesome cutscenes that give you a window to fire a volley of missiles in style. However, I wish a good portion of the normal species you fight weren’t restricted to only melee attacks or distant attacks. It would’ve been nice to see the bat-like Gullugs behave unpredictably with either melee or ranged attacks, which would’ve brought some needed tension since you wouldn’t automatically know what’s coming.
The game controls like a dream, even if Samus’ jump can be a bit finicky to get working in limited spaces. Going from a roll to running is seamless, and being able to hold onto ledges while aiming plays into some puzzles and combat well. Free aiming with the analog stick also allows for more precise shots instead of aiming in only nine directions, which is definitely a welcome change. If I were to describe it succinctly, Metroid: Samus Returns feels like an updated, modern version of Super Metroid’s near-perfect controls, and if that doesn’t get across how wonderful it feels to play, I don’t know what will.
The level design may seem pretty simple at first for the beginning areas, but they evolve into these sprawling environments that will leave you a bit overwhelmed with so many pathways. I even skipped over doors that led to the next bosses and forgot about them because the world naturally leads you to explore, but this emphasis on non-linearity works in the game’s favor without making you feel too lost.
The environments themselves are truly striking in how detailed they are. Comparing the original game’s monochrome areas with the colorful, diverse locales of the new game is like apples and oranges, and yet the latter still manages to capture the former’s visual progression even more beautifully. For context, Samus is sent to the planet SR388 to eradicate the Metroid race after the Galactic Federation learned of their origins. A group of soldiers already failed to complete their mission to do so, but this bounty hunter ventures into the planet’s depths to finish the job.
As you carry out Samus’ mission, you’re slowly discovering intact ruins and facilities of the Chozo race that inhabited the planet. Each area reveals something different about how they lived, not to mention the ecology of SR388. Many of the backdrops are dripping with details, such as a massive dam with a conflux of waterfalls that diffuse the water in rivers that reach the foreground. There’s a crystalline platform that partially breaks apart when you come across it for the first time, and you’ll also see creatures wandering or skittering in the backdrop if you happen to pay attention. It’s not often I see 2.5D backgrounds like this in platformers, which speak for the developer’s overall attention to smooth animation and artistic direction that deeply bring this game’s storytelling to life without words, and that goes for several cutscenes, too.
The score is at its best with slower tracks that capture Metroid’s eeriness with deep synths and haunting vocals. A few of the louder tracks for combat are legitimately frightening with dissonant strings and orchestral instruments, but some of them get a bit carried away with generic techno elements and “loudness” that drown out the melodies. But no complaints can be leveled toward the sound effects and ambiance, which ebb and flow to match all the right areas.
The game takes about 13 hours to finish should you decide to go for a decent amount of upgrades on the side, and while the beginning pace is a bit jarring with how many abilities you get within the first two hours, the gameplay loop levels out as areas dramatically increase in size after the first couple you explore. While the experience isn’t that tense outside of bosses, playing through the game again on Hard Mode with enemies doing significantly more damage is a surefire way to bring on a fun (if nerve-wracking) survival feel.
As I said before, Metroid: Samus Returns reinterprets the original game’s content to the point where it feels like an entirely new game. Most areas are unrecognizable in level design with entirely new sections brought in, so while these decisions come at the expense of adjusting what made the Game Boy title so unique for the franchise, it’s in service of expanding the original experience with new mechanical depth and the series’ most beloved design conventions. I’d say these mission objectives have been met to an admirable degree.
Metroid: Samus Returns was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS with a physical copy provided by Nintendo.
Metroid: Samus Returns isn’t just a simple reimagining that improves on the original game's limitations and notable issues. It’s a phenomenal blueprint of the 2D Metroid formula that captures the series’ best elements while adding in gameplay refinements and mechanics that feel just right. Some repetition lingers, but that's hardly enough to hold the game back from returning Metroid to the top tier of platforming.
- Near-Perfect Platforming...
- Expanded Level Design and Boss Fights...
- Fitting, New Mechanics
- Supreme Artistic Direction and Detailed Environments
- Streamlined Navigation
- ...Though Some Jumping Can Be Finicky
- ...But Metroid Bosses Still a Bit Repetitive