It is far too easy to overstate the quality of Metroid: Samus Returns. The last major adventure starring Nintendo’s premiere space heroine was Metroid: Other M back in 2009, a game so despised by both fans and critics it’s considered one of the greatest black marks in the beloved company’s history. Any new installment after that can only be seen as great by comparison, doubly so after eight years of absence.
This is still a great 3DS remake of a Game Boy classic, but for something that has been billed as the glorious return of a beloved sci-fi series it doesn’t exactly sit in the mind as it should.
Warrior Vs. Planet
The plot of Metroid: Samus Returns is virtually unchanged from its source material. Bounty hunter Samus Aran is sent to planet SR388 on behalf of the Galactic Federation to wipe out a dangerous alien race called metroids since they could easily be used as weapons of mass destruction. As she descends further into the planet’s depths, she discovers that the metroids are rapidly evolving and becoming increasingly dangerous as her assault on their numbers continue.
And in true Nintendo fashion, this simple plot is to keep the core gameplay front and center. A 2D Metroidvania sidescrolling shooter full of open-ended environments, hidden weapon upgrades and nasty enemy encounters. It’s a formula the company has refined to an absolute science and the beats are still present here. Finding a new weapon allows you to access a new area, which leads to more enemies and platforming which yields more rewards which unlocks new areas. Whether it’s getting a missile expansion or the beloved Screw Attack, getting the next collectible is still satisfying.
Fresh Paint, New Toys
Since the 3DS is a much more technically powerful than the Game Boy, Metroid: Samus Returns has been given a complete graphical and artistic make-over. The studio behind this project, MercurySteam have a history with putting new visual spins on old properties, their most popular being the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series, and they haven’t lost a beat in translating the isolation of SR388 to modern day. Classic enemies are visually distinct and are animated beautifully. The backgrounds of each area in the game are full of wildlife and striking environments. Even Samus’ redesign is pleasantly streamlined in a way that makes her both visually intimidating yet flexible performance wise; capable of being both a terrifying force of nature as well as a curious even overwhelmed warrior in over her head. It also runs incredibly well with no major dips in performance. It was amazing the first time I entered a door and wasn’t greeted by a large immersion-breaking transition screen of black, and it does wonders for wandering and getting lost within the sprawling locales.
But a lot has changed since 1991 so MercurySteam added some quality of life improvements as well as their own personal flourishes. In addition to save stations not running on a password system, there are a lot of generous checkpoints peppered throughout the game, letting you get back into the fray sooner after dying to a certain platforming section or boss. There are also fast travel points sprinkled throughout the various locations to cut down on more lengthy bouts of backtracking. The studio even did a great job integrating more recent weapons and tricks like the grapple beam and super missiles into the levels as well.
As for combat improvements there is now a counter ability. If timed properly, Samus can swat away a physical attack by an enemy then immediately retaliate with her arm cannon. I’m ambivalent to this change since there is nothing wrong with its execution but it feels at odds with the series’ appeal. Samus has always been a ranged fighter, using lasers, missiles and bombs to get the job done, and while a close quarters counter is appreciated, it’s practically encouraged by how the follow-up attack is with a more powerful arm cannon blast, making the standard blaster feel weak and ineffective. This is less of a problem during boss battles, which triggers a special combat animation where Samus bobs and weaves through her foe’s assault firing whatever the player wants with some quick button presses, thanks to boss attacks being quicker and harder to predict than an average mook.
Finally, there are the divisive Aeion Abilities which are the largest addition to Samus’ arsenal. There are four of them in total that run off of their own dedicated energy bar, which grant the armorclad heroine temporary boosts to her skills like a shield granting temporary invulnerability or overclocking her arm cannon into a maelstrom of death.
Their inclusion is a mixed bag and feels like an attempt to make things more approachable to new players. Not only is the energy bar easily refilled, enemies dispense it like water from a tap, but most of my uses of the abilities was used to ease frustration rather than handle new and interesting challenges. The super laser ability was mostly used to blaze through the repetitive boss fights against the metroids, which despite multiple forms with increasing levels of challenge become standard and predictable after the sixth of seventh encounter. The special armor ability was used to get through long stretches of danger instead of retreading old areas and farming enemies for health. The scan pulse is used to help highlight destructible areas in the environment, just to make sure no time is wasted hitting every single piece of stone in the area with missiles looking for something to give, but it can also rob the player of a sense of discovery. The only legitimate ability that feels like a step up is the phase drift, a sort of time slowing speed ability, is obtained in the late game and has some clever puzzle usage, but is short lived.
Issues In Adaptation
Which does lead to one of the toughest pills to swallow of Metroid: Samus Returns, its source material. Despite a lot of well-intentioned updates to the gameplay, there’s a reason why Metroid II is considered the weakest of the original games. The entire game’s pacing feels antiquated and repetitive. Go to new area, look around for metroids, kill them, go to new area, repeat, with little to no real shake-ups to how everything plays out. This does help maintain the game’s focus on atmosphere, the sense of being alone on a planet that wants to kill you with heavy ordinance being your only friend, but when most of the gameplay amounts to a tedious checklist a lot of that sense of the unknown is lost.
There is one major notable change to the game and it happens at the very end. I will not spoil exactly what happens but for those who were hoping there would be something similar to the Zero Suit escape sequence from the other acclaimed handheld remake Metroid: Zero Mission, it doesn’t beat that, but it is pretty darn close.
If you desperately want to show your support with your wallet and want a return to classic gameplay, then Metroid: Samus Returns will give you just that. A pleasant easily digestible experience with enough style and visual gloss to keep you entertained. If you were expecting a more deliberately made installment for hardcore fans or a revolutionary retelling of one of the weaker Metroid experiences, you may want to lower your expectations.