Developer: MercurySteam / Nintendo EPD
Format: Nintendo 3DS
Released: September 15, 2017
Copy supplied by publisher
Nintendo is often accused of revisiting the same well again and again with its franchises, many of which are over thirty years old at this point. But while Mario and Zelda fans never seem to be lacking for new experiences — in fact, two of this year’s best games are Zelda and Mario titles — Metroid fans have had precious little to get excited about in the last decade or so. Outside of last year’s Federation Force — which was a fun diversion but barely qualified as a Metroid game — there hasn’t been a new title in the series since 2010’s divisive Metroid: Other M. Fortunately, Nintendo brought Metroid back in force at this year’s E3 with the announcement of two new titles: Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns. With the former title still at least a couple years away from release, Samus Returns now has the unenviable distinction of being the first new Metroid game in years; albeit with the caveat that the game is technically a remake of a 25-year-old game on outdated hardware. Well, after playing Metroid: Samus Returns extensively over the last week, I can safely say that while the game doesn’t push the Metroid franchise forward in any meaningful way, it’s both a lovingly crafted remake and an experience well-worth dusting off your 3DS for.
Metroid: Samus Returns is described by Nintendo as a “reimagining” of the 1991 Game Boy game Metroid II: Return of Samus. Set after the events of the original Metroid, Metroid II/Samus Returns sees series heroine Samus Aran dispatched to SR388, home of the Metroid race, in order to eradicate the entire species of parasitic jellyfish-like creatures. The game tasks you with hunting down 39 Metroids spread around the planet. Once you clear each area of its Metroid population and deposit their DNA into a massive statue, the next section of the map opens up and you do it all again. Having never played the original, I can’t speak to how well developer MercurySteam has remade Metroid II , but I do know that it includes at least one significant change: a melee attack.
This may seem like a trivial addition but in practice, the melee attack fundamentally changes the way enemy encounters work in a 2D Metroid game. It’s incredibly difficult to fight enemies in Samus Returns like you would in other Metroid titles, as most enemies will now charge at Samus when they see her, prompting players to quickly counter with a melee attack. If you land a successful counter, the enemy will be pushed back, Samus will auto-lock on them and her projectile blasts will do extra damage. Nailing the timing of these counter attacks is critical to survival in Samus Returns, as enemies are quite aggressive and will take a big chunk of your health away when they hit you. Fortunately, it doesn’t take very long to get used to this new system and once you do, combat becomes fast and fluid, as you dodge and counter enemy attacks and hit them back with swift retribution.
The other major new addition is Samus’ Aeion abilities, which deplete an energy gauge when used. These abilities include beam power ups, the power to slow time, damage absorption and perhaps most controversially, an environment scanner. The scanner essentially lets you see hidden objects in the environment, such as which blocks are vulnerable to your missiles or bombs. This feature has already been criticized by some as being akin to a cheat button, as part of the core Metroid experience is environmental puzzle-based and giving you the ability to see where to go next takes away from that experience. To be honest, I don’t view it this way, as the scanning ability is totally optional and helps alleviate the issue I’ve had with past Metroid titles wherein I’d find myself stuck in an area with no idea where to go next. Scanning your immediate surroundings doesn’t eliminate this issue, as you’ll still need to explore every nook and cranny in order to get past certain sections, but I was happy it was there for me to either use or ignore.
In terms of backtracking, Samus Returns is surprisingly lacking when compared to other Metroid games. While the game alleviates the annoyance of travelling back to old areas somewhat with the addition of teleporters and elevators, there isn’t actually much reason to going back to previous areas unless you’re determined to get to 100% completion. The game’s difficulty level remains pretty consistent throughout, as your weapon and armor upgrades tend to keep pace with the more powerful enemies found in the deeper areas of SR388 and you’ll probably find enough armor and missile upgrades exploring an area the first time through to not have to spend much time going back to old areas once you find the required ability to access them.
Visually, the game is obviously leaps and bounds above Metroid II and looks great on the aging 3DS hardware. I played the game on a regular 3DS XL (no *New* 3DS for me, unfortunately) and I didn’t notice any sort of performance issues or framerate dips. I have heard that the 3D effects are actually pretty good in this game but I kept the 3D turned off for most of the experience due to the fact I was playing on old hardware without the eye-tracking technology found on the New 3DS. The problem is, while Samus Returns is a great experience on the 3DS, I couldn’t help wishing the game was on a system that could truly do it justice. After playing through the beautiful and very Metroid-inspired Ori and the Blind Forest in recent years, it’s hard to play a Metroid game on a handheld that doesn’t even support HD visuals. I don’t understand why Nintendo isn’t releasing this game on the Switch as well, as that system’s portability factor and bigger, prettier screen seem like an obvious fit. It’s nice to see Nintendo continue to put out excellent games on the 3DS, but at this point I think they’re doing themselves and their fans a disservice by continuing to keep the 3DS supported with first-party software that would make just as much — if not more — sense on the Switch.
If you’re a 3DS owner with even a passing interest in the Metroid series, Samus Returns is an easy recommendation. While it’s technically a remake, the game introduces enough new gameplay elements to be considered a brand new Metroid game and that’s something we haven’t had enough of lately. If anything, Samus Returns is an excellent reminder of just how timeless the core Metroid experience is and even though it doesn’t move the needle forward, it also shouldn’t be considered a step back for the series either. Hopefully Metroid: Samus Returns is an indication that Nintendo recognizes this franchise’s value and signals that they’ll be making it more of a priority going forward. Here’s looking to the future, Samus.
Metroid: Samus Returns may not contain many new ideas, but it's a solid entry in the venerable franchise that should not be missed.