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…

Donkey Kong 40th Anniversary – A Barrel of Memories

July 9, 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of Donkey Kong swinging his way into Japanese arcades in 1981. The game immediately became a massive success and put Nintendo on the gaming map. I’ve known Donkey Kong as a video game character as long as anyone and obviously, this includes Mario, known simply as “Jumpman” in the original arcade game. Donkey Kong has seen many phases and evolutions throughout his history, so, for today’s exercise in actually writing something, I’ve included a few various examples of DK memories from my own 3 decades of playing video games.

Pull up a barrel and let’s take a trip down memory lane…

Earliest

Nearly any successful game back in the 80’s had multiple iterations attempting to cash in on the newest video game craze. My family actually had two of these Coleco mini arcade games – Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. I remember lying on the living room floor at some very young age and attempting to play this, which seemed to always involve me looking around the house for the 4 C-batteries needed to power the miniature arcade cabinet. I don’t recall the game functioning all that well(when it did have batteries), but it was my first experience with Nintendo’s barrel-throwing primate. After this, it could very possibly be Donkey Kong Jr. for the NES…

Favorite

By the time we reached the early-90’s, Donkey Kong was already fading from the memories of many gamers. He was seen as a grandfather of gaming and certainly wasn’t expected to be thrust back into relevance, but that’s exactly what happened when Rare released Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

I can still remember seeing DKC for the first time at my neighbor’s and couldn’t believe how incredible the game looked(especially for the time). DKC was one of those games I played as a kid, that I was immediately hooked upon playing and I can recall plenty of times I spent nearly all night trying to beat the game. I’ve mentioned…several times in past blog posts about how much I love Donkey Kong Country and attempting to accurately convey just what the game meant to me growing up.

Most Recent

Donkey Kong Country wasn’t the only game released in 1994 to star Nintendo’s simian mascot. Donkey Kong, commonly referred to as “DK ’94” was released on the Game Boy and very much flew under the radar for most gamers at the time – slightly understandable given it was released only a matter of months before Donkey Kong Country changed the course of history for game gorillas. Perhaps the strangest thing about the game is the fact it begins as essentially a port of the arcade version of the game, but then shifts into a puzzle-platformer spanning another 8 levels and 101 stages.

I bought the game sometime last year(?) and played it a little bit, but found out I hadn’t properly saved the game, requiring me to start from the beginning all over again. I mentioned DK ’94 in a blog post earlier this year listing some games from various Nintendo franchises celebrating milestone anniversaries this year, with the intent of seeing the game to completion sometime before the year is through…5 months and counting now. I (re)started the game a few days ago and have made it about halfway through the game. I’m really enjoying it and feel a bit ashamed of how I mistakenly saw it as just another version of the arcade game shortly after it was released, like most others it seems…

Questionable

Yes, this existed and yes I remember watching this before leaving for school in the morning…

I still like the DK Rap….I’m just not sure if it’s unironically or not?

The Return

While Rare made three Donkey Kong Country games and Donkey Kong 64(see: DK Rap), it felt like the series had begun to lose a little steam. In 2010, the series returned on the Nintendo Wii with the aptly titled, Donkey Kong Country Returns. This time, the game(s) were developed by Retro Studios, best known for the Metroid Prime games. DKC Returns was a wonderful return to form for DK and Co. with DKC: Tropical Freeze being released a few years later for the Wii U, and then re-released a couple years ago for the Nintendo Switch. Tropical Freeze perfectly encapsulates what made the games so great back in the 90’s, with many holding up the title as the series’ best entry. It took me a little bit of adjusting to the slightly heavier-feeling physics of the game, but after playing through both of the Retro DKC games, I have no issue with anyone regarding these as highly as the Rare ones and Tropical Freeze would likely be on my list of favorite Switch games.

That’s all I have for now. What are your favorite Donkey Kong games, or some of your favorite DK memories? Let me know.

Thanks for reading!