Metroid is one of Nintendo’s storied franchises, but beloved bounty hunter Samus has not had a starring role in nearly a decade. However, things are looking a bit brighter for fans of the hero’s planet-traversing adventures: almost 15 years after Nintendo released Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion on back-to-back days, Samus returns to her 2D roots in Metroid: Samus Returns for the Nintendo 3DS. Thankfully, if this new installment is any indication, we’re in for a second Metroid renaissance — with Metroid Prime 4 for the Nintendo Switch on the horizon.
Metroid: Samus Returns is a re-imagining of Metroid II: Return of Samus, released for the Game Boy in 1991. Developed in collaboration with MercurySteam of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow fame, this remake sends Samus to SR388, the home planet of the Metroid creatures, to eradicate them once and for all. As is tradition — at least for most of the 2D games in the series — the plot takes a backseat to the eponymous “Metroidvania” side-scrolling exploration gameplay that has been emulated countless times, but remains inimitable. Although there has been some trepidation regarding MercurySteam’s involvement (following disappointing sequels to Lords of Shadow), the Spanish developers have faithfully resurrected Metroid for a modern generation of gamers, marrying what fans loved about previous incarnations with some new twists on the Metroid formula.
Like most Metroid games, Samus begins her journey armed with a simple Arm Cannon weapon and hardly any tools in her arsenal. As she explores the desolate planet, the bounty hunter discovers new abilities such as the famous Morph Ball, new weapon upgrades, and suits designed to sustain different environments. A little over halfway through the game, there is a relatively brief period where users can mow down whatever stands in their way — in the spirit of the best games in the series, the progression from underpowered space-wanderer to Space Pirate-blasting bad-ass is as satisfying as ever.
After arriving on SR388, the player is tasked with exploring the planet’s environment and tracking down the remaining Metroid creatures. With a map on the bottom screen, the bulk of the action occurs on the top screen of the 3DS. On that note, this installment emphasizes ‘action’ more than previous games in the series, given some of the featured abilities presented. Samus has a few new tricks up her sleeve: a move called the Melee Counter — which parries enemy attacks if the ‘X’ button is pressed at just the right time — and the ability to aim at any angle if either of the shoulder buttons are pressed. In previous titles, aiming was limited to only a few predetermined angles. Now, in combination with the Melee Counter, these new capabilities lend Samus some much-needed agility, making overall gunplay much more enjoyable.
Furthermore, another new addition is the use of Aeion abilities, such as Scan Pulse, which displays hidden areas in the vicinity. Back in the days of Super Metroid, this would have seemed borderline game-breaking for those of us who prefer exploration over hints and tricks. However, these all prove to be welcome changes for the most part, iterating on the existing Metroid formula without being too radical of a change in direction. Take note, though: Metroid pros will want to steer clear of the aforementioned Scan Pulse, which seems to have been included for series newcomers.
Although Samus Returns is being marketed as Samus’s return to 2D-style gameplay, the game is more accurately expressed as ‘2.5D’ — 3D environments and characters in a 2D plane. Unfortunately, with the Switch’s 720p screen and graphics rivaling home console quality, going back to the 3DS feels a bit anticlimactic. There’s nothing wrong with the graphics, per se, but the 3DS is certainly starting to show its age. Additionally, seasoned gamers will notice that the title runs at 30 frames per second, which is disappointing for an adventure of this action-oriented nature. The gameplay is still perfectly fluid and the animations are crisp and well-done, but a side-by-side comparison with another game in the series, or even another 2D platformer that runs at 60 fps — like the recent Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition for Switch — is unflattering.
Technical limitations notwithstanding, the art direction is impressive, with varied environments that are distinctive yet still blend seamlessly into one another as the player progresses through the game. On that note, it is a bit unfortunate that the environments don’t have distinctive names — elevators will take you to Areas 1, 2, 3, etc.. Looking back at my time with the game, I don’t have the same sort of vivid recollection of areas as I did with games like the original Metroid Prime; specifically the tranquil snowy mountains of Phendrana Drifts or the imposing fiery pits in Magmoor Caverns. Truth be told, this is not necessarily a negative, as the decision to interweave varied environments seems to be stylistic and for the sake of a more interconnected feel, which the developers accomplished successfully. Likewise, the game’s sound design provides an understated but effective complement to the atmosphere, with snappy sound effects and music that ebbs and flows in intensity. There isn’t anything particularly memorable here, which is a bit disappointing, but it’s perfectly serviceable.
Last note: there are some features of the game that are locked behind usage of Amiibo, such as a higher difficulty than the already-available Hard Mode. This has some folks up in arms, but on the other hand, it justifies the purchase of an Amiibo beyond being a cool figurine to display. I can see both sides of the issue: a well-made figurine that also doubles as downloadable content is pretty cool, but on the contrary, unlocking content that is already on the cartridge seems like textbook anti-consumer practice. C’est la vie.
Overall Score: 9.0 (90%)
Summary: Overall, Samus Returns is exactly what the title implies: the much-anticipated return of one of Nintendo’s finest franchises. There isn’t anything groundbreaking about the game, but that hardly matters when Samus has been gone for so long and when the content is so consistently good. Graphics limited by the hardware and not particularly outstanding music aside, the game delivers for both longtime fans and newcomers alike — taking its place as a must-have in the expansive 3DS library. Welcome back, Samus.
- Responsive, satisfying gameplay mechanics
- New additions to Metroid formula great complements to classic gameplay
- Smart, cohesive level design
- Foreboding, mysterious atmosphere that is right up there with the best games in the series (especially if you don’t use the Scan Pulse ability)
- Well-designed sense of character/ability progression
- Graphics may appear dated when compared to Nintendo’s other portable (though still impressive for the 3DS)
- Largely forgettable soundtrack, barring a few returning favorites