It’s somewhat hard to believe that Metroid: Samus Returns was announced only two months ago at Nintendo’s E3 2017 Showcase. It seems almost criminal to treat a new Metroid game like a low-budget “Nindie” but given the rocky decade the IP has had, releasing a 2.5D retro remake on a handheld with little-to-no fanfare actually makes a lot of sense. It’s the perfect way to cleanse the palate and manage expectations. So does Metroid: Samus Returns succeed in its mission to wash away the crimes of the past, or is just another sin to add to the list?
After the events of the original Metroid, Samus is tasked with investigating the disappearance of several teams of Galactic Federation personnel who ceased all contact shortly after arriving on the Metroid homeworld SR388. Samus must pick up where the Federation left off and hunt every last Metroid into extinction. For those unfamiliar with other games in the series, this is essentially the only plot you’ll get. There are no NPCs to talk to, no extended cutscenes and no lore dumps to scan. In this sense, Metroid: Samus Returns is the series at its most pure: you’re simply alone on an alien planet killing Metroids. For those who have played Metroid II there are a few surprises in store including new enemies, abilities and some very exciting hints at the series’ future.
One of these additions is the Aeon powers, special abilities like invincibility and rapid fire that use a separate resource meter. For the most part these are useful and fun to play around with. The first Aeon power, Scan Pulse, reveals a certain portion of the map around Samus as well as highlighting sections of the walls, floors or ceiling that can be destroyed by missiles or morph ball bombs. You can fill up on Aeon by killing enemies, so it’s not hard to spam this ability. On one hand it’s a huge relief to immediately work out if there are any hidden passages nearby, but it also significantly changed the way I played. Instead of just immersing myself in these alien environments I was using Scan Pulse every minute or so to make sure I was going the right way. Exploration is a huge part of what makes Metroid games great and Scan Pulse somewhat kills that vibe.
There’s no getting around the fact that the 3DS is now over six years old, but developer Mercury Steam have done an admirable job hiding the handhelds limitations. Whether she’s running, jumping or shooting, Samus looks great and animates with an impressive fluidity. Having a cherished character look and move correctly is something that’s hard to pull off but invisible when done right, and that’s exactly what Mercury Steam have achieved here. Moving from 2D sprites to 3D models for a side scrolling Metroid is a brave design decision, but undoubtedly the right one. Each cavern, tunnel or ruin has depth to it, with some locations even having things animate in the background like enormous creatures drinking from an underground lake, or ancient chunks of rock collapsing as you pass. The colourful art style disguises the potentially jarring gap that can arise from rendering hard-hitting sci-fi creatures and environments with limited graphical prowess.
While for a good chunk of the game the only thing resembling boss fights will be the various Metroids, in the latter half there are some absolute rippers. Not only are they a sight to behold they’re also damn challenging, yet another element that could’ve been so easy for Mercury Steam to get wrong. There’s a very fine line between challenge and frustration, and while I experienced plenty of the latter, I could always tell it was because I was getting impatient rather than the game design working against me. I’d take a breather, have another go, and immediately see what I’d been doing wrong and adapt my strategy. Core Metroid gameplay has been aped by countless games over the years – some would argue to the point of fatigue – but boss fights are something Metroid has always done best and Metroid: Samus Returns wears that badge with pride.
Frustration from a tough boss fight is one thing, but when it stems from the level design it can be a problem. There were a few instances, especially early on, where I simply couldn’t work out how to proceed. Now, I happily admit that when I did finally work it out it was something that probably shouldn’t have taken that long to click, but there’s backtracking, and then there’s finely combing through every area you’ve gone through trying to figure out what I’d missed and still coming up empty. I suppose now that the game’s out if anyone got as badly stuck as I was they could just look up a guide, but I was unable to do so and it definitely impacted my overall enjoyment of the game.
Enemy placement can also be, on occasion, arbitrarily irritating. One example is the flamethrower turrets with near constant streams of fire just above a platform that you have to jump to. On top of that, there’ll be a little creature going back and forth on the platform so that you have to jump, duck the flames, then also shoot or avoid the other creature. Like all 2D Metroid games, taking damage causes Samus to get knocked back, which only adds insult to injury. Again, it’s not something that plagues the entire game, but it was enough to dampen some early sessions.
The soundtrack is an admirable mix of new and old. I got a kick out of every tune that I recognised, but nothing about their renditions here deserves particular praise, the tracks simply ride on the backs of what was already great. The bizarre series of beeps and bloops that made up the Cavern Themes in Metroid II has been faithfully recreated, this time with ambient synths pulsing underneath. Overall the soundtrack does its job well, it just doesn’t stand out in a series with such fantastic music.
Metroid: Samus Returns is like digging into a plate of appetisers from a fancy restaurant after being forced to eat nothing but Mi Goreng noodles for six weeks. One could argue that all Mercury Steam had to do was give a retro Metroid game a fresh coat of paint and call it day. After all, transitioning from rubbery, uninspired and barely-nourishing noodles to high-quality curry puffs is bound to put a smile on anyone’s face. While Metroid: Samus Returns is certainly familiar and perhaps a little safe, it’s a good Metroid game and in 2017 that’s a gosh darn miracle.
Metroid: Samus Returns was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS using an eShop download code provided by Nintendo.