The first proper new Metroid game in over a decade celebrates the series’ 35th anniversary and the return of one of Nintendo’s greatest heroes.
As far as some fans are concerned Samus Aran is, along with Link and Mario, the third pillar in Nintendo’s trinity of foundational classics. The Metroid games she stars in are certainly of comparable quality, with both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime being cast iron, 10/10 classics. But it seems silly to pretend that the series has anything like the same cultural cachet as Nintendo’s other top franchises. That’s unsurprising for many reasons, not least the fact that this is the first new mainline entry for 11 years.
Unlike almost any other Nintendo franchise, Metroid does nothing to try to attract younger players. It’s a single-player action adventure whose atmosphere is one of cold isolation, with concepts inspired by the original Alien (the franchise’s primary antagonist is called Ridley) and obscure puzzles that require careful exploration and attention to detail. There’s nothing cute or charming about Metroid and yet the originals were so accomplished that they helped inspire the entire Metroidvania genre.
Nevertheless, so few new entries are ever released that it’s quite possible for even committed gamers to have never played one, especially given the indefinite delay of first person entry Metroid Prime 4. That means there’s a lot riding on Metroid Dread, which is a strictly 2D game very much in the style of the earlier entries. Given it sometimes seems as if every second indie title is a 2D Metroidvania, it’s an uphill battle for Metroid Dread to feel unique and vital – but it absolutely is.
Metroid Dread is by Spanish team MercurySteam, who previously worked on remake Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS. Stylistically it’s very similar but the important difference is that this is a wholly original game, not held back by having to be a remake of a 26-year-old Game Boy title. Instead, it’s both a direct sequel to 2002 Game Boy Advance title Metroid Fusion and the conclusion of the whole Metroid saga up to this point.
That’s not quite as significant as it sounds, as the storytelling in the series has always been very sparse and when it’s not, as in Other M and Fusion, it’s usually been awful. All you need to know going in is that metroids – floating jelly fish like creatures that drain life energy – are now extinct and the only vestige of them left is Samus herself, who was injected with their DNA in order to survive the shape-shifting X parasites.
At the start of the game the X are also supposed to be extinct but Samus (who is always described as a bounty hunter but acts more like a mercenary for hire) journeys to a mysterious planet to investigate reports of their return. For those offended by Samus’ portrayal in Other M she’s now back to being her laconic self, as the game also addresses the creepy #metoo attitude of Commander Adam Malkovich. As a result, Samus now barely has any identifiable personality, but it’s hard to argue that Link is much different, with both being little more than empty vessels for the player’s imagination.
Metroid may be something most people know more by reputation than experience, but most will have played at least some kind of Metroidvania over the years – which makes Metroid Dread’s structure and internal logic easy to grasp. The game world is split up into a number of open plan stages that you can explore and return to whenever you want, with the caveat that many locations are inaccessible unless you have the right weapon (to open locked doors) or equipment, such as a grappling hook to swing onto platforms.
The gameplay is purely 2D and while most rooms are large enough for there to be scrolling it’s still essentially flip screen. Metroid Dread is unapologetically old school in a way you really wouldn’t expect in this day and age, with an almost complete lack of hand-holding and no attempt to explain advanced techniques like wall jumps or help with the fact that many of the game’s secrets involve shooting apparently innocuous parts of the backdrop to reveal items and pathways.
There is a lot of very subtle signposting, and you’re usually told generally what you have to do (such as restart some magma-pumping machinery), but there’s never anything like a list of objectives or on-screen pointer. You will die a lot too but usually you’ll return almost instantly to where you were and the game’s difficulty is actually not nearly as high as it first seems.
It’s a refreshing approach but it also means that, stripped of its modern visuals, this is still a game that could’ve been made 20 or more years ago. Most of the weapons and equipment is the same as usual (one rare exception is the Flash Shift move that teleports you forward a few feet and is very useful for boss fights) and the style of puzzles are the same, as you scour each location for secrets and risk wasting precious hours if you don’t notice one tiny background detail.
That’s not really a criticism because that’s what Metroid has always been about, but the only genuinely new element is the nigh indestructible robots that patrol certain sections of the map. The only way of fighting these is by absorbing the power of special creatures, that are usually carefully hidden away, and most of the time all you can do is run and hide, similar to Mr. X or Nemesis in Resident Evil.
This works very well and creates some wonderfully tense moments where you have to wait until the robot gets almost on top of you, until you can accurately predict which way it’s going and then quickly run in the other direction – the noise of your escape alerting it to your presence and setting it off in pursuit. The only disappointment is that early on it seems as if each robot will have a slightly different means for defeating it, but after the first two this proves not to be the case.
It’s also not hard to imagine that the robots would be more effective, from a dramatic perspective, if they were something more monstrous. In terms of game logic, they work very similarly to the xenomorph from Alien Isolation and given the origins of the series it would’ve made much more thematic sense if they were something similar, but despite is horror trappings Metroid Dread only has an age rating of 12.
Although the robots are the centrepiece new idea, because they can’t move out of their zones they’re a fairly segmented part of the game. What’s arguably more significant is how the game attempts to address the reverse difficult curve suffered by almost all Metroidvanias, where as you collect more and more weapons and equipment ordinary enemies become trivially easy to deal with.
That happens here too but to compensate for that fact the last third of the game begins to increase the frequency of boss encounters, to the point where exploration starts to take a backseat. It’s a daring decision, given how easy it is to die, but it works very well with a wide range of interesting and varied opponents, most of who drop new items of their own when you beat them. The only exception is the final boss, which is an absolute chore to get through.
Overly long final boss battles have become something of a tradition for modern Metroid games but it’s hard to understand why, with the one in Metroid Dread rivalling Metroid Prime 2 for its lack of brevity. It’s not overly hard in principle, and the game clearly wants to encourage you to collect more health-increasing energy tanks before you start, but having to spend 10 minutes getting to the part where you died last time, just to learn a few more enemy patterns and then die again is not fun.
Graphically, Metroid Dread is very impressive. It may not look that way in the screenshots, especially in the more industrial areas, but this is juxtaposed with alien architecture and some wonderfully colourful natural landscapes. There’s one moment where, after spending the last few hours exploring grey sci-fi corridors, the scene suddenly switches to an underground cave filled with the vibrant colours of a reef like structure and it’s genuinely shocking and beautiful.
There’s lots of clever backdrop details, many of which tease upcoming enemies, and great use of lighting and shadow. Weirdly though there’s only one moment where anything comes into frame from the foreground, which is very peculiar because it’s for a relatively minor enemy and the effect works really well.
Although there are some new ideas here Metroid Dread is still a very traditional Metroid title, and not just because of the 2D gameplay. It’s essentially the opposite of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild in that rather than reinventing the whole series it instead restates it in as accomplished as manner as possible using the technology of the Switch.
That works extremely well and this is easily the best 2D Metroid since Super Metroid itself – well designed, well-paced, and with great combat. It’s also fitting that it brings to an end the current narrative cycle, as this feels like a conclusion to the series in more ways than just the story. Unless they wait another 11 years, Nintendo cannot release another game in this same style and expect it to be as warmly received.
Metroid Dread is a culmination of everything the series has been up to this point but afterwards it needs to evolve into something genuinely new. Whether that will be Metroid Prime 4, or if the first person games will continue to be regarded more as spin-offs, remains to be seen but if this is a send off for the 2D Metroid games as a whole then it’s the best one anyone could’ve asked for.
Metroid Dread review summary
In Short: One of the best Metroid games ever made and a thrilling restatement of everything that makes the series, and the genre it inspired, great.
Pros: Cleverly designed game world, filled with secrets and a huge range of weapons and items. Great combat and enemy designs and impressive graphics despite the 2D gameplay. Good soundtrack.
Cons: Only a few new ideas and the final boss is a real slog. The lack of hand-holding is inevitably going to frustrate some players.
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