Metroid Dread

It finally happened. Nintendo released another Metroid game, only it’s not the long-awaited Metroid Prime 4(Q4 2022…hopefully?). For anyone who managed to avoid the surprisingly visible online marketing campaign by Nintendo, Metroid Dread – the first all-new 2D Metroid game since 2002’s Fusion was released a matter of days ago on October 8. Was this game worth the long wait? In this biased Metroid fanboy’s opinion…absolutely yes.

Metroid Dread is a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion whose development cycle has seen numerous twists and turns since it its inception for the Nintendo DS back in 2005. The project eventually become more known for it troubled development cycle than about the game itself. This illusive, almost mythic status made for all the more surprise when Nintendo finally announced that, yes, Metroid Dread was finally going to see the light of day as a Nintendo Switch release on October 8th during their E3 2021 presentation. It was also announced the fabled Fusion sequel had been handed off to MercurySteam, who had developed Metroid: Samus Returns – a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus, for the 3DS released back in 2017.

I had heard the stories of a 2D Metroid game that had been stuck in development purgatory before finally being cancelled. I was that much more excited and intrigued to see the announcement of a brand-new side scrolling Metroid game for the Switch, and releasing in a matter of months no less! I must admit that while I really enjoyed Samus Returns, I didn’t regard it anywhere near as highly as Super Metroid, Metroid Prime, and Metroid Fusion, but I was still willing to see what MercurySteam could bring to the table. I can honestly say the result is a phenomenal game and exactly what I wished Samus Returns could have been…

Guess who’s back and as badass as ever?

Metroid Dread begins immediately the events of Metroid Fusion. Samus has escaped the Biologic Space Laboratories(BSL) Station and the “X” parasites are thought to have been wiped out in the collision with the planet SR388. Shortly after, the Galactic Federation receives a video sent from an anonymous source showing an “X” parasite inhabiting the remote planet of ZDR. The Federation sends a small team of Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifiers or E.M.M.I. to locate and extract the DNA of the “X” parasites, but upon reaching ZDR, communication with the E.M.M.I. is lost. Our story begins as bounty hunter Samus is once again commissioned by the Galactic Federation, this time to investigate the planet ZDR and uncover the whereabouts of the E.M.M.I. After landing on ZDR, Samus is attacked and nearly killed by what appears to be a Chozo warrior. When she regains consciousness she finds that she has lost most of her abilities….yet again, and begins her trek to the planet surface. She then is approached by one of the seven E.M.M.I. which engages pursuit as it’s clear something(someone?) else is controlling them.

The game overall has a moderate difficulty curve to it, very similar to the original Metroid on the NES or Super Metroid, but it never felt overwhelming. The boss fights in particular, are challenging, yet exhilarating to overcome. There’s also a few nice references to previous entries in the Metroid series such as each new region having to defeat(deactivate?) the Central Unit in order to venture further, which very closely resembles the Mother Brain fight from Samus’ very first adventure. Another memorable moment in Metroid Dread was descending to the depths of Cataris and facing off against Kraid, another of Samus’ old foes. The Kraid battle was another blast of nostalgia as the fight, for the most part, mirrors the epic battle in Super Metroid, while adding a few new angles. Many of the enemy encounters(as well as procuring missile upgrades and health tanks) reminded me of the many NES/SNES-era games which demanded the timing of your jump, attacks and counters to be PRECISE in order to succeed. The boss and mini-boss fights can seem a bit like a disorienting challenge at first, but once you learn the attack patters(and likely see the game over screen a few times) it almost becomes to its own choreographed fight sequence closer to what Team Ninja attempted in the divisive Metroid: Other M for the Wii.

The combat in Metroid Dread feels like a near-perfect evolution of its 2D predecessors, with tight, responsive controls that allow Samus to perform a number of maneuvers and attacks. The melee counter introduced in Samus Returns is back and is once again, critical to successfully defeating the many dangers awaiting Samus on ZDR. Being able to play a 2D Metroid game with a modern console/controller allows for a greater number of moves to be smoothly performed at any given time – a contrast to having to hit the Start button to switch between missiles and your grapple beam. This new(er) dexterity adds to the familiar feeling of powerful satisfaction as you once again find yourself decimating the same region full of enemies that had made venturing through so treacherous a mere couple hours earlier. Dread is 100% the best-playing Metroid game yet…

These fights feel oddly familiar…

The nine different regions across ZDR are all unique and have their own set of enemies and terrain to encounter. One thing that really impressed was the way MercurySteam created a greater sense of scale by implementing some 3D background effects in areas while still retaining the familiar feel of its 2D predecessors; very similar to the what Koji Igarashi and ArtPlay did with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

As one would expect from a Metroid game, its DNA is comprised primarily of exploration and atmosphere. While these two elements are what drive the game, Dread does contain enough of a story to glue it all together as it dips ever so slightly into Samus’ backstory of an orphan raised by the Chozo, while continuing the story from Metroid Fusion.

My two biggest flaws in Metroid Dread boil down to two things…

A familiar face…statue?

Feedback – It was difficult at times to tell if you are even dealing any damage to enemies, particularly during boss fights when the margin of error for timing counter attacks and evading enemy attacks is already thin. This made the boss fights feel very trial-and-error as one minor mistake could often result in re-doing a multi-section boss fight from the beginning. Perhaps this could have been alleviated a bit by implementing health bars during boss fights, but as previously stated, the battles are difficult enough due to the dexterity required to jump, dash and slide away from enemy attacks; there isn’t a lot of time to focus on how fast the boss’ health is depleting. I should also point out that Super Metroid has a similar issue with enemy feedback during some of the boss fights, though I’d still say it was slightly less noticeable there(or back in 1994).  

Pacing – The E.M.M.I can be a terrifying enemy as the have the relentless tenacity of a T-1000 stalking your every move. They add a sense of tension and of course, dread as you mostly have no other option that to evade contact with them. They do begin to seem less menacing as the game goes on and they soon become more of an annoyance than fearsome foe, similar to the way B.T.s felt terrifying for the first several encounters in Death Stranding before beginning to irritate more than instill fear. Strangely enough, they only function in certain areas of each region designated by the E.M.M.I doorways. In order to fully conjure the feeling of dread the title implies, I would have preferred the E.M.M.I pose a constant threat throughout the game. This would be like playing Resident Evil 3, but the possibility of the Nemesis bursting through a wall and pursuing you only entering your mind a little over a third of the area in each region. The fact it starts to feel like stealth sections were added to a Metroid game – similar to sneaking into Hyrule Castle with young Link in Ocarina of Time wasn’t exactly something I was in love with while playing. The frequency of instant fails in the E.M.M.I sections created a very noticeable disconnect in pacing when compared to the rest of the game.

Final thoughts

Hello again…

Despite some issues with pacing and a lack of enemy feedback, Metroid Dread is one of my gaming highlights of 2021 and immediately after completing the game I was already wanting to go back through the adventure all over again, this time to test out the newly unlocked ‘Hard Mode’. Players who disliked the more linear approach to Metroid Fusion – having your next destination explicitly pointed out to you, will appreciate the way Dread offers the freedom of exploration for those seeking it, similar to Super Metroid. MercurySteam has done an excellent job improving the Metroid gameplay and formula since Samus Returns in 2017. Even if the game doesn’t quite instill a sense of….dread as the name suggests, it does an exemplary job of taking what made Super Metroid/Fusion so great while adding some updated touches. Exploration and atmosphere are at the very core of the series and Metroid Dread is a perfect modern example as to why the series is the namesake(half of, anyway) of an entire subgenre of games colloquially known as Metroidvanias. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 19 years for the next game…

Returnal Is Everything I Love About Metroid

I was lucky enough to score a PlayStation 5 a month ago after telling myself I would wait a little while before throwing down hard-earned cash on a new console. It had been 9 months since the PS5 was first released, and I had assumed I would buy one(try to, at least) within the first year, before games like Horizon: Forbidden West and the next God of War game were to be released. On my short list of games I wanted to play first on the new PS5 was Returnal – a roguelite, bullet-hell, third-person shooter developed by Housemarque. I had loved the studio’s previous releases, such as Super Stardust HD or Zombie Nation as Housemarque had become known for making primarily arcade-style games. Returnal had been billed as the first “true, next-gen release” for the PS5 and had a fair amount of hype around it as it was advertised as a AAA roguelite shooter. Prior to its release, the discussion quickly shifted towards the game’s steep difficulty curve.

Returnal also came as a recommendation from a friend as “very much my type of game” knowing how much I loved Hades last year….they were absolutely correct. I don’t believe I’ve played a game quite like Returnal, certainly not within the AAA-game space. I also don’t recall being quite this hooked on a game in a long time. It only took 15 days for me to go from my first minutes with the game to beating the game and collecting every trophy. It was over the course of the many many hours devoted to the game that I had something of a revelation – Returnal contains everything that I love about Metroid games.

I first fell in love with Metroid as a series playing Super Metroid as a kid. Super Metroid, Prime, and Fusion are among my all-time favorite games and my time with Returnal over the past couple weeks has brought out some of the same feelings I have with playing Metroid games.

Isolation

ASTRA pilot Selene Vassos crash lands on the planet of Atropos after defying orders not to investigate the swirling anomaly she dubs the “White Shadow”. She emerges from the wrecked ship and proceeds to explore the mysterious, ever-changing alien world. She discovers she is caught in a loop of living and dying over and over again unless she is able to break the cycle and discover the cause of this phenomenon.

One of the things I’ve always found interesting about Metroid games is the sense of isolation. You’re all alone, on an alien world, vastly outnumbered by hostile lifeforms, but you’re determined to make it out alive. Maybe it’s just my antisocial, loner tendencies here, but I’ve always been intrigued by the way games like this can amplify one’s own feeling of insignificance and helplessness. This has been a feeling used in many sci-fi movies and games for decades – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien being notable examples.  In Returnal, Selene crash lands on the planet, Atropos after choosing to investigate the distress signal coming from the “White Shadow”. Similar to Samus, there is no backup and she has only herself to rely on, along with her determination to persevere many, many attempts at escape in order to break the cycle and find her way off the planet. There’s also a sense of isolation as you are contrasted against giant, sprawling environments, such as Death Stranding or even Red Dead Redemption 2. Some of my fondest memories from DS or RDR2 are simple moments quiet solitude while taking in the otherworldly sights of a post-extinction event America or the expansive mountains and plains of the Old West. Perhaps I’m just particular to playing the “lone wanderer” in video games… 

Mystery & Danger

After landing on Zebes, Samus begins her investigation the planet, starting with the area surrounding her ship to reach deeper into the world’s multiple environments. At first there’s a sense of trepidation, as you’re unsure just what matter of lifeforms lie beyond the next area. That feeling of mystery and danger is something I immediately recognized while playing Returnal. Each of the game’s 6 biomes have a set of randomly-generated rooms; you don’t know which room is on the other side of the doorway until you pass through. This deviates a bit from Metroid games, where the world has a set map layout, but once you’ve…ahem…failed enough attempts, you begin to pick up on what to look out for in specific rooms. The first time you come across a room, you are quickly overwhelmed by a dozen enemies waiting to attack and the next, there could be no enemies at all. This means you are constantly on your toes because you never truly know which enemies(if any) lie beyond the doorway in front of you, resulting(possibly) in a very abrupt end to your current run. I honestly don’t know how many times I ran afoul of the RNG gods and came face to face with a horde of enemies or mini-boss(es) merely a couple rooms from the starting point in a biome. “Well…shit. I guess I’m starting this over” was a common phrase muttered over my many hours in Returnal. 

Weapons & Abilities

Another one of my favorite moments in a Metroid game usually occurs late in the game. You’ve survived wave after wave of enemies and gigantic boss encounters, slowly building your arsenal of weaponry. There’s a turning point where you no longer feel afraid of this imposing planet and its violent inhabitants – you’ve gone from FEARFUL to FEARLESS. By the time you get the Screw Attack upgrade, specifically in Super Metroid, you merely laugh as you annihilate the grunt enemies blocking your path to the final area of the game. Bloodborne is another good example of this, you begin the game feeling underpowered and running past the foul beasts of Yharnam before you begin to truly feel like an accomplished hunter. In Returnal, there’s a similar feeling of transformation as you progress through the game. It differs slightly from the above games as any weapons upgrades only last your current run, the same as any artifacts or parasites you acquire. Due to the roguelite nature of the game, any feeling of power in Returnal comes almost entirely from studying and understanding the attack patterns of your enemies – you’ll be seeing them a lot so perception is critical to success here… 

I wouldn’t say Returnal borrows much from Metroid gameplay-wise, as there isn’t a lot that would be typically considered “Metroidvania territory”. The game is first and foremost, a roguelite game. One that incorporates elements of bullet-hell shooters, but set to a third-person perspective. This makes it feel very reminiscent of the shootouts in Control(strange coincidence, as both Housemarque and Remedy Entertainment were founded in Finland). It does however hit a lot of the same notes in atmosphere and mood that I’ve always loved since first playing Super Metroid as a kid…

Returnal feels every bit as addicting as Hades was just a year ago(and then some). There’s a layer of atmospere and mystique that I love, which gives way to an absolutely satisfying(and brutally difficult) gameplay loop. The sense of accomplishment in getting the platinum trophy(or simply beating the game) makes this an unforgettable experience. I feel like the past few consecutive games I’ve played through will all be on my list of favorite games from 2021 when the year is over, but I’m even more confident Returnal will sit among the top spots on that list.

Thanks for reading!

Here’s a video of one of the boss fights I uploaded recently…