Title: Metroid: Samus Returns
Available On: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: MercurySteam, Nintendo EPD
Official Site: http://metroidsamusreturns.nintendo.com
Release Date: September 15, 2017
Where to Buy: 3DS e-Shop
From the moment the game opens, entering the world of Metroid: Samus Returns feels dramatic and ominous. There is a compelling gravity to the music and artwork.
After a brief exposition explains the importance of the mission at hand, I enter the hostile world of an alien planet. The music and atmosphere retain a sense of foreboding as I begin moving the titular bounty hunter. Monsters soon appear: strange, unnatural beasts that emit harsh shrieks as they attack.
This is no kiddie Nintendo game, I am led to believe. Surely, a world of intrigue and challenge lies ahead.
Unfortunately, I was only half right.
Samus Returns, a reimagining of the 1991 Metroid II: Return of Samus, was met with enthusiasm after its announcement at E3 2017 this summer. As the name implies, the game has been heralded as a return to form for the classic Nintendo franchise.
In many ways, Samus Returns is indeed a triumphant addition to the 2D-style Metroid roster. In other ways, however, I believe it lost its way.
As in the original, the game opens with bounty hunter Samus Aran being sent to SR388, the home planet of the parasitic Metroid species. Her mission: find and destroy all Metroids. To do this, players navigate a huge map full of monsters and hidden secrets, a map featuring several numbered areas interconnected by elevators. Samus begins with the ability to jump and fire from her arm cannon. Players progressively gain more powers and upgrades, which allow them more access to the map.
The best aspect of the newest Metroid installment is undoubtedly its feel. Controlling Samus is smooth and seamless. Movements are crisp, sound effects are satisfying, and the attention to detail is quite impressive. Watching Samus fire her arm cannon over her shoulder to obliterate enemies without turning around is surprisingly cathartic.
The atmosphere surrounding the player in Samus Returns is nearly perfect. The music is mysterious and creepy, with a hint of heroic. The beautifully detailed background art provides an immersive backdrop to the experience. Samus herself looks as good as she ever has, moving with a grace and effectiveness that lives up to her legacy. The game truly feels like a classic Metroid title.
In addition to many returning weapons and upgrades, Samus Returns introduces a few new mechanics. For the first time in the series, Samus can fire 360 degrees in any direction. There are four brand new Aeion abilities, powers tied to an Aeion meter that refills by killing enemies.
Chief among the new mechanics is the melee counter. Almost every enemy in the game will telegraph an attack by making a noise and flashing white. When this occurs, players can hit the X button to have Samus swing her arm and block the incoming attack. Afterward, Samus will auto-aim at the enemy and can dispatch it with one super-powered counter attack. This new move is immensely satisfying and simply cool to watch.
As cool as they may seem, the new mechanics bring up some of my greatest concerns about the game. The counter, for example, makes non-boss combat encounters ridiculously easy. It devolves much of the game’s combat into a simple formula of waiting for an enemy to strike and pushing a button. Since countering is by far the easiest way to dispatch an enemy, the game encourages the player to use it frequently. Doing so constantly interrupts the flow of the game, forcing the player to stop exploring and wait for the enemy to attack. Check out this video for more on why the concept of waiting in combat is generally bad game design.
The counter is not even the most egregious new addition. That honor belongs to the Scan Pulse, the first Aeion ability awarded within the first few minutes of gameplay. With the Scan Pulse, players can record undiscovered areas on their map in a fairly wide radius around them. In addition, the Scan Pulse highlights hidden breakable walls for the player to easily find.
This ability undermines a ton of what makes Metroid games good. The challenge of Metroid-style exploration is heavily neutered by the ability to simply scan for the path forward instead of finding it independently. There’s no longer any mystery or intrigue to navigation when one can see a door before they reach it and know where to break a wall without testing it. In theory, the Aeion gauge limits how often Scan Pulse can be used, but the gauge is extremely easy to refill. What is the point of hiding breakable walls if the player is equipped to find them with no effort?
The area effect of the Scan Pulse is pictured below.
Of course, one could choose to not use the Scan Pulse or melee counter, but when a game makes a player introduce self-imposed difficulty, that’s generally a bad thing.
One of the core elements of a 2D Metroid game is backtracking. Players find an area they cannot enter, and much later, they gain an ability that allows them to go back and progress. In Samus Returns, while backtracking is necessary within each main area, the game never makes the player backtrack to a previous zone. This concept of long-range backtracking was essential in previous games to test the player’s exploration skills and provide a sense of accomplishment. Between the removal of this element and the addition of the Scan Pulse, Samus Returns offers frustratingly simple and linear exploration by comparison.
New combinations of old weapons from the series are needlessly overpowered in Samus Returns. Around the halfway point of the game, Samus’s beam shoots 3 shots at a time and goes through walls, a brand new combination to the franchise that completely invalidates most enemy opposition.
These and many other elements result in an extremely watered-down Metroid experience. Seriously, I’ve played party games with more challenge than the majority of this game. In this way, Samus Returns reminds me of the newer Fire Emblem games: engaging and fun, but lacking the challenge that made the older games in the series great.
In addition to the combat and exploration changes, the boss fights present some problems too. Samus must hunt down 40 Metroids, and there are four kinds of Metroid to fight. The first two types are by far the most prominent, and they make for a very repetitive boss fight experience. For most of the game, no other kinds of bosses appear to break up the Metroid monotony.
This boss problem can partially be blamed on the structure of the original Return of Samus, but then several unique bosses suddenly appear in the last tenth of the game! Where were these refreshing new boss fights before? Why were they not spread out to stop the Metroid fights from getting stale?
I could expound on several more shortcomings in this Metroid installment, such as the hand-cramping controls and the removal of platforming challenge via 360-degree aiming. I only focus on the negatives so much in this review because the positives have already been so well documented since the game’s release. Samus Returns is a good, fun game that is worth a look. It’s just not what the series has led me to expect, and that’s where the disappointment lies.
Verdict: Metroid: Samus Returns was a safe attempt at a return to form for the series that has lain dormant since its 2010 disaster. While the game is enjoyable and feels like a true Metroid game aesthetically, major changes in game design dumb down the challenge that this series is supposed to bring. In attempting to reach a wider audience, Nintendo compromised a little too much of what makes Metroid great.
- Feels like Metroid
- Beautiful, immersive aesthetics
- Genuine fun
- Watered-down gameplay with overpowered new mechanics
- Repetitive boss fights
- Over-streamlined exploration