Available On: Nintendo 3DS
The Metroid series is held in high esteem. It helped jump start an entirely new genre born out of platforming and exploration. Super Metroid (1994) is considered one of the best games ever made, yet Nintendo has been painfully quiet on any Metroid news or games over the last decade – until now.
Metroid: Samus Returns isn’t quite the new 2D Metroid game we were hoping for; it’s a remake of the second game in the series, 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus for the Game Boy. A lot of impressive went work into updating the old monochrome visuals into stunning 3D models and animated backgrounds, while the core gameplay of exploring a labyrinthine world full of secrets and power-ups remains just as compelling all these years later.
While Samus Returns is the second game in the series, you don’t really need to know much of the story. The original three Metroid games were not big on story at all, preferring a Show Don’t Tell philosophy with level design.
In an Aliens-style plot hook, Samus Aran is sent to the Metroid homeworld of SR388 to wipe the dangerous creatures out. The entire story is boiled down to a number: 40 metroids must be destroyed throughout eight not-so-distinct areas.
You’ll explore the planet by running, jumping, and blasting your way through various corridors, hallways, and deathtrap rooms. Early on you’ll gain the ability to scan your horizons, filling in the boxy maps to help navigate where the secret doors and hidden power-ups are located. The dual screen of the Nintendo 3DS is perfectly suited for a genre where constantly glancing at the map is necessary to make your way around.
You’ll only have your basic blaster gun in the beginning. You can rapidly fire and soon unlock the ability to charge a stronger blast. By holding down left shoulder button you enter free aim mode, locking Samus in place but giving you better aim. The right shoulder lets you equip your missiles, but you’ll need to tap the touch screen to switch to your ice beam. New Aeion abilities (like the scanner) can be selected with the control pad and activated with A, including a nifty shield which became a nice crutch for boss fights.
Another new feature the remake offers is a melee counter button. By tapping X right when an enemy is about to strike, you’ll knock them back and auto-target, letting you kill them with a barrage of gunfire. It’s fun and satisfying, though can quickly fall apart with multiple foes on screen.
That’s a lot going on and while I admire not having to pause to switch weapons or abilities, it did lead to uncomfortable claw-like grips of my poor handheld when holding both shoulder buttons while attacking.
Set Phasers to Kill
The trademark of what is popularly called the Metroidvania genre is backtracking – returning to previous areas with new powers to unlock newly obtainable goodies. Teleport Stations help alleviate the burden of getting around, and you can place your own custom map markers. But there’s still no way to to write a note reminding me if I’ll the need Super Missiles or Screw Attack to get through a certain spot several hours later.
Most of the power-ups and collectibles simply add to your ammo or life meter. A bigger health pool is great, there are precious few energy tanks scattered around. But increasing missile capacity quickly becomes moot. Early on when you only have 20 or 30 missiles it can be tense. I had to escape from an early boss fight because I ran out and had to return later. But there’s little difference between having 90 missiles and 150.
Gaining new abilities is always fun, however. Most add a major strategic layer to both combat and puzzles. Freeze enemies with the Ice Beam to use them as platforms. Move blocks with the Grapple Beam to access new areas. Stick to walls with the Spider Ball to move around hazards and reach new heights.
In a very Zelda-like fashion, areas and enemies are designed to show off and challenge newly acquired powers. It’s a very classic gameplay structure that still works well today.
There’s a well-balanced ramp in difficulty with each new area, though they lack a distinctive theme. Most areas look like they’re simply part of the same underground world of the planet – there are no big lava sections or water sections, for example.
I was particularly disappointed in the boss fights. Normally Metroidvanias have amazing boss battles as major setpeices and cool moments (see most recently, Sundered). That couldn’t be less true of Metroid: Samus Returns. The main plot boils down to hunting and killing those 40 metroids, and there’s only about four different varieties. The boss battles quickly grow repetitive and sadly become one of the least interesting parts of the game.
Metroid: Samus Returns is rated E for Everyone. It has Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence, and Mild Suggestive Themes. An armored space warrior fighting aliens in a dungeon-like planet doesn’t need much moral ambiguity. Samus Aran is also the rare female protagonist who doesn’t have to show much (any) skin to kick ass.
Despite my disappointment in the boss fights and some control woes, Metroid: Samus Returns is a satisfying remake that very much holds up today. I can name a dozen indie games that have since done the genre better, but Samus Returns is still an absolute classic, and well-served by the updated visuals, improved level designs, and dual-screen features.