It’s been 13 years since a 2D installment in my top franchises of all time. The Metroid series may not have always had a spot on the podium, but since the early 00’s, I’ve managed to play through almost every game in the series multiple times, and something clicked with me in more recent years. Particularly with the 2D installments.
Fans have been eagerly awaiting a followup to the cult-classic series, despite the fact that Metroid games in general were rarely well received in Nintendo’s native country. However, during E3 2017 we were treated to the announcement of the first 2D Metroid game in 13 years releasing in the same calendar year. An announcement that came completely out of left field for most of us Metroid fans, particularly in the short window of time between the announcement/teaser of Metroid Prime 4 and the remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus. Of course, putting this on the 3DS made sense as it’s been in development for presumably two years, at least.
From my perspective, the announcement of Metroid: Samus Returns was generally well-received, particularly as the guarantee of a Prime 4 on the Switch was solidified. If any feedback was negative, it was primarily directed towards Nintendo’s choice to leave it in the hands of third-party developer rather than taking it upon themselves. MercurySteam’s lack of a track record on the 3DS, with only Castlevania: Mirror of Fate to show, was met with critical reception.
Now, to be crystal clear, I’ve never played the original Metroid II, but I have played AM2R and found it to be absolutely brilliant – a true return to the 2D Metroid times that I was convinced were gone forever. You can imagine my thrill, as well as similar sentiments from like-minded Metroid fans, when an official remake was annouced, but of course there are always plenty of naysayers questioning whether it could live up to AM2R.
The thing about naysayers is that they’re really easy to ignore.
MercurySteam pressed onwards, and the end result is Metroid: Samus Returns, which I have tons of thoughts on. Most of which are positive! That being said, most of my issues aren’t with the game per se, but with the aging Nintendo 3DS hardware itself.
First of all, the packaging: I’d like to give double freedom rockets to GameStop for the “handling” or lack thereof of my Special Edition order, which came in an unprotected cardboard shipping box, crushing the corners of the beautiful collector box art. As I’m not one to make a stink over things like this, I will have to make some passes over it with an iron to fix it, but seriously, that was a bit of a bummer. Naturally, all of this was forgotten upon seeing the gorgeous box art and the sweet reversible Gameboy cover. It really does look sweet!
As Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of Metroid II, the story is nothing new – Space Pirates have attempted to harness the life-sucking power of Metroids to take over the galaxy, so the Galactic Federation employs protagonist Samus Aran to travel to SR388 and destroy every last Metroid on the planet to crush the chances of that happening. It’s a short and sweet plot set up which is nothing new if you’ve played any game in the franchise, as they generally are light on story, heavy on optional lore.
As soon as the gameplay begins, you can immediately tell that the control scheme that felt so crisp on the Gameboy Advance is still fully intact. One of the main differences, as advertised as one of the selling points of Metroid: Samus Returns, you now have the ability to free-aim by holding down the L-button and moving the Circle Pad. I can only commend the decision to not use the New 3DS Nub, as this feels far more natural. It doesn’t feel bulky and doesn’t hinder the controls of Samus like I was worried about, as you can still move about quickly, darting across screens and filling out your map.
The controls feel just as snappy as I remember while playing AM2R – part of me was worried that Samus Returns might feel a little sluggish, like Super Metroid, as I actually played all of the games in reverse order, with my favorite “hand feel” being in Fusion and Zero Mission. But there’s nothing sluggish about Metroid: Samus Returns – this is a return to the run-and-gun platformer that many of us were convinced would never happen again!
One of the more prominent selling points of Samus Returns is the ability to do a melee-parry – punching an enemy in the face as it lunges, flies, or darts towards you. It involves a well-timed tap of the X button, and is so immensely satisfying when you nail it perfectly, as you then auto-target the stunned enemy and can quickly dispatch them. The smaller window of visibility on the 3DS screen can allow some enemies to pull off cheap shots on you occasionally, but you quickly figure out how to use the controls effectively.
The thing with the 3DS that will go down as one of my favorite aspects is how the two screens afford the ability to have a reference screen with maps and extra data, and one screen for pure gameplay without a UI covering it. Like with both Legend of Zelda remakes on the platform, the bottom screen is covered by the map and inventory information. It works particularly well, because covering the gorgeous visuals with anything unnecessary would have really taken away from the experience.
When it comes to environments and map usage, if you’ve played a Metroid game before, you’re probably familiar with the concept of shooting blindly at walls and bombing everything, attempting to find hidden passageways that lead to powerups. Well, the Scan Pulse ability is probably one of the coolest things new to the series. I never thought I’d say this, either. What the Scan Pulse does is consume some of your energy to uncover any hidden blocks for a short period of time, in a wide area around Samus. This takes a large part of the guesswork out of the equation to finding hidden powerups, and also reveals a part of the map, rendering the classic Map Stations antiquated, and thus, you will not find any of them within Samus Returns.
There are several other powerups as well, all of which consume the in-game energy “currency,” which is collected automatically from dead enemies. This of course is done to inspire you to fight every enemy which you come across, so as to always keep yourself fully healed and energized. In a sense, it’s changed the gameplay pattern from former 2D Metroid titles, as avoiding enemies is much more difficult, and not as beneficial. Attempting to run past bad guys often ends with them sneak attacking you, as you need to be on your toes and be ready to melee-parry at a moments notice. Several times my health was brought down from full to empty, simply due to some mis-timed jumps that aimed to avoid enemies. You’ll want to dispatch of most of them to make your life easier.
Everything from the enemies to the environments themselves looks perfect – it’s a modernized version of Super Metroid, plain and simple. The 3D effect looks excellent and really succeeds in sucking you into the game, again, the lack of a UI covering the top screen makes that even more possible. The level of detail is as high as you could reasonably expect from the aging 3DS, and I’m sure it looks even more crisp on a regular sized 3DS, as I was and still am playing on my XL.
Now I mentioned how great the controls are – but be forewarned, this is an area where you may run into issue. Not on the actual controls themselves, which I think are mapped perfectly, but with the comfort factor of the 3DS itself. Example – the Spider Ball that we’re familiar with requires holding the L-trigger while sliding along a wall. If you’ve tried holding a trigger button for a long period of time (around 30 seconds to a minute) you know that your hand feels very unnatural doing so.
An easy fix for this would have been the ability to toggle Spider Ball mode, but alas, we do not have this feature. Perhaps, it will be possibly in a later game update.
Getting your bearings with using L and R quickly and correctly, now, that’s another story altogether. It took a solid two hours to be able to quickly move around and reliably use the correct buttons without losing grip on my 3DS. Like a lot of twitch-based games, Metroid: Samus Returns requires some fine tuning on the part of your own skill and building out of muscle memory. However, I think this adds greatly to the challenge – the first few Metroids you encounter will put you to the test. By the time you get to your fifth or sixth Metroid, you are a god at flinging rockets like a madman.
One final thing about the controls is an issue that I’ve encountered in plenty of other games and is, again, not the fault of the game itself. This issue is the Circle Pad is simple not grippy enough, particularly after hundreds or thousands of hours using it. I simply cannot hold a prolonged grip on this thing, and I highly recommend buying these grips to stick on to it. The back-and-fourth action you’ll find yourself hammering into your Circle Pad will undoubtedly wear it thin pretty fast, and I don’t even have sweaty hands.
Where Metroid: Samus Returns really shines is in atmosphere and attitude. The Metroid series has always succeeded in making the player feel as claustrophobic and uncomfortable as possible, keeping you moving but locking you off to certain areas until you figure out how to proceed. Only on your rare rising to the surface are you even allowed a release to the built-up tension. It’s a brilliant gameplay loop wherein you are given almost no information and need to figure out how to proceed from scratch.
The atmosphere is tied together with a brilliant soundtrack, which reimagines the original Metroid II soundtrack while borrowing from past titles, including the gorgeous Magmoor Caverns theme from Metroid Prime. It can and will hit you with a brick made out of nostalgia! I’m sure there are more references but as I never played the original game of which Samus Returns is based upon, I did not recognize them as of yet.
I’d like to go on record as saying this: please play Metroid: Samus Returns with 3D enabled and while wearing headphones. Big ones, if you own them. It looks 10x better and sounds 10x more amazing while simultaneously pulling you into SR388 even deeper. It’s a huge disservice to yourself to not experience this game in this manner.
Now, those with previous experience playing Metroid titles are at an obvious advantage – for example, knowing that I’ll eventually pick up a Varia Suit to get through the purple acid baths, or that I’ll stumble upon the High Jump Boots, mean I can mentally mark places of which to return back. To a newcomer, there have been a handful of times where I thought, “wow, if I didn’t know I would eventually get , I would have no idea how to proceed.” Common Metroid moves like wall jumps are necessary at points, and they aren’t really explained at all. I weep for the newcomer, as there will be a metric ton of backtracking to figure things like this out.
Speaking to the challenge of the game, Metroid: Samus Returns is freaken tough. The older games weren’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, although the nature of the game is that you get more Energy Tanks and stronger abilities. Here, it’s no different. I consider myself The Ultimate Gamer but I have gotten thoroughly thrashed numerous times. Trying to move through the platforming sections without messing with enemies is tough, because they move quickly, and you can’t parry with Samus’ melee moves while you’re latched on to a ledge. All the little injuries you get add up fast, and I can’t wait to see how much more insane it gets on Hard Mode once I finish up the main game and go for a 100% with the amiibo scan.
From the feel of it, I’m five hours in, and have many, many more to go. My completion percentage is quite low (15%) and as I’ve been able to pull off sub-5 hour runs on both Gameboy Advance games, this is definitely a far meatier release than its 2D predecessors. I love what MercurySteam has done with the franchise and think it was a brilliant idea for Nintendo to team up with them for a 3DS game while working dilligently themselves on Metroid Prime 4.
Metroid: Samus Returns is, as implied by the name, a true return of Samus, and in more ways than one. The series returns to a point in history that many doubted we would ever see again, and reinvents that wheel to the point where it feels brand new, but at the same time, completely familiar. I clearly recommend the game if you’re a fan of the series, and also to newcomers of the series, although be warned that there will be a big challenge ahead, and you may get stuck at several parts, simply not knowing that you have an ability at your disposal.
Go now, and rid SR388 of its Metroid infestation!