You couldn’t blame Metroid fans for being skeptical. The past Spring when Nintendo announced Metroid: Samus Returns it was hot on the heels of the release of AM2R, a long in development Metroid fan project that players universally lauded, and Nintendo almost immediately slapped with a cease and desist. AM2R was a 2D, Super Metroid-esque update of Metroid 2: Return of Samus, the nigh inscrutable Game Boy iteration of the series, and Nintendo’s official take on the subject was an initially underwhelming looking 2..5D affair, being released for Nintendo’s all but dead 3DS family of systems while early adopters had been pleading for more original triple A first party software on the shiny new Switch.
Undeniably bad timing and a head scratching art style notwithstanding, Metroid was back, right!? Except the last time Nintendo released a Metroid game it was the almost completely reviled 2010 Wii action game Other M, complete with mindless, goofball motion controls and sexist, marginalized characterization of iconic heroine Samus Aran. Nintendo outsourced development of that game to Tecmo’s Team Ninja, and this one was to be developed by MercurySteam, the team many hold responsible for killing Konami’s Castlevania franchise with their indifferently received Lords of Shadow series. So yeah, when the internet’s collective monocle popped off at the sight of Metroid: Samus Returns it wasn’t your typical bullshit online overreaction, it was more than warranted. Alongside Mega Man and the heroes of Castlevania, Samus was one of the classic video game characters who’d had her good name dragged through the mud the most in recent years, leaving fans clamoring for a respectful update to bring Nintendo’s badass bounty huntress back to her former glory.
Samus Returns starts off on the right foot by “reimagining” Return of Samus and not simply “remaking” it. Even more so than on the original NES/FDS, the OG pea soup green Game Boy version of Metroid 2’s lack of an in-game map made the game almost unplayable, and the small GB screen coupled with the game’s large sprites only exacerbated the situation. This new version of Metroid 2 features an all new layout though keeps the source material’s main conceit of having Samus, fresh from the events of the first game, travel to the Metroid home planet to exterminate the symbiotic, parasitic menace at its source. Aliens, much? Yes, of course.
Though the 3DS is definitely beginning to show it’s age, now upstaged by the hybrid home/portable Switch and confirmed to be Nintendo’s final dedicated handheld, Samus Returns looks absolutely stunning, MercurySteam squeezing every last bit of triple A polish out of the big N’s stalwart clamshell. Metroid home world SR 388 pulses and oozes with enough foreboding biomechanical life to make Alien creator H.R. Giger proud. The sense of isolation and constant alien danger that has driven this series since its humble 8 bit inception is absolutely palpable. Background monsters spring to life as you pass by, corridors crumble into the foreground, and SR 388 “lives” in a way seldom achieved with full 2D graphics, justifying the impetus behind its 2.5D approach. The claustrophobic milieu is also buoyed by the game’s excellent updated soundtrack and sound design. Sometimes employing rousing themes from the franchise’s history, and sometimes letting the ambient atmosphere do the work, but always engrossing and terrifying in equal measure.
Performing successful counters during boss fights seamlessly zooms in on the action, another benefit of the game’s 2.5D graphics engine.
Samus Returns surprisingly feels just as good as it looks. My previous experience with the 3DS family of systems, initially with the original model and then with the non-new XL, resulted in hand cramping after about half an hour of use. In honor of M:SR I picked up one of the recently released New 2DS XL systems and have enjoyed play sessions of up to 3 hours without any sort of discomfort. While initially balking at being forced to use the thumb stick for movement, it quickly becomes second nature, and the ballet of utilizing the face and shoulder buttons and touch screen to switch between Samus’ wide variety of Mega Man style abilities is as intuitive and satisfying as any twitchy, skill intensive and demanding old school platformer I’ve experienced. I was reminded of how I’d enjoyed Shovel Knight on the WiiU, being able to cycle through various weapons and armors on the game pad without being lost in a sea of menus. It’s seriously that good, and it made me kind of sad that Nintendo is seemingly completely abandoning this kind of double screen gaming set up going forward.
The responsiveness of the controls goes hand in hand with how well Samus animates, and vice versa, again, something that may not have been possible with 2D sprites, especially on this hardware. The complete freedom of tapping down on the stick to go into the morph ball, holding the L button to initiate 360 aim, tapping the screen to switch to the grappling hook, R to toggle missiles, is an absolute joy. And that’s before you even mention Samus’ new ability to unleash a devastating Street Fighter 3-esque parry on would be attackers, a highly satisfying maneuver which figures heavily into the game’s numerous boss encounters. Armed to the teeth and ready for anything, Samus Returns gives you all the tools to take down any galactic threat imaginable over the course of its campaign, it’s just up to you how to use them.
The structure of said campaign may be a bit of a bone of contention for some. Owing to the “short burst” nature of most portable game playing habits, the game’s sizable map is segmented into various sections where certain numbers of Metroids (40 in total) need to be found and exterminated before the player can advance. When hunkering down for a marathon length play through, it can seem just a tad repetitive, especially the increasingly difficult Metroid encounters which maybe rely too much on the game’s possibly overpowered new counter mechanics. But that’s really nitpicking at this point considering everything else about the Metroid experience that MercurySteam gets so right.
The odds against Metroid: Samus Returns were almost as great as the opposition precariously stacked against the heroine on any given space adventure. An untested developer on aging hardware reviving a long dormant but much beloved series with an unconvincing art style, M: SR had all the hallmarks of an embarrassing disaster in the making. The end product eschews each of those potential pitfalls just as Samus artfully slays xenomorph stand ins as she gracefully plumbs the depths of cosmic horror’s most unspeakable nightmares, giving the once beleaguered franchise a much deserved new lease on life, an installment that not only lives up to its predecessors, but in many ways surpasses them. The team working on Metroid Prime 4 has mighty big High Jump Boots to fill…