Metroid Dread: A Modern Classic

Metroid Dread is a 2D Metroidvania game developed by MercurySteam and published by Nintendo. It was released in October 2021 as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. MSRB is $60. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’m mostly going to show screenshots from the first 3 areas of the game and only talk about the early plot.

I’ve waited a long time for this.

It’s no secret that I love Metroid. I started with Metroid Prime back in the early 2000s and then later fell in love with the 2D series. Metroid games are one of the few that I still play over and over again. I never get tired of them. In fact, I’ve already beaten Metroid Dread twice. I hope I’ve shown you in my previous posts what I enjoy most about the series and the high expectations I had going into Dread.

I’m going to assume that most Metroid fans have already bought the game, so for the sake of this review, I’m going to write as if my audience has never played a Metroid game before, or they’re still on the fence about buying it. Even so, I can’t help but compare this game to every previous Metroid game, as well as every other Metroidvania out there at the moment.

A Long Journey’s End

After defeating the Space Pirates and Mother Brain in the 1st and 3rd games, killing all of the Metroids in the 2nd game, and defeating the Metroids’ natural enemy (the X Parasite) in the 4th game, the Galactic Federation receives a signal that the X Parasite has survived on Planet ZDR. They send highly skilled robots called the E.M.M.I. to investigate. They promptly loose contact with the E.M.M.I., and send in Samus as backup. Samus herself has been through the ringer – she adopted a Baby Metroid, lost it, has been searching for her adoptive race (the Chozo), and has only survived the X Parasite by injecting DNA from the Baby Metroid as a vaccine. On Planet ZDR, she confronts a new enemy that has hijacked the E.M.M.I. for their own purposes. Samus becomes stranded on Planet ZDR, and she has to fight her way out.

Metroid Dread drops you into the final chapter of a story arc beginning from the 1980s. Not only that, this story has been on hiatus since 2002. The game gives you a bare-bones recap of the major events of the series, and while it’s enough to know what’s going on… it’s not ideal. It was a major oversight on Nintendo’s part to not rerelease the GBA Metroid games before Dread came out. On its own, in terms of traditional storytelling, Dread’s story is the best in the series, and among the best in the Metroidvania genre. They brought the plot of the previous games to its natural conclusion, and as a fan, it was mind-blowing. Samus emotes through her body language or sometimes the game lets us see her eyes in the visor, so while she doesn’t usually talk, we can infer her inner state. The last plot point gets resolved a little clumsily, but it still works. Anyway, I don’t want to get into spoilers, and it would be hard to talk about the story scenes without spoiling them.

Nintendo UK actually uploaded an adorable synopsis of the series covering just about everything you need to know.

Metroid is a rare exception where Nintendo actually writes a compelling story with relevant plotlines across games. But it becomes a problem if some of those games aren’t available on the Switch. I was very satisfied to have answers to the questions I’d long held, and upon my second playthrough I actually saw a lot of foreshadowing that I didn’t notice at first. Now I’m forming new questions and theories for the series moving forward. However, I’m evaluating Metroid Dread‘s story as a part of a whole, and I’m disappointed that newcomers can’t access that whole. If this is your first Metroid game, you’ll still be fine, but I’d strongly advise looking up videos about “the story so far” to help contextualize the plot.

I love this new slide move.

Controls like a Dream

One thing that’s definitely not bogged down is Samus’ movement. The controls are significantly better than Samus Returns, which already controlled well. With every parry, wall jump, and slide, you can feel this bounty hunter’s agility and power. It starts out simple enough – jump with B, freely aim with L, and switch to missiles with R. She can now counter while running, and she can slide between small gaps and get back on her feet when she exits, all while maintaining her momentum. Samus is part human, part Chozo, and part Metroid, but now I feel like she’s also part water with how fluid her movements feel. It’s snappy but not twitchy, and smooth but not cumbersome. The parkour platforming is just as good, if not better, than how Mario feels. I don’t know if there’s any 2D game with this level of polish for moving a character around.

The Spider Magnet added a whole new dimension of navigating around the world.

Thankfully, Planet ZDR has plenty of upgrades to help Samus survive. Some are familiar, like the Charge Beam and the Bombs, while others change things up significantly. My favorites have to be the Phantom Cloak, the Flash Shift (an air dash), and the Spider Magnet. There are over 20 of these key items. Your main objective is to find them, unlock more areas of the planet, and become strong enough to defeat the main villain.

Metroid Dread‘s tutorial area does a decent enough job of teaching you the basics, but you’re left on your own to experiment and figure out the more nuanced moves at your disposal. To properly explore Planet ZDR, you’ll need to poke and prod around. The devs give you several clues, such as placing red explosives in the wall or enemies underneath breakable blocks. Whereas Super Metroid feels too obtuse, and Metroid Fusion holds your hand too much, Metroid Dread feels just right. If you don’t know what to do, then try shooting blocks, looking for environmental cues, or using your newest abilities.

Initially, your journey to acquire upgrades is straightforward; the game will gate off branching paths in order to keep you on the right track. But after getting the Varia Suit, the world opens up a lot more. You’ll often need to backtrack to old areas. MercurySteam was smart and used Super Metroid‘s labyrinthian progression system — a delight for many critics, I’m sure. Some people have even begun to sequence break, and MercurySteam rewards players for doing so by making some boss fights easy to exploit with later items.

With every powerup you acquire, your control scheme will become that much more complex. A word of advice: when you get a new powerup, spend a few minutes practicing with it and experimenting with the different ways you can use it. Then, when you start up a new play session, take a few minutes to get a feel for all of your skills again. Often you may find yourself stuck when exploring or stuck on a tough boss, and usually one of your abilities is necessary to move further. With so many powerups, it’s easy to forget one. The Phase Shift is especially useful on bosses and I often didn’t remember I had it until it was too late.

I recommend practicing the controls, especially the ones controlled by the triggers. It can be easy to mix them up.

By the end of the game the controls become quite complicated — you’ll be holding both triggers while aiming, then sliding, then somersaulting — and you’ll need quick reflexes to make it through. You may even say that the controls get a little too complicated. However, if you’re patient and work at it, Samus’s abilities will begin to feel second-nature.

Pattern recognition is the key to getting through this game. “Learning the boss” is half of the fun.

Speaking of being patient, Metroid Dread‘s bosses. My goodness. This game doesn’t pull any punches. Having played all of the games recently, I prided myself as a Metroid veteran. I thought I would breeze through this game. But I was wrong. Metroid Dread‘s bosses definitely humbled me. I believe this game is just as difficult, if not more so, than Metroid Fusion. Another word of advice: there’s no shame in looking up a boss guide. Even I needed to look at a guide for the last 2 bosses, just so I could see their patterns a little easier. You will likely see the Game Over screen many times on your first playthrough. Thankfully the game puts you right before the boss room and you can skip cutscenes, so it doesn’t waste your time.

If you time your counters just right, you get treated to a cool interactive cutscene where Samus just pounds on the enemy.

As daunting as they may seem, these bosses do have predictable patterns, and you can learn them. If Samus didn’t control as well as she did, and if the frame rate wasn’t as consistent, this game would be a rage-inducing mess. Thankfully Metroid Dread‘s performance is flawless. The only framerate stutters I noticed were during loading screens, which didn’t matter anyway.  Once I slowed down and patiently focused on their attacks, I started dodging bosses like the bounty hunter I was born to be. It felt really cool.

I saw this screen many, many times during my first playthrough. But on my second? Hardly any at all!

As much as I’ve been enjoying this difficulty, though, it would be nice to have some accessibility options so more people could enjoy it. The road to mastery is a bit rough and steep, but it’s worth the effort. On my first playthrough, the bosses frustrated me. But on my second playthrough, I dodged their attacks and breezed through every single boss fight. You feel empowered for knowing how the enemy works, like you’ve cracked the game’s code.

Oh, hi. Nice weather we’re hav—

It’s E.M.M.I., Mario!

I guess this brings us to the terrifying robotic elephants in the room: the E.M.M.I.. These creatures move in an uncanny, insect-like way. It creeps me out. They only patrol around designated areas that have distinct doors and a TV static ambient effect. You’ll know when you’re in an E.M.M.I. zone. The E.M.M.I. send out a sound wave that picks up on your movements. They’ll move to the last signal they found, and if they spot you, they’ll pursue you relentlessly. None of your conventional weapons can defeat these robots — you’ll have to evade them.

It didn’t take long for me to see these doors and think, “Oh no, not again…”

Metroid Dread definitely lives up to its name. You’re often forced to go through an E.M.M.I. zone in order to progress, and you’ll grow to dread even the sight of the entrances. Their encounters are tense. If you’re caught, you have a very small window to counter their attack, but it’s nigh impossible to time it right. Be prepared to see the Game Over screen because of them, too.

The E.M.M.I. test your ability to take in your surroundings, think on the fly, and parkour around the level. On my first playthrough I had a hard time reading the E.M.M.I.’s patterns and I made a lot of mistakes. But just like the bosses, you can eventually get a sense of rhythm for what to do and how to get around them. It feels cool to properly evade them. Early on you acquire the Phantom Cloak ability, which helps you avoid detection even from their scanners. Your radar in the top right corner will also show the E.M.M.I. in red if it’s nearby. The key is to find them before they find you. From there it’s all about knowing when to stop, when to go, and when to turn on that Phantom Cloak. Sometimes you’ll need to slowly creep away while invisible. I’ve had many close encounters where I had to wipe the sweat off of my palms.

Get him get him GET HIM QUICK HE’S COMING!!!

Eventually you’ll acquire a temporary upgrade to your arm cannon that’ll let you destroy the E.M.M.I. of that area (but only in that area). The roles become reversed: you’re no longer the prey, you’re the predator. You still have to line up your shot just right, and it’s still scary confronting the E.M.M.I. head-on, but man does it feel good to take them out. Each one will also nab you another powerup, too. After defeating it, you can freely explore the E.M.M.I. zone without fear of being pursued.

I was worried these robots would start to feel repetitive, like the Metroids from Samus Returns, but thankfully Mercury Steam did a lot to mitigate that. First, there are far fewer of them, and you always get a break between encounters. Second, each robot has their own unique ability, making the later ones play out differently. Finally, the E.M.M.I. zones themselves offer different ways to test you, like standing on a platform long enough to make a machine open a door, or using the Spider Magnet to scale up a column as quick as you can. Speed is the key, not power. And the game will reward you for taking calculated risks.

ZDR You Ready to Explore?

Let’s talk about the world outside of the E.M.M.I. zones. Planet ZDR is a massive place divided into distinct biomes. Each is connected by warp points, elevators, and transports. My one complaint about exploring ZDR is that reading the map takes a while to get used to. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but the map can be hard to read at first with all of the shapes, colors, and icons. It took me some time to get my bearings, but once I did, I found it highly useful for planning a route through the planet’s winding caverns.

Maybe it’s because I’ve played several Metroidvanias, but I never found myself stuck in this game. Not even once. When I realized that Dread would be following Super Metroid‘s design, I braced myself for the moment I would get hopelessly and frustratingly lost. But the designers guided me by their invisible hand so cleverly that I never spent too long figuring out where to go. It helped that the elevators and fast-travel spots were located near all of the key locations you needed to get to. If you’re really feeling lost, look for blank spaces in your map, or look for icons that may mention your most recently-acquired key item.

That brings me to the visuals. Planet ZDR is gorgeous. Like Samus Returns, there’s a lot of action in this 2D world. You may be so focused on the enemies that you might zip by an area without noticing the backgrounds. Thankfully, MercurySteam gives you a few empty areas where you can take a break. If you stop and look around, you’ll thank yourself for doing so — there are so many details to see. You may find a tentacle that portends the next boss, giant squids floating by, experiments suspended in stasis chambers, or even man-eating plants creeping along the walls.

As pretty as these screenshots are, they don’t do it justice. You gotta see this game in motion to truly appreciate it.

The lighting adds a dramatic effect with strong visual contrasts. Sunlight filters through leaves and crags in the rock. One underwater area is lit by a sunken spaceship whose emergency lights are still on. Some of my favorite sections are in the research station Dairon: the lights turn off and you have to navigate by the lights on Samus’s suit. When charged, her arm cannon creates a candle-like effect around her, too. Overall Metroid Dread pushes the boundaries for how you think a 2D game should look. It all looks like one mysterious world.

Can you find her?

Not only that, the game sounds like a real world thanks to its impressive sound design. Machines creak and groan. Laser fire is muffled when shooting underwater. The E.M.M.I. robots chirp when they’re searching for you. My wife said they sounded cute, and if I wasn’t sprinting for my life so that they wouldn’t impale me, I might agree. My one criticism is that the musical score didn’t leave a strong first impression. On my first playthrough, I found the songs suitable and atmospheric, but also forgettable. Upon my second playthrough, though, the tracks began to stand out, and now I’m quite a fan. I particularly like how the tracks for each area will usually tie into the themes for the bosses. Very clever. Dread‘s soundtrack isn’t as good as Super Metroid or Metroid Prime, but it grows on you.

Samus is so cool.

But is it Worth $60?

Metroid Dread is competing with a lot of other games. Not only is it measured against older games in its own series, it has to square off against an entire army of cheaper indie Metroidvanias. This subgenre is highly competitive. The gameplay loop is compelling, yet relatively easy to develop for, so naturally there are 3 to 4 noteworthy Metroidvanias released every year — there are even subgenres within the subgenre, such as Roguevanias or Soulsvanias. In 2021, there’s no dearth for getting a Metroid-like experience. When a stellar game like Hollow Knight only costs $15, is Metroid Dread worth a full retail price?

Well, only you can decide what $60 is worth to you. To be honest, I almost always find a way to buy my new AAA games at some kind of discount anyway. I got Metroid Dread for $50. But that’s still a lot more than any indie game. So what does that premium price get you?

Boom, take that! Landing a successful melee counter is never not satisfying.

For one, Metroid Dread is very, very polished. It’s like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze where you are paying that higher cost for nothing short of pristine quality. The only other Metroidvania that even gets close is Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Second, the art direction creates a dramatic, atmospheric experience. And third, Metroid Dread keeps getting better the more you play it. It’s a game you can play two, three, or sixteen times — it’s a design model not seen in many modern AAA games. And frankly, I like replayable games with good pacing over games with tons of meaningless filler. I don’t usually speedrun or sequence break, but seeing others pull off amazing tricks with Samus makes me appreciate this game all the more. I can’t wait to see how people tackle Metroid Dread at the next Games Done Quick convention. These easter eggs give the game an aura of mystery —  there are limitless possibilities and secrets to uncover. If Super Metroid were released today, this is exactly how it would feel and play.

100% completion in just 8 1/2 hours on my second playthrough!

Overall, Metroid Dread is a masterpiece. It’s certainly a challenge, but if you stick with it and/or look up some guides, you’ll come out the other side breezing through what used to overwhelm you. It has some flaws, but few games have refined the Metroidvania concept — or the 2D perspective, for that matter — like this game does. It transcends its genre and style. Metroid Dread is definitely in my Top 3 Nintendo Switch games of all time. It’s currently in my Top 3 Metroidvanias, and it’s in the lead so far for my Game of the Year for 2021.

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