Returning to Metroid: Samus Returns

On the eve of Samus’ new outing on the Nintendo Switch, I thought it would be fun to look back on some of the Metroid games and give them solid critiques, starting with this game. As with A Link Between Worlds, I played Samus Returns before I started reviewing games. However, unlike A Link Between Worlds, I’ve devoted at least 6 different playthroughs of this game, all on various difficulties. I even got the squishy Metroid amiibo so that I could play the game on Fusion Mode.

For those unfamiliar, Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of the Game Boy game Metroid II. It was released in 2017 on the 3DS, which was probably the worst timing possible. Everyone was excited about the brand-new Nintendo Switch, and promptly ignored anything on the 3DS. It was developed by MercurySteam, who are also the developers of the highly-anticipated Metroid Dread. Our critique today will be looking at the foundation MercurySteam laid in 2017 that they’ll hopefully build upon in 2021.

Furthermore, I am writing this post as a defense in favor of Samus Returns. The game received mixed reviews, for a variety of different reasons, and I want to address them all. Yeah that’s right, I’m a Samus Returns Apologist. If you didn’t like that, too late, you’re already reading, you can’t turn back now, let’s goooooo!

The Planet SR388

The story of Samus Returns begins with a recap of the first game – the sinister Space Pirates threatened to conquer the galaxy once they learned how to weaponize Metroids, aliens that can drain the life force of any creature. Samus infiltrated the Pirates’ secret base, defeated the Metroids, destroyed the Pirates’ leader (a biological A.I. called Mother Brain), and left them in ruins.

The Galactic Federation takes a sudden interest in the Metroids themselves. They discover where Metroids come from: planet SR388. In order to prevent the Space Pirates from capturing and weaponizing them again, the Federation sends a recon team to try and dispose of the creatures. This team lands on the planet but promptly looses contact, which comes as no surprise — Metroids are the most dangerous aliens in the known universe. The Federation, running out of options, charges Samus with a somber order: eradicate all of the Metroids living on SR388. It’s a rather horrific premise when you think about it. Was there really no other way to keep the galaxy safe other than complete xenocide? The Federation apparently didn’t think so.

And right off the bat we get into one of the biggest points of debate for Samus Returns — its tone. The original Game Boy game had a dark and claustrophobic tone, mostly due to its hardware limitations. In Metroid II, you can’t see very far around Samus, meaning that enemies can appear rather suddenly. Furthermore, the combination of a plain black background, greyscale tile set, and lack of a map means that players get lost easily. The game smartly placed some environmental landmarks to help you navigate, but it wasn’t quite enough.

Finally, outside of the Metroid fights, there are actually plenty of empty open rooms and hallways, allowing the player time to reflect on their mission. The original game evoked a specific combination of feelings — it was dreadful yet contemplative, tense yet meditative. The two opposing emotions were perfectly balanced. Metroid II was an impressive feat at the time, but overall the game hasn’t aged well. Samus Returns, on the other hand, leans more into fast-paced action thrills than on self-reflection. You don’t have much time to stop and think about what you’re actually doing — wiping out an entire species of aliens — instead, you’re mostly thinking about how to overcome the obstacle immediately in front of you.

A few gameplay tweaks contribute to this new mood. First of all, the camera is scaled back, allowing the player to actually see more things on the screen. You have a map now, which is a constant comfort. And most important of all, Samus moves less like a walking tank (like she did in the old games) and more like a ballet dancer of death. She has never been this agile — running, flipping, turning on a dime, and blasting through aliens. Furthermore, all of the enemies are much more aggressive. They rush Samus as soon as they see her. She feels amazing to control and the combat is highly satisfying. However, it means that you can rush through the environments and not actually pay much attention to where you’re going. For the most part, the critics embraced these changes. They’re important modernizations; however, it does mean that a key point at the end looses some of its emotional impact. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I concede that the original Metroid II‘s dénouement is a welcome sigh of relief, whereas Samus Returns barely gives you room to breathe before the game ends.

Some critics also complained that the world design and its environments appeared generic, felt incongruous, or just in general didn’t stand out. When I hear these complaints, I’m a little flabbergasted. I can’t help but ask, “Did we even play the same game?” There are clues and cues hidden all over the place, making Samus Returns‘s SR388 the most detailed world in any Metroid game so far. However, I speculate that Samus’s faster speed, the 3DS’s low screen resolution, and the game’s stronger emphasis on action meant that some people simply didn’t look at the background.

If you actually stop and look behind Samus, there’s a vibrant world set to an atmospheric soundtrack. Immediately after landing on the surface of SR388, you can see the abandoned Federation Spaceship lying near the first cave’s entrance. The beginning area is perhaps the most pensive moment of the game. The tiny enemies don’t pose much of a threat, and the soundtrack slowly “wakes up” from whispers to a bombasic main theme. Not too much time passes before you find out what happened to the unfortunate Federation troopers.

But even after the tutorial, almost every room has some small story to tell. Metroids leave behind empty shells near each of their hideouts — almost like a snake’s old skin. This was a clue actually used in the original Metroid II as well. MercurySteam expanded this concept by making every Metroid fight set in some kind of nest — green silk is strewn about to give these rooms a “lived in” feel. Elsewhere, defunct Chozo structures and temples loom above you, machines drill into rocks, hanging crystals collapse, and geysers erupt a few rooms above a lava chamber. Some monsters are even seen diving into hot springs. MercurySteam meticulously crafted SR388 to feel like an abandoned planet filled with dangerous creatures. Not every room is a home run, and a few select chambers don’t make sense next to each other, but they’re few and far-between.

Unlike other Metroid games, your progression is tied to these Chozo structures that gate off the next chunk of the planet.

A Linear Labyrinth

Being a remake, MercurySteam was somewhat restricted in how they would design Samus Returns. The original GameBoy game was still a Metroidvania, with powerups and exploration-focused gameplay. It was a solid entry in the Metroid series, but the game had its flaws. Unlike most Metroidvanias, where the world is entirely open and you progress solely by acquiring new items, Metroid II tied its progression to the number of Metroids you destroyed. Upon entering a new area, you must eliminate all of the Metroids there before you can move on to the next part of the planet. For example, in the first area, you must destroy 1 Metroid before the acid would fall and Samus could venture further down into SR388’s cave system. In the second large area, you needed to get 4 Metroids, and so on. Each area is open-ended on its own, but between areas the game is very linear. Some critics dislike this structure — you’re not trekking back and forth across the world like one massive labyrinth, you’re just going from one micro-labyrinth to the next. For me, each area has enough depth that I feel satisfied with the exploration, and the linear overarching design is a welcome wrinkle in the genre.

The other big flaw of Metroid II was all the Metroids you had to defeat. These were the sole bosses of the original game, and while it was interesting to see the Metroid life-cycle, from the tiny Alpha Metroids to the imposing Omega Metroids, the game by its very premise felt repetitive. The midgame portion especially suffered from pacing issues as you fought at least a dozen Gamma Metroids. MercurySteam attempted to fix this by adding more variety to the rooms that you fought the Metroids in. However, the new rooms weren’t enough, and I think this is where Samus Returns fails to improve upon the original. The new rooms certainly help, but midgame still stalls from this gauntlet of Gamma Metroid after Gamma Metroid. In fact, the pacing might even be a bit worse. Now some Gamma Metroids run from you, which means you have to seek them out and find where they’re hiding before you can finally introduce them to your arm cannon. It was fun a couple of times, but there are just one too many cowardly Gammas.

Stepping in to redeem the midgame is a brand-new enemy: the Diggernaut. I don’t want to spoil things too much, but this new enemy offers some genuine surprises by the end of the midgame. I will admit, though, that his boss fight is a big spike in difficulty. I’d recommend looking at a guide before fighting him. Once you meet this entity, the game’s pacing picks back up and flows much better. I wish that there was something similar introduced earlier on, maybe even try and consolidate it in with some of the other Metroid fights.

My Final Counter-Argument

Speaking of fights, there are three important additions that MercurySteam put into Samus Returns to elevate the gameplay into what I feel is the best combat in any Metroid game. First of all, Samus can now fire in a complete 360 degrees around her. This allows for some precise aiming, though it comes at the cost of holding the R button to make her stand still.

Second, MercurySteam added a melee counter to Samus’s moveset. By timing it just right, Samus can stun an enemy and release a charged shot to eliminate the enemy in one go. When used on the Metroids, it cuts to this dynamic sequence where Samus can unload several missiles on the Metroid. This one feature is surprisingly divisive. Many critics disliked how it made the combat be very “stop and go,” where you had to sit and wait for the right moment to counter. In the beginning of the game, where the melee counter is the most effective option you have, I can see where they might feel this way. However, you also unlock different beams and Aeion Abilities that expand your combat options, so in the end I feel this melee counter becomes just one of the several tools at your disposal. This one ability makes Samus feel leagues more threatening over her past iterations.

Which brings us to the last new addition – the Aeion Abilities. These are essentially extra powerups. Some assist in combat such as the Lightning Armor or Beam Burst, but the best by far is the Radar Pulse. The Radar Pulse fills in a large portion of the map around Samus, and makes breakable blocks flash. For a newcomer, who may struggle with open-ended exploration and with finding secrets, this is the ideal way to make a Metroid game approachable without dumbing down the game for veterans.

With all of these new moves, abilities, and powerups, MercurySteam pushed the 3DS to the limit of its controls. It gets a bit hectic when your timing is important, but each skill is given adequate time for you to learn and adjust to. By the end of the game, you’ll be holding both shoulder buttons, mashing the face buttons, flicking the circle pad, and tapping all over the touchscreen. Unless you have a good grip, your hands may cramp around the hardware. This was one game where a traditional controller, with its extra shoulder buttons and right analog stick, would’ve probably helped. Yeah it probably would’ve been better as a Switch game, and it definitely would’ve sold better, but it does mean that the 3DS got an amazing entry near the end of its life. It is, in my opinion, the best game in the handheld’s entire library.

Someday I need to review this game as well. AM2R is probably the best fan game ever made.

Beyond the Remake

And that brings us to the overall context of where Samus Returns fits in the gaming landscape. Of course, we can’t talk about Samus Returns without mentioning AM2R, the fan-made remake of the very same Metroid II that was released for the PC just a year earlier, in 2016. I adore this game as well. Some fans even prefer it over Nintendo’s official remake. I’ll probably get around to reviewing AM2R as well, as it deserves its own analysis. For me, AM2R is about equal to MercurySteam’s game in terms of quality. It’s not better or worse, it’s just another interpretation of the original game. In fact, for me there’s no definitive version of Metroid II. Yes, AM2R and Samus Returns modernize most of the minute-to-minute gameplay, but Metroid II still offers its own emotional experience that the other two don’t quite capture. Samus Returns is a delicious apple, AM2R is a delicious orange, and Metroid II is a decent persimmon.

All the same, the future looks bright for MercurySteam and for the Metroid series. Having proved their worth with a remake, they can now move forward with Metroid Dread, an entirely new game that doesn’t have to adhere to a 1991 game with slow midgame pacing. It appears that they’re taking some of the lessons they learned and updating the gameplay as well – the melee counter appears to be usable even while moving, and they’ve mentioned that the game will be following the nonlinear design of Super Metroid, which is the smartest move for satisfying critics.

I’m so happy that the Metroid series gets to live on. In my opinion, they are some of the best games ever made. If it weren’t for the Switch’s Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Samus Returns would’ve won my Game of the Year in 2017. If you own a 3DS, you owe it to yourself to play this one. I don’t often replay a game once, let alone five times. If MercurySteam plays their cards right, Metroid Dread may be the first game in a long time to challenge Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey for the podium spots of #1 and #2 Switch games.

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