The triumphant return the Metroid series deserves!
For over a decade the Metroid series has lain neglected, the red-headed step child of Nintendo’s first party IPs. Following the heady days of the 2000s which gave us not only Retro Studios’ beloved Prime series for the GameCube and Wii but also Samus’ return to her 2D roots on the Game Boy Advance in Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, the series went dark with nary a word on any potential new titles. Then finally industry news spoke of a new entry in the mainline series for the Wii being co-developed by Nintendo and Team Ninja, Metroid: Other M.
Initially this caused much excitement among the fan base over what a Ninja Gaiden-esque Metroid title could offer, namely super fast-paced 3D combat matched with a grueling difficulty curve. However, when players got their hands on Other M that excitement quickly faded as they were forced to endure sloppy first-person motion control segments, uninspired environments and enemies, and a lackluster story that tried far too hard to provide context to Samus’ motivations.
After Other M stumbled with critics and failed to push sales development resources were focused on more reliable properties, and it would be another five years before the Metroid series would see any activity – though not at all in the way fans would expect. During their E3 2015 presentation Nintendo unveiled Metroid Prime: Federation Force for the 3DS, a multiplayer FPS title focused on objective based combat that did not star the series’ femme fatale.
Unsurprisingly, this announcement went over like a lead balloon with journalists and felt like a slap in the face to supporters of the series. At launch reviews panned the title and it failed on all fronts commercially. However, stalwart fans refused to lose hope that their heroine would get another shot at the spotlight, and their faith would be rewarded roughly one year later.
To call Metroid: Samus Returns, Mercury Steam’s 3DS remake of the Game Boy title Metroid II: Return of Samus, a critical and commercial success is a bit of an overstatement. It did fare well with reviewers and placed in the top 10 of many sales charts but it failed to truly capture the fans as it wasn’t the fresh chapter of Samus’ growing legend that players were eager for. However, what it did do was properly showcase what a revamped 2D Metroid title could be by offering more precise control, kinetic action, and brutal difficulty. More specifically the addition of the Melee Counter and the ability to free aim were highly praised as they completely altered the series’ formula for combat. Enemies would rush Samus from all sides and survival hinged on a player’s ability to deflect and punish the oncoming onslaught.
Still the looming question remained. When would a proper sequel materialize? The answer wouldn’t come until Nintendo’s E3 2021 Direct. Metroid Dread’s announcement sent shockwaves across the internet. That Nintendo could keep the development of a new entry for one of their most revered properties a complete secret was astonishing, but more astonishing was the fact that Dread was the ultimate fulfillment of series director Yoshio Sakamoto’s 16 year long struggle to revive the series.
As early as 2005 Sakamoto had envisioned a sequel to Metroid Fusion for the Nintendo DS that built on specific aspects of its story and gameplay, namely the encounters with the terrifying SA-X that stalked the player at numerous junctures. Sakamoto wanted the player to experience the fear of the SA-X consistently over the course of the story as a ruthless enemy – dubbed the “dread” – would haunt them wherever they went. Sadly, hardware limitations would stunt development and prevent Metroid “Dread” from gaining any momentum, and Sakamoto’s focus would gradually shift to other projects.
Then in 2008 with the North American release of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption on the Wii speculation on “Dread”s development rekindled with the discovery of some flavor text when Samus scanned a specific console, but this was nothing more than a tongue in cheek reference to rampant fan theories on the title’s status.
After nearly a decade of silence talk of Dread piqued again with Samus Return’s release in 2017 and the game has now finally manifested on the Nintendo Switch! Does it live up to the decade and a half of hype and speculation, and more importantly does it live up to the legacy of the Metroid series? The simple answer to both of those questions is “Yes!” but let’s take a dive into the details and see what really makes Metroid Dread a triumphant return for Samus Aran.
Rooted In The Past
It doesn’t take long to realize that Metroid Dread leans heavily on the series’ older entries for inspiration. The Switch has plenty of horsepower to deliver a fully 3D immersive Metroid like the Prime series, but Mercury Steam and Nintendo learned plenty of lessons from Samus Returns’ successes. With the exception of a handful of QTEs during boss fights Dread is played entirely from a side-on view in gorgeously rendered 3D levels. Dread offers up several unique environments to explore each with their own hazards, and plenty of interconnected pathways in the form of elevators, trams, and teleporters that add an additional puzzle-like layer to exploration.
Ancient ruins, volcanic caverns, and derelict ships bring back memories of exploring the planet Zebes in Metroid and Super Metroid, and much like those games Dread opts to provide the player almost no guidance on where to go and when. At certain points in the game you are required to consult with Adam Malkovich for information, a returning feature from Dread’s direct prequel Metroid Fusion, but often these conversations are filler offering only vague hints and bits of context for the game’s story.
As Samus acquires critical power-ups the player is tasked with figuring out their next logical destination by consulting the intuitive, and MUCH more comprehensive, map system which now features a custom marker system. This does result in a severe degree of back-tracking with some segments of the game feeling almost like fetch quests in order to move the story, but the steady progression of new mechanics offers a suitable distraction during these periods of tedium.
Complimenting all of this is a soundtrack filled with echoing ambience and minimalist themes that feels like it was ripped straight out of Super Metroid and Metroid Prime. Soshi Abe and Sayako Doi took a great deal of inspiration from the works of famed series composer Kenji Yamamoto and have created an impressive experience of dynamic environmental themes that help elicit the “dread” Sakamoto intended.
Looking To The Future
While Dread may look and feel like a classic Metroid it also strives to elevate the series to new heights. Dread offers a surprising amount of freedom to the player in both how they play the game and how much of it they experience. Like many of the entries before it, beyond a select group of critical power-ups the overwhelming majority of upgrades in Dread are optional. But unlike previous entries the hunt for these items often takes the player into entirely new sections of the map that would have been undiscovered otherwise, and whose completion requires solving complex and in some cases incredibly demanding environmental puzzles.
Dread also drops quite a bit more world building and lore than previous entries in the series. The stories of previous games have been more or less insular, typically acknowledging only the events of the entries leading up to it and offering no hint at the possibilities of the future. Dread delves not only into the series’ distant past by exploring the Chozo civilization in much greater detail but its ending also leaves the series primed for new adventures with new implications. Samus’ future has never been brighter thanks to Dread and I can’t wait to see what lies in store for her.
As mentioned previously, Dread offers little in the way of hand holding during exploration. The same holds true during combat which has seen a significant boost in difficulty by the inclusion of mechanics taken straight out of Samus Returns. The Melee Counter, free aiming, and mastery of Samus’ new Aeion abilities are crucial to conquering Dread’s aggressive and unforgiving boss fights. These encounters pit Samus against seemingly overwhelming odds that demand a noticeable amount of patience and skill. This could likely put off many series newcomers and even rattle some veterans, but take my word for it that none of the combat in Dread is unfair.
You will always have the abilities you need to best each enemy. The trick is figuring out how and when to use them. Additionally, some fights even include alternate combat strategies provided you’ve honed your quick time reflexes or figured out how to sequence break the game. Lastly, Dread includes a ‘Hard Mode’ after completing the game for the first time which is a welcome addition, but its name is a bit of a misnomer. This mode only modifies how much damage Samus takes from all sources. Hard Mode boss encounters remain identical to their Normal variants so once you’ve deduced their patterns defeating them boils down to perfecting your execution. My first Hard Mode run saw me besting the final boss in less than 4 hours as a result of this.
Not Without Its Faults
Metroid Dread is a wonderful entry that successfully revitalizes the series for a new generation, but its not perfect. It stumbles a bit in terms of technical performance. Dread’s gameplay is incredibly fast-paced and rendering the detailed environments and models, lighting, particle effects, and smooth animations puts a strain on the Switch. Dread has managed to squeeze almost every ounce of power out of Nintendo’s console and this results in slight stuttering during intense moments as well as incredibly long load times between zones. These are somewhat masked by transition scenes but it can often take more than thirty seconds to load into the next area. After the first hour or so of gameplay this gets tiresome.
The game also suffers from some pacing issues. This might be the nitpicking of a Metroid vet, but the sequence of power-ups on a typical playthrough felt strange. The middle third of the game sees the player acquiring a series power-ups that either have incredibly limited usefulness or feel like a minor iterative upgrade of something acquired one or two sections earlier. This portion of the game is when Dread also breaks its own rules for a moment and gives the player blunt clues about where to proceed next as these upgrades are tied to obvious environmental obstacles that are pinpointed on the map.
And while we’re on the subject of pacing, let’s discuss the E.M.M.I. These nearly indestructible killer robots are the focus of the story for the first half of the game. Samus encounters one very early in a staged tutorial and must elude and eventually figure out how to dismantle these menacing mechanoids throughout the game. The E.M.M.I. are Sakamoto’s attempt at heightening the “dread” players felt during the SA-X encounters in Fusion and they work to an extent. Each E.M.M.I. poses a different challenge – sensitive sonar detection, a freezing beam, and super speed to name a few – and figuring out how to evade and destroy each one is a puzzle in and of itself.
However, these encounters are where the vast majority of a player’s deaths will result. Capture by an E.M.M.I. is almost a guaranteed Game Over and having to repeat these segments over and over again can get frustrating especially since the E.M.M.I.’s initial positioning and overall behavior can change with each instance. Successfully avoiding one can sometimes be a stroke of sheer dumb luck rather than cleverness or skill. Plus, after the first couple of E.M.M.I. have been dealt with the remaining ones aren’t nearly as intimidating.
See You Next Mission
Even with those issues Metroid Dread is a masterful game that combines the series’ classic systems with new and inspired mechanics. Metroid’s combat has never felt more fulfilling and Dread’s story is one the best in the series that gives our heroine plenty of possibilities to explore. While it doesn’t exactly live up to its namesake it more than makes up for it with an impressive visual presentation, soundtrack, tight controls, and challenging gameplay. If Dread is truly a herald of Metroid’s future then I eagerly await my next mission with Samus Aran.
Until next time, Geeks!
Overall Score: 9.25
Graphics: 10 | Sound: 9.0 | Story: 9.0 | Gameplay: 9.0
Metroid Dread is the return to form the series needed after numerous failed revivals and years of inactivity. Visually impressive and with a matching soundtrack, it brings the series into the future with challenging gameplay and intense boss battles. Even with a few technical stumbles and some pacing problems Dread is still a masterpiece of game design that brings hope of a bright future for Samus Aran. Metroid Dread is a must play for any Switch owner.