Nintendo didn’t make a big deal out of announcing Metroid: Samus Returns at E3. The 3DS “re-imagining” of Metroid II: Return of Samus debuted after the mainstage Spotlight, flushed away in the fallout of showstoppers such as Super Mario Odyssey, and yes, Metroid Prime 4. The too-detailed demo presentation suggested a title desperately justifying itself to potential buyers, and the release in the 3DS’ perceived “twilight years” smacked of afterthought. Even with the collector’s edition, the soundtrack CD, and the fancy amiibo, it didn’t feel as if there was too much confidence behind Samus this time around.
It’s understandable, given the last classic 2D-style Metroid game was Metroid: Zero Mission, released 13 years ago for the Gameboy Advance. If this generation gap wasn’t enough, Metroid has never busted charts for Nintendo like their other franchises. Even with her devoted fan base firmly in place, Samus can’t bring home enough bacon to warrant regular, high profile games. It’s why when Metroid: Samus Returns was announced, the cynic inside me said it would be a quick and middling remake of a cult entry of an already cult franchise, releasing to minor aplomb and immediate obscurity at the end of a platform’s life.
You’ll be happy to know the cynic inside me has packed his bags. The chills started on hearing the isolating, alien title music, and they still haven’t stopped. Unlike Metroid Prime: Federation Force’s misguided attempt at bringing Nintendo’s sci-fi darling to a new generation, Metroid: Samus Returns is the real deal. Delivering on the definitive nature of its subtitle, Samus Returns is a game which not only heralds an icon, but tweaks the formula of her classic adventures for a totally new breed of experience. It’s daring, it’s challenging, and above all, it’s fun as hell. If you’ve spent years waiting for a comeback, this is the game you want.
Metroid II: Return of Samus goes like this: sent by the Galactic Federation, Samus lands on the distant planet SR388 to hunt down and exterminate every remaining member of the parasitic Metroid species. This time, there’s a twist: the Metroids evolve, transforming into more monstrous and powerful forms. In addition to franchise cornerstones of exploration and power-ups, there’s a fixed number of Metroids, which must be hunted to progress to new areas. As a re-imagining, Metroid: Samus Returns takes these key concepts – consistent Metroid encounters, limited area exploration – and hatches a new beast with similar DNA.
With this sustained focus on battles, particularly nail-biting, button-slamming Metroid boss encounters, it makes sense that Metroid: Samus Returns pops open a fresh bag of combat moves. New to the game are Aeion abilities, which drain a gauge in exchange for tricks like shields and rapid-fire attacks. They’re complemented by an uppercut ability: strike back when an enemy charges to stun, deal massive damage, and refill your Aeion gauge. More so than any Metroid title before it, Samus Returns becomes about predicting enemy movements and patterns; playing quickly and defensively to avoid damage and strike when the time is right.
This expanded, intricate combat contrasts to the experience of exploring SR388, which has become more accessible and streamlined than ever before. The focus on traversing one main area at a time cuts back on excessive backtracking, and the map-revealing “scan pulse” ability often makes reaching areas a question of “how,” rather than “where.” It’s a sort of limited-range, on-demand version of the map stations from the franchise’s past. The pulse also briefly reveals any breakable blocks or secret passages near Samus, cutting back on the frantic floor and wall morph bomb attacks. Those who prefer to stay in the dark about this sort of thing can simply refrain from using the ability, and keep their adventure a trial and error more in the vein of Super Metroid.
What’s most impressive about both Samus Returns’ combat and exploration is how well the core mechanics take full advantage of the 3DS’ abilities and layout. The 360 degree range of cannon fire provided by the control stick is a godsend, and it gets even better when Samus is locked into place by holding the L button. The bottom screen is packed with information: the aforementioned map, your various gauges, buttons which switch beam types, a Metroid counter, and more. Pause, and you’ll open a menu where you can touch to place map markers. Keeping this all on the bottom screen leaves the top open to display SR388 in it’s full glory, which looks very, very good on my New 2DS XL. I can’t play games in 3D (gives me a headache), but the dense, layered backdrops of Samus Returns scream for that added sense of depth.
The rich visual design of SR388 is somewhat undercut by the lack of imagination which crops up elsewhere. Instead of Brinstar, Magmoor, or even Sector 1 (SRX), you’ll be exploring Area 1, Area 2, and, uh, Area 3. There’s not a whole lot of variety in the enemy types, but the ones that creep and crawl around SR388 are perfectly at home amongst the neon yellows, sickly greens, and deep purples of the planet’s Ancient Egypt meets H.R. Giger alien landscapes. Some might complain about the repetitive nature of the continual Metroid fights in lieu of unique bosses as well, but this is another place where Samus Returns truly shines.
By presenting a fixed quota of Metroids, with many in the same stage of their life cycle, Samus Returns works off a wicked learning curve. Much like Dark Souls’ rinse-and-repeat system of battling the same boss repeatedly to learn its patterns, Samus Returns presents players with a choice. You can pick up on the attacks, the movements, and the quirks to come out of these battles relatively unscathed, or you can fight head-on and suffer the consequences. With a much smaller amount of energy tanks available to players, there’s not much room for error, and it’s this sort of teeth-clenching, sweaty-palmed challenge which makes Metroid: Samus Returns so satisfying. As soon as I became accustomed to one type of Metroid, a newer, deadlier evolution would appear, and I’d find myself thrown into the grinder all over again.
Surmounting bosses is fun, but the combat system isn’t perfect. Mess up an opportunity to uppercut, and you’ll have to hang back and plug away with your beam in the awkward moments waiting for the enemy to attack again. At its best, this new system of gameplay achieves a flow akin to character action games, in which Samus effortlessly knocks back enemy after enemy and annihilates them in her conquest of SR388. At its worst, things fall into a weird stop-and-go tempo as you feebly attempt to counter, take damage, and then fiddle with a bunch of buttons on your 3DS to reposition yourself for a desperate 360 degree missile barrage. The gameplay is solid for sure, but it could be improved. It’s really just the first step in a new direction for the Metroid franchise…which is the bitter irony of Samus Returns.
With the updates to gameplay and exploration, Samus Returns makes the Metroid franchise more fun and streamlined than ever before; absolutely worth playing to both newcomers and veterans alike. It proves that the 3DS is the perfect platform for these sorts of games, so it’s sad that Metroid: Samus Returns has arrived as interest in the handheld is decidedly waning. It’s undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable titles in the entire franchise, and a follow-up with improved mechanics could be incredible. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that one more might squeak out before the 3DS breathes its last, but I can’t help feel that Metroid: Samus Returns is rife with lost potential. Had it come earlier, who knows what might have happened? Alas. The future of Samus still feels as murky as ever – let’s enjoy her company while she’s around.